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Rebecca Shaykin, the curatorial assistant who organized the exhibit, explained the connection even more simply. “Judaism is text-based. Sagmeister is a communication designer and his work is text-based.”
To discover the essence of the exhibit, you’ve got to read along the floorboards of the space, where the designers have meticulously painted in gold, Fraktur-style lettering 158 words of text describing the Gallup survey, concluding with: “The Well-Being Index does not definitively say that religious observance leads to greater happiness. It does note that belief in a higher power, prayer, acts of charity, and neighborly love can promote a sense of belonging, alleviate stress, and lead to a positive outlook on life.”
I spent much of one Friday afternoon at the exhibit, soaking it all in and gauging visitors’ reactions. “It’s a good show for modern doubters like me, good for bringing people back to basic questions like, ‘Am I happy?’” said Stephen Lewis, a Brooklyn-based photographer. “It gets people thinking about happiness as something not frivolous.”
“There’s now smiling in museums,” added Ine Reijnen, a Dutch artist and designer who’s in New York to take painting classes at the Art Students League. “Museums don’t have to be so serious any more. And it makes you appreciate beauty in everyday objects.”
I agreed, especially after viewing Barbara Bloom’s much larger “As it were … So to speak” exhibit, which visitors walk through before entering the “Six Things” space. After taking in the ritual objects, including Torah pointers, Kiddush cups and Havdalah spice boxes, that Bloom has repurposed in reimagined surroundings, you encounter a slow-motion video of three people (Sagmeister, Walsh and Santiago Carrasquilla, a designer at their studio who helped coordinate the show) ecstatically jumping on giant purple and pink water balloons and getting drenched.
I looked again at Sagmeister’s handwriting on the wall. He has made, possibly by accident, the x in the word “maxim” look like a y. So it reads like “mayim,” water. That’s what’s it all about, then: water, liquid, movement, fluidity. Water in fishbowls, in waterways, coffee, cream, egg whites, bodily fluids (implied), in bursting water balloons — getting wet together and feeling very, very happy doing it.
“Six Things: Sagmeister & Walsh” will be on display at The Jewish Museum New York on Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street through August 4.
Ellen Shapiro is creative head of Visual Language LLC in Irvington, NY. She covers the international design scene for magazines including the Imprint online journal and writes about garden design at dig-it-blog.com. She is a contributing editor at Print magazine and Communication Arts and covers the international design scene for Print’s online journal, Imprint.*