Stop me if you've heard this one: An ad salesman, his friends, and a group of Star Trek and Star Wars impersonators meet at the Chabot Space & Science Center to picnic and launch an aluminum house buoyed by helium-inflated rubber gloves.
Steve Budd, the ad guy, happens to be an Express salesman, but today, strictly on behalf of the Joyce Gordon Gallery, he opens a suitcase that holds the tiny house and begins reading the instructions aloud: The artist, Budd recites, has "always had an interest in mythology, or rather, the origin of mythology," and so is asking that a group of friends send a sign -- the aforementioned aluminum house -- to the sea serpents living in the San Francisco Bay by launching the craft over Oakland toward its watery destination. The suitcase also includes a transcript of a 1952 attempt to contact extraterrestrials, and a page out of George Bernard Shaw's Man or Superman. The artist has re-created his presence in absentia by having the organizer wear his suit -- a full-body thermal number, complete with horn. Participants are encouraged to quarrel, and "publicly declare statements of which they are not sure." To wit, the man in the thermal suit states, "I am very comfortable right now."
The afternoon wasn't a hot entry on the East Bay social calendar, but rather Dresden-based Helmer Andersson's conceptual happening, The Picknick. It was sponsored by the Joyce Gordon Gallery as part of its current exhibition, Opposition, an exploration of art's nature as a "catalyst for reinvention and progress" in the age of "ideological and political polarization," as curator Rodney Artiles puts it in the PR materials. A taping of the event (and a similar stunt outside the gallery) by coconspirator Adam Goldberg will soon be on display in the Dresden Stadtmuseum.
The exhibit's international presence is limited -- the artists represent "the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Brazil, United States, Poland, and Hungary" -- but the best works, such as Andersson's Picknick and Sanna van Renesse Saxby's Moeder en Kind series of photographs (Madonna and child tableaux, modeled by young, working-class mothers), are captivating and raw, if not as powerful as the exhibit claims.
Picknick is memorable not just due to the artist's idiosyncratic materials and hallucinatory dream logic -- which recalls in equal parts Joseph Beuys' felt 'n' fat fetish and Roald Dahl's loopy fairy tales -- but because in its attempt to understand mythmaking as a collaborative human process (the documents in the suitcase were accompanied by an eerie slide of human DNA), it perhaps best encapsulates the goals of the larger exhibit. It was a very lucky stroke that the alien impersonators showed up; a luckier one, perhaps, that the characters they represented were international, even intergalactic. A woman playing Mon Mothma, the walk-on senator in Star Wars, took charge of blowing up rubber gloves, and her courtiers followed dutifully.
Even with an admonition from among the suitcase's many briefings that a similar launch had been completed with 193 inflated gloves, it quickly became clear that liftoff would be unlikely -- too little helium, too many popped gloves. The artist's accomplices thus compromised, attached what gloves they could to the house, and threw it into a nearby fountain.
The Chabot Space & Science Center fountain is no San Francisco Bay, and so the ending had an air of failure, but failure at what? Did it keep us from our mythological gods? Did it suggest the deficiencies of pure collaboration, or of art's ability to connect disparate worlds? Eh, who cares? Even if the artistic process failed, Andersson's social process did not. A handful of people spent an afternoon at a picnic with a spectacular view, made some new acquaintances, and responded to a failed party trick with a shrug that will be heard around the world.
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