Face to Face with Rachel Lee Hovnanian
When I left the artist Rachel Lee Hovnanian after our breakfast together last week, I walked down a rain-damp West Eleventh Street, resisting the impulse to check my text messages. Generally I am able to put down my phone through sheer stubbornness if my attention is demanded by something else, but I have noticed that it has become my unconscious habit to reach for it the second that that “something else” is no longer present.
But on that day, September 11, 2018, the damage of smartphone reliance was at the forefront of my mind, as our conversation at breakfast centered around the nefariousness of tech addictions, no surprise given the major themes in Hovnanian’s work. Instead, I did what I could to let my phone lie dormant and made an effort to feel the autumn cool creeping into the air, to smell the rain evaporating off the street around me, and to look at the faces of those passing by (too bad most of them were bent downwards, absorbed in screens).
I walked by a church on Tenth Street offering a space of contemplation in commemoration of 9/11, so I ducked in to think. On September 11, 2001 the iPhone was years from coming to market, but I wondered what the tragedy would have felt like had there been one in everyone’s hands. 9/11 felt personal, the first time in my budding consciousness that I knew what it was to be a New Yorker. Would this feeling of community, albeit a result of the most horrific circumstances, be lessened by a million shared photos from a million Instagram accounts? While there are many images of 9/11 that have achieved the status of icon, every New Yorker has their own private perspective. Mine was the long view down Lexington Avenue from the vantage point of a street corner on the Upper East Side, smoke rising from “downtown,” a place my eight-year-old brain couldn't even visualize when my third grade teacher told us a plane had crashed there.
Needless to say, that image is my image, singular and unique to me and those who lived in my neighborhood. If we had all shared our perspectives on the tragedy in real time through the likes of the not-yet-extant Instagram and Twitter, perhaps we would have found solace together in a different way, regardless of our geographies. Instead, neighbor turned to neighbor, and New York was a different place, a kinder, more loving place– at least for a little while.
This strange phenomenon of communities forged digitally at the expense of traditional physical, geographical, and social communities is perfectly illustrated by Hovnanian (a longtime New Yorker who has her own 9/11 stories to share) in her installations Dinner for Two (2013) and New Year’s Feast, Beijing, 2014 (2014), which show relationships of physical proximity (not to mention genetic or romantic ones) being supplanted by digital ones. The families and couples at these tables do not converse, but rather stare intently at their phones, from which emanate the soundtracks of our daily lives, the pings and whooshes of text messages and emails. There are worlds beyond these characters, relationships that they engage in through the tool of their phones, but what the artwork illustrates is the lost relationships that dwell in the vacancy at the center of the table, where shouts and laughter used to live. “I am drawn to societal themes and behavioral trends that run as the undercurrents dictating how we live,” Hovnanian says in response to an inquiry about her inspiration.
What has come of the digital revolution is addiction, plain and simple, a breed that relies on the slot machine psychology espoused by Apple and other Silicon Valley giants. You never know what you’re going to get, Hovnanian says, which keeps you coming back for more, and eventually a phone becomes another appendage, as in need of nourishment as our own bodies. (It is not hard to see the immediate appeal in works like FMLMBD [Fuck My Life My Battery’s Dead] (2017), a neon sign which shows a battery dangerously close to empty.) But is there hope? To the artist, we live in the “Industrial Revolution” of our time, where technology is the car of the present age. That is to say, the safety features weren’t invented before the car was, and so it goes with technology— we are living in a world without “seatbelts and speedometers,” a freewheeling time before we realize the full implications of what we’ve created. (This confrontation of the experimental links to the recurring motif of the white mouse, which appears often in Hovnanian’s oeuvre. We are “lab rats,” subordinate to technology’s whim, but as of yet unaware of its potential consequences.)
But Hovnanian doesn’t stop at pointing out the problem of technological addiction, but rather offers some solutions (packaged, of course, in such an appealing way it’s rather difficult not to immediately photograph her work and post it to Instagram— very sly.). For example in PURE, part III of the artist’s Women’s Trilogy, Leila Heller Gallery was studded with meditation pods, floor cushions surrounded by white curtains, from which you could view the exhibition— or not. When I visited, I enshrined myself in the curtains and blocked out the summer heat. (Though my phone was tantalizing me from the deep depths of my shoulder bag, I pulled out my notebook instead.) But if quiet contemplation wasn’t your answer to banishing the social media demons, why not try something more extreme? Hovnanian presented an alternative to the passive absorption of social media negativity through one of her signature interactive installations. For this one, the gallery goer is asked to approach a washing machine altar, upon which laid an oversized cast of Ivory soap, a marker, a pair of goggles, and a hammer. The instructions were clear and couldn’t be more cathartic: “delete negative thoughts” by means of physical destruction. I wrote the name of an institution that recently declined to hire me (that shall not be named) on the plaster and smashed the hell out of the bar of soap.
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Catharsis comes in many ways; sometimes it’s release, or sometimes it is the quiet moment spent in meditation. On a day marked by physical destruction, I chose the latter. The quiet of the church evoked Hovnanian’s meditation pods.
Having had my fill of quiet, I got up and I left the church. Upon exiting, however, I immediately fell victim to my habits: I pulled out my phone. Before I could think to shut it off again, an Instagram notification popped up on my screen: “@rachelleehovnanian has requested to follow you.” I thrilled (Rachel has 18,000+ followers and she wants to follow me!), but tried to remember my vow to put away my phone for the day.
I’m sorry, but I couldn’t resist– I accepted her request.