STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
@brianbingaman on Twitter
Your reactions to, and appreciation of, “Person of the Crowd: The Contemporary Art of Flânerie” could depend on your attitudes toward urban life.
Do you find the city a dirty place where your senses get overloaded? Do you think the city is exciting and spontaneous? Are you comfortable with carrying on a conversation with a stranger? How well do you do in crowds? Do you find street performers interesting?
The concept of the flâneur — meaning a stroller, an idler or a people watcher — was introduced as a plot device in an 1840 short story by Edgar Allan Poe. In the 21st century, armed with video cameras, accessible sophisticated technology and social media, the flâneur is a socially-engaged artist, an observational journalist and a sociologist.
“Person of the Crowd,” a provocative major exhibition featuring the work of 50 American and international artists, begins on-site at the Barnes Foundation, but will also show up in billboards, posters, outdoor sculpture and public performances throughout the city of Philadelphia. Barnes Foundation executive director and president Thom Collins, who is also the curator of “Person of the Crowd,” called it “the Barnes’ most ambitious programming to date.”
“As flânerie has been embraced again and again as a productive strategy by artists who have taken to the streets, working in the way first described by Poe and codified by Baudelaire, they have joined the crowded streets of cities throughout the world to heighten their connection to the vital urban social fabric as a stimulus to the production of novel art about the nature of contemporary experience,” he said.
The exhibit in the Barnes’ Roberts Gallery speaks to post-World War II issues as diverse as gentrification, gender politics, globalization, racism and homelessness. But before you even set foot in the gallery, turn your attention to the ceiling of the Annenberg Court lobby. That’s where you’ll see “We Are/We See/We Hear,” a split-screen video projection by New York-based artist Man Bartlett. On the right screen is seven minutes of students from Overbrook and Central high schools reciting one-sentence, random observations they made at 30th Street Station. The text on the left side is an artificial intelligence bot’s real-time interpretation of Instagram photos tagged with #personofthecrowd.
That means you can become a part of “Person of the Crowd” by posting a photo to Instagram using the hashtag. Your photo can respond to either the exhibition inside the museum or the events in the surrounding area, reflect where you happen to be at the moment, or something abstract, like something you stand for.
Collins noted that there are so many video projection installations in the gallery that you will find yourself walking through the projector light, casting a shadow and therefore becoming part of “Person of the Crowd.” “We’re mixing video projection and objects in a kind of way that’s unusual,” he said.
The objects include paintings such as Robert Rauschenberg’s 1961 mixed media “combine” “Second Time Painting,” which he painted in public, rather than in a studio; mixed media sculptures such as David Hammons’ “Untitled (Speakers);” prints like Serbian Marina Abramovic’s “Role Exchange,” documenting the night she switched jobs with a prostitute; and unorthodox art items like a wig.
You’re greeted by “Displacement,” which features a mannequin covered in a coating of earth, glue, wood, nails and textiles. Behind it plays a video of someone walking through the streets of Havana in the late ‘90s on Fidel Castro’s birthday, wearing a suit that resembles the frightening statue beast — a Congolese power figure, an exhibit panel explains, representing unkept promises by the Cuban leader.
During “Person of the Crowd”’s run through May 22, there will be related off-site new works and performances by artists including Sanford Biggers, Tania Bruguera (who created “Displacement”), Ayana Evans, Zachary Fabri and Wilmer Wilson on the streets of Philadelphia. Virgil Marti, who teaches at the Tyler School of Art and the University of Pennsylvania, has created “Doppelgänger,” an eye-catching, upholstered, circular pouf of faux rabbit fur, vinyl, velvet, brocade velvet and bullion fringe that will invite folks to sit down take a load off outdoors at different locations. Through March 20, it will be at Taller Puertorriqueno, 2721 N. Fifth St. When asked how the piece will weather the weather, Marti said: “I tried to waterproof it as much as I could. This one’s gonna have a life and get roughed up.”
A similar pouf temporarily replaces the wooden benches in the Barnes Collection Gallery.
Ayana Evans, who showed up at a Feb. 22 preview event wearing a yellow zebra-patterned bodysuit and high heels, said her free public dance/performance art-and-video piece, “Throwing Hexes,” gets its title from Lil’ Kim’s cameo rap in the Diddy song “It’s All About the Benjamins.”
“It’s one of her most brash, ‘I’m here’ raps — taking up space like a man,” she said.
It should be quite the happening. Between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. May 6 Evans will be “Throwing Hexes” at United for Christ Ministries, 628 N. 21st St.; the Barnes Foundation outdoor fountain; the Rocky steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; Pat’s and Geno’s; the Italian Market, Jim’s Cheesesteaks, Fourth and South streets; Ninth and South streets; First Bank of the USA, 116 S. Third St.; Penn’s Landing; the Ritz Carlton, 10 Broad St.; and the Bellevue, 200 S. Broad St.
“The hotels have been funny: ‘You wanna do jumping jacks (a part of the performance), what?’,” she said, adding that Jim’s Cheesesteaks was one of the most supportive business sites.
Want to know more dates, times and locations of the select “Person of the Crowd” projects? Refer to www.personofthecrowd.org.