?On May 2, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art debuted one of its most provocative and moving exhibits to date. Transforming everyday objects into extraordinary, intuitive statements about humanity is no small feat, yet various contemporary artists have managed to do just this in the newest, must-see exhibit, Return to Function.

MMoCA’s main gallery is home to a variety of pieces by 20 contemporary artists that question American norms and standards regarding commodities and objects. The pieces range from poignant indictments to subtle inquiries and are broken up into four categories: shelter, clothing, commodity and transportation. Curator Jane Simon emphasizes the extremely broad purpose of Return to Function and why it is so pertinent.

“For everybody, these works are about issues that we deal with day in and day out in our lives; they solve issues that we encounter every day. They might be fear about life after 9/11 or fear after life, after the apocalypse.”

An 18-pound cell phone, a dune buggy, a soccer ball with right angles and a quarter transformed into a boxcutter are a few examples of the pieces museum-goers will find. Simon provides insight into these unusual objects.

“The dune buggy … it takes on so many issues, and it is a feat of engineering in addition to being quite a presence in the gallery,” Simon says.

“The quarter, which was made by Claire Fontaine … was converted into a boxcutter. It’s a menacing work; it’s the smallest one in the show. It might’ve even been the smallest one we’ve ever shipped to the museum. I think it’s a very important gesture. It brings up all kinds of issues about the influence of the American on life and the rest of the world, and the reach of the American economy.”

As inspiration for the exhibit, Simon cites performance artist Chris Burden. Having written her master’s thesis on Burden’s fully operational “B-Car” from 1975 that was able to achieve 100 miles per gallon and go up to 100 per hour, she wanted to further explore what other artists had to offer on issues of technology and everyday objects.

“I knew that there were other artists who were also working in this vein, who wanted art to respond to things beyond the world of the museum, beyond the world of the gallery, beyond the walls of the studio.”

It is this commitment to realism and contemporary concepts that museumgoers will enjoy in Return to Function. Lucy Ortega’s “Refuge Wear Habitent” is a poncho and tent combination designed for migrant populations in South London. It is pieces like Ortega’s that ask questions about how and why we use objects. Additionally, there are implicit concerns throughout the exhibit regarding ethics, capitalism, the American identity and the future of consumerism given the enormous advances made in technology.

“It sort of makes this statement that, you know, if we can imagine our way of life imploding, what kinds of marketed items are we going to need, which is assuming the worst,” Simon says of the dune buggy piece.

She emphasizes that the exhibit is not meant entirely to be negative or critical. Instead, she hopes that people will be inspired by the pieces to think in a different way.

“They ask you some tough questions,” she says.

Return to Function runs from May 2 until Aug. 23, 2009. After debuting in Madison, it will make its way to the Des Moines Art Center in Des Moines, Iowa, where it will be displayed from Oct. 2 until Jan. 10, 2010. Admission to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art is free.

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