Only the second exhibition at the MCA organized by Senior Curator Dieter Roelstraete, The Way of the Shovel, opening tomorrow, takes as its basis Roelstraete’s ongoing observations about the centrality of the language of archaeology, archive, and history to art discourse over recent years. Spanning a wide grouping of artists and mediums (though, not surprisingly, focused in particular on photography and video), the show is ambitious conceptually as well, attempting to cover work that challenges histories, creates its own alternate histories (with starting points ranging from Robert Smithson to histories of Chicago), and takes up the tools and practices of archaeology both metaphorically and literally. I spoke with Roelstraete the week before the show opened about the archaeological imaginary, artistic research, Freud, and 9/11.
Derek Brunen, Plot (production still), 2007.
The Way of the Shovel brings together a few different academic disciplines and methodologies that the artists in this exhibition either participate in or explicitly challenge, particularly history and archaeology. How literally or metaphorically are you thinking about archaeology here in theory and practice? What is the “archaeological imaginary” that guides the show?
DR: Well, first of all, I’m using archaeology in both senses, because it would be extremely dull to consider archaeology only in a literal way. The roots of the project lie in an essay I wrote in 2009 called “The Way of the Shovel” in e-flux, which is the basis for the catalog essay for the show. It was a piece I wrote when I was still living and working in Europe, so it is a little determined by the European context, but when I came here (not to my surprise) I discovered this was not just a European affliction, but a global phenomenon. My observation was that there is a quite persuasive interest in history – historiography, archival research, returning, recycling, and so forth– among a growing population of contemporary artists; and that many artists use the language of digging for explaining their work. Excavating, uncovering, discovering, digging, mining– these terms also mined geological vocabulary. My theories for why this metaphor was in intense use in a fairly substantial number of artists is in the essay. By “archaeological imaginary,” I mean this phenomenon of the dig, which covers the whole gamut of uses of the language of archaeological in artistic practice, from the most metaphorical to the most literal and scientific. Mark Dion is an example of an artist in the show who collapses those two terms.
Tacita Dean, The Life and Death of St Bruno, from The Russian Ending, 2001.
I’ve observed increased attention being paid to the concept of “artistic research” recently in many different scenes: in arts writing/criticism, in the increased number and types of publications for artists presenting research, and in funding for artists who explicitly understand their practice to be research-based, particularly those artists who collaborate with different kinds of academics. What is your sense of the current place of “artistic research” as a concept? When does an artistic practice “count” as a research practice, particularly a historical research practice as in this exhibition? How can artists perform research in ways that other researchers (like archaeologists and historians) cannot?
DR: It’s relevant here that I am a philosopher by training, not an art historian, so I’m quite sympathetic to idea that art is some kind of an embodied form of theorizing. I’m interested in that access, and in tandem with this interest in history, I’ve also observed that in the last ten to fifteen years the rhetoric of art has been rephrased in broad terms using the language of research. And of course an awful lot of things are being done under the name of research. I really appreciate the ambition of artists to think of themselves as not just working with forms and ornaments, but also with information. I also have a strong attachment to the notion of the avant-garde and the idea that art is some kind of “other” research, an alternative knowledge, not in the spiritual sense of a fifth dimension or something like that, but really the knowledge of the marginalized, the overlooked, forgotten, and downtrodden. But while I’m interested in the critical charge of art’s claim to be some kind of research, the whole discussion of artistic research is a huge one that is also based in the academization of art in recent years. There’s increasing pressure on students to present what they do as some kind of intellectual enterprise, which has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Steve Rowell, Points of Presence, 2010-ongoing.
Speaking of “other” research: the archive, as a collection of capillary, primary, everyday documents, is often understood to be a powerful institution for disrupting or destabilizing dominant narratives. How does the archive function in The Way of the Shovel?
DR: Well, the archive itself is a kind of excavation site, one of the many kinds of things that serve as an excavation site in this show. One of the smaller exhibitions within the exhibition is devoted to Freud, who collected antiquities and always thought of psychoanalysis in archaeological terms– for example, the excavation of trauma. Along these lines, we can think of the archive as site of mining… another site that in the last ten years has become hugely appealing to artists of all types and backgrounds. Again, the reasons for this phenomenon are manifold. One of the theories that underlies the show is the notion that the present has been so depressing that it’s actually interesting to dwell in the past. In the last ten years there has been a huge upsurge of interest in the history of artistic modernism, not just modernist forms but also modernist ideals. That also figures deeply in the show.
