Rachel Pastan
February 24, 2012

After the Monkeys: The stories exhibitions tell

“Okay,” Mary Grace says. “What do we have after the monkeys?”

“The mirror,” Paul suggests.

“That’s another thing we should try out,” Stefan agrees. Stefan Sagmeister, a graphic designer known for his innovative typography and his work with bands like The Talking Heads, is at ICAthis sunny Monday for meetings about The Happy Show, his upcoming exhibition. When I came in to work this morning, he and his staff were already busy, measuring the stairs and taking pictures and examining the doors on the elevator.

Miranda: Measuring-staircaseB

The Happy Show will not only fill ICA’s upstairs galleries and Ramp, it will extend out onto the mezzanine, into the elevator, down the stairs, and even onto the mirrors in the bathrooms.

Miranda: Staircase-pieceC

Enormous inflatable white monkeys—currently en route from Europe by ship —will hold a banner out on the Terrace. A long acrylic tube will lead from a coin drop on the mezzanine, down out of the building into a bowl on the street. There’s a lot more besides—things I don’t know about, things alluded to in mysterious bits of conversation as good as dialogue you’d find in a novel:

“The arms were hanging on a wall with gloves on them.”

“Once we run out, are you okay with American chocolates?”

“If we keep the Bali dancer instead of the sugar installation…”

During lunch, Stefan talks about the movie he’s making. Like the ICA exhibition, The Happy Film is a piece of the designer’s ten-year exploration of happiness, and parts of it will be on view as part of The Happy Show. Stefan clearly enjoys the challenge of working on the film, though it’s hard, he says, to figure out how to sustain such a long narrative.

This reminds me of something I’ve been thinking about ever since ICA’s Senior Curator, Ingrid Schaffer, remarked that a curator is someone who knows the stories. “Does an exhibition have a narrative?” I ask.

Anthony is the one curator in this room, and he answers quickly and unequivocally: “Yes.”

Stefan seems less sure. He wonders out loud about the narrative of the exhibitions currently on view.

“Well, there are lots of different kinds of narratives,” Anthony says. “You could have Dickens, or you could have David Foster Wallace.”

“What’s the narrative of The Happy Show?” I want to know.

“In this case it’s not easy,” Stefan says, “because there are so many points of entry.” He means the way you’ll be able to enter the show either via the Ramp downstairs, or up the museum’s main staircase and through the mezzanine. Still, he outlines it for me: The background information about his own thinking about happiness. Statistical information from studies he finds interesting:

Miranda: Studies-on-wall

The print work:

Miranda: print-work

The video and film work:

Miranda: film-work

So far, so good. But when I think about narrative (and, as it happens, I think about narrative a lot), I think about change. By the end of a story, as a result of all the events that have occurred, something has shifted —Cinderella has become a princess; Odysseus has finally returned home; Anna has thrown herself under the train. I wonder, when we’re talking about an exhibition, who is the protagonist? Is it the work itself that shifts? Is the artist the invisible hero, changing by implication? Is it us—is the idea that we ourselves are changed by the experience of the exhibition?

Miranda: 8

I remember when I started working at ICA, I used the word “design” to say what a curator did. No, I was told. Curators don’t design; they organize.

The object of that sentence, of course, is exhibition, as in: The curator organized the exhibition. But I’m coming to understand that they also organize our experience. A curator may not tell us a story in a Once upon a time sense, but they create a space in which we can experience a rise and fall of tension, or a sequence of things that gradually (or suddenly) change, or a series of events leading up to a moment of insight or intense emotion.

Mostly, in my experience, these changes, insights, and emotions are beyond words—outside of language. But The Happy Show, being a largely text-based exhibition, may be at least partly an exception.

Miranda: Group shot

Stefan has said that expecting a show about happiness to make you happier is like expecting a commercial for exercise equipment to make you slimmer; at best it can be a spur to make you take action. Still, given what I’ve seen of his plans for the exhibition, I won’t be surprised if The Happy Show does make me happier—if not for ever after, at least while the monkeys are in view.

The Happy Show opens at ICA on April 4.

Images (except for measuring the staircase) courtesy of Sagmeister, Inc.

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