The Musée d’Art Contemporain was air-conditioned to precision; its cool salved my slippy summer skin. It had been a Sunday of lie-ins and late breakfasts and slow, sweaty progress. We had swimsuits in our bags; after the cultural portion of the afternoon, we planned to bike to the river, swim in its counter-currents, canoodle on its banks. I was happy.
I didn’t know much about Raphael Lozano-Hemmer. A colleague told me his exhibition was worth a visit. And it was. Worth a better visit, a better visitor, than mine, than I.
For I was about to do the worst thing I’ve ever done in an art gallery.
The first installation was a chandelier of lightbulbs, twinkling in fey patterns, taking up the whole foyer. Below it, right in the centre, there was a station where you could stand and grasp a heart-rate monitor, which then recorded your pulse and translated it to the chandelier, until the whole room was flashing and thumping in concert with your innards. When you let go, everything died for a mournful moment, before the lights twisted up in a spiral once more, ready to read someone else’s intimacies.
It was old-school beautiful. It was Kantian universalist beautiful: you have to experience it to know it, but everyone who’s experienced it knows it. This was clearly an exhibition for awe and wonder and tingles. Just what I was in the mood for. I love playful interactive installations!
We entered a little alcove where some facial recognition gear was set up. An elegant woman about my age was reading the gallery text in English, so I blinked at the French version – blah blah Mexico blah blah school children. I thought I’d heard that the artist was Mexican. He must have done a project with kids or something.
I try not to read the text before engaging with the work, you know? I like to experience it raw, let it hit my super-finely-attuned artistic sensibilities before I let anyone tell me what it means. If you could reduce the meaning of the art to text, you wouldn’t need the art.
I positioned my face in a circle on a screen, and was paired with a photo of an adolescent Mexican boy. Our faces had a 19% resemblance. Then my honey (who also didn’t read the gallery text) had a go, and it matched him with a different kid who looked nothing like him, and I said, “oh yes, excellent likeness,” and we both laughed, because it’s fun when your face is compared to strangers’ faces, like those goofy “what figure from a classical painting are you?” apps on google. Those are great.
Then I stood somewhere awkward and the facial recognition software tried to match my torso to a child’s face, which I found extremely amusing. Did it think my boobs were eyes?
At this point, the elegant woman stepped in, upset. “It’s not funny,” she said in a crisp Antipodean accent, “Those children were kidnapped and never found. Did you read the placard?”
“You should read it.”
“I’m sorry. I should have read it.”
“Yes. You should. It is actually very touching.”
Her eyes were clouded with emotion as she turned on her heel and left, troubled, I knew, by the state of a society in which couples on a Sunday jaunt laugh at the tragedies of the vulnerable, use the disappearances and probable deaths of innocent children as light entertainment.
I am ashamed. I will always be ashamed of laughing at the kidnapped Mexican schoolboys. Years from now, at seemingly carefree moments, my mind will stray back to the face matched with mine, and I will remember that I am a terrible person.
Later that week, at lunch with an artist friend, I recounted my tale of self-loathing. He watched me through his fingers, horrified.
“Oh no,” he said, “oh no.”
Then he told me the worst thing he had ever done in an art gallery.
The main room of the exhibition consisted of portraits of missing and murdered women – mainly sex workers – who had disappeared along a particular stretch of highway. It was intense and full of pain. But in the middle of the room the artist had installed a bubble machine, pumping out delicate shimmery puffs into the horror of it all.
“The artist has provided some relief,” my friend thought. He saw a space where one could take respite before facing out into the difficult material again. So he wandered through the bubbles, admiring them, letting them fall and burst gently on his face and shoulders, thankful for the moment of simple childish levity.
Sure, he noticed people giving him some strange looks. But he’s an artist – an expressive person – he reacts physically to the aesthetic. And that’s okay, you know?
Except the bubbles were made with the diluted autopsy fluid of the murdered women.
Oh no. Oh no.
If possible, his story made me feel better and worse at the same time. We can’t be the only two to debase ourselves like this. Come clean. What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done in an art gallery?