It’s a common trope: Art is pretentious. Hype Park Art Center’s exhibit Notes to Nonself sounds like a perpetrator of this infamous crime, but it turns out to be so only in name. The exhibit is an entirely unpretentious, refreshingly cheery examination of the mind’s inner workings.
Notes is the result of a long-distance collaboration between artists Diane Christiansen and Shosana Utchenik, who communicated from their respective homes in the United States and Slovenia. But to call Notes an art exhibit seems inaccurate. There are individual pieces, but they’re intended to be viewed as a whole. And there are no plaques—nothing that gives the works’ names, media, or date.
But to call it an installation seems incorrect too. It’s stage-ready for a theatrical production, complete with props, lighting, and sound effects. The actors? Anyone who strolls through the gallery. There are even red curtains flanking the entrances.
To enter Notes to Nonself is to begin a journey into the mind. The first stop: Ego Forest. The trees in this forest are collages of magazine cutouts, notes, and all other sorts of everyday items. Paper clouds swirl overhead, and the murmur of insects is just barely audible. This is the front of the mind, memory, and everyday thoughts.
As the trees and clouds thin out and become smaller, a massive, pink, papier-mâché octopus welcomes visitors to the Relationship Bardo. A string of valentines and love notes connect the octopus to the wall. Next to the Bardo is the Temporary Refuge and Teacher Garden, represented by cardboard cutouts of a pup tent and flora. This mental respite is the least interactive of the exhibit’s pieces—it is entirely two-dimensional.
At the very back of the mind is the Meditation Clubhouse, lofted roughly three feet in the air. Attendees are encouraged to go up into the structure and meditate. Long strings of brightly colored slips of paper—pictures, scribblings, and short notes to oneself and others—hang overhead from the back ceiling of the gallery and intermingle with the trees in the Ego Forest.
In a different context, the pieces in Notes to Nonself could just as well serve as the set pieces for some bizarre elementary school play (or perhaps a Michel Gondry film). Each piece has a certain crafty, “rough around the edges” style about it that is inescapably charming.
This style, combined with the immersive-ness of the pieces, makes Notes incredibly inviting. While most contemporary art makes a point of distancing itself from the viewer, Notes welcomes its visitors with open arms. It’s difficult to call a piece of art haughty when you’re scrambling up a ladder to its Meditation Clubhouse.
It would be easy then to dismiss Notes as childish, shallow dribble. Yet it is the playful and positive approach to the human mind that makes the installation so effective. It’s refreshing to see art that focuses on the brighter side of psychology. Gallery-goers are even encouraged to write positive notes to be strung up along with those of the artists.
This is not to say there isn’t some element of darkness within the exhibit. Tiny paper skulls can be found on nearly every piece in the exhibit, save the Clubhouse and the octopus, which recall a constant awareness of death. The effect is initially startling, but never sobering. Even these morbid reminders fall victim to the exhibit’s preciousness, adorning brightly colored flags and crudely painted tree stumps.
Notes’s constituent pieces are not entirely consistent, but that is all in the spirit of the exhibit. Very few thoughts are wholly rational. The only thing inconsistent in Notes is the name itself. The notion of nonself, the absence of a being, is entirely opposed to the spirit of the exhibit. Notes emphasizes interactivity and imagining your mind in the context of the exhibit’s constituent parts, like relationships and memory. So perhaps a better name would be Notes to Everyself.