Throughout the 20th century, some of the world’s most socially engaged artists have used their cities as both muse and canvas to tell the good, bad and even ugly stories of urban environments as they’ve evolved throughout the Industrial Age and beyond.
Artists have long taken to the street to forage inspiration from their surroundings and produce work that responds to contemporary urban experiences.
Now, an engaging new special exhibition at The Barnes Foundation, Person of the Crowd: The Contemporary Art of Flânerie, explores the artistic strategy of engaging with public space and flânerie.
The exciting multimedia collection spotlights some of the world’s most effective artist-flâneurs — provocateurs like Marina Abramović, Zhang Huan and Sanford Biggers — and the work they do to shine light on issues affecting modern cities.
- Person of the Crowd: The Contemporary Art of Flânerie is on view February 25 to May 22 in The Barnes’ special exhibition gallery.
- A ticket to the exhibition grants access to The Barnes’ permanent collection, too.
- More than 50 artists are represented in the show, including Sanford Biggers, Marina Abramović and Zhang Huan.
What is Flânerie?
The concept of flânerie was born in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1840 short story “The Man of the Crowd,” in which the author introduces a character type known as a flâneur, or “stroller.” This keen observer would idly roam his city, gathering physical and mental clues from its inhabitants and their public activities for insight into the modern urban experience.
The idea was further championed in Charles Baudelaire’s 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life.” The work recognized flânerie as an effective tool in portraying city life and foretold the arrival of some of our first artist-flâneurs, the French impressionists.
In subsequent decades, envelope-pushing artists adopted the strategy to (sometimes controversially) cast light on issues facing urban areas around the globe. This resulted in provocative works that took on every kind of issue from homelessness and gender equality to race and gentrification.
Person of the Crowd: The Contemporary Art of Flânerie brings together a collection of these statement pieces to reveal how contemporary artists have used flânerie to engage the world around them from the 1930s to today.
Layout and Highlights
The exhibition is a gritty, dense and noisy playground of contemporary art filled with video screens, photography, found objects, textiles and more. There’s no defined path to view the exhibition — go in and explore, just like a flâneur might do.
Here are some of the gems you’ll encounter:
As you enter The Barnes’ Roberts Gallery, you’re greeted by a startling human-like figure made of mud and wood and spiked with rusty nails. This is part of a performance piece by Cuban artist Tania Bruguera called Displacement. Directly behind the suit you’ll find a video of Bruguera wearing it in Havana, with spectators in tow.
The reel of Bruguera is one of more than a dozen large- and small-scale video installations included in the exhibition. Another is Zhang Huan’s My New York, which shows the Chinese artist stomping through the Upper East Side in a suit made out of raw meat in the wake of 9/11.
In engaging random people on the street in this confrontational, almost comical way, he hoped to promote a comforting and more hopeful vision in the midst of troubled times.
Marina Abramović’s piece Role Exchange consists of two black and white photographs representing a night she traded places with a sex worker in Amsterdam. Abramović stood in a window tempting eager passersby in the Red Light District, while the prostitute attended an art opening in the artist’s stead.
This is only a sampling of the unique discoveries you’ll come face to face within Person of the Crowd, which also includes Sanford Biggers’ found-object art, a chalk sketch by Keith Haring and a giant rosary made out of curious objects that artist Brett Day Windham picked up off the street every day for five years.
Performances, Events and Cyberflânerie
The Barnes has curated ambitious exhibit-complementing programming that includes interventions on the streets of Philadelphia, billboard and street poster projects and digital artwork.
A spontaneous lineup of live performances by contemporary artist-flâneurs like Sanford Biggers, Ayana Evans and Wilmer Wilson IV hit the streets of Philadelphia throughout the exhibit’s run.
For a deeper dive into the work, check out informative guest lectures by some of the artists included in the exhibition such as talks by Lee Mingwei on March 15 and Tania Bruguera on May 17.
The Barnes has also commissioned a site-specific digital work from New York-based artist Man Bartlett exploring the concept of “cyberflânerie.”
Bartlett will document the exhibition’s street performances, work with local teens on a video series and invite the public to become a flâneur and share findings via social media using the hashtag #personofthecrowd.
Ultimately, Bartlett will use his found digital content to create a piece which will live on a personofthecrowd.org and will be projected inside the Barnes Foundation’s Annenberg Court.
For more information on when and where to find the public events, how to submit your own flânerie experiences and more, click here.
Tickets and More
Admission includes access to both the permanent collection and the special exhibition. General admission is $25 for adults, $23 for seniors and $10 for youth and students. Members, as always, get in free.
Don’t miss a chance to witness this positively unique exhibition.