Patrick Bringley interview: A Met guard tells all
After Patrick Bringley lost his older brother in 2008, he decided to take the most straightforward job he could think of in the most beautiful place he knew. He left his job at the New Yorker’s events department and spent the next 10 years as a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Bringley’s new memoir, All the Beauty in the World, tells the story of his time at the Met. It’s full of satisfyingly inside-baseball facts: the secret routines of the guards, the basement galleries where the Met’s earliest collections linger, the backstories of stolen art. It’s also a story of art appreciation. Bringley makes a strong case that nothing teaches you to understand a work of art better than standing in a room with it for eight hours at a time, with little to occupy you but the art and your own responses to it.
Perhaps most importantly, though, All the Beauty in the World is a story about grief and about beauty, and about how inextricably the two are linked.
When I lost my father last spring, I was surprised to find that grief made me crave beauty. Movies had taught me that when faced with real grief, beautiful things become pale and petty and pointless, but that wasn’t how it was for me. It was May then, and the week after my father died, my mother and I went to an arboretum to breathe air that wasn’t from a hospital. The lilacs and viburnums were in bloom; the roses were beginning to bud; the trees were lush and green. We were still in shock, I think, and it was a profound solace to stand in the middle of a garden, looking at nothing but lovely things. “I think beauty is going to be an important part of all this,” my mother said.
I wanted to understand more about why beauty was so important to grief. So at the beginning of February, I met Bringley at the family entrance of the Met on 81st Street to walk the galleries. We couldn’t come close to covering all 2.2 million square feet of the massive building, but we would talk about art, beauty, and the secrets of the Met, and try to figure out beauty and grief together.
“These floors are not so good,” Bringley says, stamping one foot on the mosaic tiles of the Greek and Roman wing. Floors feature heavily in All the Beauty in the World: When you’re working eight- to 12-hour shifts standing upright, the material matters. Any kind of stone floor will leave you feeling it in your legs and back; soft, forgiving wood is better.
There’s still plenty to look at, though, he adds. “What’s brilliant about what a guard gets to do in a place like this is you just have eight hours or 12 hours to not be busy, not be advancing some project, but just to have your head up and observe the life swirling around this place.”
When he worked as a guard, some days he would spend an afternoon studying the labels and trying to learn about ancient Rome, he says. “But then other times you want to just admire beauty, kind of irrespective of its context. So, you know, just look at this and marvel.” He gestures to an elegant statue of Aphrodite, arms amputated at the shoulder, head turned in profile.
“You know, the ancients, especially the Greeks, thought that the most beautiful thing in the world was themselves, was us,” he says. “They conceived of the gods as having our form. So maybe you’re looking at a statue like this, and then you’re looking at other people in the galleries like, ‘Wow, how mysterious is it that we have all these different beautiful people wandering around with their own worlds trapped inside their mind.’ You get to think about that kind of thing.”
You also, he admits, have to look out for people damaging the art or trying to steal it. Nothing’s been stolen from the Met within his lifetime, but the 1970s were a rough era for art museums.
Around the corner from the Aphrodite, tucked into a side gallery, is a marble head of a herm from the 5th century BCE. Herms were pillars placed at the sides of roadways, dedicated to Hermes, god of roads and doorways and thieves. The Greeks would carve his head into the top of the pillar and his erect phallus into the center. This one is just the head, though, and it was stolen in 1979, Bringley says.
That was the year the Met was exhibiting its King Tut show, which drew the biggest crowds the museum ever saw. In the midst of the confusion, Bringley says, a guard turned around and found himself facing an empty plinth. There was immediate outcry and scandal: an ancient statue stolen from the Metropolitan Museum of Art!
Just a few days later, on Valentine’s Day, an anonymous tipster told police to look for the herm in a locker at Grand Central Station, and the statue was recovered. “The crazy part,” says Bringley, “is that there used to be a heart-shaped carving above his left eye. And when they recovered it, it had a matching freshly carved heart above his right eye.”
(I look in vain for the hearts, but they have long since been restored away.)
“And remember, this was Valentine’s Day,” says Bringley. “So one theory of the case is that somebody was wandering through. He saw the heart. He’s like, ‘I don’t have a gift for my girl.’ He swipes the thing as sort of a grand gesture. He creates the other heart. She opens the box, says, ‘What in the hell are you doing?’ and they call the tip in themselves.”
When you’re in love, sometimes nothing can say it like art can.
