Every Person an Artist
Sagmeister and Gondry at Deitch
Etapes (European design magazine published in Paris)
IS IT PERFORMANCE ART, conceptual art, installation art, or something new entirely? Maybe it could be called participation art. Two recent installations at Deitch Projects in New York's SoHo district let visitors become part of the process—and the art itself.
Stefan Sagmeister's "Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far," at the 76 Grand Street space coincided with the January 31 launch of his book of the same name. It combined message-making, poster design, photography, sculpture, and video with opportunities for visitors to do things like scribble mash notes in little notebooks and finger-write aphorisms in steam on the front window.
Michel Gondry's "Be Kind Rewind" in the 18 Wooster Street performance space promoted the February 22 theatrical release of his feature film about a video store clerk and friend who gain fame and fortune by making cheapie remakes of popular movies. The film opened to mixed reviews, but the exhibit—a place to write and star in your own movie—was one of the most successful in NYC's indie-gallery history.
"Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far"
"How many surfaces can I put a message on, with how many different substances?" Those are questions Stefan Sagmeister has been asking himself for the past seven years as he traveled the world and crafted maxims like "WORRYING SOLVES NOTHING," on everything from Petri dishes to the Empire State Building, using materials from the microscopic to the massive: pollen, sperm, sugar, urine, twigs, clothes hangers, furniture.
The 20 projects in the show blew away or at least blurred the boundaries between graphic design and fine art. "It's all graphic design," Stefan claims, noting that the work was done for such clients as a café-bookstore in his native Austria, a municipality in France, a Portuguese beer company.
The show began on the street. Straddling the roof of the gallery, a storefront wedged between two taller buildings, was a 30-foot, white, black-faced, blow-up vinyl monkey. Below it, painted in black block letters on the white brick façade, were the words "EVERYBODY THINKS." Inside, the main room was dominated by another giant monkey with the words "THEY ARE RIGHT" painted on the wall behind it. The overwhelming sensation upon entering the space was the odor of rotting bananas. The day before the opening, Stefan spelled "SELF-CONFIDENCE PRODUCES FINE RESULTS" in 1,000 green bananas against a field of 9,000 yellow bananas. Over the three weeks of the exhibit the banana-wall slowly turned a uniform ochre-brown and the message faded away. But the smell kept ripening. "It's a very pleasant smell," was Stefan's comment. Not all visitors agreed. But whoa, black-faced, white monkey in a room with bananas? Who else would have the guts to do that and risk being labeled a racist, or worse?
Stefan Sagmeister is what every graphic designer would like to be: influential, in demand, and fearless. He got famous by designing intricate, Grammy-winning CD packaging—and by doing things like carving words into his own body and posing for the camera wearing nothing but ratty old underwear. "A joke is no good without a surprise," he maintains.
Now, clients around the world—from real estate developers to museum directors—who want to garner attention in non-conventional ways call on the guy who, as his name indicates, is the "master of speaking." These are the few-and-far-between, fearless clients who, in Stefan's words, "understand the language of design, the power of words and images in public spaces." Like Scotland's former prime minister Jack O'Connell, who launched the Six-City Design Festival for which the giant monkeys were created, they set no limits. An open-ended design brief, Stefan has learned, can be much more difficult than doing a traditional marketing campaign. "It sounds great, but to figure it out, with no restrictions, so endless, is actually very difficult and takes a lot of time," he says.
At a moment in design history when just about anybody can set type and make a book or an ad, Stefan's virtuosity and wit continue to inspire. The piece that most touched my heart is "KEEPING A DIARY SUPPORTS PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT," a short film shot in an abandoned amusement park in Singapore, during which the word "DEVELOPMENT," crafted from bamboo scaffolding rods, glides along a waterway, then goes up in flames.
Time is a key element in Sagmeister's art—time for the bananas to ripen, for the sugar-script to collapse, the steam on the plate-glass window to collect and dissipate, the bamboo to burn. Time to engineer the work, which has exceptionally high production values. The book itself, a collection of 16-page signatures in an die-cut slipcase, may be one of the most elaborate design objects ever printed on paper. Shuffling the covers of the 15 signatures makes 15 different author portraits, each of which could be seen as a mask or disguise.
