Artists who gleefully skewer our expectations are not always the most beloved of figures, but every once in a while, one arrives on the scene with an irresistible swagger. Mads Lynnerup qualifies as one of those welcome tricksters. The 32-year-old Dane, who perfected his trade at the San Francisco Art Institute and now splits his time between New York and Copenhagen, emits a cherubic aura, complete with blond curls. ("He's quite good-looking, isn't he?" one woman murmured to another as they watched one of his videos at his recent opening.) But as evidenced by the title of his current show, "You're the Artist, You Figure It Out," Lynnerup challenges his audience more than he charms them.
The first challenge of the show? Getting past the front desk. As with so many galleries, this one appears to house a formidably aloof attendant installed behind a tall countertop. "Gallery Counter," however, turns out to be a Lynnerup piece, and the head that can barely be seen is a wig balanced on a mop. The piece works as a prank, but it also introduces the viewer to the thrust of Lynnerup's work: He wants us to take a second look at what we take for granted, in the best tradition of social sculpture, and he succeeds.
Joseph Beuys, who pioneered this form of conceptual art in the 1960s, famously said that "everyone is an artist." If this is true, the quotidian can be recast as extraordinary, and Lynnerup plays with this idea in "Routines," a series of posters and a video in which he tracked the activities of several denizens of Sønder Boulevard in Copenhagen. So regular are these people's movements that Lynnerup is able to predict their daily movements with seemingly uncanny results. He stands in the foreground of the video, holding signs that describe the activities behind him. "Man with hot-dog stand shows up at traffic light," one sign reads. As if by magic, the man appears. Lynnerup repeats this again and again, with various unwitting participants.
The term "routine," as used in dance, means something that's choreographed and practiced to perfection. Merely by giving the Sønder Boulevard residents an audience, Lynnerup makes us see how their habits can be seen as choreography. His act of observation gives value to the tedious. (The posters, which also sketch and describe the routines, were plastered around the neighborhood, but Lynnerup says he never heard from any of the people described. "Maybe they didn't recognize themselves," he suggests.)
The piece also makes us rethink our own habits. Lynnerup is interested in "activating" viewers, he says, "having them look at things they may be overlooking — getting their senses going." In that spirit, he resists the passive mode, even in a show that's mostly video. Two videos — "Squirrels (Recession)" and "Water" — offer related consumables, peanuts and water, so viewers can participate. Even the viewing platform is rethought. Instead of a bench, spectators sit on a giant cushy foil-wrapped "super burrito," a concept Lynnerup came up with especially for San Francisco.
The broader jokiness of the show sometimes sets us up to expect a punchline where there is none. The piece "Clock," for example, which hangs over the stairs that connect the upper and lower galleries, is a real-time 24-hour video of Lynnerup rearranging placards with numbers that show the current hour and minutes. There's no prank here; he says he wanted to make a video that was functional. "I lived in an area where I noticed that the public clocks had disappeared," he says. "We had all become so reliant on our own watches or cellphones. I thought I would provide a service, just by showing the time."
Beyond function, "Clock" represents the effort put into making art, and turns out to be the most challenging piece in the show. Since it's in real time, Lynnerup had to film it without breaks, remaining alert for each minute change, bringing a new awareness to existence. When you're paying attention to time passing, he says, "it takes forever." Maybe that's the secret to life and art.