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 Waren, Waitscape #52," 2013.
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.”
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.