The Art of Monotony

Last weekend, I visited MoMA’s P.S. 1 for the first time. It’s a museum that’s been on my list for a few years, but I just never made my way out to Long Island City to go see it. 

It’s such an interesting space. First of all, it smells delicious from the dinette on the first floor, which is such an odd thing to say about a museum. Walking around, it reminded me of Cinecittà — I think it was how distinct each room felt, coupled with the openness of the installations, especially the films on display. I very much felt like a little kid who suddenly had free reign around the school, so I was peaking very timidly into each room to make sure it was okay to go in.

One of my favorite things I saw was a video, by Ben Thorp Brown, ToymakersIn the artist’s words:

“Toymakers” looks at the production process of these customized, limited-edition objects as a means to consider how capital circulation is mediated by the body. While most “deal toys” are designed in global centers of the financial industry such as New York, Hong Kong, and London, they are produced in a small town in Quebec, where more than half a million deal toys are made each year for global corporations ranging from Google to Deutsche Bank, Heinz to Beats by Dre. The factory’s employees work on the production line with a great skill and care, as acrylic plastic is mixed, poured into molds, machined, and polished. A man assembles a toy truck using his hands and a hammer, revealing the craftsmanship behind the objects used to memorialize global finance.

As I watched this movie, I went into my usual type of trance when watching any type of monotonous, assembly line-type work. There’s something about the repetition and the nearly instant gratification that grabs my attention in a way unlike any other.

When I was very young, my mother noticed this weird obsession I had during a trip to Disney World. In one of the theme park restaurants, there was a glass blower that you could watch as he made his delicate creations. Once we passed this, I was absolutely transfixed. I must have made my mother stand there and hold me up so I could watch for at least an hour.

In fact, we were there for so long that the glass blower made a flower just for me, for free, because I’d been watching so attentively.

Fast forward ten years during my first visit to Paris where there was a bakery, with a window, and it was late at night. Late enough that I watched the lights at Notre Dame turn off. And inside the store, there was a baker methodically shuffling uncooked loaves of bread onto the peel and depositing them into the oven.

Again, I was transfixed. Enough so that a group of other seemingly reasonable adults came over to watch alongside me, with one of the men commenting, “C’est la danse du boulanger.” It’s the baker’s dance.

There’s something peaceful about the repetition, just like the sound of waves on a beach or the rhythmic tick tock of a clock. So much of our lives are modernized, mechanical, repetitive, and habitual. Externalizing that process allows us, or maybe just me, to get outside of my head for a few moments and appreciate the rhythmic beauty of what’s “man-made.”

It’s also a meditation on the cyclical nature of everything. Bread will be baked, then eaten, then baked again every day. The yeast will rise, the loaves will be shaped, the oven will be heated, the utensils washed. By observing these loops – just like a GIF or Vine – we’re transported into a place where we know what’s going to happen next, there’s no analysis or wondering. For a brief moment, it becomes possible to just observe without thinking.

Which reminds me of one of my favorite poems by Jack Kerouac 🙂


— lights out —

fall, hands a-clasped, into instantaneous
ecstasy like a shot of heroin or morphine,
the gland inside of my brain discharging
the good glad fluid (Holy Fluid) as
I hap-down and hold all my body parts
down to a deadstop trance — Healing
all my sicknesses — erasing all — not
even the shred of a “I-hope-you” or a
Loony Balloon left in it, but the mind
blank, serene, thoughtless. When a thought
comes a-springing from afar with its held-
forth figure of image, you spoof it out,
you spuff it out, you fake it, and
it fades, and thought never comes — and
with joy you realize for the first time
“Thinking’s just like not thinking —
So I don’t have to think

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