Recently, I decided to leave the Swarthmore bubble for our exciting nearby urban metropolis of Philadelphia. Since it is my goal to know my way around the downtown area like a local, I decided I would visit the somewhat lesser known Galleries at Moore College of Art and Design on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, along the way to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Moore College of Art and Design, located in an unassuming building on the Parkway, is a women’s art college with several galleries. When I visited, I saw two shows in these galleries. The overall experiences I had in each exhibit were varied.
The first exhibit was an installation titled “Thomas Glassford: Afterglow.” The installation, placed in a cordoned off part of an atrium called the Levy Gallery for the Arts in Philadelphia, was comprised of a network of pipes and tubes with attached green glowing leaf sculptures. There was a consistent interplay between the industrial and the natural, illustrated by the manufactured pipes and the replications of leaves. The fusion of the manufactured and the sort of post-natural was visually interesting. But ultimately, due to its setting, this exhibit was rather flawed and was difficult to enjoy. Any and all background noise in the atrium, from footsteps to conversations, could be heard, which lessened the immersiveness of the experience. I imagine that this installation would be much more effective in a more isolated and quiet space. In addition, there was no readily available information about this exhibit, be it in the form of a wall blurb or a press release, which, along with the setting, gave the installation exhibit a feeling of afterthought.
The other gallery I visited, the Goldie Paley Gallery, hosted a much more thought-provoking exhibit. In contrast to the more makeshift setting of the Glassford installation, the Goldie Paley Gallery is a closed-off space and there was plenty of available information about the show, which was necessary due to the works’ complexity. Titled “Living As Form (The Nomadic Version),” this exhibit brought together artists and curators from all over the world, who, over a period of more than twenty years, created works in a variety of media that “blur art and everyday life”. The various posters, videos and photographs on display all sought to capture moments from ordinary lives from around the world. The ordinary, placed in this gallery context, became art to the viewer. Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? The viewer sees these lives as art because of their contexts. In one noteworthy case, everyday life for people in a small Czech village became in and of itself a sort of performance art. For example, as described in the piece titled “There is Nothing There,” an artist helped organize a system by which the 350 inhabitants of said village conducted their everyday lives in perfect synchronization. They went shopping at the same time, opened windows in their homes at the same– total, immersive synchronization, becoming united through routine and order.
This exhibit raised some penetrating issues for me as an art viewer and enthusiast. Several of the works, including photos of the 2011 Tahrir Square protests, a photo essay about the revitalization of a hillside village in Puerto Rico, and a small installation detailing architectural plans for the modification of an old military base in the West Bank were unsettling in particular. These works aren’t just depictions of everyday life. For the people in the artwork, these works are everyday life. The viewer in a Philadelphia gallery will experience these people’s everyday realities as something affixed to a wall, and I must admit that I felt like a voyeur during this exhibition. All art appreciation is inherently voyeuristic, but this commodification of the everyday struggles of people around the world was more unsettling to me than other exhibits have been. Therein lies the danger in this sort of documentary of everyday life presented as art.
A video, entitled “Complaints Choir,” summarized the works in a manner that I believe conveyed the curators’ intentions for the exhibit. This video, by Finnish artists, showed people all over the world singing in practiced arrangements about their complaints, problems and everyday annoyances, from the mundane, such as bad drivers, to the more meaningful, such as sexuality. The pure sonic beauty of the singing drew a humorous contrast to the subjects being sung about. The video was very effective because it emphasized and interconnected all people’s commonalities, highlighting our basic humanity: everyone has petty grievances, everyone complains about something.
This exhibit is consuming and a bit unsettling when one contemplates its treatment of people’s lives for our own consumption. I have only touched upon a few components of the exhibit; it’s worth a trip to Philly to see both and experience them for yourself. Both exhibits run until March 16.