Tuesday, June 22, 2010

White Is the New Black

There's a parlor game posing as a psychological quiz I used to like to use when teaching English as a foreign language (many years ago) to get more advanced students talking a bit less self-consciously in the classroom. It asked students to respond to the following questions and then supply three adjectives to describe how their answer makes them feel:
  • What is your favorite animal? Which three adjectives best describe that animal to you?
  • What is your favorite color? Which three adjectives best describe that color to you?
  • What is favorite body of water? Which three adjectives best describe that to you?
  • You're in an entirely white room with no furniture, fixtures, no doors, no windows. Which three adjectives best describe how you feel in that room?

Stop reading here if you want to spend a few moments writing down your responses before you read their purpose

In the wholly unscientific rules of the game, the first answer (and its adjectives) reportedly reveal how you see yourself, the second how you think other people see you, the third how you feel about sex, and the final one how you feel about death. How accurate this quiz might be was entirely beside the point in the classroom, I used it to get the students to push themselves in recalling good adjectives as well as to spur a lively conversation.

Much of that conversation often centered on why the color white was associated with death. Many people associate life with light and white, and associate darkness with death. Someone would always bring up in discussion how the light at the end of a dark tunnel was reportedly seen by those having near-death experiences and then someone inevitably suggested white was how those who knew they were going to heaven envisioned death. By this time the conversation had the potential to veer off into depressing or too-controversial-for-a-classroom territory, so I'd bring it back round to animals and bodies of water (nothing clears a morose air like awkward sex talk with relative strangers, although this always gave me the opportunity to introduce vocabulary that helped the students discuss sex in polite company...terms like "physical relations" or "making love").

I thought about all this again while reading Charlie Finch's truly gorgeous response to Janet Biggs' latest work, Fade to White, now showing at Conner Contemporary in Washington DC
[Full disclosure: Janet will have her first solo exhibition at Winkleman Gallery in early 2011.] Here's a snippet of Mr. Finch's response:
[In Fade to White] Biggs contrasts an epic quest, that of a handsome bearded kayaker rowing up through the globally warmed arctic, where polar bears drift on broken glaciers and open water glistens ominously, with the performance artist John Kelly chanting an obsessive lament in a minor key. Just as you cannot take your eyes of the good-looking, virile kayaker, so you are mesmerized by the bright Kelly green of Kelly’s eyes, the only true green that appears in a video that subtly nods to environmentalism.

John Kelly is dressed in white, against a white background, and, in his emaciation, channels a bit of the emcee as portrayed by Joel Grey in the film Cabaret. But death and dissolution are not the end for Biggs; love is. I suspect that the absence of her longtime companion Robert (a white male, incidentally), who commandeered Janet’s reports from the Arctic from their New York home base, provoked an understandable romantic longing, that is the ever-present underpinning of Into the White.
I think that last phrase is a typo and Charlie means "Fade to White," but indeed, it's impossible to watch any of Janet's videos and not have your thoughts eventually circle back around to love. If you're in DC, don't miss this show at Conner (it ends July 3).

Image above: Janet Biggs, Fade to White, 2010, single-channel video, 12 minutes, 28 seconds.

Labels: gallery artists' exhibitions


Anonymous Cedric C said...

Ok, my answers are laughable.

1) Human: intelligent, handsome, sexy. (none of that is true! well, ok, on paper it says I have an intelligent dementia..)

2) Darkness: All-encompassing, godly, magical. (all lights emerge from darkness)(Hmm....I do am aware that people see me as a psychiatric case)

3) (I won't say the name, it's a lake up north Quebec where I have a house): Belonging, swimmable, serpentinous (!) (it's a series of lakes that you can boat through, so that's why serpentinous.)

4) Fear, Anxiety, Curiosity



(i don't know if Jane Biggs is worth it, but this post was fun promo! I thought we all hated Charlie Finch a month ago? Artworld is funny.)

6/22/2010 12:18:00 PM  

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