Mini-golf at an art museum? Why, it’s enough to make you drop your monocle into your tea. But it’s Walker Art Center, the spiky-haired quirky aunt to the MIA’s proper dowager, so that makes sense. They’ve done it before, mixing art and putt-putt pleasures, but because construction has ripped up the terrain around the old Walker and its sculpture garden, it’s up on the roof of the new building.
Since it’s the Walker, you might think the course might get … conceptual. Two of the following course descriptions are true. Spot the false one:
18 Holes in One: “The topography is a manifestation of all 18 holes of the legendary greens at Augusta National laid one over the other. You will encounter a unique, nonlinear, spatiotemporal golfing experience like no other.” You hit the ball, it reappears in another dimension! Yesterday!
Putt-Pong: “Maneuver your golf ball through a plexiglass net and a tangle of colorful ping-pong paddles in this hybrid game of putt-pong.” You just won’t tell anyone you did putt-pong because it sounds like it involves dubious touching.
Dutch Clutch: “A video installation takes the place of a traditional hole; you watch a looped film of a windmill, interspersed with footage of Marxist rallies and images from 1970s commercials. The intersection of post-national identity and shampoo advertising is explored with fluidic intentionality. Par 0.”
Yes, the last one is false. Expecting someone to watch a video, nodding — I get it, I really do — would not be fun, and the point of the Walker’s mini-golf course is fun.
We had the chance to play the course before it opened, and it was fun even in the rain. The holes vary from cheerful to high-concept. Kids may not grasp the intertextuality of the Augusta superimposition, as a book in the Walker museum store might say, but they will be amused by the barnyard scene of “Guess What? Chicken Putt!” or the big hot dog and fries that make up “Let’s Be Frank.”
But what makes those art, in the Walker sense? They could be found in a real, non-ironic mini-golf course. Does that mean the sculptures in a real course are real art, too? Wellllll, yeeeeessss, but it depends. If you take them out of the mini-golf course and put them in a museum, then they’ve been recontextualized, so you regard them as commentary on the postwar car culture that assisted the mini-golf boom.
Speaking of personal transportation: No need to rent a cart, because the holes are close together in two separate patio areas. You will know if it’s a hole or a piece of non-golf-related art by the presence of a sign, which explains the work and says how many strokes it should take you to get the ball into the cup. If there is no sign, then it is a bunch of tables and chairs, and you can sit down without a docent shooing you off because it’s actually a sculpture grouping.
The least impressive, to be honest, is “Rock! Garden.” It contains “three glittering boulders that stand as more than mere obstacles — these boulders contain analog instruments (xylophone, tambourine, drum, taut strings) that sound when you strike your ball against them.” We heard only three sounds, and banging a ball into some colorful slices of metal just to hear the dull plink of a toddler’s xylophone isn’t quite the thrill this description suggests.
The most ingenious is “Right on Cue.” It’s a pool table. You use your club as a cue. In an audacious subversion of historical norms — sorry, can’t help it — the corner pockets are BAD. You want to sink the ball in a hole in the middle of the table. Other balls are glued to the table to emphasize the illusion of freedom the Western world has historically associated with spherical shapes. (Sorry, did it again.)
My favorite, and most classically Walkeresque, is “Thrillo-Brillo.” It stacks up the old Brillo boxes made famous when Andy Warhol was in his “take something someone else made” phase. If only there was a picture of Andy at the end of the course, and you tapped the ball through his slack open mouth. He would have loved that.
This isn’t like real mini-golf. For one thing, it’s not maddeningly impossible, an interminable experience you get tired of playing halfway through. Most holes are par 3, but you’ll probably want to go for a ridiculously high score just to linger on the roof and enjoy the view. Yes, you can see Loring Park. No, it’s not the water hazard. If it is, you’re swinging too hard.