Stefan Sagmeister's "The Happy Show" is on exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center to Sept. 23.
‘THE HAPPY SHOW’
♦ To Sept. 23 at Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St.
♦ (312) 744-6630;
Updated: October 21, 2013 6:09AM
Stefan Sagmeister’s “The Happy Show” is not the sort of exhibit you can wander aimlessly. This show engages the mind and senses from the minute you enter to the exit.
Plan on spending more than the usual amount of time reading Sagmeister’s notes and research — handwritten on the walls, playing with the interactive elements and listening to mesmerizing videos.
Austrian-born Sagmeister, a graphic design guru now based in New York, spent 10 years exploring happiness in all its forms.
It began during a yearlong sabbatical in Indonesia where he started working on a documentary, “The Happy Film,” a repository for several years of thinking and reading about the nature of happiness. Portions of the still-unfinished film are shown in the exhibit, an offshoot of that first project.
As he dove into the subject of happiness, there were questions he wanted answered. One stood out.
“I wanted to see if it is possible to train my mind in the same way it is clearly possible to train my body,” he says. “I ran a New York City marathon once and even though I am clearly not sporty, after a year’s worth of training I had gotten much better at running.
“I wanted to find out if the same thing could be true for the mind. So I followed the advice of one of my favorite psychologists, Jonathan Haidt, and tried out three effective strategies for three months each: meditation, cognitive therapy and drugs.”
“The Happy Show” uses imaginative, interactive and artistic ways to incorporate and present information from the artist’s diary and data from psychologists and anthropologists. This may sound dry, but it’s quite interesting while also fun.
The exhibit presents typographic investigations of rules to live by, originally culled from his diary and displayed in imaginative and interactive forms. It’s a thinking man’s fun house.
A map of dots shows levels of happiness worldwide. An interactive spiderweb reacts to the viewer. A bike, when pedaled, makes a neon sign light up displaying various maxims of happiness. A wall of cigarette papers (32,000 in all) spell out “Uselessness is gorgeous” as they flap in the breeze created by several fans.
Sagmeister said his favorite installation involves sugar cubes that spell out “Step up to it.”
“The sugar cubes are able to ‘see’ the viewer and when the viewer smiles, their surface turns from black-white into many colors,” Sagmeister explains. “Visitors understand what is happening and compete to make the widest smiles in order to make the typography colorful.
“Smiling turns out to be contagious so the mood around that piece seems to be always wonderful.”
Another installation features a row of gumball machines labeled 1 through 10 and invites viewers to take a gumball from the one equivalent to their mood.
On a recent Saturday morning, people stood and contemplated the machines not sure which to choose. Sagmeister knows exactly where he stands.
“By and large, I am a seven,” Sagmeister notes. “And yes, while involved in the various experiments, my happiness levels changed from a 7.2 average all the way to an 8.2 average.”
It’s clearly stated at the entrance that this exhibit will not make you happier. But, nevertheless, Sagmeister said he hopes people leave with something long-lasting.
“My hope is that some visitors will be entertained and ultimately interested enough that they will try out some of these strategies themselves.”
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.