Please, Touch the Art
A short writing
Most of my installations have been polarizing to say the least, spurring critique that says I trivialize trauma while on the other hand garnering praise for pointing at the dark heart of America: “A Candle in the Wind” was an eternal flame placed underneath a flame-retardant portrait of Marilyn Monroe; “Notes from the Underground” were pages of writings from escaped slaves that light up to the tune of the Hollywood Undead album of the same name; and “Fast Five” were obituaries of car crash victims written using rubber from burst tires. I’ll let you make your own assumptions about each piece’s meaning. Despite the expected ramblings of negativity that usually appear after one of my showings, nothing could have prepared me for the universal praise I received after my latest work “The Manhattan Project.”
Nothing in the world draws in a crowd like art. And nothing in the art world draws in a crowd like interactive art. People can sit and ogle a Rembrandt painting all day; people can stare at the thick brush strokes of a Rothko until they make their own meaning in the nothingness; people can walk around a Jeff Koons dog and add their voice to the thousands who have accused him of plagiarism. But to actually touch a piece of art? Now there’s an event. There’s another photo opportunity.
In their very nature, people enjoy interacting with things. It makes them feel as if they are part of something they have no right to be a part of. “Step right up! Now you too can leave your handprints on the testicles of the Wall Street bull!” In actuality, no one would ever want to touch the testicles of a real bull, but to take photos with your head mere inches from the anus of a landmark while clutching the hardest sack you’ve ever felt? Well, not to be crass, but even children find that amusing. Friends, families, scholars, all walks of life can easily have a quick chuckle when posing with a brass member, and for some reason, there is barely any pompous criticism like you would hear in a museum. None of those freshmen artists who think they know more than everyone around them. None of those stuffy professors with their circular glasses giving their twenty minute speech about how they used to know the photographer. None of the jaded attendees (who at one time were those freshmen artists who just could’t break into the industry due to “unfairness”) saying “that’s art? My kid could do that.” Just a moment of… being.
I do feel lucky to have progressed from one of those optimistic students. And yes, I am jaded, but I’m one of the jaded ones who’ve made it. The curators in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Manhattan (trust me there is more to my installation’s title than just relating to the location) expected me to bring in a crowd based on my name alone, but these days, name recognition isn’t enough. Too much time could be spent playing a video game, watching a movie, scrolling through blog posts of your favorite author; but to actually get people to leave the comfort of their chairs is a harder task than ever. The time for planning was running out. When panicking about your future, you’ll do just about anything. When picking two out of the “cheap, fast, and good triangle”, quality is always the first to go. When pleading to a higher being for some inspiration, sometimes the devil answers. So in the age of Instagram and TikTok influencers, I decided to sell my soul. I made something interactive.
The description in the gallery pamphlet is as follows: “Remy Lazarus’ “The Manhattan Project” is a new, interactive, singular experience from the divisive artist. You are now at the Trinity Site of New Mexico. Step into the year 1945 as you press the button that launched the first nuclear missile and changed the world forever. To mark this occasion, stand still for one minute as the camera exposes your complimentary photo while a mushroom cloud grows behind you.”
In the opening day, hundreds came through to get their hands on the button that would put generations to come on edge. Children, adults, elders who were alive during that moment, all seemed to have a strange sort of glee on their face as they brought about destruction to the Jornada del Muerto desert. Behind each one of them, a projector played footage of a warhead explosion, yet they never face it, instead opting to look ahead at the camera capturing their image. Out of sight, out of mind, one might say. And when they were done, they collected the image of their time traveling as if it were any other photo booth attraction. So many hands on that button. So many minutes passing. Standing just at the entrance for the reception, I noticed a few going in again for a second, even a third time. Phones out, taking their own pictures, making videos of themselves in black and white. The joy of ultimate power in their hands was tangible, and yet the irony of it all was lost on each one of them.
Days went by, weeks went by, hundreds visited, and it was soon the most frequented exhibit in the MoMA.
When picking the options of cheap and fast, certain corners must be cut, but sometimes rash decisions what stand the test of time. The unexpected can be the most impactful. Think of your favorite movie lines: “Hey I’m walkin’ here” from Midnight Cowboy, or “Heeere’s Johnny” from the Shining, or “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” from Jaws, or “But why male models” from Zoolander, or “Like tears in rain” from Blade Runner, or “You talkin’ to me” from Taxi Driver, or “You hit me in the ear! Why the ear?” from Fight Club. All were unscripted, improvised moments. The unexpected can be the most impactful. So when people of New York started slowly experiencing strange feelings of nausea and vomiting, not much note was taken. But the dizziness, fatigue, and hair loss caught much more attention. No one could understand how it was happening. Something in the water? Something in the air? A chemical attack? Some accounts were shared of those in other states experiencing similar symptoms, even progressing to internal bleeding. A wave of panic swept across the city, eventually the nation, as more and more cases were discovered. What could be causing this? Where were these unidentifiable boils coming from?
Children died. Adults died. Elders who lived through the first test of the nuclear bomb died. All of them having a photo of perfect happiness while playing with an art installation.
When picking the options of cheap and fast, certain corners must be cut. All the pieces of my “Manhattan Project” were in place, save for the countertop that the button of doom would sit on. Materials are expensive and after blowing my wad on loads of paper, a projector, automated film camera, and a printer, a simple stand that was sturdy enough to maintain the pressure of thousands of visitors was all I needed. After too many calls and websites to count, I happened upon a story of radioactive countertops that caused more than a few problems in Europe. Unsurprisingly, the first I heard of this came from an article written by similarly divisive artist, Chuck Palahniuk. The connection was too perfect. An unsuspecting radioactive material in an art piece about the unrecognized cost of nuclear destruction that would simultaneously destroy the audience without them realizing? It was too good to be true. And yet, the truth was there. Is HERE. Amongst the rest of my materials in storage after the closing of a three-month show. The number of attendees declined, but the number of those alive in the city also declined, so the ratio was maintained. No one would ever point to my piece as being the cause of so much death, and there should be no reason for a Geiger counter to ever come across the radioactive countertop.
Finally, the reviews associated with my name were overwhelmingly positive, and the fallout was overwhelmingly negative. Yet, everyone was at least happy for a moment.
So please, touch the art.