Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Radically unique

It was only the 2nd day of 2009 when I walked down 53rd street between 5th and 6th avenues in Manhattan to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). I was under the illusion that I'd be among the handful of people who'd so early in the year want to be in a place whose very name carried the sound of obscurity. MoMA when pronounced right sounds so French-wannabe and elitist, and like everyone else I denounce the elitists while secretly aspiring to be among them. The delusion of being among the last few cerebral inhabitants of this planet was duly shattered when I found a million odd people (Well maybe not, but as good as a million to me) already in the queue to get in. The company that I work for has a corporate art program inside deal going on and for the first time I found myself in an advantageous position thanks to my employer's clout. I walked past the line through the glass doors of the museum only to find that the tickets to Van Gogh's "Colours of the night" exhibition had already been sold out for the day, my primary reason for being there. 

Dejected I dragged my feet over what to do for a little while and decided to give the rest of the stuff in the museum a go. Of course, there were the regular stars like works by Picasso and Monet, and of the popular 'pop art' artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Yet there were some works of 'art' whose only value was in their explanation, which seemed to want to extract a meaning out of the most ordinary of things. An artist scrawls "I'll make no more boring art..." a number of times on a blank sheet of paper. It is framed as is and put on display. A Japanese artist stencils on a series of postcards sent to his American friend during his travels "I WOKE UP AT X:XX AM AT XYZ PLACE" and it becomes an art exhibit! An exhibit called "Lung" is a high tension steel wire strung across the ceiling and threaded through hundreds of flattened Marlboro cigarette packets. Go figure! A pink surfboard like object is at an angle to the wall and it is supposedly the bridge between the real world of the floor and the imaginary world of the paintings on the wall. Ahemm... isn't that profound? There was this film of John Lennon just giving a spaced out look into the camera for a total of 4-5 minutes, apparently a contemporary film masterpiece by Yoko Ono that deserved an honourable display at the start of the music gallery, God only knows why!

Not that there was nothing worth seeing in the museum, in fact there was a hell of a lot to see. The display of tiny portions of a bomb blast scene by a Lebanese artist, each portion a tiny box in the centre of a large white frame reminded of the ripping apart of lives by a single bomb without going into grisly detail. A 4 minute film by a Romanian artist called "Deer-parture" put a wolf and a deer together in a white studio. The wolf doesn't even attack the deer at the end of the film, choosing to lie down instead but the crowd that built in front of the exhibit each time shines a light on our voyeuristic tendencies. It's like everyone was hoping to see the deer being brought down and would not want to miss the exact moment. Some amazing cover photographs for Esquire magazine were in themselves worth the visit. 

However the question that still discomforts me is whether I really liked those things or did I pick a few odd ones out of the lot because I wouldn't want to sound like a village bumpkin unable to appreciate the higher experiments in art. My mind goes back to a favourite Sunday strip of Calvin and Hobbes. Calvin enters the scene in a snow covered landscape claiming that all art has become meaningless, form and structure serve no purpose and signs the landscape itself offering it to Hobbes, his pet tiger for a million dollars. Hobbes seriously considers the offer and then goes on to say that he'd have bought it only that it wouldn't go with his furniture. Then comes a disappointed Calvin's killer line:

"The problem with being avant-garde is knowing who's putting on who."

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