Yesterday morning, the Boca Raton Museum of Art did not resemble a storied hall of culture so much as a daycare center. Clusters of frolicking tykes and their harried chaperones picked up putters, golf balls and score sheets to play through the museum’s new exhibition, “Big Art:Miniature Golf,” an 11-hole indoor golf course designed by 11 different artists selected from the across the country. In the process, if the kids were old enough to read, they could have pondered some of the artists’ descriptions of their puttable installations, from an sociopolitical inquiry into the sexually and culturally loaded word “swallow,” to a meditation on the endless expanse of infinity, to a treatise on globalization and a commentary on the United States’ suspension of its space program. If you happen to be an adult who wants to absorb the hefty inspirations behind the designs, that’s great – but you may have to dodge a wayward golf ball or two, while taking into account that parts of the installations have been toppled by heedless children.
Such is the inherent problem of “Big Art:Miniature Golf,” Executive Director Steven Maklansky’s foremost attempt to meld family-friendly playfulness and accessibility with the seriousness of an art museum: You can’t have your mini golf and satirize it too. The struggle between art and commerce – and between provocation and playability – is evident in nearly every hole, and it’s a dialectic so oppositional that many of the holes fail at both.
Robert Reed’s “Trapped in Paradise” – the aforementioned polemic about globalization – is an impressive edifice constructed from more than a dozen different materials, including inflatable rafts and beach toys, a sand castle, a lounge chair and a bubble machine. As a motley children’s playground, this kid-cave is a popular attraction for gamboling youngsters, but functionality is the last thing on the artist’s mind.
It’s only the first in a number of installations that make score-keeping moot. Cynthia Chang and Misha Kahn’s “A Hole” finds the artists satirizing pop-culture impressions of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, in a design full of gaudy colors and freakish bones leading to an elevated hole in the mouth of a monster’s skull. In this instance, the hole is rendered deliberately impossible to reach, prompting a note from museum staff that says “closest to the tongue wins.” The idea of keeping score also becomes quickly irrelevant in one of the exhibition’s most otherwise impressive pieces, Erika Nelson’s “The World’s Smallest Version of the World’s Largest Miniature Golf Course.” In a crazily ambitious work, the artist constructed a miniaturized, table-set version of the entire course at Sir Goony’s amusement park in Tennessee. Museumgoers put aside their full-size putters and pick up beebees (for balls) and dollhouse-sized putters to play the entire 18-hole course – if you have the patience for it, that is. I only made it through the top nine.
There are other magnificently designed structures, including Alex Heffesse’s sleek and ceremonial “Chasm,” with its 352 suspended golf balls and a straight line leading to a chalice for a hole; and Jeff Whipple’s “The Life Hole,” a three-part layout that requires players to putt from “birth” to “death,” in a journey littered with “traps” – videos of philosophical aphorisms emanating from built-in screens.
The most impressive of all may be “Spiral Ramps,” a collaboration between four Los Angeles artists in which players whack the ball up a ramp that leads to a structure that’s part mousetrap, part M.C. Escher tower. The ball snakes through a series of complex tubes inspired by California’s highway system, after which it will supposedly land in one of three turfs. But only one turf contains the hole; if it lands in one of the other two, players have to send the ball back up a second, more difficult chute and hope it finds the correct pathway to the hole. At any rate, my ball found itself lodged inside the tubing, requiring a museum assistant to physically force the ball onto the turf. This seemed apropos of the problems in “Big Art: Miniature Golf:” when the rubber of art meets the road of a children’s fun center, we’re bound to get stuck awkwardly in the middle.
“Big Art: Miniature Golf” is at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton, through Oct. 7. Call 561/392-2500 or visit bocamuseum.org.