Although this is a one-man show, and book, credit is given to many collaborators, including co-workers at Sagmeister Inc., students at the School of Visual Arts, and an international cast of designers, photographers, illustrators, and fabricators. Thirty New York designers, including Milton Glaser, Massimo Vignelli, Bob Gill, and Paula Scher contributed by finger-writing their own aphorisms in the front-window vapors. On the afternoon I visited, Ken Carbone, designer of the Louvre sign program, was trying to make his steamy words, "Complaining is silly, either act or forget" look like Bodoni Bold while a small crowd gathered on the sidewalk to watch.
"HAVING GUTS ALWAYS WORKS FOR ME" is the lesson that the multitudes of designers, students, and tourists who visited the exhibit may most want to emulate. Cynics might be tempted to write, "This is All About Ego" in ears of corn, but perhaps after reading the book, they will change their minds. In "DRUGS ARE FUN IN THE BEGINNING BUT BECOME A DRAG LATER ON," Stefan admits to an "addictive personality" and former drinking problem. Even "HELPING OTHER PEOPLE HELPS ME" rings true. He writes that he's pledged an hour a day to helping people, a commitment kept by doing things like packing bags of socks and toiletries for the homeless.
Affixed to a gallery wall were 18 rows of 30 little blank notebooks, some with pencils hanging from strings, which invited visitors to leave their own messages. Some people wrote things like: "I want you, you want me." Others left e-mail addresses and phone numbers.
The words "I could have done that" are often overheard in museums and galleries. When I hear them, I always think, "But you didn't." Here, most visitors realized that they could not have done it. Yet they became part of it. And continue to do so on the thingsihavelearnedinmylife.com Web site, on which Stefan invites people to answer the question, "What have you learned in your life?" He requests: "Please do write it down beautifully. Design it digitally, photograph it, draw it, scan it, and upload it." Today, the newest image is by Los Angeles art director Tony Pinto, who has written, "SHARE THE GOOD THINGS" in pennies, jelly beans, and chocolate.
"Be Kind Rewind"
Performance art used to be limited to watching other people perform. Before YouTube, if you were lucky and persistent, maybe you could get your stuff on "America's Funniest Home Videos."
Now, Academy-Award-winning French filmmaker Michel Gondry ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") has created an exhibit in which the home movie becomes art, and you, the gallery visitor, are writer, director, actor.
The gallery exterior on Wooster Street replicated the sorry-looking Passaic, New Jersey, video store in Gondry's newest feature, "Be Kind Rewind." Starring Jack Black, the movie follows the adventures of Jerry, a nuclear power plant worker who gets "magnetized" and inadvertently erases all the tapes in a failing video store managed by his friend Mike (Mos Def) while owner Danny Glover is on vacation. When the last loyal customer, a senile Mia Farrow, comes in to rent "Ghostbusters," Jerry and Mike create a 20-minute remake using an old VHS camcorder. Its popularity revives the store, and the two friends develop "sweding," a "Swedish" process by which popular films are cheaply remade. Their movies are more popular than the originals, making the two friends local celebrities.
Although critics praised "Be Kind Rewind" for its "playful vibe," "riffs on topical themes," and "priceless comic moments," Deitch Projects offered the public more personal filmic moments. Inside the gallery, Gondry and his crew had recreated the whole video store, complete with junkyard back lot. The 4,000-square-foot space was divided into sets, including a garage, kitchen, bedroom, police station, doctor's waiting room and office, café, and city street. Patrons—70 groups of five to 15 people booked two-hour sessions—had the opportunity to "swede" their own movies. Under the direction of documentary filmmaker Jordan Kanley, from February 16 to March 22, more than 1,000 amateur filmmaker-performers availed themselves of the costume and prop rooms and learned to develop a storyboard, shoot, and edit short subjects. The films they made were set up on shelves for viewing by other gallery-goers.
"I don't intend nor have the pretension to teach how to make film," Gondry commented. "I'm trying to create a network of creativity and communication that is guaranteed to be free and independent from any commercial institution."
I'll leave to the critics whether he succeeded at that. But in New York City, where most everyone loves to practice performance art of one kind or another, the exhibit was a bigger hit than the movie.
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