Alone Together — Lillian Warren at Anya Tish Gallery

I have long been a proponent of public space, but the advent of smart phones has begun to deprive even our few remaining public spaces of the magic of chance encounters.  Lillian Warren’s series of paintings called “Alone Together,” which was recently on view at the Anya Tish gallery, captures this sad reality with grave poignancy.

Lillian Warren, "Waitscape #50, #51", 2013.

Lillian Warren,
Picture 1 of 5

Acrylic on Mylar, Diptych, Courtesy of Anya Tish Gallery.

Warren paints from photographs (that she has shot from the hip) of people in public waiting rooms such as airports, bus stops, and doctors’ offices.  She strips away the background so the figures stand on a stark, white background, but their restless distraction shows in the ways they engage their hand-held devices and the different, agitated postures they assume (especially when the same figure appears more than once in the same frame or in multiple paintings).  They pace, they stare off into space, they don’t know what to do with their hands.  Some figures stand at the edge of the frame, their faces and hands cropped out of the image, but the viewer is so familiar with the phenomenon that there is no doubt what is passing between those hands and the face.  These are people whose bodies, but not their attention, occupy the same space, like the two people sleeping together in a loveless bed in Rilke’s poem “Loneliness.”

 Lillian Warren, "Waitscape #49," 2013, Acrylic on Mylar, 30 x 40 inches.

Lillian Warren, “Waitscape #49,” 2013, Acrylic on Mylar, 30 x 40 inches. Courtesy of Anya Tish Gallery.

by Rainer Maria Rilke (Translated by Robert Bly)

Being apart and lonely is like rain.
It climbs toward evening from the ocean plains;
from flat places, rolling and remote, it climbs
to heaven, which is its old abode.
And only when leaving heaven drops upon the city.

It rains down on us in those twittering
hours when the streets turn their faces to the dawn,
and when two bodies who have found nothing,
disappointed and depressed, roll over;
and when two people who despise each other
have to sleep together in one bed-

that is when loneliness receives the rivers…

Rilke’s poem opens with “Being apart and lonely,” but ends with an image of loneliness despite company.  The latter seems so much more pathetic.  Rather than mitigating their respective loneliness/aloneness, these figures seem to compound it.

This video, below, which deals with the same theme, has racked up nearly nine million views in just four days!  I find that telling.

This is related, of course, to topics covered decades ago by French philosophers such as Jean Baudrillard and Guy Debord.  Spectacles and simulated reality have come to supersede livable reality.  More recently, in 1998, sociologist Neal Gabler published a book called Life the Movie, which presaged what came to be known as “reality TV” — we have come to perform, rather than live, our lives.  Now we have Google Glass, and you can’t go to a concert without having your view blocked by 75 idiots all trying to capture the same shitty video with the same shitty sound instead of enjoying the moment or–Is it even possible?–dancing and being present with their fellow audience members.  (Musician Dan Deacon has come up with an ingenious way to solve this problem–i.e the problem of passive audience members trying to capture and freeze-dry the moment so they can savor it later.)

Meanwhile, on a related note, Werner Herzog has made a video about the dangers of texting while driving that has been making the rounds.

John Lennon famously said “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”  If he were still alive today, he might say, “Life is what happens when you’re ignoring the rich present to Instagram or Vine it.”

I recently switched the slideshow plugin I use for this site.  My slideshows will no longer be visible on mobile platforms, and I am OK with that.



2 thoughts on “Alone Together — Lillian Warren at Anya Tish Gallery

  1. David Hayes

    And before there were smart phones, people listened to walkmans. And before people read books and newspapers or wrote in journals. All I am saying there exactly nothing new about distracting ourselves from the present.

    If you want to be a luddite, that’s cool just don’t pretend that it makes you any more “present” or “real” or “authentic” than me.

  2. Harbeer Sandhu Post author

    Hey David–thank you for your thought-provoking comment. I agree that it is not as simple as the video suggests — it is indeed possible to have deep and meaningful interactions online, just as it is possible to have shallow and rude interactions in person (and vice versa, of course). My main concern, though, is PUBLIC SPACE, and the magic that can happen in public space. I am currently in New York City, and I would agree with the author of this article that “[t]he technologies of isolation and loneliness were the automobile and the television.”

    I love being on the trains and in the streets and in the parks and seeing so many beautiful people having all kinds of moments in their lives. They are happy, they are tired, they are in love, they are worried, their back hurts, etc, and it shows on their faces and the ways they carry their bodies. Sometimes we speak to each other, and sometimes we speak with our eyes when a mentally-disturbed person makes a scene or a pretty girl walks by. Sometimes we just stare at our screens (I have iBooks on my phone, and part of my job is to read, so I can work almost anywhere as long as my phone’s got power).

    These are all strangers to me. We are people moving through the same space; we have never seen each other before, and we will likely never see each other again. (Although I have made friends with strangers on trains and busses and in parks, before.) But when we look at social media–who are we interacting with? We are interacting with our curated, self-selected, set of friends (and their friends, granted). What are the chances of something completely random happening in that manicured space? How often will you be forced to deal with something uncomfortable or entirely removed from the thoughts that might possibly enter your mind (but which may nonetheless be good for you to experience or consider) in that kind of manicured, space that is tailor-made for all our foregone conclusions?

    Democracy thrives in the Agora — and social networking sites are not the Agora, they’re more like meeting places for one particular political party.

    And then there’s another thing: in my experience, I have often found great solutions to problems (personal problems, homework problems, aesthetic “problems” in my writing) when I am zoned out, trapped somewhere with nothing to do but stare at space and day dream, like in lines at the bank and the post office. I rarely zone out that way anymore — you know why? Because I reach for my phone and see what’s poring through the stream at the moment. That is a real loss — I would imagine that many of the greatest problems in world history were solved while somebody was zoned out and daydreaming, like Archimedes’s “Eureka!” moment, or Newton’s apple falling on his head while he dozed beneath a tree.

    I am not comparing myself to you, and I think the author of the article gets that all wrong, too, that there is a smug self-righteousness on the part of the producer of this video and promoters of it like me. You do what you want — please do. (You and I interact online all the time, and that is fun and fulfilling for me, so please don’t stop!)

    I don’t know about your comparisons to books and journals and Walkmans, though. I sometimes take my book to the bar (working!) and it often becomes a conversation piece. “Hey, what’s that you’re reading? Why are you reading it? That’s your JOB???” If I saw someone writing or sketching in a journal, I might be inclined to leave them alone, but I might still ask them what they’re doing. And on the Walkman tip, I made friends really quickly the last time I was in New York when a girl sat down next to me on the G train and we were both rocking headphones and decided to swap one of each and then had a great conversation about music and hung out for a while, after.

    I am going to a talk at MIT on this subject called “Digital Cosmopolitanism and Cognitive Diversity” in about an hour (yeah, actually I’ve been on the Megabus this whole time and not really “in” New York City — I left there four hours ago). During this time on the bus, I have spent more time staring at a screen than out the window at the scenery, and that is kind of a bummer to me. Who knows what I would have thought about, what memories I could have meandered through?

    Say what you will about smart phones and mobile tablets — yes, they have their plusses and their minuses just like anything else — but Proust’s Remembrances of Things Past could not have been made by a man whose phone was buzzing from text, email, twitter, and Facebook notifications (not to mention phone calls, ha!)


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