It’s not often you find yourself giggling at a museum, let alone laughing uncontrollably, but The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now at SFMOMA is a regular chuckle fest. Sure there are plenty of inspiring, stoic works but this exhibit is most notable for the fun.
The entrance to the show features Delayed, a 2002 closed-circuit sound installation by German artist Matthias Gommel. Two pairs of headphones hang from the ceiling. You put the headphones on with a partner and talk into the microphones. In the inset photo, Felix is wearing one pair. I’m taking the photo while wearing the other. As you speak into the microphones, your voices are delayed. The conversation becomes an illogical collection of statements and sounds. Before long, we were laughing out loud, creating a baffling laugh track. I had to go back and do it again.
We also participated in The Gift (2000/2008) by Jochen Gerz. This work features a photography studio and a wall hung with large, black and white portraits. Museum visitors can sign up to be models. Once registered, Felix and I had our pictures taken. Portraits are printed large, framed, and shown in rotation on the museum wall. Models receive an invite to attend the closing event in February, 2009 where they, “will receive the gift of a framed portrait.”
One of the funniest moments came as we were trying to figure out how to interact with the U.S. debut of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s interactive sound installation, Microphones (2008). This work is a ring of old-fashioned radio mics that records visitors’ speech and then plays back previous recordings, building an archive of utterances over the course of the exhibition. There were four of us in the room tentatively speaking into the microphones, not wanting to be too loud in a museum. But nothing happened. Finally, the stern, Asian woman who was the SFMOMA attendant in the gallery heaved a disappointed sigh and stepped up to a microphone. In a startlingly loud, shrill voice she spoke and screeched into the microphone with an accent so heavy I’m still not sure what she said. But it worked. The artwork came to life. And the microphones shouted back, returning her voice and the voices of others. I finally got the nerve to shout into a microphone and was rewarded with children giggling and someone telling me to “shut up.”
There is plenty more participation in this show. Tom Marioni and his guest bartenders invite museumgoers to the gallery every Thursday from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. for The Act of Drinking Beer With Friends Is the Highest Form of Art. It’s a bit of performance art where, you guessed it, everyone drinks beer. And everyday at noon you can hear a performance of John Cage’s piano work 4’33”. There are works of art you can sit in or sit on. Even works that allow you to take part of them home. It makes for a great day at the museum. The Art of Participation is on view through February 8, 2009.