Friday, June 29, 2012

The MCA's Skyscraper is a Soaring Success

Chris Burden, Chrysler Building; Enoc Perez, Marina Towers, Chicago

I have a confession to make that will shock my fellow Chicagoans: my favorite skyscraper is not the Willis Tower or the John Hancock Building. It's the Chrysler Building in New York. I love its art deco styling. And so I've decided to start this post on the MCA's new Skyscraper show with a picture of Chris Burden's Erector Set model of it.

Chris Burden, Chrysler Building

The representations of skyscrapers here range from literal to figurative, like this colorful sculpture.

The Vulnerable Icons portion of the exhibit calls attention to the fragility of the built environment. At first glance, Ahmet Ögüt's Exploded City looks like a cute scale model of a miniature city.  It even has a model train.

Ahmet Ögüt, Exploded City

But every building and vehicle's real life counterpart was destroyed by explosions. The bus is from London, the train is from Madrid, and the federal building is from Oklahoma City.  Hitting even closer to home are the pieces inspired by 9/11.  I found Hans-Peter Feldman's 9/12 Frontpage very hard to look at.
Hans-Peter Feldman 9/12 Frontpage

The global newspaper headlines about the World Trade Center attacks brought back so many bad memories.  To me there are two timelines: life before 9/11 and life after it.  Because it happened just months after I graduated from college, I feel as though it cast a bitter shadow over my future.  I still see it as a reason to despise the year 2001.  Sometimes I still wish I'd graduated in a different year.

Roger Brown's Ablaze and Ajar seems oddly prescient though it was painted years before the tragedy.  Despite my sentiments about 9/11, I can't help but find humor in his paintings, even in this one.  I sense Roger Brown has both pity and schadenfreude for the little people falling from his towers. It makes me think about the folly of our human endeavors.  How silly of us to place so much faith in our built environments when they could crumble and burn, toppled, leveled, and scorched by nature's fury. 
Roger Brown, Ablaze and Ajar

It's a reminder that our buildings are not monoliths but are impermanent, and ultimately are subject to the laws of gravity they stand in defiance of. (Ironically, I am writing this in a high rise building as storm clouds gather outside the windows.)

Kader Attia's Untitled (Skyline) is a beautiful installation made of refrigerators of varying sizes covered in little mirrors.  In a stark contrast to the doom and gloom of the Vulnerable Icons, it expresses a sense of wonder.

Kader Attia's Untitled (Skyline)

We can spy on the people in the windows of Jennifer Bolande's Appliance House.  The piece is an ingenious use of lightboxes and transparencies.

Jennifer Bolande, Appliance House

Jennifer Bolande, Appliance House (detail)

Appliance House made me wonder why we feel the need to put curtain walls in our contemporary buildings.  Are our lives on display? Is the profusion of windows exhibitionistic or voyeuristic? Have we become the people who live in glass houses that the old saying warns us about? I like art that makes me think.

There is something magical about Yin Xiuzhen's Portable City.  Each little city fits into a suitcase, and the buildings are all made of fabric.


You really need to see it in person to appreciate the effect.  This photo really doesn't do it justice.  And there is even a model version of downtown Chicago in a suitcase, which, judging by the crowds around it, seemed to be the most popular piece in the gallery.

And then there were things like this.  Guess what this sculpture is made of?


Yes, that's right.  This sculpture is a tower made of Lego bricks.  There's also a tower made of stacked cardboard boxes.  When I see pieces like this in museums, I feel a strange mixture of resentment, anger, amusement, and envy. Who are these people and why do they get to show stuff like this in museums? (And why can't I do it, too?) Warhol was right. Art really is what you can get away with.

Speaking of Warhol, his experimental film Empire is playing in the exhibit.  I would recommend it to anyone who is an insomniac or enjoys watching paint dry.  Even the caption on the wall says that it was intended to test the patience of the audience.  It is the embodiment of everything I hate about video installations.

But I know there are people out there who love video art and minimalist Lego and cardboard box sculptures, (not to mention the giant orange-enameled I-beam I forgot to mention) so I won't rain on your parade if you happen to be reading this blog.  There is something for everyone in this show. And I must admit, an MCA exhibit would feel incomplete without these sorts of things. They are the enforced tropes of the contemporary art world.  By now it would be weird to go to a contemporary art museum and not hear someone complaining, "my kid could make that."
Enough snarkiness. I will end on a positive note, with a picture of another piece I really liked, Erica Bohm's Austin Building (from the Cityscapes series), a digital photo printed on Plexiglas.

Erica Bohm, Austin Building (from the Cityscapes series)
The Cityscapes Series is another collection worth seeing in person.  The Plexiglas gives it an ethereal quality that the photo above cannot convey.  The vignette styling gives it a haze of nostalgia applied to a new building, using contemporary digital technology to create a 19th or early 20th century feel. (The Instagram effect)

I've always been a city girl, so of course I have a natural affinity for this show. Skyscraper is one of the best shows I've seen at the MCA in a very long time. I like it as much as the 2009 Buckminster Fuller exhibit, and plan to go see it again.  Skyscraper: Art and Architecture Against Gravity runs from June 30th through September 23, 2012.  Visit the MCA's website for more information about special events related to this show. (And try to go on a Tuesday evening if you can!)

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