Beauty and Truce: Exhibitions by Sagmeister & Walsh // Sonya Clark

Sociologists have found that most people have grown skeptical of commercial and governmental news agencies yet still hold trust in the information that comes via one traditional source— the museum. Inside of a museum, an artist with an issue to promote has a running start to present their case to a still open-minded public. Here are two examples that recently proved why museums should retain the public trust.

Location 1
MAK Museum
Stubenring 5
Vienna, Austria

Date of Visit: March, 2019

Similar to Stephan Sagmeister’s Happy Show (2012), Beauty centered around one specific topic, in this case the importance of beauty (or lack thereof) on our lives. Now teaming with his professional partner Jessica Walsh, the designers stretched the mission of the MAK— a museum dedicated to the intersection of design, architecture and contemporary art—to include “psychological aesthetics”; scientific research, historical movements, opinion polls with conclusions about the perception of beauty and its effect on our lives. What we experienced was an insightful, playful, sometimes gimmicky but captivating experience.

My German-speaking travel partner declared the show “brillant”. One could also use the term “ambitious” as the exhibit spread throughout many floors and galleries in the huge building. Greeting us at the entrance was the logo for the show projected upon a vapor curtain. We’ve seen this method employed successfully several times before, (Jiltish Kallat: Covering Letter, and Rynek Museum in Krakow). Due to the disturbances of many people continually passing through and the bright daylight diluting the image we were only able to see the effect properly on printed publications nearby.

Vapro Door comparison
How the entrance looked vs how it could have looked under better conditions.

The first of six sections began on the ground floor atrium, a difficult space with competition from the building’s ornate and open interior. The first theme, “What is beauty?” was free ranging: book stacks signifying the number of times beauty is mentioned in literature by decade from 1800, a discussion of symmetry and a means to create your own symmetrical design on a tote bag, a stuffed peacock and a fascinating case study of an Alzheimer’s patient’s consistent ability to rank images by degree of perceived beauty. Setting the mood was a peaceful and hypnotic background soundtrack of guitar and male singers,  (Siskiyou of Vancover’s The Beauty Song, ( specially written for the exhibit.)

We are told that beauty is double-edged sword. The peacock uses its beautiful feathers to attract a mate, but its heavy feathers make it hard to fly, therefore an easy target from predators.


Beuty is truth
On the staircase we passed a few of the Sagmeister’s trademark 3-dimensional type treatments, this time the letters are rendered in cast shadows from bent wire frames. Beauty = Good = True (Shades of Plato, Keats and transcendentalists.)

The show is presented in thematic areas—”The History of Beauty,” “In the Eye of the Beholder,” “Experience Beauty,” “Transforming Beauty,” and “The Beauty Archive”. Several large screen videos played on loops: some discussing the sociological effects of beauty and others just gorgeous images of colorful viscous liquids oozing through the letterforms of the word beauty. A lot more captivating than it sounds.

Beauty extrusionvirtual reality section

S&W integrated a generous amount of viewer participation activities: Trying on patterned clothing that changed under different lighting conditions, virtual reality booths for painting in the 3rd dimension (germaphobe alert: the headsets were pretty f-u-n-k-y from constant use), stations to vote for a favorite smell, color or sound. (Voting happened via paper discs distributed at the entrance).

Smell vote
Which of these smells do you find the most beautiful?

Voting results for favorite smell, color and sound were combined to create a “most beautiful” sensory chamber. The room’s exterior was covered with swirling patterns of 26,000 crystals from show patron, Swarovski).  Inside, clouds of spewing and somewhat cloying citrus fog (favorite scent by vote count) clouded the air, favorite colors glowed along the floor and walls (a la James Turrell) to simulate daylight and sunset, while favorite “most soothing sound” of peeping frogs was steadily broadcast.

Sensory Room
Entrance to Sensory Room. The experience in theory should be very relaxing, but we found it a bit disorienting, too surreal and perhaps a bit claustrophobic, to deliver the desired effect

The sections on architecture seemed most in line with the MAK. The observation that just three men—Mies van der Rohe, Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier— were somehow able to convince the entire world that decoration was evil and needed to be eradicated was a profound concept for someone who was trained to mindlessly adopt the sparse modern style as the aesthetic ideal. (This is an argument I’ve seen before in Vienna, at The Power of Ornament (2011, The Belvedere Museum) Comparing this show to the Belvedere show, one might argue that S&W’s definition of beauty was actually somewhat conflated with decoration, as the “beautiful” items presented to us were invariably highly decorative or patterned.

the hated form and color
The most hated color is brown and the most hated form, the rectangle.

