What not to do at a phenomenological art installation

[CURMUDGEON WARNING: This is going to be an angry, misanthropic post. I try to be optimistic and share the positive, but all my efforts yesterday could not save my experience at James Turrell’s exhibition at the Guggenheim from being marred by other viewers.

Turrell is one of my favorite artists. He creates spaces for one-of-a-kind perceptual experiences and transcendence. I went to his exhibition to restore my faith in why I make art, to be freed from mundane constraints; so I cleared my schedule on a weekday morning to avoid crowds, and I cleared my head to be receptive. When I got there, I tried to block out other viewers’ inane conversations (first mentally and then physically by plugging my ears) and ignore their persistent, distracting photo-taking and mobile device addictions. I even conducted positive self-talk about personal boundaries and controlling my psychic energy(1). But it was all for nought. Having enough physical and psychic space to appreciate Turrell’s subtle installations was impossible.

As an artist, I need viewers. But as a viewer, especially for phenomenological installations like Turrell’s, I could do without 90% of them. I know most viewers have good intentions and, by dint of being at the museum, want to appreciate art, however, I could not help but feel how selfish and self-sabotaging many viewers were at the Guggenheim yesterday. What follows is ranting and conservative—for the positive, come back another time.]

What not to do at a phenomenological art installation:

  • Take pictures when photography is explicitly forbidden. It’s disrespectful to the artist and the institution. If those entities seem too abstract to you, at least use your self-control to not disregard and thereby disrespect the guards as fellow human beings. They didn’t make the rules but they bear the brunt of enforcing them, thousands of times a day, week after week, when the rules are clearly stated.(2) While many institutions allow picture taking, it’s a privilege, not a right. Furthermore, picture-taking forces guards to verbally enforce the rules, which further distracts other viewers from the art.
  • Take pictures when photography is explicitly forbidden and the host institution has posted plentiful pictures on their website. It’s especially selfish and pointless.
  • Take pictures or use a mobile device when viewing a finely-calibrated light installation that utilizes the entire space. You are inside the artwork. Just as you wouldn’t add paint to a painting, do not add your screen’s light to a light installation.
  • Take pictures of a phenomenological, durational exhibition, whose very intention is for viewers to be present, slow down, quiet the mind, and free oneself from contemporary distractions.(3)
  • Make shadow puppets, or let your children make shadow puppets, in the light installations. There are endless places to play with shadows in the world, but only a handful in which to view a Turrell installation. Behave yourself for the same reasons that you wouldn’t climb on a marble statue at the Met.
  • Take one of the highly coveted seats inside the installation to read a newspaper or use your mobile device. If it’s an emergency and you must use your device, excuse yourself to a lobby or hallway. If it’s not, stop sabotaging your own experiences and be present! Further, to pass your time not engaging the artwork is especially inconsiderate when there are over a hundred people waiting in line outside due to the installation’s limited capacity.
  • Start up a conversation about how too many people are talking to fully experience the installation, and carry it on, contributing to the problem.

1. From Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow:

A memo on my desk with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's advice for creating flow experiences: The quality of consciousness determines the quality of life. Purposeful action leads to enjoyment. Erect barriers against distractions. Dig channels so energy can flow. Do not let chance or external routine dictate what we do. Source: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow (2008).

A memo on my desk with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s advice for creating flow experiences: The quality of consciousness determines the quality of life. Purposeful action leads to enjoyment. Erect barriers against distractions. Dig channels so energy can flow. Do not let chance or external routine dictate what we do. Source: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow (2008).

2. I probably saw over a hundred people taking pictures in the hour or so I was in Aten Reign, Turrell’s once-in-a-lifetime, site-specific installation in the Guggenheim’s iconic rotunda. Visitors blatantly felt that they did not have to follow the no-pictures rule—that their need to take a photo surpassed any of the artist or institution’s logic or any basic respect of the guard as a human being just doing his job.

This is how bias works: People understand that bias exists—but we believe that only other people are biased, whereas we think that we see things as they really are. The flaw, of course, is that if everyone else is biased, no one, including ourselves, is unbiased. In fact, we are all biased. (See Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis (2006).)

No photography means no photography. It doesn’t mean that other people can’t take photos.

3. Louis CK takes down mobile phone addictions beautifully on Conan: put down the device, be present, experience art, and let yourself experience real emotions.

Addictions erode self-control and the incredibly important characteristic of being able to delay gratification. The very definition of addiction is when people continue an automatic behavior out of desire, even as pleasure diminishes (see Paul Martin, Sex, Drugs and Chocolate: The Science of Pleasure). If feeding the addiction leads to selfish and self-sabotaging behaviors, self-regulation is in order. There’s a profound difference, anyway, between fleeting pleasures and lasting enjoyment.

Christine Wong Yap, Positive Sign #49 (Pleasure and enjoyment), 2011; glitter and neon pen on gridded vellum; 8.5 × 11 in./21.5 × 28 cm.

Christine Wong Yap, Positive Sign #49 (Pleasure and enjoyment), 2011; glitter and neon pen on gridded vellum; 8.5 × 11 in./21.5 × 28 cm.


