An Artist Seeks the Truth in Downtown Brooklyn

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Downtown Brooklyn’s MetroTech Commons, surrounded by office buildings, chain stores, and smoggy traffic, has never seemed like an obvious place for Seeking Truth, unless Panera Bread is your Truth. But Brooklyn-based artist Hank Willis Thomas’s new solo exhibition, The Truth Is I See You, aims to change that.

Recently opened by the Public Art Fund, the exhibition consists of 22 cartoony speech bubbles hung around MetroTech Commons, printed with completions of the phrase “The truth is…”. They’re lofty, koan-like statements, including “The truth is I reflect you,” “The truth is I accept you,” “The truth is I am you,” and “The truth is I liberate you.” They’re based on a poem Thomas wrote in collaboration with artist Ryan Alexiev, which was translated into 22 languages. The speech bubbles are printed in English on one side, and in one of 22 languages spoken in Brooklyn on the other side (including Urdu, Yiddish, Swahili, Tagalog, Arabic, Chinese, and Croatian). Smaller signs below each bubble identify the language and offer pronunciation tips.

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Thomas has also created a “truth tree,” with jagged steel branches adorned with bigger speech bubbles and fragmented versions of his “The truth is…” statements, and a pair of steel speech-bubble benches, functional sculpture at its most accessible and comfortable.

In addition to these semi-permanent installations, Thomas designed a pop-up exhibit, called In Search of the Truth (the Truth Booth), which will appear around Brooklyn on select dates. It’s a giant inflatable speech bubble printed with the word TRUTH. Curious passersby are invited to step inside this bubble, stare into a video camera, and record themselves finishing the statement “The truth is,” for up to two minutes. The artist compiles these taped responses as part of a global archive. The Truth Booth has popped up everywhere from Cape Town, South Africa to Galway, Ireland and Cleveland, Ohio.

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“I think of it as a generosity project: People offer things to others who they’ll likely never meet or even see,” Thomas told the Wall Street Journal. More than 5,000 people have participated so far. The booth will return to Brooklyn three more times during the exhibition’s run, appearing at Atlantic Center Terminal on September 26, at MetroTech on October 15, and at a TBA location in May 2016.

The explicit search for “truth” is about as unwieldy and nebulous a subject matter for any art piece as it gets. This installation doesn’t tack towards this loftiest of topics; instead, it tries to tackle “truth” head on, an effort that seems destined to fail. But the audience participation element makes the whole thing feel far less preachy and self-serious than it could. And, perhaps, it’ll give tourists in Downtown Brooklyn something to talk about besides Panera Bread.

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Hank Willis Thomas’s The Truth Is I See Youpresented by the Public Art Fund, will be on view at MetroTech Commons, between Jay Street and Flatbush Avenue at Myrtle Avenue, until June 3, 2016.

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