Finding God Inside MoMA’s New Exhibition Of Home Movies By William Newton for The Federalist
The exhibition installation consists of 100 screens of various sizes, divided over two floors, each of which runs different clips of home movies in MoMA’s permanent collection.
At first glance, “Private Lives, Public Spaces,” an exhibition of home movies that opened recently at the newly renovated flagship building of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, might seem to be little more than a collection of flickering objects of no great importance. Yet many of these films are the precursors to what we post and share in our social media stories today, documenting how the world has changed since people first began picking up home cameras to film themselves and others.
In addition, at least for a certain segment of the population, there’s something much deeper than social commentary at work in this fascinating show. It wasn’t intended, perhaps, by the exhibition organizers, but the effect is more substantial than a mere curiosity romp through other people’s lives.
What It’s Like to Walk Through the Exhibit
The exhibition installation consists of 100 screens of various sizes, divided over two floors, each of which runs different clips of home movies in MoMA’s permanent collection. There are also examples of the types of home movie cameras, some of them quite ancient technology indeed, that were used to capture these images.
At first, the film portion of the show is a bit disorienting. It’s rather like walking through a display of televisions at an electronics store, where each of the glowing boxes is running a different channel with the sound muted. One can also imagine the experience is what it might be like to walk around inside the video portion of a social media feed.
After getting over the initial confusion, when you stop to watch the films on display you quickly realize the wealth of material held in the museum’s archives. The very first film displayed in the exhibition is an interesting choice: a home movie memorializing when MoMA was reluctantly forced to give up (arguably) the single most important object it had on display for decades, “Guernica” (1937) by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973).
The artist asked MoMA to hold on to the painting after the Spanish Civil War, but in accordance with Picasso’s wishes, in 1981 the painting was sent to Madrid, and now resides at the Reina Sofia Museum. The grainy, blurry film shows MoMA staff carefully preparing the monumental canvas for its final journey to Spain. It’s an important moment in art history, and one many people have never seen.
Some of the films selected for the show feature individuals whose names may be familiar to many of us, but whose faces may not be. For example, we see clips of sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), composer Aaron Copeland (1900-1990), and painter Marc Chagall (1887-1985) at work and play, chatting with friends, or mugging for the camera. In many of the movies, however, the subjects are just ordinary people picking up a camera to record particular events in their lives, and sometimes we don’t even know the names of the individuals who appear on screen.
Even when their identities are unknown to us, however, the people and situations seem very familiar. We see celebrations such as first communions, graduations, and weddings, vacation shots from places like Egypt and India, or what we might presume are just test films of people trying out their brand-new cameras for the first time. There are also clips of workers going on strike, kayakers and hunters out in nature, religious processions, and moments of unintentional humor caught on film that would be popular on social media even today.