Happiness Infographics

Via ET and

'life is simple' by Moritz Resl

Moritz Resl, Life is simple, digital art print, 16x16 inches / 42x42 cm, Open edition.


I like these infographics, even if they are a bit simplistic, they’re upbeat.

Are you happy?

By H34DUP and David Meiklejohn. Source:

A quibble: humans adapt to positive emotions quite readily, as Phillip Zimbardo and John Boyd wrote in The Time Paradox. So the advice “Keep doing what you’re doing” would probably maintain happiness, but only for so long. Humans also need novelty, variation, and new challenges.

Cheap and Cheerful #5

Christine Wong Yap, Cheap and Cheerful #5, 2009, neon and glitter pen, 11.625 x 7.75 inches / 29.5 x 45 cm. Produced in the Breathe Residency at Chinese Arts Centre.

Plus, for you-know-whats and giggles (unless you’re an information graphics designer for which chartjunk is a curse upon the earth of Biblical proportions):

The usually illustrious Christoph Nieman’s illustration for

Illustration by Christoph Niemann

Illustration by Christoph Niemann for article about personal wealth and happiness on


Positive Psychology and Positive Thinking

In developing my exhibition, “Irrational Exuberance (Asst. Colors),” last spring, I studied positive psychology. During the closing dialogue, “As Is: Pop and Complicity” (read the transcript), I realized that the term positive psychology is easily confused with popular psychology—understandably, since the distinction is not entirely clear, when my readings of positive psychology take form in trade paperbacks—and positive thinking. Certainly, positive psychology is optimistic; through research-based cognitive behavior modification, it aims to increase happiness, and to engage in that kind of self-awareness and change is to embrace to possibility that one can positively change one’s attitudes. However, to mistake positive psychology for mere positive thinking is a mistake.

In “Power Lines: What’s behind Rhonda Byrne’s spiritual empire?” (New Yorker, September 13, 2010), Kelefa Sanneh reviews two recent books on positive thinking. He takes a critical look at Rhonda Byrne, the positive thinking guru and author of “The Secret” (2007) and “The Power” (2010), starting off with Byrne’s appearance on Oprah. Maybe I’m an elitist, sheltered in a ‘Bay Area Bubble’ unconcerned with such mass culture, but the phenomenon of “The Secret” remained a secret to me until now. Is this what people think I mean when I say positive psychology?

Sanneh contrasts Byrne’s quasi-but-un-religious, ultra-simplistic mysticism with Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America” (2009; also released with the more specific, less ‘sticky’ subtitle, “How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking is Undermining America”). When the leftist activist fired this shot, it alarmed me, but as Sanneh points out,

For Ehrenreich, the alternative to the pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of justice—except you don’t have to choose…. She promises that we can find a deeper, richer form of happiness by ‘shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world.’

This, of course, brings to mind the three components, according to Paul Martin, author of “Sex, Drugs and Chocolate” (2008) of happiness: pleasure, the absence of displeasure, and satisfaction—becoming an agent, enacting one’s will in the world. Striving and accomplishing goals through acting in the world—not mere positive thinking—leads to deeper happiness? Yes, I’d agree with that. I am now more inclined to believe that Ehrenreich—whose undercover reports on working class struggle instantiated institutional privilege in America in “Nickel and Dimed” (2001) I enjoyed—is explicit in her aim at unthinking positive thinking, rather than all psychology concerned with happiness.

So while the terminology may overlap, along with the general optimistic outlook and “woo woo” self-improvement vibe, positive psychology and positive thinking are very different. For the latter, read Byrne and watch Oprah. For the former, read psychologists and researchers like Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalvi.


Happiness: can do / can’t do

In “Averted Vision” (, August 2, 2009), Tim Kreider proposes that happiness is a something like a state of nostalgia for times past — that some of his happiest memories were in fact miserable as he experienced them. He says when he’s lost himself drawing cartoons, he’s happy, though he’s not aware of his happiness or self-consciously searching for it.

This is what Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd called “finding the flow of the activity” in their book, “The Time Paradox.” The psychologists might also gently suggest that Kreider, who already acknowledges the past as a source of happiness, see the present and future in the same light.

Kreider writes:

I suspect there is something inherently misguided and self-defeating and hopeless about any deliberate campaign to achieve happiness.

But Zimbardo and Boyd urge readers to shape their present and future to lend themselves to finding happiness. In fact, feeling a sense of control in one’s life — feeling efficacious, and able to actualize one’s plans — is fundamental to having a good attitude and feeling happy. They acknowledge, too, that happiness is too fleeting to be merely achieved, but it can be cultivated.

Kreider continues:

Maybe we mistakenly think we want “happiness,” which we tend to picture in very vague, soft-focus terms, when what we really crave is the harder-edged intensity of experience.

In “Sex, Drugs and Chocolate: The Science of Happiness,” Paul Martin delves into the importance of the phenomena of pain in evolutionary psychology. Humans weren’t designed to be happy; they were designed to survive. Creatures living in anxiety and fear tended to ensure higher rates of survival. In this sense, Kreider is right — humans are hardwired to pay attention to that which works against us in life. Yet, our base natures need not dictate our potentials for leading lives rich with meaning and purpose.