In All the Beauty in the World, Bringley writes about going to the Philadelphia Museum of Art with his mother shortly after his brother’s death. They each gravitated toward a single painting. Bringley found himself before a medieval Adoration of the Christ, depicting Mary tender and peaceful with her newborn son. His mother, meanwhile, went to an early Renaissance Lamentation, in which Mary cradles her son’s tormented corpse. They each stood before their paintings, the way I had stood in the lovely May garden with my mother, and they wept.
Why is it, I ask Bringley now, that we find ourselves to be so in need of beauty when we grieve?
He leads me around another corner to a Greek grave marker from the third century BCE. In the center, the dead man appeared in relief carving, sitting on a handsome chair and clasping hands with his father. His mother and brother stood watchfully in the background.
“It’s a leave-taking with the dead,” Bringley says. “I think anyone who’s sat by the bedside of a sick person, which most of us have — there’s this sort of heart brimming up at the same time as your heart is breaking. There’s something very profound going on, but it’s also very simple. You’re with your family. You’re with loved ones. There’s nothing on your mind except this event, and that makes it beautiful. Art captures the silent poetry of it.”
He leads me out of the Greek and Roman galleries and up the great staircase to the Old Masters, where Ludovico Carracci’s Lamentation of Christ sprawls 5 feet long across the wall. Through a trick of perspective, Christ’s dead body, bleeding and mangled and very nearly life-sized, seems to be held unsteadily by the frame; any second now, it might tumble out of the painting and onto the floor of the gallery.
“When this was painted, it would have seemed astonishingly naturalistic,” Bringley says. “Clearly that young man is a real young man, maybe an assistant or something in his workshop. You have this sense that Carracci’s wanting you to bear witness to something.”
The religious art of the West — which was for many centuries the most celebrated and well-funded art of the West — is full of these images of Christ’s tortured body, as much as it is full of images of Christ as a newborn. It’s all adoration and lamentation.
“It makes good sense, right?” says Bringley. “The humanities all have to do with how we only live a short span on this earth. What I felt privileged to be able to do as a guard is to bear witness to these scenes in the way that I think they would have intended us to.”
My father died very quickly, in a way. He’d had his disease for a long time, but it didn’t seem to affect his day-to-day life all that much; the treatment often seemed more inconvenient to him than the disease itself. Then for about a week before he died he was listless and tired, and then on the last day of his life, my mother called me and my sister and told us we should come to the hospital and see him.
That endless, endless day at the hospital, I frequently thought, “This is the worst day of my life.” I also thought, “This is the most beautiful day of my life.” It was terrible; it was appalling; I could hardly stand to be there; but I was there, and so were my mother and my sister, and all three of us were there because we loved him, and because we could not let him die without us. That bare fact was, in a horrible way, beautiful.
“When we adore, we apprehend beauty,” Bringley writes in All the Beauty in the World. “When we lament, we see the wisdom of the ancient adage ‘Life is suffering.’ A great painting can look like a slab of sheer bedrock, a piece of reality too stark and direct and poignant for words.”
Outside the Old Masters gallery, at the head of the staircase down into the Great Hall, Bringley shows me a patch of stone wall about six feet off the ground that’s notably darker than its surroundings. That’s a guard smudge, he says: the result of over a century of guards standing at the head of the stairs, leaning their heads against the wall, for day after day of eight-hour shifts.
“This post right here is such a wonderful post,” he says, gazing out over the crowds in the Great Hall. “As a guard, everyone else is rushing about. They have some office they need to be in. You’re almost like an aristocrat of old who has nothing to do. It’s like you’re in a Jane Austen novel where people just take turns about the garden like that’s their entire existence.”
Bringley once asked an older co-worker how he ended up becoming a guard at the Met. “The only thing I’ve ever wanted to be is an independently wealthy patron of the arts,” the man said. “This comes closest.”
“The Met laid off a lot of guards during Covid, didn’t they?” I ask.
“The whole experience was tough,” Bringley acknowledges.
Down we go again, down the staircase and into the medieval wing, where everything is covered in faded gilding. I think, as I always do in this gallery, that it would be interesting to live among the objects. Then, as I always do, I think of the children’s book classic From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, about two kids who run away from home to live at the Met. I read it in the fourth grade, and it became at once my introduction to the idea of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the beginning of a lifelong dream of running away to live at a museum.
I ask Bringley if he knows the book. “It sort of seems like you lived the Frankweiler dream,” I say. “You ran away to the museum and never came back.”
