Hands-on Art

Participatory art seemed to be everywhere in 2017, with artists asking viewers to become chess pieces, stick stickers on walls, and rip hunks of clay out of sculpture. Why the omnipresence of the form? Perhaps it is that, in this screen-filled world, artists and institutions are aiming to return to tactile, physical experiences to put us back in our bodies. A less generous read might be that they are engineering encounters that beg to be documented and shared on social media, filtering out onto all those screens. Whatever the reason, there was a lot to do in 2017. Below, a list of ten memorable moments from the year in participatory art.

1. Urs Fischer x Katy Perry, Bliss, at 39 Spring Street in New York
All who entered had a chance to take a chunk out of Katy Perry’s head as embodied by an Urs Fischer sculpture that, in its conception, recalls his Rodin replica, The Kiss, seen at Art Basel this past summer. The difference here? Once whittled away, the first layer of white oil-based modeling clay that covered Bliss revealed a rainbow of colors. It seemed that people were just as excited about defacing Perry’s face as they were ready to decorate the walls. Names, abstract shapes, animals, and no small amount of phallic imagery was flung upon any surface within reach. The most blissful part of Bliss, however, was not the giant clay sculpture of the pop star—it was the soft light that emanated from the ceiling, casting a serene glow on the artists who took up residence for just a few moments.

2. Yayoi Kusama, The Obliteration Room, at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
You may have seen this polka-dotted room as a part of the artist’s 2015 Give Me Love show at David Zwirner in New York. Upon entry to the Hirshhorn iteration, guests were given a sheet of colorful circle-shaped stickers to affix to anything in the space, including themselves. “The Obliteration Room” was both the opportunity to fantasize about a whimsically chaotic apartment—a scattered interior designer’s dream—and a way to bring visitors into conversation with one another as they dotted surfaces together. Characteristic of many of Kusama’s polka-dotted pieces, the room demonstrated the power of dots as a connecting force where collective participation yielded a frenzied, multicolored abyss.

3. Barbara Kruger, Untitled (The Drop) at the Performa Biennial
Here is what happened when I attended Barbara Kruger’s Performa 17 piece Untitled (The Drop). First, I purchased a $5 ticket to wait in a line that led to a showroom with hoodies, hats, T-shirts, and skateboards. Each item had a Kruger statement styled in her recognizable red/white Futura Bold text. Several SoHo hypebeasts passed by the line and asked what everyone was waiting to buy. Some who lined up seemed to think that Barbara Kruger was Supreme. Countless participants exited the shop carrying skateboard decks. How many, one wondered, knew how to skate? Once I reached the front of the line, I was informed that I would have five minutes to shop. The grand finale: experiencing the joys of capitalism while buying a $45 beanie with the text “Want it Buy it Forget it.” The experience was too perfectly full-circle to complain. I like to imagine Kruger was in disguise across the street, smirking at the whole thing.