The very first thing you see when visiting Stefan Stagmeister’s “The Happy Show” at MOCA’s Pacific Design Center is wall text boldly declaring: “THIS EXHIBITION WILL NOT MAKE YOU HAPPIER.” While the text may seem like a cheeky and sarcastic pre-summarization of the content, Stagmeister sets the stage for his internal conflicts. The information presented on the walls ranges from dry, yet poignant data, to personal musings and interviews describing different states of and interactions with the phenomenon of happiness.
Stagmeister, who made a living as a graphic designer in the music industry and beyond, is an ideal comparison to the PDC’s shiny-floored cubicles filled with things like tasteful, modern lawn furniture. The first room of the exhibit, which explains his motivations to pursue Art as a respite from graphic design, demonstrates the tenuous relationship between commercial and Fine Art. Through his use of typography and installation, Stagmeister creates a platform to express opinions that would otherwise be stifled by the mainstream media to which he reported.
Initially the statistical information piqued my interest, for example Sanskrit has 16 words for happiness and German allegedly has none, or the theory that our happiness is based on 50% genetics, 40% activities and 10% life conditions. I was then confronted with an interactive measurement of visitors’ happiness demonstrated through ten clear gumball dispensers. The wall text invites viewers to take a gumball from whichever numbered tube they feel represents their level of happiness on a scale of one to ten. My first reaction was to take a gumball from the five tube, which made me depressed to think that my happiness level was so low, so I took one from the six tube when really at that point I was probably a four.
Then, guiltily handling my superficial gumball, I entered the main room of the exhibition containing several video projections, a round table with headphones, a bicycle on a pedestal powering a large neon text installation, and a variety of wall texts. After my shameful gumball incident, I will admit I viewed the remainder of the exhibit with a jaded sense of dismissal. The video pieces presenting various interviews of people describing their experiences with meditation and happiness all seemed trite, and I begrudgingly rode the (too short) bicycle to reveal the layered neon message proclaiming an inspirational mantra. Everything was all so annoyingly positive and exuberant. It was not until I left the building that I realized the exhibit revealed my unwillingness accept such a purely happy attitude as Stagmeister’s. In retrospect, trying to remove my personal distaste for “happy art,” I realize the potential of Stagmeister’s presentation; he is someone who worked in the commercial world, grew tired of it, and made a choice to pursue activities that make him feel happy and fulfilled. While my pursuits of happiness differ, his ambition is admirable, his understanding of graphic language is clear and the exhibition raises the question of how our personal states affect the art viewing process. In this case, are we too unhappy to appreciate happiness?