“I’m reading that to my kids!” he says. “They’re probably a little too young for it. But there’s some truth to that, for sure. One of the reasons that that book appeals to people is this idea of escaping into some place that’s just beautiful and full of fascinating things, and escaping the world outside. There was an element of that to my story for sure. I think over the course of my whole journey, I also began to realize the virtues of also being out in the world that’s full of complications and mess. I hope that I carry things from this world out into that world.”
He stops us in front of a gold and crystal reliquary, shining and ornate, with fanciful filigree work done along the gold. Embedded in the crystal is what appears to be a single human tooth. A molar, maybe.
“So this is Mary Magdalene’s tooth in there,” Bringley says. “If you’re predisposed to believe it. It is a real tooth. A dentist confirmed that in the ’70s.”
“Oh,” I say. “Cool.”
The reliquary itself is from 15th-century Florence, Bringley explains, but the crystal it houses was a North African perfume bottle 500 years before that.
“I also like to point this out, because, you know, this is a reliquary,” he says. “Pilgrims would have come to visit such a thing. The point of coming to visit a reliquary is to have an experience with it, to be in its presence and feel its power and feel its sanctity. I don’t know if you get that from a tooth, but that’s what the Met still is. It’s still where people come and want to face something and experience something that by dint of its beauty has something to it, a sort of vibration in it that makes us feel something that maybe we can’t quite put into words. I think people feel like they’re sitting in a great mosque or a great temple or a great church.”
Back up the stairs and into Asian art, where Bringley walks me over to a 13th-century Japanese Buddha, 3 feet tall and leafed in gold.
“I just find this so beautiful,” he says. “I can stand in front of that and feel a glimmering of enlightenment from it, you know? Just a little taste. But then also, don’t kid yourself. You begin to dig a little deeper and learn about this stuff, and you realize that this is not the Buddha that we know, Siddhartha. This is different. His name is Amida, he’s the Buddha of Infinite Light.”
Spending time in the Met, Bringley says, makes him realize how many different branches of knowledge there are and that it would take a lifetime to learn even one of them fully. “It imbues you with incredible humility when you realize that none of us can be an expert on almost anything. We only have one life to live, and we follow one little path. But at the same time, you can still borrow from it. You can get a taste of it.”
A Mongolian visitor, Bringley says, once approached him to ask for help as he walked through the museum. With limited English, the visitor had trouble making himself clear, but he gradually put across the idea that he wanted to know what exactly he should visit in order to “piece it all together.”
“It became clear to me in that moment that this guy had his one visit here,” Bringley says, “and his ambition was not to say, ‘Hey, I saw some cool things at the Met.’ He wanted to walk away with his theory of the world.”
That’s one of the most productive ways, Bringley thinks, of approaching a museum this big and overwhelming: Use it to try to figure out how you think about the world.
“All of this art is mostly concerned with things that we still have in our lives,” he says. “We still live in a universe where all those stars are twinkling overhead and God is strange and wondrous. A lot of this art has great ambitions to think through that mystery and splendor. We’ve only got one life to live. We might as well be thinking about those big things, too.”
My father took me to art museums throughout my childhood. He was a hedonist when it came to art; for him, looking at a painting was a physical pleasure. In one of the poems he left behind, he compares the taste of the first cigarette after a long time away from smoking to “seeing a Cézanne with new glasses.” They are both so good that “the pleasure is startling.”
When I was a child, this attitude bewildered me. I wanted to know what a painting meant, but that wasn’t something he was interested in telling me. He did not come to museums to think. He came to museums to feel the art.
Now I think that art makes us think by making us feel, by acting on our emotions in a way that nothing else quite can. My father loved that about art. He was a man devoted to aesthetic pleasure, and that’s how he chose to live his one life.
As we start to make our way out of the museum, Bringley mentions that he recently paid a recreational visit himself, to see the Met’s temporary Tudor exhibit. It was bittersweet, he said.
“Back in the day, if I did that, I would have been like, ‘Oh well, this is my first time seeing this show. I’ll be posted here 12 additional times. Today I can just get the lay of the land and find a couple of favorites. Then I’ll dig in.’” But those days are gone: “Now I’m a normal person.”
Vancouver to remove unsanctioned spider art creeping-out transit riders – Vancouver Sun
City staff are looking into how to remove a large metallic spider from under a high-traffic bridge on Commercial Drive in Vancouver.
