I have a long history of standing in the wrong place.
Whether it’s the line at Whole Foods (a color-coded cacophony that gives me heart palpitations and encourages the purchase of overpriced organic chocolate bars) or a packed sunset cruise on Hudson River where I am the sole individual staring at the Jersey City skyline instead of Manhattan, my inner compass is in constant need of calibration. A recent visit to the newly renovated Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) reiterated my lack of spacial awareness, and also reminded me that spectator art exhibits aren't my thing.
MoMA’s expanded and reimagined 53rd Street location adds more than 40,000 square feet of exhibition space to a massive collection that includes iconic works by Picasso, Pollock, Monet and Van Gogh, among others. I'm a firm believer in leaning into the expertise of a docent or guide. Otherwise, I'll wander the collections making snap judgments like "Why is a color-blocked canvas hanging in one of the world's most reputable museums when I can find the same thing on ETSY for 20 bucks?"
The museum has also bolstered its commitment to live programming and interdisciplinary studies — both of which terrify me as I typically only like to be entertained if I’m sitting in the audience of dark theatre, far away from the action.
Korean-born artist Haegue Yang's "Handles" is on exhibit through April 12, 2020, which gives me approximately three months to avoid MoMA's second floor. I say that not as an informed art critic, but, rather, a spectator that doesn’t like to be barked at to get out of the way.
"Out of the way" is relative when it comes to Yang's impressive multimedia installation.
“Mounted on casters and covered in skins of bells, the sculptures generate a subtle rattling sound when maneuvered by performers, and recall the use of bells in shamanistic rites, among other sources,” notes the museum’s website. Each day at 4 p.m., performance facilitators activate the six towering sculptures, spinning them in various configurations around The Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium.
As a not-so-side-note, financier Donald Marron served as the museum’s board president during the late-80s. During his lifetime, he dedicated much of his time to building his private collection, as well as the art acquisitions of investment firm PaineWebber, where he served as CEO and Chairman of the Board for 20 years.
My first acquisition was poster art that showcased Oscar-winning films from 1929 (Wings) through 1985 (Out of Africa). I purchased it with hard-earned money from my job in the "fashion" department at the now-defunct Herman's Sporting Goods. I'm confident the value of my favorite, long-discarded Le Coq Sportif two-piece jogging suit would be far more than my still-in-possession framed print. I've never had the instinct for investment, and Spencer's Gifts (where I could also buy a fake pregnancy test result envelope, lava lamp and other sundries) didn't — much to my dismay and limited budget — carry original Warhols.
I didn’t plan on catching the afternoon “occurrence,” but as fate would have it, was wrapping up my descending visit from the fifth floor, still trying to wrap my head around the newly conceived curatorial vision, which intersects a loose chronology with other connecting or juxtaposing factors such as subject and medium. But a third-floor overlook revealed a crowd gathering in the atrium and a flourish of cell phones, and like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, I followed suit.
In silence, the gravitas facilitators lurched the sculptures around the space in various patterns, onlookers quickly brandishing their digital devices to document the happening. Of course, with more than three million annual visitors, not everyone passing through the atrium was up to speed, hence a substantial presence of support staff to ensure the dynamic exhibit didn't flatten anybody.
“Get out of the arc!” bellowed a security guard.
“Ugh, tourists,” I thought, looking around to see what Midwesterner had inadvertently wandered into the occurrence. Then I realized it was me.
“Get out of the way! Get out of the way!” he continued to bark.
“Out of the way of what?” I thought.
Yang doesn’t provide a roadmap for onlookers. Her “in-depth research into various sources, ranging from vernacular craft traditions to the historical avant-garde, esoteric spiritual philosophies to contemporary political events” likely didn’t include a test-run with a museum packed with people scrambling to see Jackson Pollock’s “One: Number 31” or Monet’s “Water Lilies.”
We’re all trying to get somewhere, often forgetting to look at what’s right in front of us. I couldn't get a handle on Yang's installation, much of which reminded me of a Wayfair peel-and-stick wallpaper project. Maybe it's a reaction that I didn't think of it first, like Rothko’s color field paintings of the mid-20th century.
Perhaps I need to get out of the way, as the security guard suggested, and let the art speak for itself. Steel-toe shoes may not be such a bad idea either.