Written by Zachary Vigna
Samuel Borkson and Arturo Sandoval III want to be your friends. On their Facebook page they frequently post messages that include such sentiments as “love u everybody,” and they refer to their supporters as “friends,” not fans or customers. They are artists whose approach since they began working together in 2002 has been unremittingly positive, whose motto is “Magic, Luck, and Friendship,” and who collaborate in the studio to produce work that engenders community in the world. They are FriendsWithYou.
FriendsWithYou’s most recent major exhibition was on view in Seoul from September 1 to October 3, 2016. Entitled Super Moon and coinciding with Chuseok—the Korean harvest festival celebrated during the midautumn full moon—the exhibition was enormous. Its centerpiece, a sixty-foot sculpture of a serene anthropomorphic moon, floated in Seokchon Lake surrounded, in an inversion of reality, by eight planetary satellites: The Super Moon, unlike our humble Luna, by strength of its personality compels the planets to revolve around it. At night all nine elements were illuminated, the planets statically and the moon with an evolving spectrum. By day visitors were invited to play in a “cloud bounce house” in the nearby park, watch an animated film, learn about previous FriendsWithYou installations, and purchase collectibles. The exhibition was more like a fair than a traditional art installation, and this is how Borkson and Sandoval preferred it. About this artwork they said, “Super Moon is a symbolic manifestation of the immense power and serenity of our cosmos, connecting each one of us to our very cells. When we gather around the moon as a community, we all orbit together in its gravitational nature that transcends ages and cultures. With Super Moon, we hope viewers can experience this sense of unity and peace.” Unity is at the heart of what they do.
At the opposite end of the scale is the two-inch Little Cloud pocket amulet, which they created “for you as an enduring symbol of love and light as well as the idea that everything has a soul.” You’re encouraged to carry the amulet with you and allow its presence, obvious because of its quarter-pound weight despite its small size, to remind you that you are valued. Another iteration of this form is their Little Cloud lamp, a smiling cloud that casts light instead of shadow, demonstrating Borkson and Sandoval’s belief that there is life and beauty in everything.
The bracing discrepancy in scale between the clouds and the moon reveals the most notable aspect of FriendsWithYou’s approach. As practitioners of experiential art and acolytes of relational aesthetics, they are more concerned with the experiences their art stimulates in viewers than with the art itself. As Sam says, “We hope to encourage communal moments between all people and all ages,” and he and Arturo prefer not to limit themselves to one way of doing this. As such, in addition to their installations and collectible objects, they’ve produced sculptures and paintings; collaborated on a line of Hello Kitty toys and a clothing collection by Moncler; and produced a children’s television show, True & the Rainbow Kingdom (coproduced by Pharrell Williams’s company i am OTHER and set to premiere on Netflix later this year).
FriendsWithYou’s commitment to stimulating feelings of connection between and within people demands a leveling theoretical approach. They employ iconographic, almost mythical or even religious imagery in order to excite the spiritual nature of viewers who are so disposed. Less spiritual viewers will nonetheless respond to the whimsically disarming forms, and this is by design. Sam says that he and Arturo “studied and broke down visual empathetic qualities to appeal to people,” and FriendsWithYou’s imagery is calculated to activate feelings in children and reactivate latent childlike feelings in adults. Since, according to some perspectives, the childhood experience is more visceral and honest, and less individuated than the adult experience, the childlike provides a level ground for the development of community. Sam explains that “children are sometimes more open and less taught, so they can have a more pure view, but there are the adult exceptions. Hopefully people can unlearn all the garbage society puts on them, and unbox themselves. I think that is where every human adult and child meets, in that honest, open space of unknowing.” He and Arturo attempt to provide this open space and encourage those adult exceptions. As people walked into the inviting, brightly colored architectural space of FriendsWithYou’s Light Cave, on view in New York in 2015, they entered into a shared experience, as children regardless of their age.
What people do with the experience should be deeply personal. Sam says, “We love that our work is a catalyst and the rest is up to you. We would like kids to see our work the same as we like adults to see our work, in an honest and open way, but we don’t want to dictate that. People can bring whatever they want to our work and their experience of it.” Feelings of communal and individual connection may be strongest when they are undirected and allowed to be ephemeral. Although you can keep your Little Cloud pocket amulet, Super Moon is gone, and with it the communities it drew together. Its impact will remain, however, and there will be more work, drawing together its own communities, in the future.
Arturo explains that though he hopes audiences get something from FriendsWithYou, he and Sam get something as well: “We just love to watch and learn about the human condition and see how different people in different ages and demographics perceive our work and themselves within our work. We learn from each interaction and apply that knowledge to the next work.” The next work elicits different responses from audiences, and so on, creating a community between artists and viewers. When you enter an experience mediated by Borkson and Sandoval, they are friends with you, and every child and adult needs magic, luck, and friendship.