I’ve spent several hours over the past few days thinking about a naked man I have never met; there is a 23-year-old art student in Reykajvík who has chosen to devote a week completely nude in a glass box. People can either visit him in person, or watch him on a video feed.
Aside from providing a welcome distraction from the regular small talk topics of weather (#SNOWMAGEDDON!) and Christmas planning, this student has stirred up a number of fascinating conversations, even amongst Grapevine staff; about the meaning of Art (capital A), whether he is a genius or a poseur, and what the hell we are supposed to make of his endeavor. I am no expert on the subject, but it seems to me that if one goal of Art is to get people talking and to push our minds to ask new questions, this fellow is kicking ass at it.
I have been trying to puzzle out if this dude is a vain exhibitionist, or if he is exposing his vulnerability in a way that is truly beautiful. Is living naked in a box for a week in full view of the public the ultimate selfie? Is this a desperate cry for attention in the age of clickbait? Is this brave, insane, or ludicrous? Maybe it’s all of that.
We live in a world of real-time tweets and Instagram filters and status updates. The image of ourselves that we project on social media is carefully filtered and cherry-picked to influence the way others think of us. We see our friends and acquaintances, and they see us, carefully made up, groomed, fashionably outfitted, having fun and being adventurous and hilarious. We don’t see true vulnerability; we don’t see flaws or failures. It is hard to avoid looking stupid when you are totally naked in a glass box, exposed to the judgement of people walking by or watching on a webcam.
The connection between this installation and social media is clear. YouTube is streaming the naked man in a box, and the hashtag #nakinnikassa (“naked in a box”) has sprung up on Twitter. The happening has been met with teasing, ridicule, and eye-rolling. People are commenting that this guy wipes his ass “wrong.” It makes me feel sorry for him. Maybe he was expecting to be ridiculed, but the angry mob of the internet rolled over this man in a tidal wave of mockery.
We can go back and forth about how stupid this idea is. We can wonder what point he is trying to make. We can ponder the logistics of living in a box (is it hard to piss in front of the whole world? Where does his food come from? Is it cold in there?), but ultimately, this project says a lot more about us that it does about the artist. We are mean. And judgmental. And self-riotous.
I spent a few minutes watching the naked man on YouTube. At the time, around 1000 other people were also watching. It is remarkably boring. You can hear the sound in the room and listen to the questions and discussion. People walk by and stare. Some point and laugh. Some encourage him. You can hear snickering and giggling. He can hear what they say, but only signs back. It is impossible to watch without thinking of an animal in a zoo. His cage looks uncomfortable. It seems that he can’t stand up or stretch out fully. While it is boring to watch, it looks infinitely more boring for him.
Watching him made me wonder if the response to this piece would have been different if he was a “she.” I think a naked woman in a box would have been met with more solidarity in Iceland, and less scorn. Maybe she would be lauded as brave. Maybe we would guess that the aim of the happening is to expose how we objectify women’s bodies; maybe it would be considered pornographic, as stripping is illegal in Iceland. Would we have banned such an exhibition? Would crowds have come by to ogle at live T&A action? Nobody seems that fazed by seeing a boring ol’ penis.
The concept is wild and weird, but it makes me think. It makes me feel. It makes me wonder. My verdict? That’s Art, baby.