Where ‘Strangers Whisper Secrets in Your Ear’

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At the New York Review of Books, Leslie Jamison reviews “Private Lives Public Spaces,” an exhibition of home movies and photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. (While the museum is closed, you can check out the exhibit online.) What makes this review fascinating is the thread of desire that runs through it — that keen human need to document our present as it all-too-quickly turns into our past.

By showing amateur home movies in one of the most famous museums in the world, “Private Lives Public Spaces” asks us to see not just the aesthetic richness of daily life, but also to see it as a parade of minor performances: vacation as a performance of leisure, a garden party as a performance of sociability, parenting as a performance of love. Is there anyone who doesn’t sometimes imagine an audience for even the most unremarkable moments of her life?

The exhibit spans two floors, and while the upper level contains work by professional artists working with 8 mm film—Andy Warhol, Peggy Ahwesh, Cindy Sherman—the lower floor has a stronger gravitational pull, bringing me back to the home movies. Placards that usually bear the names of famous artists display suburban-sounding surnames instead: Levitt family. Thompson family. Hubley family. Descending to this level feels like dropping into the subconscious—a place not of art, exactly, but the deep place art comes from. Each film channels the gaze of an amateur—which is to say, a gaze tuned like a radio channel to the affective nuances of daily living: amusement, awkwardness, delight, and the extravagant devotion of love. Love gets accused of blinding us, or dulling our gaze, but it can summon our vision most urgently.

These are the moments that affect me most in these movies, these flashes of secret interior life suddenly surfacing: a boy’s hopeless giggling; a woman’s undisguised pleasure at her bag of potato chips on the train; the awkward silence of a boy at the end of the bar mitzvah banquet table, his forced smile; a woman doing a stately waltz, in a baroque ballroom, turning suddenly to flash a sly, flirtatious look at the camera. This secret life dwells in each of us, mysterious, wild, intimate, and these moments of rupture expose what so much art is chasing after: glimpses of the subterranean desires and pleasures and sorrows that are constantly lurking behind our composed surfaces, veiled by the costumes of our facial expressions and our social media accounts, our etiquette and our armor. The crippling fear of exposure lives uneasily alongside its opposite—a primal longing to be seen.

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