Have you ever tried to imagine what certain cities were like a century ago? That’s New York without the Empire State Building, minus about two million people, and before the Civil Rights Movement and 9/11. Many cities have profoundly changed throughout the last century, making them a popular subject for contemporary art, be it directly or implicitly. “Person of the Crowd: The Contemporary Art of Flânerie,” a new exhibit at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia explores, this subject in contemporary art through the lens of the flâneur (the figure that participates in flânerie) and related themes, namely observation, performance, and, importantly, the body.
The term “flânerie” was developed in the 19th and 20th centuries as emblematic of the modern experience – of course, this was an experience defined and accessed by white men. It refers to the act of leisurely strolling through cities as well as observing and participating in modern life. While the term and practice are predicated by the city and modernity, escalating urbanism and the various ways in which cities have changed in the past century or so beg that we reevaluate flânerie and its significance as both a subject and method of producing art. This is what the “Person of the Crowd” aims to do, and what makes it such a worthwhile exhibit.
The flâneur is a useful figure to bear in mind when looking at contemporary art not only because of its relationship to the city, but also its relationship to performance and the body. The flâneur of the 19th century was often a recognizable dandy, a man of wealth with the time and intellect to enjoy a leisurely walk in the city. The flâneur at once observes and performs as he strolls through the city, but the performative element of this voyeur is often overlooked. Performance art, which developed in the 1960s, is a contemporary art practice that often includes multiple elements of flânerie, intentionally or not. It comes as no surprise, then, that performance art has a strong presence in “Person of the Crowd,” and the pieces often blur the line between seeing and being seen. Multiple performance art pieces are represented in the show through video projections or photography.
Dread Scott is one of the performance artists featured in the show. On September 9, 2009, the artist walked around Harlem, New York with a sign that read “I Am Not A Man” for an hour. The sign references the 1968 Memphis Sanitation workers strike signs that read “I Am A Man,” but the negation of that statement highlights that racism remains pervasive in our society. In the photographs of the performance, one can see that Dread Scott is observing, looking either at the camera or at various civilians. The artist is also, however, being looked at throughout his performance; his large sign draws attention to him, his statement, and his body, pushing us to consider the ways in which the Black community continues to be dehumanized and made victims of violence.
Blake Oetting ’18, who interned at the Barnes with director and curator Thom Collins ’88 and helped with certain elements of the exhibit, commented that this was one of his favorite pieces in the show. The fact that these performance pieces are reduced to amazing photographs and video projections, however, does have its disadvantages.
“It’s hard to capture the power of any sort of performance when you’re just taking photographs, but I think the curators did a good job,” said Oetting.
The team behind this exhibit nevertheless recognized this, and thus organized a few performance art pieces to take place on the streets of Philadelphia. Sanford Bigger’s “Duchamp in the Congo (Suburban Invasion)” from 1999 will be revisited sometime in April, and Tania Bruguera’s “Displacement” will be revisited in May at various locations (for more information, visit personofthecrowd.org). Both of these pieces are also represented in the gallery through photographs and video projections. There are also pieces across the city, like Allan Espiritu’s Over and Over series in Fishtown. It is now becoming imperative that art move behind gallery walls and into communities and this is especially essential for a show that is greatly concerned with cities. “Person of the Crowd” does not fall short on these responsibilities.
Flânerie is important to reevaluate not only because of its connection to cities and the contemporary, but also for its thematic prevalence in art. This is especially important for the Barnes, which houses a permanent collection that includes many paintings of modern life from the perspective of the flâneur. This exhibit, in this specific context, subverts and complies with different elements of flânerie, providing a generally critical engagement with the practice and art of the modern era. After spending some time in “Person of the Crowd,” one can wander over to the permanent collection and look at the paintings of Renoir, Degas, Demuth, and Glackens with a renewed perspective on flânerie. Whether you prefer the modernists or contemporary art, this exhibit will leave you with new insights on their relationship.
Maybe you prefer neither! I would also recommend this show, then, as an excellent way of warming up to contemporary art without forsaking general critiques of art and voyeurism. This show feels like a jungle gym of ideas when you enter, and you are welcome to (even encouraged) to stroll and explore at your leisure the multiple stimuli, as if you yourself were a flâneur. Maybe you will wander off to another video projection before you’ve seen the entirety of the first one, or you’ll forget to look at one piece entirely; things like this are okay!
Ultimately, you should go to this show because it connects not only to the Barnes collection, but also cities and urban life more generally. As social spaces, cities are fantastic and horrifying, familiar yet strange, and “Person of the Crowd” enables us to quietly reflect on our own relationship to them. How do you walk in the city? Who do you make eye contact with, if at all? When you leave the galleries and re-enter the city with your new reflections, maybe you will find yourself looking more closely at the things and people around you.
This show will be on view until May 22, and admission is (as always) free for students on weekdays! Go see this!