THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
A hunger for representation and critical inquiry into social identity has been sweeping American contemporary art in recent years. Chicago’s art community has been particularly active in this movement with exhibitions such as “Out of Easy Reach,” “The Time is Now!,” and the publication of Art in Chicago, which re-examines the city’s artistic history through a 21st century lens.
Given this cultural moment and Chicago’s leading role in the world of architecture, one might expect that Lincoln Park’s Wrightwood 659 exhibition space would be a fitting venue for “Dimensions of Citizenship: Architecture and Belonging from the Body to the Cosmos.” And perhaps it is. Wrightwood has framed its mission around providing “contemplative experiences of art and architecture, and as a place to engage with the pressing social issues of our time.”
“Dimensions of Citizenship,” installation view. Photo by Tom Harris. Courtesy of Wrightwood 659, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago.
The struggle for coexistence between contemplation and engagement with social issues has become a dilemma of the contemporary art world, particularly on the international scene. The biennale structure has been franchised out to countries around the globe to generate tourism revenue and the cultural capital that comes with an elevated role on the world stage—though, more often than not, class divisions, exploitive labor, and financial losses cloud an event that presents “socially engaged” art to a public that seems to already know what the message is. I witnessed some of this myself in the 2015 Kochi-Muziris Biennale as well as in documenta 14.
Wrightwood 659 may behave as a microcosm of these larger events. It is an institution that embodies the aesthetics of elite international cultural institutions. It is austere, minimal, and expansive, while giving a slight nod to its own physical past. The repurposed bricks that line the interior walls feel oddly alienated from their almost century-long history as part of the structure’s inner bones. They now face a monolithic concrete staircase that connects the multilevel galleries and the rooftop addition that overlooks the neighborhood. Architect Tadao Ando redesigned the space and has himself been a prominent feature in two of the four exhibitions that have been on view at Wrightwood 659, including the current one, simply titled “Tadao Ando: Architect.”
Diller Scofidio+Renfro, Laura Kurgan, Robert Gerard Pietrusko with Columbia Center for Spatial Research, In Plain Sight. Photo by Tom Harris. Courtesy of Wrightwood 659, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago.
Ando has succeeded in creating a contemplative space. Entering such a transformed environment is a precious feeling. That is why “Dimensions of Citizenship” feels like an oil and water mixture of quiet and disruptive. Cutting through the meditative atmosphere are flat screen TVs and bright green signposts that partition the exhibition and thematically categorize the representative works within the range of concepts being explored: Citizen, Civitas, Region, Nation, Globe, Network, and Cosmos. Each term is presented with a question designed to provoke critical analysis of its subject and shape the viewer’s experience of the work, making the exhibit’s rhetorical mission all the more clear.
This exhibition first appeared at the Venice Biennale of Architecture, and its installation at Wrightwood is its first appearance in the United States. In spite of my own hyperpolitical analysis of the surrounding issues with the format, I really enjoyed this exhibition. I encountered works that were both charming and insightful, such as Thrival Geographies (In My Mind I See a Line) by Amanda Williams+Andres L. Hernandez and Shani Crowe. Others were urgent and informative, as with the ambitious, high-tech collaboration In Plain Sight by Diller Scofidio+Renfro, Laura Kurgan, and Robert Gerard Pietrusko in collaboration with Columbia Center for Spatial Research and the playful and eerie film Where the City Can’t See by Liam Young. They boasted new forms of technology as well as new forms of institutional and social organization at drastically different scales.
SCAPE, Ecological Citizens. Photo by Tom Harris. Courtesy of Wrightwood 659, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago.
It is important to note that the exhibition’s descriptive text states that the works “do not solve the complex relationships” that are elucidated. Despite this, some of the works do celebrate the bridging of gaps and the reaching of common ground, such as in Studio Gang’s Stone Stories in which everyone, from a local artist to a mayor, re-examines America’s grim past with slavery to address the needs of the Memphis, Tennessee community today. Ecological Citizens from SCAPE proposes solutions to environmental problems through landscape architecture and the use of sustainable materials in the production of biologically friendly infrastructure.
