In the second-floor gallery, some of the crew are working on the sugar cube installation. Stacks of cubes of different heights spell out “Step up to it,” one of the truisms, or rules to live by, that anchor the new ICA exhibition, Stefan Sagmeister The Happy Show, which is a romp, and a serious exploration of happiness and the human condition, and a glimpse into the mind of one of America’s leading graphic designers all at once.
Elsewhere in the gallery, other people are busy with other happiness installations. The exercise bike is being hooked up to light a neon sign if you peddle hard enough. The interactive spider web video is being fine tuned. Sagmeister himself is busy with a black marker, writing on the walls. He looks busy and full of energy. A couple of days ago, when I got into the elevator to go home, I found him in there writing on the interior doors.
“How are you, Stefan?” I asked him.
“I’m having fun!” he said.
There’s a lot to be done before the show opens 25 hours from now. Luckily First Among Equals, the exhibition in the big downstairs gallery about ways artists work together, has been unofficially open for a few weeks, so that part of the museum is calm.
Of course, the last few days before First Among Equals opened, its doors were busy too. That busyness had a different rhythm, with little pockets of activity blazing up around the gallery as various artists came and went. Then, on the last afternoon before the show opened, everything in the gallery came to a stop when the Paul Thek sculpture showed up. Alex Da Corte, whose SCENE TAKE SIX installation incorporates works of a dozen or so artists, had received permission to use a small Thek as part of his piece. It arrived in an array of custom-made crates which the crew lined up on a table.
“A beautiful packing job,” Paul says as Mary Grace begins untaping boxes. One crate has lots of small ceramic pieces—green and blue and brown—embedded in cradles of foam. A second crate reveals a big conch shell with a plug and a light bulb. Mary Grace checks what’s in the crates against pictures, and she makes notes, documenting the condition the pieces are in when we receive them. Shell generally abraded and built out of dirt and grime, she writes. Light in shell not secure. The rest of us wait, trying not to crowd her.
“This is so terrifying,” Alex says. “It’s like meeting the man of your dreams and knowing it.”
“I remember when I had to condition check the Damien Hirst shark,” Mary Grace says. “And the cow head with the flies. We were sitting there counting all the flies and the larvae.”
Paul, wearing white art handling gloves, begins placing pieces into a terrarium. Mary Grace stands nearby and hands them to him one by one. “This one goes in there,” she says, but it doesn’t fit where she points. They consult the pictures and try again.
Brendan, another artist with work in Alex’s installation, comes over. “Does it feel soft?” he wants to know.
“No,” Paul says.
“Does it feel brittle?” Alex asks.
“Yeah,” Paul says.
“Is this the first time you’ve ever handled a Paul Thek, Paul?” Alex asks.
“Man, do I enjoy this part of my job,” Paul says.
Standing nearby with my notepad, scribbling, I’m thinking the same thing.
First Among Equals and Stefan Sagmeister The Happy Show are open through August 12.
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