The artwork, which startled some arachnophobic SkyTrain riders when it was installed earlier this month, was created by pop artist Junko Playtime.
In an email to Postmedia News on Friday, city staff say they were made aware of the unsanctioned spider artwork located in a corridor for SkyTrain and CN/BNSF Rail.
The installation wasn’t done in consultation with the city or the rail corridor partners, city staff said. They’re trying to figure out the best way to remove the artwork so there is no damage to the bridge structure or rail lines.
Staff said the artist will have the ability to claim the work through the city’s impoundment process.
According to Playtime’s Instagram page, the eight-foot-diameter spider was installed at night recently on the north bank below the bridge between North Grandview Highway and Broadway.
Playtime, from Montreal, has gained a reputation over the past two years for installing very large and far-out insect like futuristic sculptures from scrap metal and household items.
The artist called this latest spider creation “Phobia 2023. Time to face our fears.”
— With files from David Carrigg
Artist behind guerilla Vancouver art piece launches campaign to ‘save spidey’ – Global News
The artist behind a guerilla sculpture installation in East Vancouver that the city plans to remove is fighting to save the work.
The art work in question is a large, black spider made of recycled materials affixed beneath an overpass near Broadway and Victoria Drive, and visible from the SkyTrain Millennium Line.
The city says the work was unsanctioned, and that it is in the midst of plans on how to best remove the spider.
The anonymous Montreal-based artist who goes by the moniker Junko Playtime is calling on supporters to contact the city and ask it to leave the guerilla installation, titled Phobia, in place.
Unsanctioned spider sculpture seen from Skytrain to be removed
“I think it’s a shame, there’s are a lot of people that really enjoy the artwork and would love for it to stay there. Sure, there are some people that might not like it, but it’s impossible to please everyone with public art,” Playtime told Global News in an email.
“The work is positioned in a way that doesn’t put anything or anyone in danger and can easily be ignored if someone doesn’t want to look at it.”
Junko Playtime contrasted the city’s reaction to the spider to the mounting piles of trash along the rail line where it was installed, saying it doesn’t make sense to remove the art but not the garbage.
“In terms of this piece, the city didn’t pay a dime for it. It’s built out of waste material collected in the streets so it’s essentially cleaning up some of the litter and there’s a huge amount of people that really enjoy it — seems like a pretty good deal to me,” he said.
City crews remove satan statue erected alongside busy Vancouver roadway
The City of Vancouver said the artwork was installed without review or approval, and that it began planning to remove it after complaints from the public.
It pointed to the city’s official public art program, which selects works through a jury process or its Public Art Committee, and that all approved pieces are vetted by engineers to ensure safety, structural integrity, longevity and maintenance plans.
“The installation of public art on key infrastructure, such as a bridge, would require due process to ensure safety. The unsanctioned spider artwork has not been through this review process,” it said in a statement Friday.
The cost of removing the spider remains unclear, according to the city.
The artist responded by suggesting leaving the piece in place was a chance for Vancouver to shake its dubious reputation as “no fun city,” which he said it had earned “for a reason.”
The spider is not the first artwork by Junko Playtime to appear in Metro Vancouver.
Last month, Habitat, a sanctioned piece he created from reclaimed materials appeared outside the Bentall Centre Gallery as a part of the Vancouver Mural Festival’s Winter Arts Festival.
Last year, a large, yellow, insect-like sculpture he created called Queen BX1000 appeared in an empty lot near the Fraser River near the Canada Line.
The artist, who said his work revolves around themes of biodiversity and ecological responsibility, said he designed the spider installation specifically for the location where he placed it, telling Global News, “the cliff face covered overhead by the large metal and concrete bridge really felt like a fitting environment for a creation like this to inhabit.”
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Gagosian’s DALL-E–Enabled Art Exhibition Throws Us Headfirst into the Uncanny Valley
The arrival of AI text generators and chatbots like Chat GPT and Bing (or is she named Sydney?) over the last year has shattered the assumption that creativity is the sole domain of humans, and other living things. But, while image generators like DALL-E and Midjourney are the visual equivalent technologies, the same crisis has not quite registered in the art world.
Perhaps, this lack of response stems from a lack of opportunity. No longer! Earlier this week, mega-gallery Gagosian opened an exhibition of works by DALL-E, which, like its AI image generator competitors, can turn a simple text prompt into an image in seconds. Might I find some crisis awaiting me there? (Yes).
