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The Talent Show at Henry Art Gallery

July.15.2011

When “the Real World” first premiered on MTV in 1992, Baudrillard must have thought he was in the midst of a wet dream.  Not only did a media source show a hyper-controlled reality drama and claim to be showing real interaction (even though it somehow seemed scripted), but it made the audacious claim to be the “real world.” Real life was transcended for a new, more exciting real, but a reality that lacked normal relations between people, all while creating celebrity for people supposedly being themselves. In that spirit, The Talent Show at UW’s Henry Art Gallery displays the natural result of the Real World’s experiment, picking up after Baudrillard’s splooge finally gets wiped off the sheets, the moment where the opportunity to live the real life of reality TV became a luxury extended to everyone.

Shizuka Yokomizo’s Stranger series exposes the space of this new fame. In 1999, she dropped messages in random mailboxes across London and Tokyo, informing residents that Yokomizo would visit their home at a listed date and hour to take a picture looking into the living room window. The selections were completely random and many chose to reject the offer by closing the specified curtains. But in the case of some, Yokomizo was able to see through the perceived borders of the home and enter each subject’s personal, private space, thereby opening those subjects to the public space of the street and the public space of the art world. Her camera simply captured the moment. In the photograph included in The Talent Show, we see a women posing through her window at the exact time Yokomizo specified, the stranger “number 6.” At this point, this anonymous woman is no longer completely anonymous to the viewer in the gallery, as she becomes an object of viewership, her private living room turned into a public space.

Examining public space from the other side, the first two pieces upon entering the gallery are My Way 1 and My Way 2, by Amie Slegel. These two video series explore internet fame, the close cousin of reality TV fame, from the performers perspective. While the actors of reality TV know that they dwell in a public and social space, the experience of the internet star gives the illusion privacy. My Way 1 shows mostly teenage girls singing along to the song “Gotta Go My Own Way” from one of those shitty High School Musical things (why does YouTube always circulate only bad songs?).  These girls, like the men in My Way 2 who sing along to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” had no idea that they would be in an art work, nor, we can safely imagine, that they anticipated anyone outside a friend or two seeing their video. They behave as one does in the privacy of their own bedroom. But like the audience of Risky Business watching Tom Cruise rock out with everything but his cock out, the viewer of these pieces ends up secretly viewing several people’s private experience, seeing their private space safely from the public space of the internet.

The central piece (both physically and conceptually) of the exhibition is Hannah Wilkes’s Intra-Venus Videotapes, a set of 16 televisions each playing a different two-hour loop chronicling her struggle with lymphoma. The emotions experienced viewing this piece are diverse: disgust at the horrors of death and disease, excitement through a sort of pain fetish, and, perhaps most importantly, empathy to the struggles of this fellow human. But the problem with the empathy of the piece is that there is no actual human, person-to-person connection, as the viewer doesn’t know Hannah personally. Instead, the viewer’s empathy is a product not necessarily of personal feelings about losing Hannah and the pain she endured, but a product of the natural “packaged” reaction that we’ve been trained to experience through a media-based culture. It’s a simulation of empathy, the watered-down feeling society has designated as appropriate for the experience of death at a human-to-human level.

This non-real experience is exactly the problem for the viewer of Intra-Venus Videotapes: while hard to watch, it is ultimately entertaining. The viewer gets a concentrated human experience, a spectacle hard to turn away from. The real experience of Hannah Wilkes is reduced to a reality television program—once transferred to a television, the suffering becomes something almost sexual, as the viewer is not a friend or loved-one, but a voyeur to Wilkes’s final days and hours.

The media pieces of The Talent Show then show the perversity of the space of new media. This newly produced space creates the simulation of privacy within a distinctly social space, a space where the fourth wall becomes a one-way mirror—the artist, the participant, is given the illusion of privacy as they act out scenes in the privacy of their own homes. But, in reality, their actions are the subject of a distant viewer’s gaze. Each piece in the exhibition creates or features a subject that acts as the viewer’s performer, performing the isolated, yet self-indulgent equivalent of a postmodern striptease.

Just like a teenager caught masturbating by his parents, these performers are not performers by exhibitionism, but performers by accident.  They each are ignorant of the simulation of private space, as they perform their private acts in their perceived private home but also in the public space of culture. They are inadvertent porn stars, revealing their most intimate and private moments to a world that can only consider them through the medium for which there are received. So while Baudrillard must have found sick pleasure in the premier of “The Real World,” the subjects of The Talent Show are the ones left with the philosopher and the show’s consequences—new fame, whether desired or not, gives the illusion of a private space in a public one.

The Talent Show runs at the Henry Art Gallery on the campus of the University of Washington through August 21st. The Gallery is on 15th at 41st. Admission is a $10 suggested donation and is free for students with ID. Hours are 11-4 Wednesday-Sunday, with extended hours on Thursday and Friday. Henry Art Gallery is accessible by any bus to the U District.

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