Stan Douglas, MacLeod’s, 2006.
You’ve spoken a lot about the last decade of artistic production. 9/11 seems to be an important historical anchor for the show. Do you see 9/11 as the end of a particular era, as some theorists do? Is this date important because you think ideology has changed since then– or art, or both? The concept of the “end of history” seems relevant here.
DR: I don’t want the dates to be too historically present here, but the milestones of the chronology of the show is first, the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989, and the events of 9/11 at the other end. The fall of the Wall and the subsequent collapse of the USSR created a mythology that we were living at the end of history, as in Fukuyama’s essay celebrating the triumph of liberal democracy and putting forth the idea that we would all consequently live in some state of ahistorical bliss. This was the dominant mood of the 1990s in the West until 9/11, the day we woke up and realized that history has not come to an end, and that we are always going to be its subjects and subjected to it. The results of that particular moment continue to this day and created a dark period in world history. I’m thinking of the moment back in 2003 when around the world millions and millions of people took to the streets to protest impending invasion of Iraq, and the invasion happened within a few weeks nonetheless. Right then and there maybe a lot of artists thought to themselves, “I don’t want to live in this present.” They might rather look back, though not necessarily to any kind of golden age. This is completely hypothesis on my part, but it provides a bit core argument of the show in terms of explaining the return to history among artists. This wasn’t an intense interest in the dominant artists of the 1990s; for Matthew Barney, the relational aesthetics artists, and so forth, history was not such a big deal. Today it is much more so, and this has to do in part with the realization that the past is not such a distant country.
Two years after the first iteration of his epic USSA 2012 project opened at threewalls in 2011 in the form of the hyper-conceptual “orphanage project” (after a controversial Bad at Sports podcast about an orphanage the artist had allegedly proposed on the South Side drew confused ire), Zachary Cahill brings the third and final installment of his world to the Smart Museum. USSA has grown up and outward over the years, its hallmark institutions morphing from orphanage to gift shop (the People’s Palace Gift Shop at the Cultural Center last summer) and now a riff on a mountain sanatorium. Each iteration has also gotten even more ephemeral, diffuse, and challenging: the Smart Museum show, entitled USSA 2012: Wellness Center: Idyllic—affair of the heart, consists of a banner declaring “A Sea of Wellness,” a number of watercolor paintings scattered in offices around the museum, and both analog and digital postcards from the Wellness Center. (There’s also some heart-wrenching confessional poetry and estranging emoji, among other digital objects, on the show’s website.) For Smart Curator Sarah Mendelsohn, the challenging evasiveness of the show, and Cahill’s world, is part of the pleasure: “The difficulty of locating the USSA is part of what makes the conversation around this work so enjoyable,” she reasons.
This kind of logic is certainly in line with Cahill’s larger themes. USSA 2012 has taken on vast aesthetic, political, and increasingly personal topics for the artist over the years, and this latest iteration is no exception, with references to different kinds of modernisms within the history of painting, Thomas Mann, and the relationship between wellness and art, within his ever-present wide-ranging institutional and cultural critiques. I spoke with Cahill over email after the show’s soft opening last week. (nb all strikethrough text is intentional)
Idyllic—affair of the heart banner
MW: Can you write an introduction to an imaginary travel guide for USSA? The culture, the people, the flags, the scenery depicted in the postcards, the social institutions, the art, the vibe… Is it an Olympic village? Cosmopolitan (as I imagine sanatoriums to be, as the art world is?)
ZC: ok here goes:
Sochi 2014 Cultural Olympiad
2013 – The Year of the Museum
USSA 2012:Wellness Center
The fourth year of the
Sochi 2014 Cultural Olympiad USSA 2012:Wellness Center is devoted to museums. As always, the organizers of the first Winter Games in the history of Russia USSA will present the public with hundreds of the best cultural events. They include dozens of exhibitions, shows, competitions, festivals, and special exhibitions, as well as forums, workshops and educational programs that will be held throughout the country.
