The Institute of Contemporary Art: Philadelphia

The Institute of Contemporary Art
in Philadelphia, more commonly known as the ICA, is well known for its constantly changing, abstract and original exhibits. Located right on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, exhibits and displays at the ICA are most typically geared towards attracting the creative interests of college-aged students; though the museum is still, of course, also frequented by older adults and younger children, as well. This gallery is spacious and bright, containing stark, white walls and exceptionally high ceilings to channel the modern atmosphere the gallery aims to provide. The gallery is two stories high; usually showcasing the work of multiple artists in a sensical pattern on the first floor, and allowing the second floor to be used as a blank canvas by one or two artists to display a detailed exhibit of their own work. When visiting the ICA, I was, as to be expected, pleasantly surprised by the artistic and creative content of the artists’ work that was on display.

The first floor contained numerous digital-print art pieces; including a series of vinyl records that had been super imposed on top of digital-print that was made to represent the lyrical content of the individual records through the use of high-art and pixelated images. The first floor also contained three different material displays, each of which was designed to convey a thought-provoking and emotionally driven message; a message which, of course, is left to be determined by your own, personal discretion.

 The first of the three displays used materials like tree branches and leaves to represent the notion that the beauty of nature can be found in many different forms. This display contained naked tree branches which were lightly dusted with glitter and a larger-than-life snake sculpture made from colored metals and gems. As stated, the conveyed message of this exhibit is meant to be interpreted in many different ways; however, I personally took away the concept of differential beauty in nature when viewing this display.

The second exhibition, titled First Among Equals, used the familiar phrase from the U.S. Constitution “We the People”, as a repeated image on an American flag themed, paper background; large paper canvases displaying simple typography of words like “globalization”, “democracy”, and “extinction”; and used small televisions which displayed video clips of boxers and wrestlers fighting. Now, you’re probably asking yourself, what could all three of these elements have in comment? Though I’m not sure if I pinned down the “correct” meaning of this exhibition, I personally found it to represent the notion that, as a country, the United States has slowly become a place for hypocrisy and contradiction thrive. By simultaneously showcasing symbols of the fight for American freedom and digital-images of words contradicting this sentiment, I found this exhibition to represent the contradictory portrait of American freedom.

The third display used fun textiles and elements, like colorful feathers, fishnet materials, and water guns, to convey a message that I found to be refreshing; I was inspired with a sense of creativity and care-free sentiments after viewing this exhibition.


Moving on to the second floor, I ascended a ramp which began my journey to the gallery’s current, feature exhibit titled “The Happy Show.” This exhibit largely uses a series of images and re-worked journal entries from the artist and graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister, whose aim for the exhibit was to recreate his own, personal journey en route to finding happiness. This exhibit had me in awe for nearly an hour, as just the reduced sized copies of Sagmeister’s journal entries that could be found in random places throughout the exhibit alone, were enough to make me stop, relax, and slowly take in all that this exhibit had to offer.

“The Happy Show” covers a variety of life experiences, such as marriage, sex, and work, by providing Sagmeister’s accounts of his own experiences in these areas of life, as well as by providing world-wide statistics on how critical each piece of these experiences are in terms of finding and maintaining your own happiness. The exhibit is very easy to follow, understand, and relate to on a personal level, as I’m sure most of us can identify with trying to figure out just what, exactly, will make us truly happy now and in the future.

The exhibit begins by detailing the differences between passionate love and companionate love; explaining why, on average, companionate love will ultimately provide you with more long-term happiness than will passionate love. The exhibit then goes on to present the concepts of work in order to make a living, the vital role of meditation, cognitive therapy, and positive energy in relation to your levels of happiness, and also presents the mind-expanding and mood-altering properties of hallucinogenic and pharmaceutical drugs, a topic Sagmeister has a very personal history with.

Through his use of digital-print, sculptures, interactive installations, infographics, and short pieces of his upcoming movie titled “The Happy Film,” Sagmeister does an exceptionally brilliant job at taking you on a vivid journey through his mind, his life, and through our never-ending quest for happiness.

I found this exhibit to be fresh, striking, unique, relatable, and ambitious; making it one to definitely consider if you’re currently looking for a gallery or exhibition to visit. Being that the ICA is fairly small in comparison to other galleries in Philadelphia, and also that it’s largely run by internship students from the University of Pennsylvania’s art history program, there weren’t many available employees to readily answer questions, or even just to engage in conversation with about the content of the exhibit, when I recently visited the ICA. Though this was a slight disappointment, “The Happy Show” is an exhibit that has been designed to encourage personalization when attempting to uncover the take-home message of the artist and his work, that the lack of available support really wasn’t that much of a set-back for me when visiting. 


“The Happy Show”, as well as the other exhibits currently on display, make for the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia to surely be worth your while if you decide to pay it a visit. These specific exhibitions will run from now until August 12th, giving you plenty of time to check them out! The gallery is open Wednesday-Sunday, anywhere from 11am-8pm depending on the day of the week, and is completely free to visit; definitely my all-time, favorite price 🙂

So, if you’re interested in walking in the shoes and the mind of another human being during his quest for true happiness, and if you’re interested in visiting a gallery that places no pressure on you to gain a specific message or to find a concrete purpose in the work on display, then you should definitely be sure to hit up the ICA before August 12th to enjoy all that this gallery has to offer.


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