Discreetly located north of downtown in an elegant lakeside townhouse, the International Museum of Surgical Science is one of Chicago’s more hidden attractions. Although the Gold Coast mansion itself may be enough to draw the casual attention of commuters and tourists making their way along Lake Shore Drive, no large signs or neighborhood flags will alert passersby to the structure’s varied (and variably disturbing) contents. Yet, for those with an interest in medical history, Chicago architecture, museology, or the drily macabre, the museum is worth seeking out.
As befitting its subject matter, the exhibits tend to be object-based, low-tech, and straightforwardly displayed in ways that make clever use of the pre-existing historic space, often utilizing art for both illustrative and dramatic purposes. It’s a fun—or at least fun-ish—destination for a half-day visit, even if the entrance fee ($15 at the time of writing, no AAM membership accepted) felt a little steep.
Collection-based shows are always problematic because, to an even greater extent than in other exhibitions, the story they tell is limited and skewed by the parameters of a single institution’s holdings. However, every exhibition narrative is necessarily biased, and the particular kind of limitation intrinsic to the collection show is at least upfront and obvious.
In some instances, these limits can in fact create a useful lens through which to disrupt more familiar stories of an idea or time period. In the case of The Language of Less: Then and Now, currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the all-too-pat historical understanding of “Minimalism” as a masculine, New York-based movement is troubled by the exhibition’s more global and gender-balanced approach.At the same time, both the objects on display and the labels or wall texts accompanying them provide a clear introduction to the ideas behind the push towards simplified forms in the 1960s and beyond that is still broadly referred to as Minimalism. The exhibition (which is split into larger and smaller halves of historical and recent art) therefore offers fertile ground for the thoughts of those already familiar with the history of contemporary art as well as anyone looking for a means of developing an appreciation of Minimalist objects.
Smithson―who is perhaps still best remembered for his earthwork project in Utah’s Great Salt Lake, Spiral Jetty (1970)―is featured prominently in the exhibit with two rarely seen works, Mirror Stratum (above) and an untitled aluminum wall sculpture from the Stenn Family collection. Both pieces exemplify the artist’s interest in the repeated forms which comprise the basis of both natural structures and ancient architecture.
Mirror Stratum, a corner piece consisting of a series of square mirrors stacked in order of decreasing size, is particularly evocative of both the Mayan pyramids and crystalline formations that frequently loomed large in Smithson’s thinking and production. As such, the work exemplifies a kind of Minimalist production based on simple arrangements of repeated, industrially produced objects that manage to poetically suggest a far-reaching range of subject matter.In addition, just as Flavin’s light sculptures (above) command not only the space physically occupied by fluorescent tubing but all of the area filled by their light, Smithson’s stacked mirrors produce a reflected pattern on the wall that extends far above the objects themselves. While this is consistent with a common Minimalist concern with an object’s ability to activate and define the space around it, the effect is also specifically related to what the wall text describes as Smithson’s interest in mirrors as a material that was both “physically present and immaterial, a quality that puts the viewer on heightened alert.”
Posenenske’s cardboard sculpture is actually composed of interchangeable components. The single work can therefore appear in various but limited arrangements depending on the choices made by whoever displays it. The assembled versions represent a collaboration between the artist—who was responsible for the character and number of the individual components—and the past, present, and future installers who determine its overall form.While American Minimalists like Donald Judd also created sculptural compositions based on the arrangement of individual units, these units are typically either identical or mathematically related in size and require installers to follow very particular directions dictated by the artist. They therefore lack the variability and interactivity encouraged by Posenenske’s production.
Walther’s fishing net shares the grid aesthetic of classic Minimalism. However, as a found and interactive object dependent on its placement within a gallery space for its status as art, it also possesses a heightened gestural quality that clearly bridges Conceptualism.
Tuttle also sought an open quality that is lacking in the contemporary production of many of his compatriots working within the Minimalist paradigm. Here, his dyed canvas lacks a clear top or bottom (and front or back) and can be installed anywhere in a room.
