Did You See the Modern Art, Or Were You Too Busy Having Sex?
At some point in my life, I made the decision that I would buy into modern art hook, line, and sinker. It didn’t matter what the genre was – abstract or pop, land art or performance art – it would inevitably knock my socks off and have me screaming “genius!” from the rooftops. Pollock, Breton, Ernst, Man Ray – these men were all masters, even better than those old people from Italy. Later I would discover conceptual art, and it would put my mind in a perpetual state of blown.
This is the story of how I visited the MUseum MOderner Kunst – or MUMOK – in Vienna, Austria, and had a profound experience there. Yes, it centered around horny teenagers, but it was profound nonetheless. Its memory still echoes in my intellect whenever something reminds me of art, like someone says a word that begins with “neo” or “post” for instance.
It only took about two minutes inside the MUMOK for me to be impressed. There was brilliance, brilliance everywhere! One painting hung on the wall at the height of my knee; the description next to it explained that the purpose was to challenge the way people view art, our expectations, the assumption that paintings must always be displayed at eye-level. I nodded, approving. That was excellence, right there, adjacent to my kneecap. Another piece could best be described as a monitor on the wall, a black and white image flickering on it, showing some random items. Again, I turned to the description. This artist was also challenging the way galleries display art. He had gotten permission to bury his artwork under the floor of the museum, and was broadcasting it in via video camera.
“Holy shit!” my internal voice shouted. “That’s ingenious! I’m looking at the art, and at the same time, I’m STANDING ON IT!”
But it was at a different exhibit where the truly profound incident would occur. I found myself standing at the entrance to a pitch black hallway, loud sounds bursting from within. I was a little bit afraid, scared to enter, as if some artist was waiting in the shadows, ready to leap out and yell “Dada!” But the description of the exhibit sounded interesting, something about projected images together with non-synchronized sounds, and so I walked down the dark hallway, until I reached a small room where a projector cast bright pictures onto the wall opposite.
There was a man standing in the corner of the room, and he caught my attention. He was in his mid-forties, and he looked anxious and uncomfortable. The man glanced at me, then quickly turned his head away. I wondered why he was in the corner, and why he seemed so awkward. I shifted my attention to the front of the room, and that’s when I saw it.
There were two teenagers, probably highschoolers, a boy and a girl, sitting on the bench in the front of the room, making out heavily. They were really going at it, attacking each other’s mouths, their tongues twirling together like colors in a candy cane. I looked back over to the other guy, just in time to see him flee the room. There was no way anyone could assess the art with this going on. They were impossible to ignore. It felt embarrassing to be in there, the two lovebirds were so into each other they were oblivious to any onlookers, and suddenly I felt like a peeping tom. It was as if I was the one behaving inappropriately, a dude in his thirties, standing in the back of a dark room, trying not to stare at two kissing kids and failing.
So I did what my predecessor had done, and I shuffled myself out of the exhibit. It wasn’t until later that the magnitude of it hit me. By coincidence, I had experienced something incredibly singular. Of all the people that would view that exhibit, how many would encounter the same thoughts and emotions that I had? Instead of analyzing something about the congruence between sound and picture, I had undergone a real life experience. So many things went through my head, about age, love, intimacy, innocence, envy, curiosity…those fuckers and their hormones had taken that art piece and shaken it up, flipped it on its head, replaced something cerebral with something purely evocative. They might not have known it, but clearly they were brilliant.
Now my mind was going. Every second, anyone in that gallery had the ability, if they wanted, to alter the reaction to the works on display. What if I stood next to one exhibit all day and just danced, did the electric slide or something? That would change perspective, wouldn’t it? The sensibility of the viewer, break the connection between person and idea. Especially if the artist put me there, if it was the artist’s idea for me to moon walk around their sculpture.
I left the MUMOK convinced that there was great meaning to what had just happened, although I wasn’t sure what. As I walked away, I wondered if the couple was still there in that dark room. I imagined going back, stepping inside, finding them curled up on the floor together, sharing a cigarette and discussing baby names, while random pictures and sounds spread out all around them.