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."

Monday, January 5, 2009

A year to go underground

At exactly the moment when 2008 turned to 2009, I was in a NYC subway train headed towards Penn Station. My friend and I were running way behind schedule for our plans to get to Times Square to find out for ourselves what's so special about a lighted ball dropping a few feet.  Our co-passengers in that carriage were lost in sombre thoughts with likewise expressions on their faces. Much as we wanted to spread the joy around, we found that we weren't quite up to the task. There was a cop in our carriage as was in all the others and on the streets above just to ensure that the New Year revelry didn't get too boisterous on the unsuspecting. Anyway as it turned out, the cop would've had to pull out a gun to force our fellow riders to celebrate. We quietly shook hands amongst ourselves and that was that for our New Year celebrations.

As per the popular notion, it seems that I will be spending the remainder of 2009 riding underground trains or at least being underground since I'd entered into the year that way. But if that were true then it's nothing compared to the deal the folks having a ruddy good time up in the streets were getting. They'd have a year of killer hangovers and regret filled late work days ahead of them. Luckily for them and for us, and also for our unenthusiastic brethren on the train, the 1st of January is just an overhyped media monster. Some of us willingly buy into the hype and others look at it with biting disdain. It doesn't really matter where you are or what you are doing at the very second when the clock strikes twelve or so I think. It's still the same 365 days that lie ahead for you to pull up your socks, and to castigate yourself for not doing so during the earlier 365. Or be like me and poke fun at those who make a big deal of the 1st of January while actually a teeny-weeny bit distressed inside at being a ship without a functional compass.