From a small room in the Hammer Museum on Sunday afternoon, a group of kids and adults clapped their hands and collectively chanted two words: “Smash it!”
To the casual passerby, the words probably sounded strange within the museum setting. But they were a perfectly natural thing to say in this particular situation — right before a bat hit a piñata.
For the unique event “Piñatas: Recreational items from Unfortunate Events,” on the closing day of the museum's “Game Room” exhibit, artist Sarah Bay Williams created paper maché piñatas that visitors broke open every half hour from 2 to 5 p.m. Storyteller Tabitha Christopher accompanied her, using her resonant voice and infectious energy to tell the stories behind the pieces.
And what stories. Usually piñatas look like childhood pop culture cartoon icons — like Dora the Explorer or Elmo — but Williams' pieces represented specific people and especially sad events. The creations that burst open with everything from dice to toy furniture were related to tragic tales.
For one piñata shaped like an archery bullseye, Christopher told the story of real-life archery players Charlotte Burgess and Roy Nash, who received a violent beating from a group of drunken teenagers in Cheadle, United Kingdom in 2008, which compromised their chances of competing in the Beijing Olympics that year. As Christopher explained, Burgess recovered from her wounds and qualified for the European indoor championships that took place soon after.
“We are going to celebrate her qualification today by smashing Archery Target to pieces,” she proclaimed. She expertly managed the mood of the crowd, sometimes adding humor to lighten things up, and at other times injecting a sense of suspense just before someone took their first swing.
Other piñatas resembled equivalent parts of the less-than-happy stories. Sailboat represented the 1988 Sydney to Hobart yacht race in which terrible weather conditions led to multiple deaths, while Can related to the story of a little girl playing outside when her leg was run over. Sometimes the stories got a bit morbid for younger ears, but the excitement of the smashing superseded any sadness.
Each “brave soul,” as Christopher called the volunteers, donned a blindfold, received two spins from Williams and then got two chances to cause some damage to the piñata. “Use your intuition,” Christopher encouraged each volunteer. The artist and storyteller meant to create a process in which visitors traded destruction for happiness — in this case, the small tokens that both kids and adults rushed to gather.
At one point, a visitor volunteered the guard to take a swing at the piñata but he remained faithfully at his post, later gently restraining over-eager children from swooping to claim their prizes too early. Eventually a curator tried her strength, and both Williams and Christopher participated. By the time 5 p.m. rolled around, five piñata carcasses lay nearby but plenty of hands held onto prizes.
So why break open piñatas in a room full of strangers? Besides the laughs it produced — spurred by the reluctant volunteers called out by Christopher and the snarky responses from kids who already heard the rules multiple times — the event tied together much of what “Game Room” presented.
Some pieces in the exhibit showed a sense of whimsy but also of shared human nature. A detailed text piece on the wall entitled Chain Reaction (Westwood) told visitors to amble around Westwood and walk in a certain direction when they spotted a “lead object'” such as a Starbucks cup, and then in another when they saw a “release object,” such as a “for-lease” sign. Eddo Stern's piece Monkeymakingworkshop, up earlier in the exhibition, touched on the strange effects video games create on their players.
Each piece called for interactivity and a shared experience no matter the background of the player, and that same idea came through with the piñatas. Plus, we all go through less-than-ideal situations, but if a piñata's wounds can lead to what Christopher called “golden treasures,” maybe we'll all be okay, too.