The Simplicity of Strangers
I took a break from talking about the intersections of art and communication at the Cultural Studies Association conference in Chicago recently to look at some contemporary art in situ. Something about Strangers (2008) by Amalia Pica (pictured here) made me linger. A string of multi-colored flags lays limp on a wall, as if the detritus from a family party in a midwestern garage. As I tried to quickly make sense of it, my thoughts vacillated between the private and the public, dismissing it as overblown kitsch aesthetic and allowing its simple, haunting elegance to pique childhood memories wrapped in saccharin, nostalgia, guilt, and the fear you have when you are too young to know the time.* I left it without making up my critical mind about it, still swimming in its startling, if annoying, simplicity.
As it happens, the piece is a remnant, but from a performance in the gallery, not a suburban get together. Two strangers are asked to hold opposite ends of the string while standing in the gallery for several hours. The performance forces connections between the strangers through a “festive motif,” but at a distance that prevents conversation. I read this description as a critique of both social networks and participatory art. The performance embodies digital social networks by enacting the arbitrariness of “connections” and the hollow irony of such linkages in the absence of meaningful engagement. But it also critiques relational aesthetics — the art world’s use of the gallery to reconnect art with “real people” by forcing social interactions in physical space. Strangers challenges the idea that scripted encounters in galleries transcend distance by putting on display both the separations they overcome and the ones they reify.
Inverting my research’s suturing of communication models onto art, Pica’s art takes communication as its subject and its muse. Strangers instantiates the complexity of the communicative basis of social relations with a string of bunting. In so doing, it highlights one of conceptual art’s great powers: to interpret and critique life through the concision of form.
Simplicity arrests our attention.
*to riff on Dar Williams’s lyric