Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Fantastic Furniture That (Almost) Saved the Summer of Love

Late Danish designer Vernor Panton’s Phantasy Landscape Visiona II, originally created for the 1970 Cologne Furniture Fair, dominates space at the primary entrance of Whitney’s Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era exhibition in its fresh 2007 reincarnation. A monolith amongst the surrounding items of memorabilia and kitsch on display, the futuristic room made of foam rubber and woolen fabric immediately draws the viewer in with its rounded and open windows. Fantastical colors and ethereal lighting illuminate the organic curves of the interior landscape, emphasizing the continuity and seamlessness of its structure. Floor, ceiling, and walls meld into one unremitting environment, void of linearity, joints, or corners. Once inside this cozy monument of modernity, all distinctions or delineations of space are erased. The interior forms that serve as furniture resemble a cosmic uterus of sorts, cradling the natural curves of its visitors. Reverting back to a child-like state, the viewer cannot seem to help herself from climbing and crawling on the fluid forms, turning the work of art into a playground for the hip adult.

For its modern day manifestation, the “Phantasy Landscape” resembles more of an attraction than a holistic experience. There is a line to enter that snakes around the gallery with on lookers anxious to enter the LSD-LAND theme park. Guards stand at either end monitoring the number of people allowed inside at one time (six) and making sure that shoes are taken off well before reaching the entrance. “How much to enter?” viewers inquire. Many excited and confused gallery goers try leaping into the art bounce-house through the front window, much to the dismay of the stoic and protective gallery guard. These examples of rigidity seem to contradict the laid-back environment intended for both the piece and the exhibit as a whole, not to mention the vibes the era is supposed to evoke. Summer of Love is meant to provide the viewer with an escape into a flowery, groovy, and romanticized decade.

Nostalgia tends to omit the negative and hindsight is never 20/20. As noted by critics Jerry Saltz and Holland Cotter, the show has an astoundingly selective memory; it displays a singular, homogenous culture of the 60’s and 70’s while ignoring pesky little details like the civil rights movement. While I agree with both of the critics’ conclusion that the exhibit was far from inclusive, I contest that the show was not meant to encompass the 1960’s and 70’s in its entirety. If this were the case, the show would have been titled something like Tension and Recreation: The Polarity of Cultures in the Hippie Era. The full title of the show, Summer of Love: Art From the Psychedelic Era denotes that it will not include serious (read: depressing) subjects but rather ones that provide escape. In this way I believe the show succeeded. It takes the boomer back in time to revisit the old days of tripping, rock and roll, and unprotected, free sex. It implants in us youngsters a great jealousy that we were not alive to experience this renaissance in culture and coming to consciousness. It makes life in the twenty-first century look dull and without substance. Sure, the exhibit was severely lacking in “fine” art. It probably belonged in a history museum, not at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Dated and skewed as it may be, the exhibit serves its rightful purpose: that of the summer blockbuster. Fluffy filler has become the status quo at institutions of fine art as they prepare for meaty fall and winter exhibitions. Amidst the memorabilia and pieces of nostalgia, Panton’s psychedelic jungle gym and lounge still manages to seem fresh and futuristic even after nearly forty years. Visitors have the ability to displace themselves physically from their contemporary surroundings and enter a space that is designated solely for the purpose of experience. I think that the eminent designer would have been happy with his creation’s placement in this psychedelic exhibition.

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