Return to Function
May 2, 2009 to August 23, 2009

Return to Function 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 21 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 detects which algae emit hydrogen, and therefore energy. 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.”

Return to Function is accompanied by a 96-page catalogue with essays by Jane Simon, Martha Schwendener, and Ami Barak. New York critic Martha Schwendener, a frequent contributor to The New YorkerThe New York Times, and Artforum, examines the nature of the ready-made object in art and its impact on the artists in Return to Function. According to Schwendener, artists today are responding to virtually every major shift in culture over the last half-century: the rise of advertising, mass production, mass media, and consumerism; globalization; terrorism; feminism; disparities of wealth; the growth of tourism, sports, technology, the art market—and, of course, war.

Paris-based curator and critic Ami Barak has contributed an essay about the incorporation of the object into the contemporary art vocabulary. He writes, “contemporary artists have become 'by the force of things' producers of artists’ goods, suppliers for markets that are in a fever of excitement …” Barak is the former director of the Visual Art Department, City Council, Paris (Department de l’Art dans la Ville), and the former director of the contemporary art center of the Languedoc-Roussillon region in Montpellier, France.

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. 

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 Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission with additional funds from the Overture Foundation; the Terry Family Foundation; 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.


Thursday, May 21 • noon 
Mark Nelson Discusses Return to Function

Mark Nelson, assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Design Studies Department, will discuss the exhibition Return to Function. Nelson’s talk, titled “Critical Objects: When Symbol Eclipses Utility,” focuses on the subversions of design employed by the artists who created the objects on display.

In addition to teaching a wide variety of design courses, Professor Nelson’s research interests include the relationship between the human body and Modernist architecture, the role of ornament in architecture, and digital illustration. Among other projects, he has designed virtual guerrilla makeovers for prominent Modern buildings, such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, that use a vocabulary of body parts and bodily 
adornments. Thirty minutes. Main galleries.

Thursday, June 11 • noon
Jane Simon Discusses Return to Function
MMoCA curator of exhibitions Jane Simon will provide an overview of Return to Function and discuss key ideas in the exhibition through examination of works by Jules De Balincourt, Lucy Orta, and Ralph Borland. Organized by MMoCA, Return to Function brings together a diverse group of contemporary artists whose works dissolve the line between art and design. Thirty minutes. Main galleries.

Friday, June 26 • 6:30 pm 
Beverly Gordon Discusses Return to Function
Professor Beverly Gordon will discuss how works of art in Return to Function relate to current trends in the textile and fashion industry. Focusing on works such as Mark Hosking’s Gucci Case Trap, Lucy Orta’s Refuge Wear Habitent, and Alyce Santoro’s Sonic Superhero Dress, she will highlight new directions in fiber technology and ways in which designers are considering sustainability. 

Among other subjects, Professor Gordon teaches courses on material culture as well as global perspectives on design and culture for the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Design Studies Department. Thirty minutes. Main galleries.