New Exhibit Fuses Art, Science and Pleasure

thehappyshow-MOVweb_0Image courtesy of Museum of Vancouver


In his 2013 book Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, journalist Charles Montgomery talks about retrofitting major cities for happiness as a way of counteracting urban sprawl and car dependence. In his 2014 TED Talk, social psychologist Guy Winch talks about the need for humans to practice emotional first aid. In his brand installation, artist and designer Stefan Sagmeister uses these influences and countless other studies to explore the meaning of happiness with his new installation, The Happy Show. 

Originally from Bregenz, Austria, Sagmeister originally started out designing album covers for such bands as OK Go, Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, and solo acts like Lou Reed, David Byrne, and Pat Metheny. He is also known for taking a sabbatical every seven years, in which he closes his studio and goes on a retreat. He actually works this concept into his exhibit; he uses the idea of taking five retirement years and inserting them into his working life, a year at a time. In his view, we will live longer, be healthier, and ultimately, happier.

That is just the start of Sagmeister’s multi-layered, multi-conceptual, multi-disciplinary modern art project. There are several designs in a variety of mediums that are fused together to create an almost pseudo-critical look at today’s society. Right as I walked in, there was a row of gumball machines, each several feet tall and filled to the max with the chewy candies. happy-show-webImage courtesy of Museum of Vancouver

Each one was numbered one to ten. The idea, explained Sagmeister, was that each visitor would decide their level of happiness and then would pick a gumball from the machine with that number. It starts off even, but over time would become skewed to the upper digits.

Other prominent items included a pedal bike opposite a wall covered with a Neon sign. The energy used to pedal the bike, would cause the neon sign to change its message. Taking that concept one step further, there was a two dimensional city opposite a hanging picture frame. Standing in the picture frame and smiling would cause the previously white design to be filled with colour.

Perhaps the most interesting idea for me however, was the graph that indicated money’s correlation with happiness. While it’s true that people who make $20 000 are happier than people who make none and that people who have $50 000 are better off than those with $20 000, the happiness tends to peak between $70-80 000. In other words, those making $250 000 are no more happier than those with $100 000. I wonder what all the billionaires would say about that, but there are several studies that back up Sagmeister’s claims.

In a way, Sagmeister was out of his comfort zone as the initial genesis for this project was a documentary film. (It is still in the works, he told me, and that it should be completed within a month or so). In fact, on one of the museum’s walls, there is a small screen depicting Sagmeister silently displaying a variety of emotions from anger to sadness, joy, and fear.

Overall, I enjoyed Sagmeister’s contemporary look at modern issues and the way he was able to infuse new ideas in social science into his work. Visual artists are working more and more with mixed media as technology continues its torrid pace of evolution, and Sagmeister has an excellent new take on the ways in which society works.

Finally, the exhibit is not confined to the museum’s walls. If the need to use the bathroom – which is on the floor below –  should arise, fear not, for words are written on every stall door, every urinal and even above the sink. Stefan Sagmeister wants to engulf us all in his happy little world.

The Happy Show will be at the Museum of Vancouver until September 7, 2015


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