Yesterday I went to Documenta. Along with feeling under the weather, I am getting to be too much of a curmudgeon to walk though a half dozen museums of Scotch tape, toothpicks and wall text. But there was the occasional gem. I’m always a fan of Kerry James Marshall. He took the prize for best painter:
In the sculpture catagory, I liked Lukas Duwenhögger’s ‘Celestial Teapot:’
And in photography I was happy to discover the vintage photograms of Bela Kolárová:
But the most thrilling experience was watching ‘Who is Listening 1,’ a video by the Taiwanese artist Tseng Yu-Chin.
This video powerfully addressed an issue that has been on my mind. As mentioned yesterday, I recently spent time with the photographer Jock Sturges. Jock is famous for photographing naked children. In 1990, the FBI raided Jock’s studio. After a year, Sturges successfully defended himself on child pornography charges.
Jock and I had a long talk about his work and the way it is received. He convinced me of his good intentions. But I still struggle with how his work functions in the world. For years it seemed like the only photo books the local bookstores carried were crisp new books by Anne Geddes and pawed-over books by Jock Sturges. Why are these books so popular and who is the intended audience?
Sturges agrees that it is problematic. “That dichotomy between the public consumption of the work and my intent and practice in making it is an uneasy one for me, on occasion,” Sturges said in an interview.
The thing that is so fantastic about Tseng Yu-Chin’s video is that it powerfully challenges our ideas of age and sexuality. In the video, the camera is focused on the sweet face of a young boy or girl. Music is playing and a gentle wind blows the child’s hair. All of the sudden, a stream of yogurt is shot on the child’s face and he/she reacts with surprise and pleasure. The same act is then repeated with numerous children.
When I first started watching the video, I was totally entertained (a real relief from Documenta). The children are cute and their reaction is hysterical. In the audience I saw young children barely containing themselves as they waited for the next yogurt blast. I also saw an elderly woman in a wheelchair with an ear to ear grin. But the more I watched, the more I became uncomfortable. “Does this suggest what I think it suggests?” I looked around at the audience. Others looked uncomfortable too.
Along with being a stunning piece of work, the video functions as a kind of Rorschach test. Will you view this like an innocent child or like a suspicious adult?
Poking around online for more information, I came across a text by Yu-Chin that he uses as a statement for the work:
I liked walking in large strides when I was young, freely moving my hands, feeling the air piercing through the gaps between my fingers. It’s comfortable.
But it was ruined by a woman. A stranger. A nameless woman. That one afternoon, when I still walked with my hands moving freely, I cheerfully crossed the street with my mother I lifted my head, without realizing that a woman was coming towards us from the other side. My hand coincidentally collided with her private part. Of course, it was through the cover of fabrics. Honestly, I had yet to realize the significance of sex. I was going to simply apologize. However, I was treated as someone blinded by sexual desire. The woman stared at me with resentment. Full of moral judgment and anger, her lips were pressed so tightly as if she is grinding her teeth behind them. As if I had been slapped mercilessly, my ears rung with endless chatter, and my head filled with cold murmurs, as if the world had frozen over to look at me and my embarrassment, pointing at me with accusation, buzzing over my behavior. And my mother’s figure trembled far ahead. I ran over to hold her hand. Her hand was warm, yet cold at the same time. I didn’t know what to feel. My mother was a woman, too.
I did not know what the stranger was thinking, nor did I know what burden she had placed upon me. At that moment, I felt only the gliding air between my fingers, and not the part of her body that she was taught to believe to be a controversy. I remembered the air becoming suffocating, and those eyes that pierced the stifling space. The zipper on those jeans feels cold, and warm, at the same time. It takes a variety of manners to remind you, that your body had once remained in the naiveté.
It might be that Yu-Chin and Jock Sturges have very similar motives. But context matters. Documenta isn’t the same as Barnes and Noble. Or is it?