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Return to Function

May 2, 2009 – August 23, 2009


Return to Function, on view in the Main Galleries of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, brings together contemporary artists who make functional objects based on theoretical principles. Featuring a dune buggy, a camper, a soccer ball with right angles, a cellular telephone that doubles as an exercise device, and a mobile studio—as well as garments and a do-it-yourself coffin, among other works—Return to Function examines the role of objects in our lives as perceived by 20 contemporary artists who employ the expansive nature of art to illuminate unexplored aspects of the familiar.

Conceived for a post-industrial world, the objects included in Return to Function look like items we buy and use on a daily basis. However, their usefulness within the art context exposes a complicated dynamic between individuals and commodities. These works of art address our desire for objects, while also exposing pervasive advertising manipulations. At the same time, each work imagines new and innovative ways of approaching old tasks. In doing so, the works suggest that objects can play a central role in improving our lives.

The objects on view in Return to Function are arranged in four categories: transportation, shelter, clothing, and commodity. According to MMoCA curator of exhibitions Jane Simon, who organized the exhibition, “many of the works shed light on tasks that are central to our day-to-day lives, though often overlooked. Others touch on issues we think about on a daily basis, including environmental concerns and economic dynamics.”

Among the works in the transportation category is a mobile camper designed by New York- and Los Angeles-based artist Andrea Zittel. For many years, Zittel challenged the paradigms of how we live and consume natural resources. Her A-Z Wagon series, begun in 2003, specifically tackles the issues of transportation and shelter. The wagon on display at MMoCA was customized by painter Aaron Noble; it presents his aesthetic, inspired by the limbs of cartoon characters, while imagining mobile units as part of a commune-like society—an economic solution with extensive historical precedent. Similarly, Paris-based artist Lucy Orta has created Refuge Wear Habitent (1992–93), a work which functions as both poncho and tent. Designed for the migrant populations of South London, this wry work, according to Simon, “is sleek, sexy, and operational, dissolving many of the barriers between utility and luxury.”

Another garment, Ralph Borland’s Suited for Subversion, is designed to make social disobedience a commonplace reality. Borland’s suit is an inflatable cover for the chest and head that enables the individual to protest without risking harm from, for example, a police baton. The suit also includes a speaker that emits the sound of a beating heart to remind disciplinary forces of the humanity inherent to the protestors.

Many of the works in the commodity section of the exhibition address the growing desire for environmental solutions in the products we see, purchase, and use. The San Francisco-based collaborative Futurefarmers has created a mobile energy source that harnesses the off-gases of algae. The work, which resembles a lunchbox, produces small amounts of electricity and is conceived as a power source for school science projects. A less benign artwork, and the smallest piece in the exhibition, was made by the French collaborative Claire Fontaine, which has transformed a regular American quarter into a box cutter with a steel blade. Claire Fontaine’s object is menacing—and funny—and critical of the influence of the American economy on global issues.

Return to Function presents the work of established and emerging artists from national and international contexts including Jules De Balincourt, Davide Balula, Ralph Borland, the collaborative Claire Fontaine, François Curlet, Futurefarmers, Mark Hosking, Fabrice Hyber, Antal Lakner, Mathieu Mercier, Huong Ngo, Lucy Orta, Jorge Pardo, J. Morgan Puett, Michael Rakowitz, Alyce Santoro, Joe Scanlan, Franck Scurti, Andrea Zittel, and Ricardo Miranda Zúñiga. “We are honored to present work by this group of artists,” says MMoCA director Stephen Fleischman. “Many have never shown in the United States before, while others have never before exhibited in the Midwest.”

After its Madison premiere, Return to Function will travel to the Des Moines Art Center in Des Moines, Iowa, where it will be on view from October 2, 2009, through January 10, 2010.

Exhibition Support

Generous funding for Return to Function has been provided by Etant Donnés; The French American Fund for Contemporary Art, a program of FACE; Daniel Erdman; MillerCoors; the Terry Family Foundation; Marc Vitale; the Art League of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art; and a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board, with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.