Sochi 2014 Cultural Olympiad Wellness Center is a unique project by the organizers of the USSA 2012, offering the best cultural events in the country. In 2014, visitors to the Olympic host city will not only be able to evaluate the sporting competitions, but also Russia’s the USSA’s cultural diversity at dozens of performance venues located in Sochi and Krasnaya Polyana. Therefore, since 2010, the Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee, along with dozens of regions throughout the country, has been carefully selecting the best of Russian USSA culture. Between 2010 and 2014, thousands of diverse cultural events have and will be taking place throughout the entire country. Each year, the Cultural Olympiad is dedicated to a different art form: 2010 was the Year of the Cinema, 2011 the Year of the Theater The Orphanage Project, 2012 the Year of Music The People’s Palace’s Gift Shop, and 2013 is the Year of the Museum/Wellness Center 2014.
The national scale of the project will make it possible to involve every resident of the country in this grand celebration of music wellness, maintaining and increasing the cultural riches of our country. All of the events of the Cultural Olympiad can be followed on
That’s kind of what I imagine it would sound like, but maybe written in the style of Thomas Mann (who is something of a spiritual grandfather to the wellness center-his book The Magic Mountain is especially important)…The artist Susan Hiller I think once said about her project From the Freud Museum…something like, “I think we all live inside the Freud Museum, metaphorically.”..not meaning (obviously) that we live inside her installation but i think something along the lines that today we all are are living in and through the influence of Sigmund Freud and the life of the unconscious…possibly the Wellness Center is a bit like that…it’s not something I made exactly…it’s just something we all are living in…wellness as a perfume-y like presence that can’t be nailed down to any one specific location…
Wellness Center watercolor 13
MW: What do you think of USSA as a kind of “worlding”? What is its ontological status?
ZC: I am sure that is probably right but I feel like maybe the USSA isn’t so much a form of “worlding” but rather marks the condition of being world-ed…moving in and by forces that are in many respects beyond our control…maybe the difference is negligible … I guess I’d say for me that the project…the totality of the USSA 2012 is really ontologically unstable and that’s kind of the point…it’s not that I am looking to create fiction….or create an alternate universe or what have you… it flickers…my understanding is that these alternate universes are what we all create and inhabit everyday…we can’t stop doing it…even the most so-called unimaginative person is a hardcore world-builder and imagineer…they maybe even the best at it… seeing as it’s their boring hum-drum world that we (for lack of a more credible option) seem to buy into and slog through most often….I guess everyone is worlding…so many worlds colliding…
MW: The project has reached the end of its lifespan– the orphanage story, childhood to adulthood, and now (after) the end. It’s also getting arguably more conceptually challenging as well as seemingly more personal. Is it getting more permeable with the real world for you? Where do you leave the world?
ZC: I always hoped that the USSA 2012 project would have something like a life span that could be mapped onto the different iterations…youth (the orphanage project)…middle age (the gift shop) and old age (wellness center)…and maybe..who knows …an afterlife?
Yes, it is getting more overtly personal in a sense… and these different life phases are meant to reflect a kind of growth through time…
MW: Re: getting personal: is the painting genre as personal a genre for you here as the confessional poetry? What kinds of approaches do you take to both?
ZC: I think so…in each instance [painting and writing] for the Wellness Center Project I try to be as honest and forthcoming as I can…Still, the confessional poetry piece is difficult for me to talk about…I wrote it…It’s out in the world and that’s about all I can manage to comment on at this times….
Some of the paintings work this way too…but I suppose different modes of working are put to use for different parts of the project…so for example, with some paintings I try to imagine what the wellness center patients would make…what kind of paintings they would do as guests at an early 20th century European sanatorium…Of course, the imaginary is pretty close to the real in these efforts…I think the choice
of color gets at the personal for me…especially the use of fluorescent…I think if Munch were alive today…he’d probably use a lot of fluorescent paint…is that a way of answering the question?
