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 is… research note #17

Studio view

Studio view.

A few fragments at the end of a 5.5-week residency at Montalvo…

My art expresses optimism and positivity. I do, at times. And not, at others. Just like most everybody else.

In the past two weeks, I made five Irrational Exuberance Flags. Each ~4×6′ flag and accompanying sash takes at least two long days to design, pattern, cut, sew, and finish. Working late and waking early, with noisy storms puncturing my sleep, I fell into exhaustion and crankiness. It’s ironic—the project is intended to inspire delight and pleasure.

I do strive to apply positive psychology to my process. Most often, I find flow in production, zoning out with podcasts on—just enough noise to prevent negative rumination. But I’m goal-oriented, and with production deadlines looming, I dug deep. Put my game face on. Chunked it out.

And I’m so glad I did. A few days ago, on a sunny, windy day, I did a test run and hoisted the flags on Montalvo’s 30-foot flagpole. After a year or more of only seeing these flags as sketches and prototypes, my flags were finally flying!

If you have never hoisted a flag, I highly recommend it. It’s joyous.* Hoisting a flag is somewhat like flying a kite—you watch it go up, up up, and it takes on new shapes and an endless variety of motions. Like kites, flags catch the wind as well as the light, with just enough translucency to appear to glow against blue skies.

(*Here’s your chance to hoist a flag: the public will be invited to sign up to select an Irrational Exuberance Flag and raise it on Montalvo’s flagpole as during the course of the Happiness Is… exhibition.)


After looking at the flags on the flagpole, I realized that one flag design was too much of an outlier. I knew it in my heart when I woke up this morning, on my last full day of this stint of the residency. Jumping right back into do-work mode, I made a sixth flag and sash to take its place today.

Most viewers won’t know about this extra step, but I know…. I know that bringing the project that much closer to the best it can be is deeply satisfying. I traded off the positive affect of a more leisurely pace for the chance to reflect on this project and have no doubts or regrets. And I’m glad I did.

Montalvo has been a lovely experience of time, space, focus, and support. Kind people and diverse artists. Lovely redwood creek, brushy orchards, lovingly prepared food. A nicer, larger studio than I’ve ever been able to afford, and will ever for quite some time. The opportunity to realize large projects that have just been sketches carried around in notebook after notebook.

Homesickness, too. Nostalgia for affection. For small, mundane rituals. The holidays in a wood-stove-warmed house, snow outside, laughter of children, awaiting.

Artworks packed up, ready for my return in January to install the exhibition. Studio is clean again. Without  clutter, the endless bits of thread stuck on my clothes and shoes, it all looks newer, and ready for more projects. Ambivalence means being pulling strongly—equally—in two directions. I am ready to go home. But I look forward to coming back.

Happiness Is… opens Friday, January 25th at Montalvo Arts Center’s Project Space Gallery. Opening Friday night, artist’s talk Saturday. Full list of events and gallery hours here.


It’s a joy

On Tuesday, I drove 240 miles to de-install and pick up my work from Catskill, NY. Today, I spent over 2 hours in transit going to Chelsea and back to photograph my installation. After this, I’m going to color-correct the photos, then work on a residency application. (Meanwhile, my latest studio project has been untouched—frozen in a state of incompletion—for the past 1.5 weeks.)

There is little joy in schlepping. The transit left me knackered, and feeling not especially productive. But I want to contrast these niggling feelings about artists’ extrastudio activity with a different sentiment about being an artist, to make space for an attitude adjustment.

When I visited Michael Arcega’s and Stephanie Syjuco’s studios in San Francisco last Friday, it felt like this is where they report to work, because it’s their jobs to be artists. This is less about occupations—Arcega and Syjuco both work as teachers—and more to do with the seriousness and intention of their practices, of their drive to be making and exhibiting as artists. The visits made me want a bigger studio, and somehow restructure my life so that I can spend more and more of my time being an artist. I left feeling inspired to be more ambitious, diligent, and committed.

I savored this sense of forward momentum. During my long drive to Catskill, I came to this realization: Being an artist for a day—working on your art, managing your art career, even undertaking extrastudio activities—is a gift.

Artists often want to focus on studio work—most of us probably became artists because of the pleasures of creativity and discovery. But there is much more to being an artist, and rather than disparage the extrastudio work—the unending grant applications, the mounting rejection letters, the mindless schlepping—I thought about being grateful for it. There are countless other things competing for our attentions—but we choose to be artists, and therefore the activities we engage in are of our volition and intention.

A few points of reference come to mind:

Lee Pembleton, in my interview with Earthbound Moon for Art Practical, said,

We pour our resources in to the work. Of course, it is not a suffering work, but an ecstatic one.

The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, is about finding pleasure, satisfaction, purpose, and happiness in one’s work. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that there are spoken words in this nearly silent film, and they are of lasting import to me.

Yes, there is little pleasure in schlepping. But perhaps I can approach this work, in all of its facets, however transcendent or mundane, exciting or tedious, in terms of finding satisfaction and purpose. From that perspective, the ability to be an artist—the capacity and circumstances—are delights in themselves.


Schjeldahl on Rist

In “Feeling Good” (New Yorker, September 27, 2010; abstract here ), Peter Schjeldahl reviews Pipolotti Rist’s show at Luhring Augustine in NYC, and in the process, extols the singular artist and her commitment to pleasure.

I savored the subject and the conveyance. I admire Rist’s work for it fearless optimism and exuberance. She manages to make massive installations that are friendly and participatory. Schjeldahl’s words brim with enthusiasm, and he also contextualizes Rist’s work with a preternaturally long view.

A few of my favorite passages are:

The first two lines:

The Swiss video- and installation-maker Pipilotti Rist is an evangelist for happiness like no other first-rate artist that I can think of, except, perhaps, Alexander Calder. Like Calder, she is immune to solemnity, and her work appeals to more or less everybody.

This gem:

Color is more than the keynote of Rist’s art—it’s practially the theology.

Her pop cultural affinities don’t unite high and low so much as make them seem like interchangeable engines of pleasure. Rist resolves no critical problems of contemporary art. She just makes you forget there are any.

(I wondered about this same dialectic—this addiction to criticality as radical opposition—in my show Irrational Exuberance, and it was discussed in the closing dialogue, As Is: Pop and Complicity.)

…not that thought is allowed much traction. There’s a steady state of wonderment at having a body right here, right now…. Imagine, as Rist makes easy in the show’s main room, being a sheep in a lush meadow entirely surrounded, as far as you can see, by what you like to eat. Life surely vitiates such sublime contentment most of the time, but numbness to it seems an optional tragedy.

Just as positive psychologists want you to know: Optimism is a choice.

Schjeldahl takes a strong position in the course of explaining Rist’s significance:

Pleasure is a serious matter in and for art, which must justify itself continually in a global culture of mass entertainments. Glumness is an understandable but self-defeating reaction of people determined to somehow make a difference. Rist is remarkable for having insisted on bliss in an era, which peaked in the nineteen-nineties, when a parade of artists ambitiously expanded art’s physical scale and social address only to burden it, self-importantly, with theoretical arcana and political sanctimony.

As a critical writer, I aspire to this level of expertise and confidence.

Proof that writing about art need not be burdened by art-speak, pretension, or obfuscation:

Responsible as well as responsive to contemporary art’s enlarged public sphere, she maintains standards of craft and sincerity—outward discipline, inward necessity—that speak for themselves, without critical gloss or winking irony.