Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Thought + Smile = Joy

I had decided that I really wanted to visit a gallery while I was in New York. That's what I had done in my teens - travel and visit art galleries. In the long time since I'd taken a trip I'd kind of forgotten who I was, who the essential me was, the person whose brain wasn't constantly full of other people's schedules and commitments and shopping lists and chores...

I remembered that I had enjoyed something about visiting art galleries - well, I must have, hadn't I? I'd had a whole wall covered with postcards, mementos of famous works of art from all the galleries I'd visited. So I must have liked going, or I wouldn't have kept on doing it, over and over again.

Maybe, I was hoping, if I visited a gallery I'd remember something important about myself - the person who I had been, before I'd had to put other people's needs before my own. Back when there was only me to think about - selfish, indulgent, only me.

But - before I could visit the gallery I had to run it past the friends I was travelling with. Not that they'd object of course, visiting a world famous gallery was probably something they wanted to do too, because that's what tourists did, and they were tourists.

Probably, you think that I am a tourist as well, after all, I'm a person visiting from another country. I have a bag and a camera and a subway map, although I try not to take it out in public, nor do I take 'selfies' in front of monuments and fountains and main streets like my friends do, and yes it is true that for the past week I've been to all the tourist places - standing in hot queues, paying exorbitant prices, listening to monotone dialogue descriptions of buildings and history and water towers until I could nearly scream...

So, today was my choice and I wanted to go to a gallery - not to be a tourist, but to remember something important. Something I was afraid I'd lost.

Choosing the right gallery was important, and in New York, population of over 8 million people, one of the largest conglomerations of humans living on the planet, there was a lot of choice.

People are thinking creatures, creating art is how humans revere and reflect the world around them - visiting a gallery is like launching yourself into a time capsule of thought. It can be pleasant like Michelangelo's study of the nude 'David', or indulgent like Monet's water lilies, he painted the same subject over 250 times exploring light and colour. It can be evocative like Vincent Van Gogh's 'Starry Night' or emotive like Edvard Munch's 'The Scream'.

One thing I knew, I didn't want a stuffy gallery, I didn't have time for landscapes and portraits, no matter how exquisite. I needed a jolt, I needed to hook myself up to the maximum volt of critical thinking capacity. I needed the MoMA. 

Some people question what modern art is all about. They often see only the simplicity and miss the importance of what it is - the execution of an idea. Done well, modern art gives you a nudge, shakes beliefs, shatters preconceptions. It critiques the norm and questions established rules of society. Great artwork, like a novel or film yanks you out of your headspace and lifts you out of the quagmire of everyday thoughts. And hopefully, when it's done all that, it reminds us of a grander vision, a broader perception, the elegance of life we forgot for a bit.

"I don't get the point of these," my friend says as we stumble into the MoMa and come face to face with Andy Warhol's iconic screen prints of Marilyn Monroe, "So what?" My brain fumbles its way back to high school art classes, I explain Pop Art was a reflection of 60s culture - Andy Warhol was poking fun at emerging commercialism, mass-production and the rise of celebrity. The rooms are packed with people, taking photos with their smart phones of Campbell's soup cans.

It occurs to me that an artist's style reflects their temperament in the same way clothing mirrors a person's personality or home reflects a lifestyle. No wonder Andy Warhol is so popular - he's so bright and fun, colourful and avant-garde. Brett Whitely injects heroin chic, Jackson Pollock a chaotic struggle, he struggled with bi-polar and died at 44, drunk at the wheel.

My friends leave, they want to go to The Met, squeeze two galleries into one day. "Why would you run off to another gallery when you haven't fully explored this one yet?" I ask them. I'm glad I stayed, there are still rooms to explore - Matisse's study of dancing figures, elegant and delightful, Edward Hopper always my favourite American artist, his oil paintings moody with an air of desertion like a setting for The Walking Dead.

It's getting late, I'm about to call it a day. I feel pleasantly content. I start heading towards the escalators but get caught up in a stream of people. It's Friday afternoon and the gallery I notice is suddenly packed. I overhear someone say it's the Yoko Ono exhibit which has recently opened. I find myself swept along in the current towards the first piece - it's a green apple placed on a perspex pedestal with a brass plaque saying 'APPLE'. Mounted on the wall it says the artwork has been kindly loaned for the exhibit by the owner. I burst out laughing. It's wonderful! I look around to see if anyone else is amused, but they don't seem to be, all the faces I see are serious.

"Must be irradiated fruit if it's been there since 1967" I say to a guy beside me, "Clearly it's not organic." He smiles politely.

The next room has a ladder in the middle, a long queue of people are waiting to climb it. There are instructions that only one person can go up it at a time. I wonder what is up there. Maybe it is just inviting people to look at the sky, something beautiful that's usually taken for granted, like an apple, or maybe it's been a while since some of these people did something so 'risky' or playful.

There are boxes along the wall at different heights. People are opening flaps with little knobs to look inside them. I open one to find a small mirror that reflects the lower half of my face back to me. Next to it is an instruction to smile.

The smile, expression of happiness, of all fleeting human emotions it is the most desirable. Yet it cannot be forced, looking for happiness is like trying to see a shadow in the dark. It is a joy to be reminded of this. 

I wish I could spend longer in the Yoko Ono exhibition. I watch old footage of her and John Lennon's honeymoon 'sit in', wearing white pyjamas, inviting people to their bedroom to talk about peace. 'WAR IS OVER! If you want it' proclaims a large black and white poster on the wall. I watch a video of flies crawling over a naked woman's body. I see a person crawling around inside a black bag on the floor. I watch a video of people being interviewed after turning up to an imaginary exhibition. "There was no exhibition, even though it was advertised here. It's a con!" a man says angrily. "The Yoko Ono exhibition is here" the interviewer says, "It's a conceptual exhibition..." People look bewildered. One attractive woman, when interviewed for the camera says she liked it but pressed for details becomes evasive, the emperor has no clothes caught on film. One man laughs hesitantly. If this exhibition was a broadway show I'd be the first to give a standing ovation, I'd be calling out 'Bravo! Bravo!' until I was hoarse.

This was what I'd travelled around the planet for! I'd found my destination, the ephemeral thing that I was searching for - my mind raked clean like a zen pebble garden. Thank you Yoko, my deepest gratitude and respect.

'Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 
1960–1971'MoMA NYC
17.5.15 - 7.9.15

Beautiful article about John Lennon 
meeting Yoko Ono. Read it here. 

Thank you Gotham Writers Centre,
NYC for inspiration & encouragement.

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