by Brian Bergen-Aurand
Sundays are free admission to the Henry Art Gallery on the campus of the University of Washington, so we made it a family outing to see the new installation Fun. No Fun. by Kraft Duntz featuring Dawn Cerny. (It runs until 10 September.) I had read Travis Vogt’s interview with Cerny in City Arts, “The Comedic Architecture of Dawn Cerny,” (23 March 2017) and was intrigued by the concepts of “comedic architecture” and “the hidden corners of domestic life on a budget” as well as Cerny’s interview statements regarding houses and moms.
Near the end of the interview, Cerny explains, “Oh yes, this is total therapy. Because nobody cares about houses. Nobody cares about moms. They’re not interesting. But they’re also the thing that’s most familiar to us. I’m trying to figure out this way of translating the knowledge of the home and the knowledge of the person who stays at home through this membrane of art without being preachy.”
I live in a house, I thought. And, my wife is a mom, I thought. And, my children—a girl and a boy, aged 9 and 7—had enjoyed a venture to the Frye Museum to see the exhibition Jim Woodring: The Pig Went Down to the Harbor at Sunrise and Wept. They had not found Woodring’s drawings as quirky as I had, though, so maybe Kraft Duntz and Cerny’s installation would speak more to them, I thought.
Fun. No Fun. consists of three pieces/spaces—a multi-level assemblage of uneven, unfinished wooden stairs and ramps that do not necessarily lead anywhere, an adjoining area filled with Cerny’s bright, primary-colored sculptures in the shapes of mishapen tables, shelves, desks, and other furniture, and another room that contains a large wooden spiral staircase.
The moment we rounded the corner and entered the gallery, my children were affected by the installation. Their eyes popped wide. Perhaps they were struck by how much these spaces resembled some combination of our house and a playground that exists only in their imaginations. They bounded up and down the levels of wooden stairs and ramps and maneuvered through the bold colors and clutter of the sculptures. No one was sure whether or not to step on the rugs and mats. The arrangement seemed purposively disarranged, and we were not sure if we would accidentally disturb the disarray if we bumped into something or tripped over a carpet corner.
At one point, my son pointed to some pencils, concerned that they should be in the pencil cup and not just laying on the table. He explored all the nooks and crannies, and looked deep into the holes in the shelves and under some of the structures. My daughter pointed to the books integrated into some of the pieces and cataloged which ones we also had at home.
In one instance, she noticed the coins, paper clips, gum, and staples in a container. She asked if she could take the nickel since it just looked like the loose change that bounces around our home “junk drawer.”
As they began to interact with the installation, my wife and I felt compelled to return to our roles as mom and dad, the ones responsible for helping them navigate an art gallery properly. We had to remind them not to touch anything, not to sit on the pieces, not to run between the sculptures. They had a difficult time abiding by our cautions or the reminder at the front of the exhibit that reads, “You are about to enter an art installation, please be mindful of the sculptural objects you encounter in the space.”
In the brief gallery statement, Fun. No Fun. asserts itself to be about space, memory, experience, negotiation, institutions, and constraints. And perhaps no moment of the experience brings these concepts more to the fore than this instance of reminding exuberant children enthusiastically interacting with the exhibition that this is an art gallery, and we must remember where we are and how we act in such places. My children were so animated by the familiar/strange objects of the exhibit; they may have completely, excitedly destroyed the sculptures had we not restrained them. They wanted so very much to engage more with everything they saw. Indeed, it was fun, no fun.
In a way, though, they engaged even more with what they did not see as our visit continued. After we left Cerny’s sculptures behind and entered the third space of the installation, we began to climb the wooden spiral staircase. Again, we reminded our children not to run, but the suspense of the architecture had a greater influence over them. They could not wait to see where these stairs led. As we ascended to the upper-most section—an empty, plywood floored space full of natural light coming through the skylights—my children grew even more energetic and began to hop and search the corners of the room.
My wife asked me if I had read the notes on this space and how we were to experience exhilaration in anticipation while we ascended the stairs and disappointment when we arrived to find nothing special at the top. I had missed the notes and simply found the space interesting and enjoyed the light.
My son and daughter, however, were thrilled by the space, the seeming opportunity of its openness and unfinished quality. The environment encouraged them to move their bodies and to engage their imaginations. I overheard them describing it as a gymnastics studio, where they could leap and dance, and I watched them studying the light fixtures, security camera, and outlets. They were not disappointed but inspired by the emptiness—certain that any apparatus in the space was a canvas for fantasy. They were only disappointed when we again cautioned them not to run, jump, and raise their voices in the installation.
As we left the third section and returned for one last climb of the stairs and ramp, their imaginations began to alter the empty structure again. My daughter said to her brother, “If this were our house, I’d have my room over there. And, you could have the room next to it.” They began dividing and filling the “rooms,” making them more familiar by pretending “here is a sink, and here is where our couch would be. Here is a window.” “Where’s my bed?” asked my son.
None of this experience of Fun. No Fun. would have been possible had I visited the gallery alone. None of the spaces would have held such significance with regard to the tension between experiencing art and experiencing life. Having brought my life with me into the gallery, though, I had to pay fuller attention to that tension; I had to care about how the installation affected my life and how my life affected an exhibition so familiar and so strange at the same time.
I have just begun learning about Dawn Cerny and her work. (Since I have a sense of humor and she has a sense of humor, I will admit I giggled to myself when she followed me on Twitter a few seconds after liking my first Cerny-centered tweet: “Very intrigued by Dawn Cerny’s work. Cannot wait to go laugh at it.”) I am glad I introduced my family to her work and look forward to our next encounter.
Brian Bergen-Aurand is an editor-at-large with the South Seattle Emerald, the founder and chief editor of Screen Bodies and the editor of two books: Comedy Begins with Our Simplest Gestures and Transnational Chinese Cinema (with Mary Mazzilli and Hee Wai Siam). He is also an instructor at Bellevue College and the administrator of the blog foreigninfluence.com where he writes about film, disability, and political culture. Follow Brian Bergen-Aurand on Google+ and on Twitter @bbergenaurand.
Featured image by Brian Bergen-Aurand