An exhibition at the Barnes Foundation uses the theme of the contemporary flânuer to draw connections to its 19th-century collection, but the co
The character of the flâneur is central to the new exhibition at the Barnes Foundation, Person of the Crowd: The Contemporary Art of Flânerie, which refers to its multitude of 50-some international artists as “present-day flâneurs.” The show is extremely diverse, representing artists across many national, ethnic, and racial backgrounds, which is notable. The theme was chosen for its potential to draw connections back to the Barnes’s exquisite 19th-century collections, but the exhibition is deeply muddled.
These works are pitted against ones advocating for political change and agency, such as “The Great White Way, 22 Miles, 9 Years, 1 Street (Whitney Version #2)” by William Pope.L. In this video work, the viewer watches as Pope.L crawls on his hands and knees the length Broadway Avenue in New York City, while wearing a Superman costume with a skateboard strapped to his back in lieu of a cape. The performance speaks to the everyday struggles of people of color. Another similar work is “Superman 51” by Papo Colo, wherein the artist ran down the Westside Highway in New York while dragging 51 pieces of wood, tethered to his body like a cape, to protest the US’s refusal to make Puerto Rico a state.
These artists are wandering the street not for leisure, but out of necessity. These are acts of protest and affirmations of humanity. Dread Scott’s proclamation in his performance piece, “I Am Not a Man,” exhibited here in documentation, is a reference to the “I Am a Man” signs of the Civil Rights era, drawing attention to the ongoing denial of the humanity of African Americans in the eyes of society and the State.
The most cloying part of the exhibition might be its ham-fisted social media campaign that asks, “Where do you stand?” This query is part of the “cyber-flâneurie” project by Man Bartlett, and instructs visitors to respond to the question by snapping a selfie with the hashtag #personofthecrowd. The phrase “Where do you stand?” is a question typically used to denote a political position (it was used as a slogan for the Men Can Stop Rape Campaign, for example), but in this instance it has been cutely turned back into its literal meaning of “where is your body standing right now?” The Instagram posts are transmuted by a bot into descriptive text like, “A group of people posing for a picture,” “a man standing in front of a store,” “a man holding a box of doughnuts,” all of which is read to you ad infinitum in a robotic voice when you visit the website. This gesture manages to co-opt a deeply confrontational question that asks people to take an active stance on a political issue, and turns it into another desperate attempt for museums to connect to millennials via a spectacle-oriented opportunity for narcissism. It is the art equivalent of the infamous Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial.