In Art News
Art Is Not a Bouncy House
"Fun isn't fun!" I called out, cramped in a roomful of silver balloons (or, to be precise, cramped among Martin Creed's 2004 installation of balloons taking up "Half the air in a given space").
"Now you get it!" came Eric Fredericksen's response. Fredericksen is the director of Western Bridge. He curated the show of interactive artworks You Complete Me, which includes the room of balloons, a large tunnel machine that squirts paint on the walls when you walk inside it, several toylike objects displayed in a gallery with a cream-colored shag rug like an upscale rec room, and a bouncy house. After the rambunctious opening, Fredericksen was worried the anxious side of his exhibition wasn't coming across. And it wasn't. Sometimes a bouncy house is just a bouncy house. Or worse: a bouncy house impersonating art.
It's not that there aren't interesting works of art here: Jeppe Hein's tiny, exhaling hole in the wall (powered by an unseen fan); Olafur Eliasson's vision-framing device Eye Eye; Mark Soo's stereographic 3-D photographs reconstructing Elvis's first Memphis recording; and the dark misfit of the show, Alfredo Jaar's black boxes bearing captions about disasters but showing only voids where images should be. Some of the pieces might even give more in a better context. But the theme, "artists working against the passivity of the audience," makes everything feel a little thin.
In his written statement, Fredericksen wonders whether literal engagement with art leads to the "micro-utopias" imagined by theorist Nicolas Bourriaud. He quickly adds, "Or should the work retain the potential to express antagonisms and conflict?" Clearly, he falls on this side—on the side with an awareness that staged fun (anyone who has worked in the corporate world is familiar with enforced team-building "fun") is not only a part of the domineering "positivity" of American pop psychology but can also be a tool for covering up whatever you want to ignore.
Takes by artists on this point are old, and seem to have moved through the 20th century and into the 21st with great ambivalence and the increasing throwing-up-of-hands: avant-garde political protest art answered by Allan Kaprow's innocently liberatory 1961 invitation to climb on rubber tires answered by Eliasson's blank perception-oriented gifts. The dark side of fun, meanwhile, is covered best by Takashi Murakami's toothy, looming balloon characters—but even he has moved on to more basically ruthless ventures, recently setting up a Louis Vuitton retail shop smack in the middle (in the gallery) of his American retrospective.
I'm tempted here to write about the luxury and wild inequity of American life, and entertainment-based culture, and hair shirts, which means it's time to stop thinking—and certainly time to stop writing—about the subject of fun art. Fun art, paradoxically, is a headache.