Many years ago, while walking down the street in Boston, I overheard a woman say loudly, in a distinct Boston accent to her companion in answer to some unheard comment, “I’m a delicate flowah.” It’s been one of my catch phrases ever since. Because, yes, even a chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking, grizzled Bostonian can be delicate sometimes. I don’t know if she was all those those things, but let’s face it, that’s why people like that accent, because it sounds like those things, and that is way more interesting than someone speaking so blandly, you don’t care if they are delicate of not.
So while I like to fancy myself a tough Bostonian, I do have my delicate flowah moments, and a few of them have occurred at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA). I do like aht. I like aht a lot, and I learned just enough aht history in college to be obnoxious at the Museum of Fine Ahts (MFA), which is full of all the good oldies. But this contemporary aht stuff is different. Oh, sure, I saw Mapplethorpe back in the late 80s when people had their panties in a twist about his naked photography, but that’s different. Photography has at least something I can relate to in that it was created by a camera. No, I’m talking about my past few visits to the ICA, trying to be a good cultural citizen. But it’s not easy — what with contemporary aht’s lack of reference points and odd materials (is that plastic? Dried blood? Sawdust with metal shavings glued on bricks?). Sometimes an “installation” takes up whole room, and there are random pointy things and sandy things and crap hanging from the ceiling. When I enter such a room, I’m a total delicate flowah: I find it very disorienting and disturbing. I look to the little white card to throw me a bone, to tell me something, anything, grounding about this piece. But it says the installation was created in some studio in New York, or Los Angeles, or New Mexico (art never seems to get made anywhere else) and put together by the museum’s curator. Then I go from delicate flowah to indignant working class girl: What?! The ahtist couldn’t even get his lazy ass down here to put together this scary, weird thing himself? How is that aht? More power to you if you can make a living creating weird-ass installations in a studio and just ship it out around the country, but I sure as hell don’t need to see it.
On another visit, I remember just wandering around in the warren of small rooms with all kinds of visually incomprehensible things, and I was longing for something to ground me — anything — paint, clay, plaster, metal of any kind. I got so agitated that at one point I found a dark room and just curled up and sat on the floor, even though it was showing some random art film. At least I knew there was a video camera involved in its creation, and I breathed into my knees until I wasn’t so delicate. It maybe didn’t help that I was there with my unhappy life in tow — a less-than-delicate mother-in-law, a fraying marriage, and parental overwhelm. But I had all those things in the MFA, and I never had to resort to curling in a ball.
So it was with a bit of trepidation that I accepted my friend’s invitation to see the 2016 Oscar nominated short films on Super Bowl Sunday, showing at, yes, the ICA. But I figured, what the heck. My Bostonian citizenship only requires me to care about the Super Bowl if the Patriots are in it, so thankfully I was off the hook this year. I liked the idea of doing something unrelated to football and I’m in a much better place in my life. We’d be seeing films, and I could bypass all the scary aht. I also can be delicate with intense films, but these were short, so I figured how bad could it be?
Let’s just say I wasn’t the only delicate flowah in the group. Don’t get me wrong, they were all quality films. It’s just that three of the five were pretty intense. But it was nothing that two glasses of wine at dinner after and some general discussion about the intensity couldn’t fix.
It still doesn’t really help me understand contemporary aht any better, but at least I know I can go to the ICA without curling up in a ball, so maybe I’m not so delicate after all. But I am a wicked good flowah.
Photo: From 10 bizarre works of art from weirdworm.com, The Physical Impossibility of death in the Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hurst