Today seems like an appropriately rainy day to discuss Pae White’s Restless Rainbow (2011) at The Art Institute of Chicago, which I saw and photographed about a month ago, on a day when it was pouring rain. I’ve been mulling over the piece ever since. Restless Rainbow is a site specific installation created for the Art Institute’s Bluhm Family Sculpture Terrace, a public space which features stunning views of Chicago’s Millennium Park (visitors do not have to pay admission to access the Terrace). Unlike previous pieces exhibited here, such as Roger Hiorns’ Untitled (Alliance), 2010–a pair of Boeing surveillance plane engines into which the artist claimed to have inserted drugs, or the vertical abstract forms of Rebecca Warren’s small group of bronze sculptures–White’s piece does not directly engage the Terrace’s famed skyline views. Or rather, it engages the skyline by blocking a large portion of it out, save for a small porthole window cut into the center of one of its facades.
The same week that White’s installation was unveiled, the Chicago Tribune ran a story–I think it would fall under the ‘human interest’ category–about some early reaction to the artwork with the headline “Art disrupts wedding plans at Chicago’s Art Institute.” The sub-heading explained, “A new installation will block views from the outdoor terrace, upsetting couples.” Not surprisingly, the article came to be known as the “Bridezilla story” among some of us who read it and had a laugh over it. There’s no doubt the story has colored the subsequent reception of White’s piece, and has probably made a lot of people view the piece more favorably than they might have otherwise. After all, who wants to take a Bridezilla’s side in this kind of debate? And yet, to be fair, the brides-to-be quoted in the article seemed well aware of the risks they were taking when they contracted the Terrace for their wedding, and seemed to relish the notion that the works of art installed there would provide them with–irony of ironies–readymade centerpieces. They just weren’t expecting the “clown’s nightmare”–the quoted bride-to-be’s description, not mine–within which their dream-day setting was ultimately stuck.
But let’s bracket off the wedding issue for a moment to look at how White’s Restless Rainbow functions as a site specific art installation. The AIC’s online exhibition description notes that White’s impetus for the project stems from her own musings about the open-air setting: “What would happen if a rainbow became disorganized—would it fall from the sky? What if a rainbow misbehaved, causing its color spectrum to take on new order? Would it include black, as rainbows in comic books often do?” Indeed, White’s palette of eye-popping yellows, oranges and black evokes vintage Batman comics, (pre-Dark Knight), although White’s inclusion of bright pink bands within this comic-style rainbow works to fuck that recognizable color scheme up in a way that I quite liked.
Still, the installation as a whole doesn’t work for me — something about it feels off. The parts don’t add up to any kind of satisfying whole, I definitely don’t get “disorganized rainbow” from the way White’s paintings occupy the space, and I am slowly coming around to the conclusion that that may not have been the point. In person, White’s installation feels very much like a three-walled stage set slapped up on the balcony walls as opposed to an immersive environment. It doesn’t enhance your experience of this public space (which is all about picturing Chicago) — it looks and feels like what it is: a temporary facade constructed from two mural-scaled vinyl wall paintings and a floor painting installed in the out-of-doors.
White wanted to bring out the unique spatial dynamics of the Bluhm Family Terrace, dynamics which are typically ignored in favor of the impressive views the Terrace offers. As it turns out, however, the spatial dynamic of what is essentially a large, rectangular, concrete balcony is not all that interesting in and of itself. Indeed the Terrace’s whole reason for being is to function as a frame for Millennium Park, a frame which simultaneously acts as a mirror that reflects one of the most prized aspects of Chicago’s cityscape — its famous skyline — back to museum-goers, who can be wowed by it, take photos of themselves leaping in front of it, and, if they’re locals, take pride in it and by extension in themselves. By blocking off a huge portion of that view, White–like one of those rubbery-faced DC villains who wreak havoc on Batman’s Metropolis–has effectively destroyed this neatly self-reflexive dynamic. The terrace’s vertical bars only emphasize the sense that we are looking out at the city from within some kind of cartoon prison — its vastness diminishing before our very eyes within an hysterical, spinning vortex of eeeeviiiiilll.
It’s not like Pae White stole the skyline from Chicago, of course, but I do think those who criticize the Art Institute’s decision to exhibit this piece during the summer months have a point. In Southern California, where White grew up, summer is…well, okay, it’s not exactly endless, but it does last a looooong time. They have summer to spare there. That is not true in Chicago. Summer means something very different here — it’s more valuable, for one thing, because there’s less of it to enjoy. As a result I don’t think it’s possible to experience White’s Rainbow as something other than a revocation of vista because vista is precisely what that Terrace is all about. White’s Restless Rainbow transforms the Terrace’s famous view into a reverse-spectacle of pleasure denied, a perversely controlled “point of view” dictated not by the wandering eye, or even architect Renzo Piano’s knowing framework, but by the artist’s own willful design. Does this make White’s Restless Rainbow into something that’s ultimately really brave and smart and even kind of brilliant in an evil mastermind kind of way (as in, “I’m going to take away the view that the people think they own, in order to make them see that they never really owned it”), or is it merely an example of artistic hubris (as in, “My painting will be more interesting to look at than the great Chicago skyline!”). I still can’t decide, but I’m pretty sure I can hear the Joker laughing right now.