MW: You have talked about the difference between internal and external experience, which also comes up in the curatorial writing for the show. Those experiences seem to map onto the painterly influences here: the small human figure in an overpowering landscape (Friedrich), the hugeness of subjectivity and interiority in expressionism. I guess this isn’t really a question. Here’s my question: is this hunch right? How is it more complicated than I suggested?
ZC: The blurring of the internal mind scape and the outside world is definitely an interest…In fact, I am teaching a class on the subject next year [Cahill is a Lecturer & Open Practice Committee Coordinator in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of Chicago]. I have been pretty influenced of late by a book a friend of mine recommended, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition, by the art historian Robert Rosenblum, where he describes the psychic economy of painters like Van Gogh, Munch, and many others while tracing a Romantic lineage back to Caspar David Friedrich…It is a fantastic book of art history!…Illuminating sections abound. For instance,I had always wondered what is the opposite of the notorious commonplace “art for art sake”…Rosenblum points out that Van Gogh was interested in art for life’s sake…I never heard it formulated so simply and that is something that interests me…
For the banner at the Smart Museum I was thinking about CDF…it is “after him” as they say, or some sort of perversion of his Monk by the Sea painting… which has always held a special place in my artistic heart because it so vividly merges an inscape with the landscape…I am sure you’ve experienced that feeling when…it’s raining and somehow it just suits your mood perfectly and some kind of equilibrium is reached between your mood and your surroundings…that was what one of things I was going for in that painting…and how the psychic landscape might attach itself to the “real world” of human activity too.
MW: Past iterations of the USSA seemed more explicitly political than this one. How cynical or sincere are you politically in this show? Aesthetically?
ZC: Well I am sincere but I am not sure that matters much…my sense it is of little consequence to viewers whether I am sincere or not…they don’t need me to be…that said the politics are there… in other projects of mine the political element has been pretty foregrounded and some might say strident…like nails on a chalk board (or so I hoped)… but this project for me has to do with psychology… a turning inward and trying to a concoct propaganda of the self…like what if your unconscious started to make banners and agitate… a revolution of the psyche…could that be political?
MW: What’s with the flowers you’ve been posting on Facebook?
ZC: Slow to the party…I recently began to grasp the significance of flowers after talking about them with a couple of friends…and I started taking photos and looking closely at them over the summer around my neighborhood and discovered…shocker…flowers are amazing…they do all sorts of crazy things to light to get the colors they do…natural fluorescence…
I started thinking about bees and pollination…and how people use flowers in front of their homes, at weddings, funerals, …rituals…and I concluded that flowers must perform some apotropaic function….like a teddy bear or church gargoyle… they are meant to keep the bad vibes away…
and then I starting thinking of flowers in relation to propagation and propaganda..etymologically tied…and realized flowers are supremely political…so with all the NSA data collection going on I thought…well, if they want to know something about me…let them know that I love flowers..so the flowers on Facebook were a kind of protest but also a kind of advent calendar before the project at the Smart Museum opened.
Flowers for Bad at Sports
MW: Art and mourning: these are the two huge driving themes for the show. What is art mourning? You’ve talked regarding previous USSA projects about economic depression, the way we’re all “waiting for recovery,” and healing from the trauma of the Bush era. Can art help us mourn? What is mourning?
ZC: I suppose I can only answer for myself here…But speaking in generalities (knowing I am going to say this all wrong and embarrass myself) …I think art is a very fundamental human thing… By that I mean art is a lot like one of the  senses…it’s a way of apprehending the world around us…now Art clearly gets caught up in all other types of associations like the art market and folks tend to get hung up on that stuff but I think art is just something we do as people…market or not…
Therefore, I guess I’d say art can be an outlet for mourning …or that grief can pour out into your art …just
like it can pour out into any other aspect of your life…art might be a healthy outlet and also a way of sharing the experience…commiserating…when you suffer a major loss in your life you look for ways to cope …perhaps if you’re an athlete your pour that energy into competition, or if you’re a writer you write, but sometimes the grief can be so overwhelming that none of the things that once made you strong and “together” can fend off the sorrow…so if art fails it’s a bit like having another part of your body cave in…but hopefully you find the resources to just hang in there…friends and family are important here and…well… so is therapy.
