Art meets marketing for the Instagram age at the ICA
Something — a shimmery, opalescent something — is oozing from the cantilevered roof of the Institute of Contemporary Art.
As visitors mill around the ICA’s outdoor patio overlooking Boston Harbor, 11-foot-long, apparently gooey strands of silver dangle improbably above their heads. It feels as though, at any minute, the alien liquids might fall — splat! — on the boardwalk below.
Artist Dan Lam calls her otherworldly sculptures “drips,” although they’re not liquid, but rather holographic spandex fabric filled with Styrofoam pellets. Squeezing them — which Lam encourages — recalls the satisfying crunch of a beanbag chair.
These works, along with three large, colorful interactive sculptures, make up the Dallas-based artist’s biggest installation to date, “Crave the Unexpected.” It popped up on June 9 and will reappear at two more of the ICA’s First Fridays, on July 5 and Aug. 2.
It’s part art exhibit, part marketing. Steve’s Ice Cream, the craft ice cream with Boston roots, sponsored Lam’s installation to promote its own brand relaunch this year. As viewers climb in and out of Lam’s sculptures and poke their sparkly foam appendages, a small army of servers hands out free samples of Steve’s flavors like Moroccan Mash Up and Southern Banana Pudding.
Longtime Boston residents might remember Steve’s Ice Cream from its original location in Davis Square, Somerville, where founder Steve Herrell set up shop in 1973. Herrell’s store helped popularize small-batch flavors and “mix-ins,” the now-ubiquitous practice of smooshing bits of solid candies into the cream.
After Herrell sold Steve’s, the brand changed hands more than once. Dean Foods purchased Steve’s in 2017 and set about reviving the brand’s marketing strategy to capture new audiences, with millennials as a target demographic.
Corporations know that even as millennials ignore many traditional forms of advertising, they crave experiences. (Hence the emergence of the “experience economy,” a sector of pop-up spaces tailor-made for Instagram — the “Happy Place” is a famous example — and catering to young people who live and die by their phone’s battery life.)
“Millennials want experiences,” Mark Schneider, Steve’s marketing director, affirms. By using an art exhibit as part of a marketing strategy, “we can leverage art and peoples’ passion and connection to art, to connect and have passion for our brand,” Schneider says.
Thus the partnership with Lam. In her sculptures, which she playfully labels “squishes,” “blobs,” and “drips” depending on their shapes, Lam riffs on biological forms to produce pieces that look almost alive. She pours paints over foam bases, creating detailed patterns of spikes, pearls, crystals, or marbled surfaces that appear perpetually wet from their thick coatings of resin. The final forms resemble soft sea creatures, or plants from a Dr. Seuss book, or odd Technicolor pustules.
Almost every work, Lam says, provokes the same question from eager onlookers: “Can I touch that?”
Now 31, Lam has a master’s in fine arts from Arizona State University and scored her first major gallery show in 2016. During graduate school, she began to post photos of her artwork casually to Instagram. At first, she recalls, a post might get 500 likes. Then the numbers crept up into the thousands. She saw a major spike in her account’s popularity in 2017, right around the time that “slime videos” — ridiculously popular videos of people playing with slime — started scoring millions of hits online. More than 15 million Instagram users have viewed one of Lam’s videos of her hand poking a “squish” that looks like a molten birthday cake with sprinkles.
“So it’s like slime got popular, and my work got popular, and I, like, benefited off of the popularity of slime,” Lam says with a laugh.
Now more than 200,000 people follow her Instagram account, which she credits with “everything.” “It’s been such an amazing tool,” Lam says. “I didn’t even realize the power of Instagram. . . . It was a whole other way to be a career artist, in a way that, you know, you don’t learn about in school.”
Instagram fame also opened another key avenue for Lam: corporate sponsorships and collaborations. Before Steve’s Ice Cream, she worked with Bombay Sapphire, the gin brand; Vans, the shoe manufacturer; and the social media platform TikTok.
Lam recognizes that sponsored art can prove tricky terrain for artists. “While there definitely is a fine line between the corporate and the fine art, I think it also creates a lot of opportunities for artists,” she says. “For people who want to pursue art as a career, it becomes a more viable option.” Through corporate partnerships, Lam says she is able to make bigger works that she would never have been able to fund by herself.
Lam won’t disclose how much she makes from sponsorships; she says she receives a lump sum for each collaboration. “I definitely am able to be a full-time artist,” she says. “And I’ve been doing better every year.” On art auction websites, her smaller sculptures are listed for prices ranging from $1,000 to $10,000. Singer Miley Cyrus, rapper 2 Chainz, and model Lily Aldridge own pieces by Lam.
Outdoors at the ICA, in addition to the large silvery drips from the roof, more drips hang from railings. And three works are big enough to climb inside: two cave-like shapes that look like melted candlesticks, and a giant blue “blob” reminiscent of a soap bubble, or maybe an ice cream scoop.
Inside the caves, it’s cool and dim. Lam attached hand-size foam sculptures to the interior; some yield immediately to the touch, some crinkle, and some leave a glittery residue on hands. It’s like popping bubble wrap, except each bubble is a surprise.
On the morning of June 9, dozens of visitors clustered around the works, posing with them for photos, touching them, and taking selfies with them in the background. From underneath a sculpture, a little boy erupted gleefully, annoucing to the crowd that he had sparkles on his hands. He scrambled down the ICA steps, leaving faint little handprints of inky-blue glitter behind him.
Sitting above him on the steps, his dad looked up from his phone. “Oh? Let me see that.” He glanced nervously at his son’s white T-shirt as the boy bounded away, then sighed. After all, the kid was having a blast.
Crave the Unexpected
At the Institute for Contemporary Art, First Fridays on July 5, 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., and Aug. 2, 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Free for members; $20-25 for non-members. 21 or older. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org.