Museums

The Jersey City Mini-Golf Experiment: The Golden Door Is Now Open

by Dylan Schenker on July 1, 2010

Welcome to The Golden Door … the summer fundraising experiment. (click to enlarge)

The Golden Door is the anachronistic nickname of Jersey City, which acquired the moniker at the turn of the 20th century when it was a magnet for newly arrived Ellis Island immigrants. Today, “Golden Door” is the name of a new temporary mini-golf course-cum-art exhibition at Hamilton Square in downtown Jersey City organized by the Jersey City Museum as an innovative new summer fundraising venture.

Those who follow the travails of the New York-area museum scene know that the Jersey City Museum has had it tough recently. The only contemporary art museum in a city of 250,000 has been forced, due to budgetary limitations, to open only once a week (Saturdays, 12 – 5pm). Yet the museum won’t give up without a fight and the institution has invited local artists to create an entertaining ten-hole mini-golf course that explores the always relevant theme of immigration.

Upon arrival to the Golden Door mini-golf course installation, the show’s curator, Christina Vassallo, guided me to the first hole. “What better way to become familiar with the concept of the installation than to actually play the game,” I thought. She handed me a putter and a ball and I prepared myself for the first game of mini-golf I had played in years. I was ready to embarrass myself. The first hole, aptly titled “Arrival,” is the work of artist Asha Ganpat, and it includes a steep incline that leads to a curved plateau, which in turn leads to three separate pipes that shuttle the ball onto to the green where the hole sits behind a small sand trap.

Asha Ganpat’s “Arrival” hole (click to enlarge)

As Christina began to explain how the hole works, I quickly putted my ball; it climbed the green, bounced kitty-corner off a wall into one of the three pipes, escaped the sand trap, and … hole. in. one. First hole, first shot. Even I accepted that it was a fluke. Christina chalked it up to “beginner’s luck” and her assessment proved correct as I proceeded to hole after hole without the same good fortune. I suspect that most people who play the course won’t have my luck. My serendipitous first hole-in-one exemplified the overall theme of the mini golf installation. I had “arrived,” and it put a little bounce in my step. On to a new challenge … Nyugen E. Smith’s “The Glass Ceiling.”

Welcome to America!

Nyugen E. Smith’s “The Glass Ceiling” (click to enlarge)

Bluntly speaking, I am far enough removed from my relatives who immigrated to America that I have no familial exposure to the “immigrant experience.” You could say, I didn’t “experience” the difficulty of the course, and yet I was still afforded the achievement of earning a hole-in-one, but I don’t want to push it. Blind luck? Sure, but I didn’t earn it, yet I was still rewarded it. However, even with my “arrival,” I still had to labor through every subsequent hole, never again fairing as well as I did in the beginning.

The American Dream that continues to attract people to this country places so much emphasis on the rewards of hard work, and is entirely blind to the role of luck and chance. It’s the paradox that the course emphasizes; people like me, who didn’t have to endure the labor that many did to get where I am, could be rewarded, while those who put the most effort into striving for opportunity were continually struggling. Am I reading too much into this course? Can mini-golf really be this deep?

The back of Hiroshi Kumagai’s “The Long Narrow Way to Heaven” (click to enlarge)


The course deals at once with skill, luck, and chance … and frankly, ingenuity doesn’t matter. With no prior knowledge of certain holes, a participant can putt a ball and be faced with an impenetrable wall. Players will likely have to start over. One of the holes is incased within it a labyrinthine series of pipes that makes it impossible to predict where the ball will go — blind faith, I guess.

Make no mistake; the holes appear to be very difficult at first. However, this does not detract from the fact that they were designed with fun in mind. It was a joy actually being able to interact with the golf-turned-art sculptures. To be able to “play” a piece of art in this way lends an interactivity to the pieces. Players experience a simulation of the themes of the show through their interaction with the game rather than being fed an interpretation or explanation as to why each sculpture means what it does.

Back to Analog?

Amanda Thackray, “High Road vs. Low Road” (click to enlarge)

It feels slightly anachronistic to focus on the participatory aspects of a mini-golf course installation as a form of interactive art if for the only reason that we are living in an era of increasing interactivity through higher forms of technology. However, it is just that context that makes this type of installation so vital.

I believe we are still in the fledging stages of a time when audiences have a much stronger influence on not only the creative process but in the distribution and exhibition of art of all forms. It is an influence that must be communicated via artworks that converse with their audiences rather than speak their ideas at them.

In conversation with Christina, we discussed the importance of the interactive aspect of the installation. I spoke of how important technology is becoming in making art a more participatory experience. I mentioned that it interests me how that experience is represented in the Golden Door mini-golf course in a lo-tech way.

Riso Puno’s “Leap of Faith” (click to enlarge)

She said that the show provided a kind of “analog interactivity” that allows people not only to interact with each work of art, but also to socialize in a real space rather than via technology. It is a requirement of the work that to experience it in full you must actually visit the course and play the game. In an era of digital over-saturation, to apply interactivity in an analog manner provides incentive not only to participate, but also to interact with people vis-à-vis an art work. It seems fitting that the exhibition designer Risa Puno is also the architect of the course’s bonus hole, titled “Leap of Faith.” Puno believes that if you ask something of the audience, they will get more out of it. She called it the “personal investment” that an audience has in art that demands participation.

Incentivizing comes from not treating a spectator as a passive consumer of a genius work, but as someone whose contributions to the work are just as important as the artist’s. Technically speaking, the show lacks any of its themes and narratives without the players. The artists have provided a forum, but it is the audience who must labor through each hole to fully understand what each artist is trying to say.

Below is a video taken An Xiao of me taking a shot at Risa’s bonus hole:

Gallery of photos from The Golden Door mini-gold course via my Picasa account.

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  • Patrick

    I live in Jersey City right next to the Golden Door and have watched them build the installation for the past month. It’s been exciting to see all the individual holes completed. Mini-golf (even temporary) has been great for the neighborhood children; there’s been several elementary schools play the course. I hope everybody who’s able will go enjoy the course and support the museum’s fund-rasing efforts.
    I hear it’s only $5 to play or $4 if you join the museum.

    http://www.livingonthepark.com

  • http://www.meadmclean.com Mead McLean

    That’s a fantastic idea. I’ll have to make the trip next time I’m up that way. There’s another metaphor, in that one might have to travel to see the installation.

    Maybe the idea of the hole-in-one is what keeps the American dream going. It happens rarely, but it does happen. We see it happen to some people, but it doesn’t happen to everyone.

    • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

      We’re actually organizing a Hyperallergic sponsored field trip to the golf course … stay tuned!

  • http://www.randomnumber.nu Christina Vassallo

    Thanks Dylan, for writing such an insightful article. I particularly like this sentiment: “Incentivizing comes from not treating a spectator as a passive consumer of a genius work, but as someone whose contributions to the work are just as important as the artist’s.” And thanks to Hyperallergic for organizing the upcoming field trip. We’re all very excited about it–bring on the players!

  • Pingback: A Citizen of Social Media City — Comma 'n Sentence()

  • Jillian

    I don’t want to detract from the Jersey City Museum at all, because I think this is a great idea, but it seems like it might have been pertinent for this article to mention Figment, which has hosted a mini-golf exhibition of sorts on Governors Island for the past few years:
    http://figmentproject.org/2010/long-term-exhibitions/figment-minigolf/
    That said, I fully support mini-golf at all times and in all places, particularly for a good cause.

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