Second Lives: Remixing the Ordinary


Next time you toss out your plastic cutlery, you may as well be throwing away a priceless work of art. This is the theme at “Second Lives,” the inaugural exhibition of New York City’s Museum of Arts and Design.

Situated in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, towering over the hustle and bustle of Columbus Circle, the newly opened Museum of Arts and Design awaits the inevitable hordes of curious New Yorkers seeking out the new and different. At least they’ll be at the right place.

“Second Lives” is an exhibition that will take all your preconceptions of modern art and flip them upside down. Upon entering the museum’s fifth floor, visitors are confronted by a large body of silver text printed on a very white wall. Part of it reads, “the exhibition examines why artists around the globe choose the diverse materials they use in crafting their works and how these choices inform both the context and the viewer’s response.”

Next, you will either see a chair made of quarters, a mannequin constructed out of tiny puzzle pieces or a gigantic Buddha carved out of international phone books. If you haven’t noticed yet, paint and pastels aren’t welcome here.

One of the cornerstones of the exhibition is a pyramid, approximately seven feet high, made up entirely of white plastic spoons and red rubber bands. This is the work of British artist Jill Townsley, and it encompasses everything “Second Lives” aims to convey. The beauty of the piece lies not in its existence, explains a plaque on a nearby wall, but rather in its destruction. It goes on to explain that the spoons, which are typically recognized as culinary utensils, have been taken out of their original context, and are now associated with the construction of something beautiful. What’s more, when the rubber bands snap and the spoons come crashing to the ground, they will have lost their initial connotations altogether.

But not everyone is ready to accept the foreign logic of such an exhibition, and there will inevitably be those who turn up their noses to what could be perceived as a mockery of the arts. A prominent display is artist Johnny Swing’s “Quarter Lounge,” a curvaceous lounge chair made up predominantly of 25 cent pieces. The plaque quotes the artist: “I thought that sitting in something made from what normally clinks together in your pockets is altogether a bizarre new truth. If money is furniture, what then is the truth? That’s the question that lets you know something has been repurposed.” But not everyone reads the plaques.

“I’ve seen this before,” said one viewer standing in front of the chair. “I saw something just like this at an exhibition overseas years ago, a chair made out of coins. Well, anyone who calls himself Johnny Swing deserves a spanking anyway,” he scoffed as he turned on his heel and moved on to the next display. If only we were all so cultured.

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