"I was very interested in the fact that people were dealing with political, economic or everyday issues," says Madison Museum of Contemporary Art curator Jane Simon of the exhibition Return to Function, which she organized. "It's kind of a radical notion when juxtaposed with other aspects of contemporary art."
The show, which pulls together work by 21 artists from several countries, is grouped into a few general themes, like transportation, clothing and shelter. It presents socially engaged art in response to current problems: terrorism, environmental degradation, the need for adequate housing and so on.
When viewers first enter MMoCA's main galleries, they're greeted by Jules de Balincourt's Personal Survival Doom Buggy. While the "doom buggy"/"dune buggy" pun is playful, the 2005 piece is a response to the terrorist attacks of September 2001. A mannequin sits in a rugged vehicle loaded up with extra fuel and survival gear like food, clothes and bedding, ready to flee the scene of an attack.
Another piece suggests to viewers a do-it-yourself coffin fashioned out of cheap IKEA bookcases.
If all this sounds bleak, there are more optimistic pieces, such as Andrea Zittel's A-Z Wagon Station, a small, trailer-like shelter that has been customized by fellow artist Aaron Noble. Says Simon, "Zittel's work is based on the notion that the wagon stations could come together and develop a utopian commune. It's very idealistic."
Simon will take museum visitors on a 30-minute guided tour of the show at noon on Thursday, June 11. The curator will talk about how the show came together and how the artwork on view addresses timely issues.
Additionally, on June 26 at 6:30 p.m., UW professor Beverly Gordon will discuss how works in the show relate to current trends in the textile and fashion industries.
Simon concedes that the Return to Function title can be a little misleading. While pieces like Lucy Orta's Refuge Wear Habitent - a curious hybrid of sleek silver parka and pup tent designed for urban shelter - could be usable, they're not actually intended for wide-scale adoption.
"They're not meant to be created for mass consumption or mass purchase. This is more about letting art live in its own weird world," Simon notes.
Organizing the show, which travels to the Des Moines Art Center after its Madison run, has been a complex project for MMoCA.
"It's one of the first shows that we've done with an international scope to it," says Simon. "It's certainly not the first time we've taken on international shipping, but we borrowed works from Hungary, we worked with private collections in London, and also an essay writer in Paris" - Ami Barak, who wrote an essay for the show's catalogue.
There's a detached, cerebral quality to some of the work that may not appeal to everyone. But you never know. "Our goal is to serve the community, to bring art so that people can have an experience with it," says the curator. "There were some high school students who've been in love with this show, and I think that's great."