In terms of a larger geo-political situation that you mention…I do think art can have a similar function, it can help society recover, but it can no more make the world a better place than breathing…or sleeping… basic things humans do…true, when put to good practice things like breathing and sleeping and even art can make an enormous impact on the state of the body politic…that’s encouraging and why I am big fan of political art and art that may or may not realize its political efficacy.
MW: People are going to be really confused about this show. At least I still find it ineffable and often difficult to parse symbolically, like a warren of rabbit holes. At lunch the other day you talked about an artist (I forget his name) who loved Apollinaire because his criticism was always wrong. You’re interested in misinterpretation. Are you interested in critics getting this show wrong? Is this why so much of this project is oblique: to allow room for misinterpretation? What do you think about calling this show an inhibition instead of an exhibition?
ZC: The quote, if i remember right, was from Georges Braque, whose work I adore…and it’s not so much that I am interested in people getting my work wrong or baffling the critics…it’s just in some sense people will always get it right …even if I have no idea what they get out of it … my take on the project is simply one view among others…which is to say I am a tad mistrustful of artist’s intentions (not that i unreservedly accept other interpretations)…It’s just I think we often tell ourselves what the work is about for a whole host of reasons but there is (I think) always this weird secret cause behind the work…maybe it’s not always secret exactly, but maybe some artists (myself included) have to look past that secret thing in order to create the work…it’s a blind-spot that helps animate the work…this is a good thing…do people instinctually connect with that blind- spot…my guess is that they do…they don’t know how or why they feel that blind-spot but when it gets to them if stuff is working right…maybe the rabbit hole analogy is a good one…I guess my work is made for the diggers…people who like to get down into things….and I hope that I create enough spaces for them to tunnel into….because I have that interest….I like being onto something too…
I mean I very much like the direct experience of being in front of an art work, but I enjoy being haunted by art works too…a visceral quality that occurs with the work of some of my favorite artists…they infect me and I can’t stop thinking about it…Ideally, I’d like my work to do both: give off an affecting sensation for the viewer and to haunt them after they walk away from it… my work wants to have its cake and eat to….
To your last question…I am very much interested in what I think of as in-hibition, as a kind of balance to the idea of exhibition…perhaps stemming from a sense that we share a fatigue of living in public constantly…and wanting to create work for specific people that might not get seen by the “viewer”…this is why I made works to be displayed in the offices at the Smart…they are on view but just for the people that work there, not the generally audience…it’s for the people that live and work at that institution everyday…or: the material posted to the Smart Museum’s website, the post cards in the gift shop, the Smart phone performances… in each case I am looking for another type of connection to the viewer that play off one another….
So while i do think the traditional the exhibition setting of the gallery is great and the most efficient format for art— having potential to form something like a commons…which is how I hope the banner functions….I am interested in other ways people might encounter the wellness center too …live with it and in some sense make it their own… in-hibition and exhibition…perhaps it’s a type of swinging door
Various exhibition and performance elements of the “USSA 2012: Wellness Center: Idyllic—affair of the heart” show will take place between now and August of 2014 at the Smart Museum of Art. More information is available on the museum’s website.
The boat was supposed to be five times this large. Kevin Blythe Sampson was slated to create an epic vessel for “Vision and Vernacular: Eight African American Artists in Venice,” an exhibition of African-American self-taught artists and graffiti muralists organized by the American Folk Art Museum in New York for the 2011 Venice Biennial. But as the troubled museum faced collapse, sponsor funding was pulled and the show canceled. A year later, the former executive director of Intuit, Cleo Wilson, who knew of the artist’s frustrated plans for the epic ship, began talking with Sampson about traveling from his hometown of Newark to Chicago to be the second artist in residence at the museum and create a site-specific sculpture related to his original plan in Venice. Sampson arrived on January 11th and has been putting together An Ill Wind Blowing for the two weeks since, using recycled material from previous work and found objects from the back rooms of Intuit. The result is a multimedia interactive installation with an aesthetic of contingency, vulnerability, and stratification that corresponds shrewdly to the thematic content of the show.
