Don't Dial the Red Phone

07/16/2010 4:00 AM |

A keypad-less red phone, just like the one you might imagine sends a line straight to the president, sits near the front of The Kitchen's upstairs exhibition space. In actuality, gallery goers end up coordinating a visit at home with Nancy Hwang, the owner of said phone and a participating artist in curator Miriam Katz's The Absolutely Other (through August 7). The piece is a logical inclusion in an exhibition that culls work some way informed by strangers.

A full review of this show will appear in my column next week, but since my experience of Hwang's piece Meet Me at Home took me off site, I've decided to dedicate this week's article to recounting that experience. It wasn't good.

Hwang told me her house was nearby so I figured I'd try to keep an open mind and stop by on my way home from Chelsea. In as much as one can gather from a brief phone conversation, I didn't get the feeling I'd found a new best friend, and the idea of two strangers meeting in a mutually agreed upon home as art annoys me. While I don't mind considering the viewer's exchange with an artist as a medium (which is what this is), there's something mildly grating about a project in which the sole interest is creating a situation of such tepid risk. Inviting art strangers into one's home isn't the same as drawing them off the street. Further, the artist gets far more out of the piece because she's the only one with amassed information from the visit. None of that experience is made communal, nor is there any attempt at reflection.

On a more basic level, I'd simply prefer my invitation to feel special. Although Hwang went out of her way to ensure I got into the house (my cell phone was low on batteries so she unlocked her buzzerless front door for me), I rarely believed she had a genuine interest in the quality of our exchange. When I picked up the phone, Hwang mistook me as a friend of "Julia," the woman to whom she'd just spoken. By the time I arrived she mistook me for Julia herself. My visit did nothing but remind me that the quality of my experience was of no importance to the piece itself.

Perhaps I made these doubts visible on my face, because while Hwang and I exchanged pleasantries, we didn't get along particularly well. I wanted to talk about her second piece in the show, a queen size bed with an overhead projection of her entertaining one stranger at a time as they lie on the same furniture. Instead we mostly discussed my work as she unsuccessfully feigned an interest in what I did. "I haven't read any criticism in four years," she told me, before explaining that Barry Hoggard and James Wagner were respected bloggers. This fed into various questions about the type of blog I ran.

"Can we not talk about this?" I curtly requested, "If you want to learn about blogs, you can read them." I know this reaction smells a bit of asshole, but nothing irritates me quicker than having people share common knowledge within my field as though it should be new to me. This, in combination with what felt like disingenuous interest (if Hwang stopped reading criticism four years ago she's clearly not actually curious about the field), prompted my regrettable rudeness.

Regardless of this awkwardness we moved on to discussing her work. Hwang shared stories about the people she talked to on the bed, offering up an array of assessments. "I felt very protective of the little girl—her dress kept flipping up and she was unaware of it," she told me. Another stranger who had suffered a serious head injury couldn't stay on one topic. "He was crazy," she told me, "He talked to me about what kind of job he wanted to take and then switched to something completely different."

This commentary added the artist's reflections, a much-needed layer to a piece that was otherwise just forced intimacy with a bunch of willing participants, but I want more. I can't shake the feeling that in accepting the dubious role of the complaining bad house guest, I'm doing a little too much of her work for her.

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