Giacometti but for Today

The Guggenheim is holding an exhibition of Alberto Giacometti’s work. I may not go, since I’ve seen it once before.

But I do love Giacometti. His slim, long sculptures speak to a loneliness that the artist felt permeated a post-World War II society. The people are thin, not because they are particularly lean or malnourished, but through an external pressure: loneliness expands the space between people. The wider that space, the slimmer the people are, their bodies compressed inwards by this crushing detachment from those around them. It was said that Giacometti often started with fuller-formed figures, and whittled them away manically, bit by bit, and that he would have been satisfied if almost nothing of those figures were left there. To his despair, there was always too much human figure, in comparison to the expanse of disconnection surrounding the figure.

I saw Giacometti’s work in a beautiful setting, at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark. Giacometti is given his own gallery in the Museum, which is impressive given the amount of work the museum has by other famous artists. The gallery is simple and almost spartan: white brick wall and red brick floor. A single wall is not a wall, it’s a full, edge-to-edge, floor-to-ceiling window that looks out upon the swaying, hanging chains of leaves of the large trees outside.

I’d just cycled for more than a month through Sweden before crossing over to Denmark, where the Louisiana Museum sits near the crossover point between Helsingborg (the Sweden side) and Helsingor (the Danish side). Helsingor, by the way, is also the location of the castle that inspired Hamlet. Crossing the water, seeing the castle, I had ridden south toward the museum, passing sunny beaches where Danish families splashed in the water. I’d come to the Louisiana Museum in an exuberant mood.

The Giacometti Gallery stood in stark contrast to that mood. It was quiet, contemplative, stark. The artist’s needle-thin sculptures stood quietly, the space among them exaggerated. Being on a solo trip across Scandinavia, my mind was particularly receptive to the themes of isolation and separation, although I had felt none of the theme of anxiety then because my trip was so relaxing.

That was three years ago. Yesterday, I was reminded of Giacometti as I read about how digital media has affected human behavior. (The book: Augmented Reality by Sean Morey and John Tinnell.) In particular, this line: “it has become all too normal to experience what critic Sherry Turle calls ‘being alone together’ – when people habitually devote their attention more to their tiny screens than to the person sitting across from them.” Isn’t this pure Giacometti? Our usage of (addiction to?) digital media has created a new form of physical separation and isolation. One that we’ve brought unto ourselves, and that we seem to enjoy.

How might we update Giacometti’s message for the modern times? Represent the physical separation imparted by the digital sphere. Does it even need updating?

Maybe I will go see Giacometti at the Guggenheim.

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