Art & Development, Research


Just re-read Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp'” (1964), which you can find here. Though the essay is showing its 40+ year wrinkles, if you can look past some of the anthropological blanket statements, it’s a great read.

I especially enjoyed:

Making connections with Paul Martin’s Sex, Drugs and Chocolate: The Science of Pleasure (Harper Collins, 2007).

Sontag considered Camp to be “modern-day dandyism,” and described how dandies were driven by a fear of boredom. Martin examines this fear at great lengths, citing the reckless hedonism of Nero and Lord Rochester. Interestingly, Martin points out that boredom often reveals more about the bored person than it does about the world around him or her.

Further, Sontag sees Camp as a means of accessing pleasure. She seems to align with Martin’s thoughts on the importance of modest pleasures in daily life.


The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating. The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy. … Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated.

Martin advocates becoming a “wily hedonist,” who pursues “more of the Modest Pleasures of everyday life that many of us tend to take for granted. … They should also be cheap or free; pleasure should not be the preserve of the wealthy.”

Q. Why is it that old things look so cool?

A. Sontag:

This is why so many of the objects prized by Camp taste are old-fashioned, out-of-date, démodé. It’s not a love of the old as such. It’s simply that the process of aging or deterioration provides the necessary detachment—or arouses a necessary sympathy.


[Camp and the attraction of everyday materials]

Just last week, I noted in a previous post that British sculptor Eric Bainbridge appreciates cheap materials because they “elicit a kind of sympathy, an identification with the viewer that this is what we are.”


Another effect: time contracts the sphere of banality. (Banality is, strictly speaking, always a category of the contemporary.) What was banal can, with the passage of time, become fantastic. …

Sontag’s talking about Campy aged materials; Bainbridge is concerned with cheap readily-available consumer-grade items. I think they’re one and the same now, because of levels of mass production. Bainbridge’s fake fur is immediately obsolete, destined for the landfill even before it reaches the retailer. To give you another example, cheap toothbrushes packaged for an Arabic-reading market and sold in a discount shop in post-industrial northern England are simultaneously new and old.


Camp taste transcends the nausea of the replica.

Christine Wong Yap, Pounds of Happiness (installation), 2009, mixed media, pound shop items, 8 x 8 x 5 feet / 2.4 x 2.4 x 1.5 m. Produced in the Breathe Residency at Chinese Arts Centre.

Christine Wong Yap, Pounds of Happiness (installation), 2009, mixed media, pound shop items, 8 x 8 x 5 feet / 2.4 x 2.4 x 1.5 m. Produced in the Breathe Residency at Chinese Arts Centre.

This hyper-compression of time seems to allow objects to be ultra-mundane in ways that are variously witty, arrogant, simultaneously dull as a doorknob and smart as a whip. I’m thinking about Pounds of Happiness, and also of Chu Yun’s Constellation. I really like Constellation because it’s so matter-of-fact: it consists of a dark room loaded with electronic appliances, so you see a field of standby lights. Interestingly, NG, whose tastes in art usually diverge from my own, liked the work as well. She imagines it to be quite spooky and poetic. I appreciate the nerve of calling incessantly humming electronic detritus art.

Chu Yun, Constellation No.1, Installation, 2006. Source: Vitamin Creative Space web site.

Chu Yun, Constellation No.1, Installation, 2006. Source: Vitamin Creative Space web site.

For the past few years I’ve been obsessed with failure in art. I wondered, How can art convey the ineffable, yet still have to be materialized (and thereby be subjected to the constraints of semiotic systems, formal considerations, material limitations, etc.)? It seemed art was doomed to fail, or would be vaguely metaphoric and inadequate at best. I responded by embracing failure in projects like Soft Sculpture for Brougham Hall—a constantly-deflating inflatable sculpture.

Sontag describes Camp as an unintended avenue through which failure is viable, and even pleasurable:

When the theme is important, and contemporary, the failure of a work of art may make us indignant. Time can change that. Time liberates the work of art from moral relevance, delivering it over to the Camp sensibility….

Thus, things are campy … when we become less involved in them, and can enjoy, instead of be frustrated by, the failure of the attempt.

Currently, I’m following up the Cheap and Cheerful and Pounds of Happiness series with further investigations of modest ambitions, lightly-recombined cheap objects, and the decorative impulse. Here’s a sneak peek of a recent project:

Christine Wong Yap, detail, not yet titled, 2009, hankerchief, placemat, thread, 18 x 18 x 2 inches.

Christine Wong Yap, detail, not yet titled, 2009, hankerchief, placemat, thread, 18 x 18 x 2 inches.

I’m working, for the first time in a long time, very visually and reflexively. But I suspect that my conceptual inclinations are still at work. Perhaps, by way of embracing modest pleasures, I’m embracing exuberance, a step towards the extravagance of Camp:

Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style — but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the “off,” of things-being-what-they-are-not.