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For some time now, museums have been enticing crowds with exhibitions outside of what most people consider art. The Guggenheim’s Art of the Motorcycle and the more recent Star Wars show at the Brooklyn Museum come to mind. Both succeeded in bringing in new audiences but failed in the more fundamental mandate of showing us something new in the process. We didn’t really gain anything by looking at motorcycles lined up along Frank Lloyd Wright’s twirling ramp or by considering Darth Vader masks in the context of Brooklyn’s grand art museum. Somehow a kidney-shaped skate pool, however, is a different thing altogether.

Beautiful Losers, a rambling, energized show dedicated to the art of skating (and graffiti, hip-hop, and punk culture), succeeds where motorcycles and action figures did not. Standing in a serpentine line with mustachioed men and their choppers along Fifth Avenue in New York was surely a thrill, but they didn’t get to ride their motorcycles up and down the ramp at the Guggenheim. At Yerba Buena, however, before you even get inside you’re likely to hear the action: clomping, skidding, rolling and occasionally cheering, all to the beats of a live DJ. The sounds are coming from the belly of what looks like a giant wooden whale lodged in the middle of the gallery. This is Free Basin, the work of Midwestern design team SIMPARCH. Walk up one of the staircases through the structure and you can see for yourself: one by one, visitors dropping into the bowl on a skateboard while everyone else watches intently. Everyone has their own style in the bowl. I watched one man pump his arms like wings while another kept his mouth open in a perfect circle as he grinded his board along the top edge. A seemingly nervous teenage girl dropped in and was instantly transformed—her eyes widened along with a little smirk as she swooped along the first turn. Two weeks into its run here and there’s already a shoulder-high smudge line along the wall where spectators and waiting participants have been leaning. It’s the kind of problem any museum would be happy to contend with.

But what makes Free Basin more than a ploy to get the museum numbers up is that it actually raises important questions about the nature of art and the role of audience. With its clamps and ribs below and seamless seams above, the bowl itself is a whimsical sculpture. But the skaters in it are performance artists in the truest sense, too: taking risks, expressing their individuality and making us all consider what the world would be like if everything was made of plywood.

- Tucker Nichols [Wednesday, August 11th, 2004]

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