Now retired, Sampson worked for twenty years as a composite sketch artist while a police officer in New Jersey, after a superior in the department noticed the cartoons he doodled of everyone and sent him to sketch artist school. There, Sampson jokes, he discovered that he actually had to learn to draw, but when he enrolled at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art, he was immediately recruited to teach airbrushing there and stayed for decades. Now focused on teaching younger students, Sampson collaborates extensively with graffiti artists and muralists and dismisses the label of “outsider,” dryly noting that the label tends to make contemporary African-American art more palatable to certain white collectors. Sampson has been focusing on sculpture, particularly movable memorials, since 2000 (he’s been struck in Chicago by the white painted bicycles of cyclists killed by cars); and his first vessels and ships, now a common theme, began as responses to family tragedies. But it’s Sampson’s background as a self-identified “ex-cop with lots of Tea Party friends” as well as a “civil rights baby” that helps to explain the surprising complexity and ironic humor that coexists with An Ill Wind Blowing’s deadpan directness about politics and history.
The conceit of the ship is a way of conceptualizing the brokenness of contemporary America. Divided into three sections, with space in between filled by rubber rats (“You think about rats jumping off a sinking ship, but I think of them as the waves floating the boat,” Sampson mused during a Q&A yesterday at Intuit), the prow of the ship is filled with artifacts of the “liberal elite,” including work by established artist friends, copies of The New Yorker, and other cultural superstructure signifiers. A fishing net repurposed as a basketball hoop stands as an homage to Obama, and visitors are encouraged to write their own political frustrations onto scraps of paper emblazoned with pictures of politicians, crumple them up, and try to make a shot. (Sampson, whom I spoke to during the installation process, originally wanted to create an analogous interactive “penny toss” for the poor at the back of the ship but couldn’t fit it in to the space). This kind of provocative, deceptively simple trope marks the piece as a whole; the middle section of the ship, representing the “nasty” contingent of politics and the “24 hour news cycle of insanity,” obstructs and separates the front of the ship from the stern, which is filled with debris and objects of the poor and working class, including a picnic basket of Cheetos and white bread, plastic coins, and chicken bones. Deeply textured and layered, even burdened, with physical symbols, the boat is the clear star of the exhibition; but related drawings that fill the gallery walls (including one of the best abstract portraits of Mitt Romney I’ve seen, depicting him as a tentacled alien driving a car with a shark-toothed grill) offer charged but more delicate, often humorous counterpoints. Earlier sculptures by Sampson, including an early ship, give a sense of the artist’s larger sensibility. And lyrics to folk songs (Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” and the African-American ballad whose tune Dylan appropriated) face off from the walls on either side of the ship; Sampson is deeply interested in the history of folk music in America, and the opening of An Ill Wind Blowing at Intuit tonight will feature folk ballads by Mark Dvorak.
But the symbolism of each individual element in An Ill Wind Blowing matters less to Sampson than process, whether political protest or art-making. He collaborates as a rule, constantly recycles work, and considers most of the finished work disposable. “I never work alone, and I work listening to CNN instead of music,” he laughs.
An Ill Wind Blowing opens tonight at Intuit, the Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, and runs through April 20th.
[Monica Westin is a member of the collections and acquisitions committee at Intuit. She is not involved in the exhibitions committee, including any planning related to Sampson's residency, nor on the board of Intuit.]
January 18, 2013 · Print This Article
I came on as the Managing Editor of the Bad at Sports blog about a month ago. It’s been an exciting turn and I hope to do well by it. A few people have asked what my vision going forward is, and I thought I might say something about it here. I hope to continue reflecting on the dynamic energy in Chicago’s contemporary art world while connecting to conversations and aesthetic agendas in other cities and disciplines. That agenda was set in place a while ago and I believe I can continue to guide and focus that intention. There is room for experimentation in that vision, which seems necessary to me. Bad at Sports has never presented a tidy, singular package and as such, I believe it would go against the nature of the project to filter content and tone through a single, editorial lens. Its roots in independent, DIY and Punk Rock collectivism remain at the heart of the project’s vitality and the blog is a platform for unique and individual voices that pass through the subject of contemporary art and culture. As such it becomes a nexus of concerns and responses to culture at large. That is something I hope to preserve under my stewardship. As an artist-run forum, Bad at Sports has the unique capacity to reflect on a host of subjects, exposing the intellectual, aesthetic and social networks that define and subsequently influence cultural production. I believe it is our job to explore and discuss the contexts we inhabit. In doing so, we further establish a living touchstone and future archive of contemporary discourse.