The traditional role of architecture has a minimal presence in this collection of works. Rather than present expressive sketches and pristine models of ambitious structures with big budgets (more on that later), “Dimensions of Citizenship” takes a close look at the architecture and infrastructure that we take for granted and which shape societies and the identities of those within them.
Projects like Mexus from Estudio Teddy Cruz+Fonna Forman or In Plain Sight provoke viewers to see structures beyond the material. They are determined by collections of resources and the activity around them. In Mexus, the border between Mexico and the United States stops being a line of demarcation between two regions. It is, instead, itself a region where purported societal notions collide with necessity driven by access to space and resources. In Plain Sight does something similar in its analysis of electrical power grids; who controls them and who has access to them. After pinpointing locations in which indigenous peoples have no access to local electricity, which is controlled by foreign entities, the film presents names and quantities for the populations of global regions defined not by borders but by access to concentrations of electrical power.
Design Earth, Cosmorama. Photo by Tom Harris. Courtesy of Wrightwood 659, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago.
Dimensions of Citizenship’s other elements are more aspirational than revelatory. In the Network and Cosmos portion of the exhibition, projects like Keller Easterling’s Many and Design Earth’s Cosmorama speculate on new models for society and infrastructure. Many, a digital platform still in beta, suggests that migration is a constant in our global society and presents a system in which short-term visas can be granted based on the mutual needs of individuals and those who could benefit from their talent and labor. The speculative models in Cosmorama, sampled from the book Geostories, imagine a more advanced and thoughtful consideration to geographical citizenship beyond the planetary surface. The two-dimensional illuminated illustrations and 3D printed re-imagining of classical sculptures reference the earliest iterations of Western civilization and the age in which the notions of the “citizen” as we know it today were being formed.
These works and a few more included in the “Transit Screening Lounge” are what a viewer has access to at any given moment in which they decide to book a free ticket to Wrightwood 659. In addition, as is the case with many exhibitions in the biennale model, there is homework. A series of programs including talks are held in conjunction with the exhibition, and a collection of essays were compiled and are available for purchase in book form for $25 as well as for free on dimensionsofcitizenship.org.
Where Wrightwood’s version of this exhibition feels a little lackluster is in its promotion of social interaction—another expected provision of the biennale format. “The Transit Screening Lounge” is really just a wall with TVs on it that you have to get very close to in order to hear the audio. The spacious areas outside of the galleries have a table with benches on each floor, one of which is strewn with books featuring narratives and theories about citizenship, the environment, and architecture.
On the floors above, “Tadao Ando: Architect” is in keeping with the citizenship theme while also standing in contrast to it. Ando’s designs are modeled around contemplative experiences with art and identity but are presented in forms much like what you see at an architecture firm. The Church of the Light and the Pulitzer Arts Foundation’s museum are two prominently featured examples but, of all the models, it is the Benesse Art Site Naoshima, located on that island in Japan, that creates a dramatic spectacle for viewers.
Multiple building models representing museums and hotels on the island are supported by a minimalistic scale model of the island itself comprised of vertical slats that reflect the island’s topography. A video projection of the island’s horizon line views spans the wall behind the model while ambient music plays and a light underneath the model slowly oscillates between blue and orange.
There is a correlation between Ando’s designs and the themes in “Dimensions of Citizenship.” Ando is sensitive to the spatial needs of contemplation, and Naoshima Island is terrain that has been re-forested, an essential and underutilized practice in the worldwide need for environmental stewardship.
While “Dimensions of Citizenship” poses challenges to conventional notions of the relationship between architecture and identity, “Tadao Ando: Architect” does little to assist in that challenge and perhaps re-enforces said conventions. This contrast between the simultaneous exhibitions suggests that, in spite of the innovative ideas emerging in microcosm around the globe, we are still a long way from the institutional powerhouses of the world forgoing tradition to fund the architectural visions of the future that could shape social structure and identity for generations to come. Until then, all most of us can do is contemplate and speculate while banking on necessity overcoming vanity.
“Dimensions of Citizenship” and Tadao Ando: Architect were on display at Wrightwood 659 from February 28 until April 27, 2019.
Evan Carter is a contributing editor of the New Art Examiner. He earned his MFA degree in 2017 from the University of Chicago and wrote about documenta 14 in a prior issue of the Examiner.
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