The Happy Show Comes to Town

An acclaimed exhibition about our universal quest for contentment hits Vancouver.

April 24, 2015

Yellow, the German poet Goethe believed, “is the colour nearest the light.” It equates with goodness, he wrote in 1810’s Theory of Colours, and “in its highest purity it always carries with it the nature of brightness, and has a serene, gay, softly exciting character.”

Such beliefs have given rise to a whole school of colour psychology (think pink prisons and blue Facebook); to experience the effect in person, you might check out Stefan Sagmeister’s just-opened installation at the Museum of Vancouver. The Happy Show, running to September 7, started three years ago in Philadelphia, then moved on to Toronto, L.A., Paris. One constant: in overtaking the spaces that host it, everything turns an unapologetically 100 percent primary yellow.

The Museum of Vancouver is no exception; the New York-based Sagmeister has transformed its galleries and corridors with his signature jaunty text walls, infographic panels, and interactive installations. Yellow gumballs are stored in 10 dispensing tubes; assess your current mood and help yourself to a corresponding candy. (As the show progresses, the silos become emotional barometers.) Yellow graphics unpack—through the kind of smartly curated and attention-getting information you’d expect from a successful midcareer graphic designer—connections between happiness and food, sex, music, exercise, novelty, and more.

A yellow dispenser invites you to push a button to get a card. (Happiness is so often about reward.) “Continue enjoying this exhibit with your fly open. If you are not wearing trousers open the top three buttons of your shirt,” reads one. “Go home and have sex,” reminds another. The most moving cards draw on the interplay between happiness and community: “Take a picture of your favorite piece and send it to your best friend.” “Call your mom and talk to her about the show.”

That’s the element that most excited Gregory Dreicer, the museum’s director of curatorial and engagement; he saw The Happy Show in Chicago in the summer of 2013, when he had a similar role with the Chicago Architecture Foundation. He was blown away. “It’s probably the most engaging exhibition I’ve ever seen,” he says. “I went back several times, and every time, it was filled with people. The exhibition itself was beautifully designed and included all kinds of collaborations with other artists. He created this environment that’s all about what he’s talking about—amusing and engaging at the same time.”

Not every show manages to walk this line, he says. “In many cases, museums and especially art museums have been about what the curators like. Sometimes people don’t really understand the content, and curators don’t care that much.” Academic hedging can overlay even a subject as basic as happiness (which Sagmeister came to realize is something we race toward but never reach: “If we did, basically, we would just have spent human history eating all the time and lying around having sex,” he has said). But that remove is changing, says Dreicer. “You’ve got to approach people with what they know, not with what you want them to know.”

The show ties into larger themes for the museum, and for Dreicer personally, who arrived last summer to discover the dispiriting “Connections and Engagement” survey results from the Vancouver Foundation. His responses: this show, and a second, planned for 2016, that will “enable and help people to connect. But also get people to understand why connection is important: if an earthquake happens, are you expecting an ambulance just to drive up? If people can come away from interacting with the museum knowing why to connect and how, and having the opportunity to do so, then I really will be happy.”

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