Some changes should be apparent already — others will fall into place like pieces of a puzzle in the coming months. The process is organic, but I’ve been trying to set up a casual, thematic architecture that unfolds over the course of a given week. Eventually, I hope to schedule two posts a day, one before 2pm and one after. Built in to this, is room for special occasions and guest writers — those posts would either go live in the evenings, or fill in existing gaps. To that end I’ve been inviting a number of new writers, many of whom I have admired for a long time.
Here is something of a loose schedule:
Mondays: Essays and reflections from old favorites Jeriah Hildewin, Shane McAdams and Nicholas O’Brien — writers who have been posting with consistent dedication. In addition, I’m excited to announce a new bi-weekly column by Dana Bassett, whom you may know for her ACRE Newsletters.
Tuesdays are dedicated to three subjects: Performance, Social Practice, Language (or the performance thereof) and Object Oriented Ontology. Confirmed participants include longstanding contributor Abigail Satinsky and Mary Jane Jacob (Social Practice), Anthony Romero and João Florêncio (performance), Gene Tanta (language), Robert Jackson (OOO).
On Wednesdays, we will read about artists and art in other cities. The following writers will post on rotation: Jeffery Songco is covering the Bay Area, Sam Davis continues to represent Bad at Sports’ Los Angeles Bureau, Sarah Margolis-Pineo is writing about Portland. Juliana Driever will be relaying posts, interviews and artist profiles about New York, and then we’ll bring it back to the Midwest with Kelly Shindler’s dispatch from St. Louis, and Jamilee Polson Lacy writing about Kansas City.
Thursdays herald our illustrious Stephanie Burke’s Top 5 Weekend Picks and a new monthly contribution from author/translator Johannes Göransson whose writing you can also find here.
Fridays have been set aside for art reviews and artist profiles with contributions from Danny Orendoff, Monica Westin, Abraham Ritchie and myself.
WEEKENDS will feature a range and flux of the above, plus Brit Barton’s Endless Opportunities, cultural reflections and short essays by Terri Griffith, continued posts from Jesse Malmed, in addition to a monthly contribution from the newly confirmed Bailey Romaine and Adrienne Harris.
My last note is this — there is room in this schedule for additional posts, posts that would feature special events, festivals and conferences in the city. That space would also be available to, at times, connect the blog and the podcast. As a first indication of this, we will be highlighting IN>TIME, a performance festival that is going on as we speak, from January until March.
Otherwise if you have any comments, suggestions or, even guest posts you would like to submit, please feel free to contact me at: email@example.com
September 12, 2011 · Print This Article
GUEST POST BY MONICA WESTIN
As environmental art progresses and then doubles back again between earthworks and site-specific land art to more explicitly ecological work, there’s a real question hanging in the air these days about what kind of awareness art can or even should bring to the natural world, and what successful environmental art might look like or do. Michael Wang’s article in May’s Artforum about the contemporary merging of architecture and the environment focused on the process of making the invisible visible—such as the work of experimental architect Bernard Tschumi in Santiago, who uses polluted air as “material for design”—avoiding simple propaganda about air pollution in making public encounter part of a zone of aesthetic experience that includes the weather. Wang closes his discussion with a call to “make evident” the “dissolution of boundaries” between the human and the natural.
This might seem like an overly-heady invocation to an intentionally very family-friendly art show at the Morton Arboretum—and much of the art doesn’t lend itself to much discussing in academic terms, though it’s fun for the kids to look at, like a stack of tree logs with a huge bow on top or fluttering wisps of kite-like material improbably named “Soul of the Trees”—but there are a handful of pieces that are remarkably thoughtful, even groundbreaking in their approach to the question of this boundary between nature and human. While a few works seem completely disconnected from their environment in the arboretum, others offer new perspectives on the framing of nature and the issue of medium specificity. A couple offer explicitly environmentalist messages, and a handful of them—which are as cutting-edge and thoughtful as any other art I’ve seen in Chicago this year—actually reflect on the work of this frame itself and offer up a strong model for what a critical environmental art practice might look like.
