Say “Cheese”

by Simon Goland, June 29, 2011

Today’s Reflection is about smiling, and about not.

American Visionary Art Museum is located in Baltimore, and I was recently there for a conference. One evening, we got a tour of this beautiful place, and had a chance to see and experience the What Makes Us Smile exhibition being featured in the museum. The exhibit is a playful take on a most serious subject – the architecture of human joy, featuring a rich and fascinating displays of many art forms. All on the themes of smiles and laughs. Did you know that everyone smiles in the same language? Did you know that all great apes laugh? Hitler, apparently, had a “joke court” that sentenced a cabaret comedian to death for naming his horse, “Adolf” (beware of humourless authority). Or that MAD magazine won two US Supreme Court decisions upholding the right to parody?

“When we lose our sense of humour, things are just not funny any more.” – Philip Clement (I think)

Yet, throughout the whole exhibit, one thing stands out for me more than anything else. One of the exhibits is a running video, called “Where the smiling ends.” The photographer, Andi Olsen, went to the famous Trevi Fountain in Rome. Many people come to sit at the edge of the fountain and have their photo taken. Andi recorded the moment of them smiling to the camera, but let the camera run for a few more moments, after the photo of the people was taken. And that changed everything.

“Even the fear of death is nothing compared to the fear of not having lived authentically and fully.” – Frances Moore Lappe

Apparently, there are two particular “smiling” muscles in our face. They are involuntary, which means they cannot be activated when one fakes a smile. Only when the smile is genuine. In this video, Andi shows what happens to people’s faces after the photo was taken. One after another, the eyes drop together with the shoulders, the smile fades away, and the facial expression changes to one of boredom, tiredness, and disillusionment with life. The shift is almost instant, profound, and tremendously sad to witness.

What an irony, perhaps, when several of us are sitting in the museum, in an exhibit dedicated to laughter and smiles, yet experiencing sadness and tears in our eyes when watching this short video. It captures, somehow, that duality of our existence, showing the posed and the real, the exterior and the interior of our human existence. And now, I keep thinking about the journey of “living divided no more,” whether when smiling, or in any other context. A journey and a learning of a lifetime, sure, with many trials and tribulations, yet also many moments of fulfillment and joy.

A sunny week to you all, inside and out.