What’s Your Function?

The Madison Museum Of Contemporary Art’s Return To Function show, on display through Aug. 23, raises a question that many folks unfamiliar with art-gazing ask: Shouldn’t these so-called works of art do something?

In other words, the show encourages viewers to wonder whether art should move beyond its usual functions—decorating a space and promoting high culture, to name a few—and offer us a tangible service other than simply making us think more (or making other people think that we think more, deeper, and better).

Of course, this is all a bit of a sham, because the aim of these pieces is still to oil people’s mental and psychological axles: While a lamp make out of old kiwi containers can, in fact, light a room, its main function is arguably to make viewers consider the nature of consumption and the many possibilities for recycling and reuse.

You’re not likely to wear Lucy Orta’s “Refuge Wear Habitent” unless you’re shaped like a bloated pyramid: The piece begins as an REI-style windbreaker, complete with a drawstring hood, but takes on the shape of a pup tent rather than a human being. Pockets form the windows and the front zipper is an invitation to explore, perhaps, the wearer’s innards or to take shelter in a space that resembles a womb—one that not only keeps you warm, but repels various forms of precipitation.


Ralph Borland’s “Suited For Subversion” repels not only wind and rain but also Tasers and police clubs. The large red object, which resembles a supersized, heart-shaped life jacket, has enough padding to shield the wearer’s own heart from spills on city streets, multitudes of sharp objects, and the myriad forms of brutality that might occur during a protest. A picture of how to wear it, featuring a man (presumably the artist) in a sporty pose by a brick wall, mocks the culture of catalog shopping while a sound recording mimics a heartbeat with eerie urgency.

Joe Scanlan’s “DIY” boasts a functional theme that’s both a death wish and a sales pitch: “How to Kill Yourself Anywhere in the World for Under $399,” printed in a book that overlooks the rest of the piece from the safety of a simple wooden frame. The museum staff actually had to build this Return To Function selection according to the artist’s instructions, using a bookcase from IKEA to form a coffin. Fake plastic flowers and a cheap pillow provide the finishing touches on the statement, making The A.V. Club wonder if there’s anything the Swedish home-goods retailer wouldn’t try to sell you by exploiting your desires to be self-reliant and thrifty.

Undocumented immigrants’ desires for self-reliance, as well as respect and upward mobility, are examined in Ricardo Miranda Zuñiga’s “Vagamundo: A Migrant’s Tale,” a video game housed in an old-fashioned ice-cream cart. Each level of the game reflects a move toward the questionable goal of assimilation. The character must transcend violence and heavy drinking in the first level, Culture of Poverty; he works as a grocery-store bagger, fending off giant cockroaches and tricky English grammar rules, in the second level, Culture of Assimilation; and in the third level, Culture of Prosperity, he must satisfy the whims of wealthy patrons at the restaurant where he waits tables. “Your English is much improved,” the game says sarcastically, “but someday you might be able to buy a home in Jersey.”

While, in theory, you can touch this game, its function is still to grab you by the heartstrings, the synapses and, rather disturbingly, the funnybone.