First the slightly less interesting pieces. The You are Beautiful collective presents a huge namesake sign, not unlike the Hollywood sign, at the top of a hill—white from a distance, but yellow on the sides close up. The piece is about the relation of the work to space and the perspective of the viewer, but there’s no interaction between the work and its environment; it sits in a clearing, framed by nature. It could be anywhere. Slightly more interesting but falling squarely into the old activist ecological art mold are Theodoros Zaferiropoulos’ “How Far Have We Gone?,” which turns cross-sections of a tree trunk into stepping-stones eventually disappearing into a small lake; and Thomas Matsuda’s “Purification,” consisting of tree trunks burned to charcoal and displayed provocatively amongst the living trees in the arboretum. Both are visually interesting, but they take up an old rhetoric that sometimes makes my eyes glaze over, and it’s hard to read much meaning or self-consciousness into each about the environment of the arboretum itself.
This is where I owe a big citation to Chris Millers’ review of the show in New City; Miller points out that the arboretum is “more about science than aesthetics” and is therefore “an appropriate setting for conceptual art.” Just pushing it one step further, I would argue that the arboretum is slightly artificial, itself on the boundary between the human and the natural; many plants growing there are not native to the area, and the only reason that this refuge exists is because the Morton Salt company family are generous and progressive enough to create this sort of natural simulacra. We might even think of an arboretum as having the kind of “dissolution of boundaries” that Wang discusses… and I wish more of the work had commented on this liminal, weird environment in which their environmental art would dwell.
Juan Angel Chávez’s “Jimshoe” (named after a homeless man the artist met) seems more challenging. Built with found materials and resembling a cocoon as well as garbage, the piece holds—or possibly vandalizes—a tree that young visitors to the arboretum are encouraged to climb (the day I went, the work was framed off with an orange plastic fence). The work is closed, the tree is framed (twice over for me), and it’s hard to tell whether the piece would change much if the cocoon were surrounding an industrial swingset. Similarly, Letha Wilson’s “Wall in Blue Ash Tree,” while visually interesting—on one side, a smooth white wall with branches poking through; on the other, as though backstage, the unpainted and patchwork wood, and tree, supports for the piece–also doesn’t make any strong claims for nature/art relations or boundaries as such. What makes both pieces interesting visually has to do with the material relation between processed and raw wood, but I wanted more reflexivity about the boundary, about the framing process.
Which brings me to the most unlikely suspect for the kind of thought-provoking, meta-aware praxis of environmental art people are looking for: a crochet-covered tree called “Lichen It,” created by Carol Hummel and a number of volunteers. It looks exactly as you’d imagine, but with garish colors in yellow, red, and purple that make the tree look diseased. It’s easily the most popular piece of art, the most photogenic, and the most funny (at least for people who are familiar with yarn-bombing and/or grew up with a plethora of throw pillows and afghans strangling their bedrooms) of any of the works in the show. The first time I saw it, I took some pictures for a couple posing in front of the tree and didn’t give it a second thought—until I walked fifty paces away and saw, in a groomed, manicured hedge with flowers growing in between, the same color combination of yellow, red, and purple. This garden was just as unnatural as the crochet, and the juxtaposition posed real questions to me about material, form, the way we frame nature in everyday life as well as art. In other words, it makes the invisible visible. “Nature doubly framed and overly implicated,” the show should read, and the kids would still have just as much fun.
The show runs until November 27, and since I’m writing this delinquently late, you have probably already gone to see it if you were planning to. However, I’d urge you to go again, to see what happens to each work as the natural world, and its relationship to the work, changes.
Monica Westin is the former Deputy Editor and current contributing art editor to Flavorpill in Chicago, where she also regularly writes about art and theater for New City, Chicago Magazine, and the Huffington Post. A current PhD student in rhetoric at the University of Illinois, Chicago, Monica teaches courses on arts writing and new media in DePaul University’s Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse department.