Other voting stations determined that, in general, we do not like the color brown; nor do we like the shape of the rectangle. So why, we are asked, do architects make most buildings brown and rectangular? And the easy target at the top of a display board of offending structures was Robert Venturi’s Guild House, (an ugly building we in Philadelphia are proud to hate).

Venturi brown square
What is the construction industry thinking?
Candy building
Just in time, a dish of candy inside the NeoGothic style Vienna City Hall

As in the aforementioned Happy Show, elevators and bathrooms were not safe havens from the exhibit. In this case, rolls of toilet paper were decorated in repetitive patterns and we were instructed to pick our favorite.

toilet paper
Choose your favorite.

There were so, so many images to note: tattoos used for post mastectomy coverage, a “crystal” chandelier made from soda bottles, balls made from pigs’ bladders. We needed over 2 hours to take it all in which didn’t leave much energy to view the rest of the MAK. That was ok as S&W had thoughtfully curated a room full of items taken from the MAK collection. (A similar celebrity curation, by the team of  Wes Anderson and his partner, Juman Malouf, was concurrently on display nearby at the Kunsthistorisches [Art History] Museum.)

Vienna pastry
In the cafe across the street from the MAK.

A final thought as we left the museum and headed out into Vienna— one of the most beautiful cities in the world with ornate architecture, museums and library, and of course the beautifully frosted pastries, the flowers, the food, the music… This show, a plea to elevate the importance of beauty, was akin to carrying coals to Newcastle. Vienna already celebrates beauty—we wonder what it would have been like to see this show somewhere with more contrast—such as Camden, New Jersey or an industrial city in Ukraine. But as it was, the location did not spoil the experience, maybe reinforced it.

Catch this show now moved to Frankfurt, Germany at the Museum Angewandte Kunst from now until mid September, 2019.


Location 2
The Fabric Workshop Museum
1214 Arch Street
Philadelphia, PA

Date of Visit: April, 2019

Monumental Cloth, The Flag We Should Know

Small is size, but mighty in concept, this is one of the most intriguing shows I’ve seen dealing with race relations in the United States. Or as the show description reads,  ” a timely catalyst for dialogue about the scars of the Confederacy and America’s ability to acknowledge and reckon with racial injustice.” Ms. Clark highlights an artifact she discovered at the Smithsonian Institute, the 1865 Confederate Flag of Truce: a white dish cloth that was used by Lee to surrender to Grant, ending the deadliest war in our nation’s history, the Civil War.

large flag
15′ x 30′ reproduction of the flag. Although the original is small, this version reflects the monumental importance of this object.

Clark introduces us to the flag in a written paragraph that accompanies two outsized replicas of the original: one large flag and another made up of 100 small ones. On another floor visitors are able to make rubbing from a laser cut rendition of the original and participate in weaving more truce flags.


desks loomsconfederate redSoon enough Clark introduces the most remembered flag from the Civil War, the Confederate flag or “battle flag“. An image loaded with alternate meanings for different populations is a lightening rod for many. Unfortunately the battle flag is a growing presence in our increasingly polarized society. While common to see in the deep south, why are we in the north seeing more and more of this flag on homes, trucks, and a myriad of items for sale?  Clark covers a large wall with a list of various items one can purchase with the battle flag. (Christmas stockings, nipple rings, gift bags…)

It reminded me of something I saw on the day after Trump was elected — a big wheeled pick up drove aggressively through our small Pennsylvania town with a massive Confederate flag flowing behind. What a shocking (and saddening) thing to see in upscale, genteel Bucks County, way north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

confederate flag items

Not a huge fan of performance art, nevertheless the video of Clark washing the floor with a dishrag imprinted with a battle flag resonated with me. In her performance Clark washed away dirt (taken from historical sites in Philadelphia) to reveal the first lines of the Declaration of Independence.

This show runs until early August. A concurrent show by Clark, Self Evident, opens a few blocks away at the African American Museum. It will run until early September.

One thought on “Beauty and Truce: Exhibitions by Sagmeister & Walsh // Sonya Clark

  1. Nancy, you’re amazing. This is so insightful and well presented. Is Eric the one who speaks German? (Maybe I knew that.)

    I don’t get the ‘carrying coals to Lancaster’ simile. Lancaster, PA?

    See you soon! I’m really looking forward to Wharton Esherick. Thanks for sending the Amazon Prime link. I will do my homework!

    Love, T.


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