Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Art for Thought

What is art? For one, it’s probably a question that’s existed as long as people have been making art. Some argue that they know art when they see it. But what about when you don’t think something is art, but you’re told that it is? What if the works of art on display are things you see—and use—in your daily life?

These are just a few of the questions raised and explored in Return to Function, an exhibition at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art that opened in May and runs through August 23.

The show features contemporary artists, many from outside the United States, who create functional objects based on theoretical principles ranging from economics to the environment. Their artwork questions preconceptions about and everyday objects as well as sculpture.

MMoCA’s curator of exhibitions Jane Simon acknowledges the exhibition is among the most challenging the museum has presented. The exhibition catalogue provides an insightful introduction to the concepts presented, drawing interesting comparisons to Marcel Duchamp (who famously exhibited a urinal titled Fountain) and his peers of the early twentieth century.

“This show is a dialogue about art,” Simon says.

The work that greets visitors is Jules de Balincourt’s Personal Survival Doom Buggy, a real doonbuggy stocked with supplies essential to survival in “a post-September-eleventh world,” Simon says.

Also taking on the topic of survival, in very different ways, are François Curlet’s North Park #3, an orange Hermès box and bag with compass embedded in it and a comment on navigating the urban jungle of commercialism, and Ralph Borland’s Suited for Subversion. Borland sought to create a way to protest without getting hurt, with the idea that if a person could safely protest he could ensure his voice would be heard. The heart-shaped padded red suit covers a person’s head and torso. An added detail is a heartbeat that emits from it; the idea behind it was that if police heard a human heart they would recognize that the protester is human.

Several works explore the notion of shelter. Michael Rakowitz’s P(lot) is a temporary shelter that can be set up in a parking space and draw heating and cooling from nearby buildings. Huong Ngo’s Pop-Up Studio, a huge and portable square bubble powered by a simple fan, creates a livable and workable space within its soft walls. And Lucy Orta’s Refuge Wear Habitent is a silver poncho that can be worn, folded up and carried or used as a tent. Some models have a whistle or compass and some can be warmed with body heat.

A few objects are quite small in scale but not in impact. Antal Lakner’s Iners is a series of objects aimed to make people more active, such as an extremely heavy cell phone on display. And then there’s Claire Fontaine’s In God They Trust, a quarter which she has fashioned into a box cutter.

Among the most startling works is DIY (Coffin) by Joe Scanlan, an actual homemade coffin made from three Ikea bookcases. Coffins are typically expensive, Simon points out, so a do-it-yourselfer is quite a democratic gesture. Also poignant is Ricardo Miranda Zúñiga’s Vigamundo: A Migrant’s Tale. The main character of this video game is a migrant laborer; in between levels, statistics about migrant workers flash on the screen.

Visitors have responded well to the exhibition since it opened in May, Simon says, adding that a high school tour especially liked it. She hopes people find the show challenging and eye-opening.

“I hope they understand art can be engaged with issues of the day, even the mundane issues of the everyday,” she says. “It’s not just paint on a canvas.”

For more information on Return to Function, visit

Photos of Orta, Borland and Fontaine’s work courtesy of MMoCA.

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