Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Talent Show - MoMA PS1

If I don't know you, how much can I find out about you without actually meeting you?  How much can I discern without leaving my computer?  In five clicks or less?  Age?  Marital status?  Financial standing?  Workplace?  Things you don't want anyone (or everyone) to know?  Or, are you an open book and I can watch your home videos on the internet?  Could I discern that your ground floor window's lock is broken from said video?  And that your Facebook says that you're away from said window at a party on Friday night?  In the age of YouTube and the Real Housewives of Every-City-In-America, the line between public and private has been more than blurred; it has been obliterated.  Used to be, we went to the movie theatre to be entertained by professional artists that were filmed acting in roles behind cameras and after much editing.  Now, we sit in our underwear on the sofa and watch the greatest putt-putt shot of all time, the fat lady that dances on her coffee table and breaks it in half, and the teenager that has a conniption because she can't sing a Whitney Houston song.   In the age when any Joe Schmo can film himself doing practically anything, upload it to the internet, and potentially gain overnight fame, folks are literally flocking to play the lottery of internet renown.  Simultaneously, even if we aren't wrapping our most private moments into the world wide web, most of us lead significantly less private lives that we did ten years ago.  I mean, am I the only person that finds it creepy that my computer knows my PREFERENCES?  I'm guessing Victor's computer isn't flashing Frye boots across the screen every day.  If they (whoever "they" are) know that I am obsessed with quality footwear, what else do they know?

A new exhibit at MoMA PS1 called "The Talent Show" explores the struggle that humans have increasingly faced over the past thirty years - a struggle between notoriety and privacy.  How much exposure is acceptable, how much is and should be dictated by the subject, and where does one draw the line between art and gratuitous exhibitionism.   A weighty subject, I'm sure we'd all agree.  Interestingly enough, though, the exhibit, "The Talent Show" in Queens is sometimes a little light on the substance.  The folks at the MoMA did an interesting job of combining the works of eighteen different artists to explore these subjects, and I definitely found a few pieces intriguing, if not touching and thought-provoking, but a few others were, basically, old news.

My buddy, Kimberly from Moxie Street, and I schlepped out to Queens on the 7 train a few days ago to see this new collection of works.  Now, Kimberly is the perfect museum buddy - she knows when to chat about meaning and, most importantly, she knows when to shut face and take in the moment.  I was happy to realize this when we stepped in to the first room of "The Talent Show" and took in an empty, dark room with a spotlight in the center.  We circled the pool of light, stepped into it, pondered its existence, and Kimberly finally said, "It's like what you do every day".  I chuckled.  Yes, I am no stranger to the spotlight.  We looked at each other and shrugged.  Not so exciting.  Or thought-provoking, for that matter.  Hopefully, it would get better.

It did.  A little, anyway.  As much as the exhibit did not live up to my expectations, I would say that it definitely is still worth a trip to Queens, so I won't tell you all about it - go see it for yourself - but I will highlight a few of my favorite pieces.  The first, I would have walked right by, except I heard a thoughtful, "Huh", from Kimberly as she poured over a framed series of newspaper articles.  Turns out, this writer, Sophie Calle, found an address book on the street in Paris.  She copied the pages, mailed the address book back to its owner, and then proceeded to try to get to know the owner of the book through his contacts - without ever meeting the man himself.  Ms. Calle interviewed contact after contact and highlighted one person per day in a published column, all unbeknownst to the address book's owner.  She asked questions about every aspect of his life - we find that he was a filmmaker, an overtly formal individual, and a screenwriter that was, in his contacts' opinion, marginally talented.  After a series of over twenty articles and weeks of prying, Ms. Calle put together a one-paragraph series of phrases that she thought summarized the address book owner's life.  On marble.  She never met him.  Intriguing, I thought, but would I want to be the book owner?  What would my friends and acquaintances say about me?  Did I want everyone in the world to read it without my knowledge?  Did Mr. Address Book Owner have any rights to privacy?  Or would he be interested in exercising them?  I realized I, also, was playing a part in this man's inadvertent exploitation by reading the articles.  For that matter, I am further exposing him by giving more publicity to this work.  Oy.

Another piece of note was a video montage entitled "The Intra-Venus tapes" by the late artist Hannah Wilke.  When I saw the piece and realized what I was observing, I literally had to sit down (luckily, there was a bench directly in front provided by the friendly MoMA folks).  First impression: 16 video screens simultaneously played seemingly unrelated home videos in a dark room.  I stared for a bit and realized that a recurring character in these videos was a woman that seemed to be sick in some way.  I read a bit about it and sat down.  Hannah Wilke documented her battle with cancer over three years until it took her life in 1993.  The 16 video screens were arranged in chronological order from her diagnosis through her death.  The videos show her running and playing with her toddler daughter and, later, shuffling from bed to toilet, bald, in a hospital gown.  Viewers watch her pull handfuls of hair out of her head on the lower screens while a smiling sunny family vacation simultaneously plays along the top.  It's as if she piled all of her memories on top of each other (her husband facilitated the editing, etc. posthumously).  I was touched, but I couldn't figure whether I wanted to watch or not - it felt much too private.  I didn't want to know about it.  I didn't need to see it.  Or, did I?  It was ugly . . . but somehow beautiful.  On second thought, I wasn't too sure I should be part of this.  Or, perhaps, everyone should.  In my opinion, good art makes one think and feel at the same time.  Having said that, Hannah Wilke had created something exceptional.

While I'd love to describe all of my favorites at the MoMA, I'm sure you all have better things to do with your time . . . like go see it yourself.  I will say, though, that the combination of opinions and differing, often conflicting, artistic approaches to the subject of the exposure of humans is flooring.  Our private moments and feelings are, for lack of a better word, private.  Intimate.  What happens when those private moments become public?  Do they lose their intimacy or is the intimacy shared with the viewer?  How many viewers does it take to make a moment no longer private?  Or is privacy, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder?  Um  . . . yeah . . . I don't know.  Obviously.  Nobody does.  Or, that is, everyone thinks they know, but every individual's answer is different.  And that, I think, is what makes us humans interesting.  And worth observation . . . to a point.