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March 2019

The Happy Show

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I saw Stefan Sagmeister’s ‘The Happy Show’ in Zürich. I knew of the exhibition concept as I had seen Sagmeister’s TED talk a while ago and knew of his work as a graphic designer. The exhibition reflected on thoughts on ‘Happiness’ as it, firstly, displayed statistics on how much money one needed to feel comfortable (according to Sagmeister), then went on to present numbers which pointed out that on average couples without children were happier than those with kids, and, where in the world people were the happiest statistically (coincidentally ‘North-America’ and ‘Europe’). Generally not being a fan of statistics and quantifications of human experiences, the exhibition didn’t start particularly convincingly.

Spaces displayed visual experiments based on specific ideas, advices and strategies on how to be happy taking the shape of typographical experiments, documentations of performative actions, free candy, an interactive drawing space and a video documentation of a meditation retreat Sagmeister attended.

The video documentation showed himself interviewing fellow participants of a seemingly well-received meditation retreat within which Sagmeister asked whether meditation made them happy. Apparently, all interviewees confirmed that meditation played its part in their path towards spiritual wisdom and establishing sense of happiness. All of the five individuals whom I watched speaking described meditation as a path towards what they called ‘enlightenment’. Others might just call this contentment, or, happiness. Interestingly, the film also showed Sagmeister himself speaking about his experience having participated in the retreat. He confessed that he didn’t believe a single person about their spiritual awakening through meditation.

Coincidentally, I was reading Siddhartha from Hermann Hesse around the time I visited ‘the Happy Show’. The tale of Siddhartha had captured me and I finished the book over two nights. Towards the end of the piece, Siddhartha explains to his friend Govinda that he couldn’t follow anyone’s teaching. He wouldn’t believe in the lessons and doctrines of scholars and spiritual leaders. Therefore, their path split as Govinda decided to join the votaries of spiritual leader and philosopher Gotama. Siddhartha, instead, decided to find his own path following his intuition and became a salesman, a vagrant and, finally, a ferryman who learned the language of the convolutions of the river, which taught him to love and feel compassion.

When encountering his old friend Govinda as an old man Siddhartha tells him that he learned to develop his own mind through doing things instead of talking about them. He had learned the craft of being a ferryman from a man who had taught him to listen to the river when, instead, Siddhartha was looking for concrete answers to issues and thoughts. The river had allowed Siddhartha to see into himself and to reflect on his thoughts and desires instead of replicating those a teacher would present as moral or good.

My sentiments about ‘the Happy Show’ follows those lines. Although I appreciate that Sagmeister has found some kind of happiness for himself, his ‘teaching’, or rather, the display of his findings doesn’t give me much. It feels hard to dive into critical self-reflection when being confronted with Sagmeister’s typographic experiments coming across as semi esoteric, semi motivational slogans. I can’t help but feel like Siddhartha when encountering Gotama and his followers. Although I undoubtedly admire Sagmeister’s inventiveness and apparent creative effort, I feel the show being subverted by superficiality, honest as it might be from Sagmeister’s perspective.

I loved the ginger candy though.

JEANNETTE PETRIK is a self-directed writer, maker and community organiser with a background in design. Her practice focusses on socio-cultural phenomena at society’s fringes and their position in contrast to popular culture. Projects she engages in she understands as radical, honest and critical.

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