‘Happiness’ falls flat

The HappyHap Project of Yale lures students into its “Perspectives of Happiness” photo exhibition ­— which debuted last Friday in the Silliman gallery space — with fluorescent sticky notes and cartoonish poster boards. Once inside, viewers are greeted by large photographs of smiling children from across the world, each meant to celebrate “intercultural understanding and the universally shared value of happiness,” according to one poster. But despite the project’s noble goal, the fake, neon sentiment conveyed at the entrance persists throughout the exhibit.

The photo featured on the exhibit brochure, which is also the first one viewers see, is a black-and-white one of a smiling Parisian boy holding an ice cream cone. His head is tilted upwards towards a taller figure whose face cannot be seen in the picture, as if he is asking for seconds. The boy’s guileless smile is undoubtedly cute, and his international flavor certainly fulfills the exhibition’s “intercultural” quota. Unfortunately, the warm-and-fuzzy feeling begotten from this initial portrait quickly dulls: the rest of the exhibition is much of the same, with subjects that seem too happy and pictures that feel too staged.

The exhibit certainly showcases racial diversity, but not the “diversity of perspectives” it promises. The exhibit as it stands is merely a display of the joyful things that bring us together rather than the differeing viewpoints on happiness that may set us apart. We must cherish the simple things in life, the photos seem to say. We must be optimistic. We must be grateful. And the most powerful message the exhibition sends: happiness can be found in every nook and cranny of the world. And for a photo showcase that claims to represent a variety of backgrounds, “Perspectives of Happiness” has an overwhelming preference for children. Of the eight photographs displayed, six feature smiling children (the two that do not are of college students and parrots).

Also disproportionately represented are strikingly clear photos with vibrant colours. They seem to illuminate happiness in every way, and in so doing, negate it. These photos suggest that moments of joy one-dimensional, ignoring the nuance of the emotion: oftentimes, joy is tempered by doubt, happiness by reservation. The pristine quality of the photos, while easy on the eyes, adds to the artificiality of the environment.

Luckily, the HappyHap Project has a tumblr where anyone can post their ideas on happiness. The blog showcases the photographs currently on display as well as various others from online contributors. As the online version of the show has more photos, it is also closer to delivering the “different perspectives of happiness” the exhibit promises. On the blog, there are photographs of landscapes, of animals and even one of a bride and groom walking through rain. A powerful picture taken by Ben Scheuer ’14 depicts a boy sitting cross-legged in the woods. His face is tilted so that we cannot see whether he is smiling, and yet we can tell that he is completely at peace.

Over the course of the academic year, the exhibit will travel to most of the residential colleges, culminating in a festival and outdoor exhibition on Cross Campus in April 2012. We can only hope that, by that time, the showcase organizers will be more receptive to the complex ways in which happiness is felt and expressed. By the time April rolls around, it would be nice to see photos of people (or animals) both smiling and unsmiling, young and old.

Comments

  • mint

    This review seems to miss the point of the exhibition and feels incomplete. It certainly wasn’t fake or one-dimensional! I had a great time at the opening with delicious food, nice music and an overall good vibe. I also really loved the video installation with the photographers talking about the inspiration behind their photos. And I feel like the organizers’ goal of inviting people to reflect on one’s own perspective of happiness is not only noble but necessary at a place as busy and stressful as Yale.

    I appreciate the criticism, though the exhibition was not meant to be primarily artistic–the photographers were all students on their travels, some of which did their best with a digital camera.