It is tempting to dismiss or overthink T.J. Khayatan’s recent antic. The high-schooler placed his friend’s eyeglasses on the floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and then watched as puzzled visitors approached them tentatively, snapped pictures, and laughed before walking away. Reactions to the impromptu installation prompted reactions on social media, causing the hackneyed debate about what, exactly, constitutes a work of art to rage once again. But this time, the joke affords us an important opportunity to examine what we deem worthy of merit, and the ever-diminishing commodity of our attention.
A pair of eyeglasses on the floor of a museum does not meet the standard.
Reading about this incident, I recalled Nancy Rubins’ monumental sculpture, Mattresses and Cakes, installed of as part of the Whitney Museum’s 1995 biennial. Upon exiting the elevator in the Breuer building, my father and I turned to each other and inquired about the peculiar yet strangely familiar smell we encountered in the galleries. As we approached the behemoth sculpture suspended precariously from the ceiling, we discerned that the smell emanated from the work of art, which comprised a tangle of more than 50 soiled and visibly shabby mattresses. The melded odor of mold, mildew, and metal from the exposed coils was palpable, but there remained an unidentifiable aroma that was not wholly unpleasant. Closer examination showed the innumerable crevices within the tangle of mattress were filled with cakes, sloppily smashed, functioning as a most unlikely adhesive. The decomposing sugared frosting of myriad flavors and colors amidst the tangle of sullied mattresses assaulted the senses in ways too numerous to count. As we circled the sculpture, searching for its meaning, and smiling at the unlikely juxtaposition of two such quotidian materials, we overheard the conversation of two elderly women viewing the same piece, one asking the other, “Do you think the artist is making a statement about eating in bed?” That perfect summation of her visual analysis and frank interpretation has remained with us over these 20 years, not only providing a humorous anecdote about an idiosyncratic work of art, but also a caveat not to overthink what we see in museums.
Museum installations provide excellent fodder for intellectual stimulation -- and the pure joy of just looking. They are a respite from the wired world and our digital dependency, offering a sensory experience that connects the eye of the mind and the thoughts of the brain. Art works in museums are curated carefully, according to form, theme, narrative, context, and chronology, among other attributes, to make them accessible and meaningful to a broad spectrum of viewers. Although Khayatan’s placement of glasses on the floor of SFMOMA provided a momentary distraction for museum-goers, it was a mere spectacle, and hardly a work of art.