The Oakland Museum of California’s new “Nature’s Gift: Humans, Friends & the Unknown” exhibit, commissioned from the ever-whimsical art collaborative FriendsWithYou, opens with an invitation to step through a dimly lit tunnel to the rainbow on the other side. Step by step, it becomes clearer that the “other side” in question has few links to the dull, terrestrial world that the exhibit begins in. The rainbow at the end of the hallway is more than just a portal to “Nature’s Gift” — it is the very matter that the exhibit is composed of, the gentle all-purpose glow that ebbs and flows through the installation.
“Every curator has that list of artists who they want to work with,” said one of the curators of the exhibit as she introduced the artists and the artworks. “When I saw FriendsWithYou’s exhibit at the San Diego children’s museum, they went straight from my want-to-work-with list to my have-to-work-with.”
It’s easy to see why a curator would want to work with the Los Angeles-based duo. If “Nature’s Gift” and “The Fruit of the Gods,” their installation at the New Children’s Museum in San Diego are any indication, FriendsWithYou’s exhibits succeed because of their tendency to exude an unironic sense of wonder and joy. Their pieces stand larger than life and yet somehow steer clear of becoming the overbearing purveyors of judgment that many such installations can become. They invite adults and children alike to bask in their glowing shadows and exist, for the duration of their visit, in an uninhibited land of play and imagination.
That’s not to say, however, that FriendsWithYou’s vision falls victim to simplicity of utopian visions. Architecturally and sonically speaking, “Nature’s Gift” complicates itself repeatedly. The sculpture’s bulbous curves seem to glide on for ages before being interrupted by harsh angles where least expected.
The piece is gentle, yes, and certainly soothing, but it does not allow its explorers to fall into a space of complacency. Even the synthy melodies that cloak the room exist only on a coarse plane of white noise generated by the inflatable sculpture. It is impossible to ignore the looming sense of anxiety that exists within the sounds of inflation and within the world on the other side of the rainbow. Yet, the piece washes such a thickly iridescent layer of sonic varnish over it, such that even this anxiety becomes dreamy.
As for its tendency to skirt the realm of utopian vision, this is perhaps where “Nature’s Gift’s” — and, in general FriendsWithYou’s — greatest shortcoming takes root.
The exhibit goes to great lengths to present itself as both unironic and unutopian. It commits itself neither to critique of capitalism nor to envisioning a utopian dreamscape. It is a meek exhibit that can be enjoyed within very narrow boundaries which do not even encapsulate the entire exhibition chamber.
“We wanted to blur the boundaries between exhibition space and gift shop,” one of the curators announced.
“Nature’s Gift” certainly succeeded in this regard, but to the detriment of the exhibition itself. In one corner of the exhibition space, a mini gift kiosk set up by OMCA vends glowing light-up earrings and hula hoops, presumably to match the glowing of FriendsWithYou’s inflatable structure. Yet, the lights from these products is always a bit too harsh, a bit too quickly changing to allow for a full immersion of the self into the art piece.
Perhaps it is unsurprising that an art collaborative whose work is often found in collaboration with fast fashion lines should lend itself to capitalism to the detriment of its artistry. Yet, it is hard to not be disappointed and frustrated with the fact that FriendsWithYou’s exhibit was destroyed by its own spineless design. Ultimately, for all its serenity, “Nature’s Gift” loses itself in the crowd amongst far more extensive (and frankly, far more Instagrammable) exhibits in the same vein that seem to have taken over the Bay Area.
Contact Sannidhi Shukla at [email protected].