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Hank Willis Thomas Seeks the Truth

Hank Willis Thomas's 'In Search of the Truth' at MetroTech Commons (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Hank Willis Thomas’s ‘In Search of the Truth’ at MetroTech Commons (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

“The truth is I love you,” reads the sign as you enter Brooklyn’s MetroTech Commons — not a bad way to pique the interest of passersby, appealing to their vanities and insecurities. The words are spelled out on a small, hovering, ovular speech bubble whose triangular stem points down and to the right, as if a person standing below might have voiced them. Up ahead, affixed to street lamps that line the benches and gardens of this pedestrian-only stretch of Myrtle Avenue, are more signs in the form of speech bubbles: “The truth is I know you,” “The truth is I feel you,” “The truth is I liberate you,” “The truth is I am you.” There are 22 of them, each brandishing a different phrase, which is printed on it twice: on one side in English, on the other side in one of the 22 languages most spoken in Brooklyn (after English). Among them are Urdu, Yiddish, Swahili, Tagalog, Arabic, Chinese, and Croatian.

Cause Collective, "In Search of the Truth (The Truth Booth)" (click to enlarge)
Cause Collective, “In Search of the Truth (The Truth Booth)” (click to enlarge)

The signs draw you into the artist Hank Willis Thomas’s exhibition in this Downtown Brooklyn space. Organized by the Public Art Fund, it represents a kind of public art quest for the truth. In addition to the “truth is” signs, Thomas has created a “truth tree” whose steel branches sprout their own speech bubbles, offering up that initial phrase — “The truth is I love you” — in a more playful, jumbled form, and with destabilizing punctuation (!, ?). Nearby, on select dates, the work “In Search of the Truth (The Truth Booth),” a collaboration between Thomas and artists Ryan Alexiev and Jim Ricks of the Cause Collective, will be inflated, inviting visitors to enter and offer two-minute disquisitions on — you guessed it — what “the truth is.” “The Truth Booth” also takes the shape of a cartoonish speech bubble, as do two black steel benches parked on the grass nearby. It all feels tailor-made for equal parts selfie taking and discussion.

Hank Willis Thomas taking a photo of the crowd gathered at his preview, with curator Andria Hickey sitting on the bench
Hank Willis Thomas taking a photo of the crowd gathered at his preview, with curator Andria Hickey sitting on the bench

“Why this obsession with the truth?” I asked Thomas, when I’d read the word so many times it seemed on the verge of losing all meaning. “Well, cause it’s so contentious, especially in our political sphere,” he explained. “When I went to Vietnam, for instance, I didn’t know that the US lost the war until I was in Vietnam. Cause we don’t really say that we lost the war; we just say we got tired. Whereas, from their perspective, the truth is that it was an anti-colonial war. After they beat the Chinese, they beat the French. Then the US tried to come and colonize them, they kicked us out, and the world celebrated. That’s the truth. My father was in the war! He was over there. And I didn’t even know that. The truth is he was in the war before it was a war. The war started technically in 1968, but we’d been there 15 years by then. And it was based off of some questionable truths.”

Thomas, who studied photography, added that the way the medium “has become more and more digitally manipulated” also influenced his interest in the truth. “What we understand to be the truth, it’s just become much more tenuous.” 

People watching videos from "The Truth Booth"
People watching videos from “The Truth Booth”

That tenuousness is at the heart of one of the installation’s most engrossing elements: a video of compiled responses from “The Truth Booth.” Because the booth has traveled extensively, from Ireland to Afghanistan and beyond, the answers to the prompt are wide-ranging, in a way that’s both startling and entertaining. As I watched, a child from a village in India spoke about how his house had no electricity, his family no land and nothing to eat, and how “water is far.” He was followed by an older, quirky British man who opined that the truth “hid itself when we were born, and it only comes out again when we are dead. I’m nearly dead.” Soon after, an African-American woman bluntly stated: “Truth is that there are still people out there that judge you by the color of your skin.” Her confident delivery was matched by that of a young white girl: “The truth is that I’m 11 years old but I still believe in unicorns.”

Rather than muddying some universal idea of the truth, these responses — the way they demonstrated the truly subjective nature of something defined as objective and inviolable — made everyone’s personal truths feel somehow more potent. Naturally, I had to ask Thomas for one of his. I queried him about public art.

“The truth about public art,” he replied, pausing to look at a woman lying contentedly in one of the speech bubble benches nearby, “is that I think it’s never been more appreciated, and it’s never been more comfortable.”

A couple on one of the benches
A couple on one of Thomas’s benches
Underneath the signs
Speech bubble signs
Hank Willis Thomas's 'In Search of the Truth' at MetroTech Commons
Installation view, ‘Hank Willis Thomas: In Search of the Truth’ at MetroTech Commons
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Smaller signs below the speech bubbles tell you the language, translation, and pronunciation of each phrase.
The truth tree
Thomas’s truth tree
Someone entering "The Truth Booth"
A person entering “The Truth Booth”
Banners at the entrance to the show
Banners at the entrance to the show

Hank Willis Thomas: The Truth Is I See You continues at MetroTech Commons (Myrtle Ave between Jay St and Flatbush Ave, Downtown Brooklyn) through June 3, 2016.

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