The exhibition is produced by Bennet Miller, a film director who has been nominated for Oscars for Foxcatcher (2014) and Capote (2005); the works, and the exhibition are untitled. Over the past several years, Miller has been making a documentary about AI, through which he interviewed Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, who gave him beta access to DALL-E far before the rest of the public.
The images DALL-E produces produce range from obviously amiss (twisted fingers, a fuzzy swirl of pixels) to hauntingly accurate in their targeting of one’s request. Despite these occasional flaws, no longer is the AI image quickly clocked for what it is by that tell-tale sheen of psychedelic patterning. It’s no wonder then why the word “real” was invoked, again and again, by the audience at Miller’s opening this week.
One woman I pass gestures at one of Miller’s prints, a large piece laid on with deep, dark, wet-looking ink onto sepia-toned paper, depicting a child as she stares at the viewer while the wind tosses her hair. It looks as if it comes from the Victorian era, dated not just by its coloring but by what looks to be a simple, linen dress of the era. It’s all projection. The woman tells her friend, “It’s not real.” There is no linen dress.
Well, so what. It’s a bit melodramatic to behave as if we don’t already live in an era of unreal-ness. And anyways, since when does art require a real-world referent to represent something “real”? Since when is “realness” a metric?
Sure, many of Miller’s works look like they could be photographs, but many are heavily stylized. Often extremely out of focus and piled on with grain, there is just enough form to suggest a subject or a landscape. Some of them seem to represent momentous or historical moments in the past. Here is a profile that looks Native American, extending an arm that could be a wing, that could be cultural dress. Here is a mushroom cloud, as if from an explosion, but flattened in a way that, perhaps, Nature wouldn’t allow. A machine like a train but it’s not. A disk, just a flat circle of some substance, held in the hands of a woman. Beguilingly simple, pointing back to nothing.
I spot Fran Lebowitz. Blunt, coarse bob, big coat, tortoiseshell glasses perched on her nose and another set in her welt pocket. Loafers! It really is her. She’s thumbing through the exhibition text that was produced for the show by author Benjamin Labatut using ChatGPT, an AI text generator also produced by OpenAI. It turns out Miller also interviewed Lebowitz for his documentary, though it doesn’t seem clear why. She repeats an apology to me several times: she doesn’t know what this means, the exhibition, the fact of its genesis. But she makes an effort.
“These are not real photographs, but what are real photographs?” Lebowtiz begins. “Are the only real photographs the ones made on film, not the digital ones? My friend Peter Hujar would say so.”
The slippery slope tack: if we’ve accepted that cameras do not make the photographs, but that photographers do, why should any succeeding technology that the human mind directs for its purpose not be judged similarly? That is, as a genuine, human act of creation. I ask Lebowitz a clumsy question, something like, ‘Isn’t the labor of trying to make something worth something?” She says of course. What are we even talking about? It’s too basic but I can’t help it.
The concern about realness comes from two places. Where did these images come from and can we credit Miller with a “real” creative act. It’s really one problem: what do we do with this other actor in the picture, AI? What spasm was it that gave birth to these images, that Miller guided and curated?
It’s telling that these new tools are called AI “generators” not “creators”. Generation is to bring into being, but behind a veil. Generation has its roots in the phenomenon of conception, which is not done with the conscious mind but the secret efforts of the body. It is only in this way that I can relate to the concept of AI, this thing that brings into being without conscious, all the indifference and capability of nature. But this is false analogy (is there a word for anthropomorphizing but for nature? Naturmorphizing?). I’m not sure why I can’t see it as an extension of all the other amazing technological capabilities with their hidden mechanisms. I don’t know how my computer works.
Walking around Miller’s show I’m surprised that so many people look happy and curious whereas I feel bitterly on guard. I look closely at each image, which range from looking like vintage photographs to charcoal drawings, and investigate for signs of their computerly origins. I’m not to be tricked!
As images, though, I do like them. They remind me of a picture book I once had and spark my love of old and whimsical looking things, for what that’s worth. A lot of AI images I’ve seen do this, that is, open the door to alternate, fantastical worlds, which says a lot about the people who request these images. There’s a lovely impulse to see something wondrous, magical, not of our reality. But how tightly and terribly joined is this desire for the fantastic to the impish twitch for falsity.
By now, haven’t we all seen those AI generated images of Trump getting arrested? How quickly we come back to Earth. One day it’ll feel normal. For now it’s tripping me up.
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