One commonality shared by many Minimalist artists is a concern with systems, often represented by the repeated forms of the grid. As noted by the exhibition’s curators, Stuart maintains this interest in “vast systems,” but turns instead to concrete models present in nature rather than the rigid, abstracted form of the grid. The complex, varied surface of Turtle Pond is actually a rubbing of soil, yet it suggests any number of subjects, from the pond of its title to the expanse of the universe.
Although To Underline was made in 1989, its origins lie in the 1960s when Buren began making paintings on striped awning. The found structure imposed by the pre-made stripes (a technique initially explored in the late 1950s by Frank Stella in his Black Paintings) helped to create a unity between individual paintings while drawing attention to the dimensions of each canvas.
Like many works in the exhibition, both Serra’s and Nauman’s objects traverse the floor and wall, suggesting a merging of painting and sculpture. In juxtaposition with one another, these deceptively simple works also offer evidence of diverging and surprisingly complex personas: Serra’s daring, stiff, austere, carefully calculated, and potentially dangerous installation seems almost aggressively (or perhaps stereotypically) masculine beside Nauman’s colorful and humorous, but also pathetically flaccid and delicate, sculpture.
Filling the first gallery of the “Now” section of the exhibit, Bove’s objects clearly reflect Minimalism’s fondness for the repeated form of the grid as well as industrial materials and a consciousness of the surrounding space. However, unlike her predecessors, she also often incorporates delicate, natural materials—such as feathers and shells—into her works.
Tuazon’s use of fluorescent lights is clearly reminiscent of Flavin’s light sculptures. However, in I gave my name to it, the fluorescents’ placement under a steel plate on the floor both muffles the light produced by the fixtures and creates a tension between the delicacy of the lamps and the weight of the metal. More generally, Tuazon’s production tends to relinquish Minimalism’s concern with pristine form based on industrial production in favor of a rougher, more do-it-yourself aesthetic.
Additionally, The Language of Less compliments the content of the monographic exhibitions currently on view in the museum’s other galleries, including the smaller “MCA DNA” shows dedicated to Gordon Matta-Clark and Dieter Roth, both of whose works from the 1970s are indebted to ideas which had started to percolate the decade before.The introduction to Minimalism outlined in The Language of Less provides a particularly helpful background for the exhibit dedicated to Canada’s Iain Baxter& (b. Iain Baxter, United Kingdom, 1936), whose often humorous objects and installations are clearly rooted in the movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, many of his works poke fun at the production of his contemporaries or recent predecessors, and so make little sense without a background in other artists of that period.
Baxter&’s oeuvre likewise suggests comparisons with the conceptual production of his compatriot, Ron Terada, whose show Being There is also up until January 15. The integrated nature of the MCA’s exhibitions creates an unusual and somewhat meandering narrative of the last 50 years that nonetheless reaffirms the importance of Minimalism, Conceptualism, and their descendants in North America and Europe.The Language of Less is on view through April 15, 2012 (Then) and March 15, 2012 (Now).
Despite ample historical evidence to the contrary, the cliché that art and science necessarily represent contradictory or even opposite approaches to the world continues to thrive. The survival of this fallacious perception is most puzzling because contemporary art, more than any previous moment or movement, persistently reveals a close, if complex, relationship between the two broad disciplines. Indeed, one of the significant shifts between modern and contemporary art has been the increased tendency for artists to integrate the methods of science—such as research, interviews, and experiment—into their productions, albeit with a continued preoccupation with the experiential. This change is in part due to the ever-increasing availability and use of intrinsically documentary media, such as photography and film, as well as a social shift towards personal documentation and data-gathering tied to social media networks, concern over governmental surveillance, and portable devices that offer a variety of ways to collect and track personal information. The extent of this shift is exemplified in three current contemporary art exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago: Exposure, Talo/House, and Lunar.
Exposure: Matt Keegan, Katie Paterson, and Heather Rasmussen (on view through March 4, 2012) is the fourth installment of a series of exhibitions hosted by the AIC’s Department of Photography. Although problematically structured around the idea of exploring “diverse approaches to photography,” each featured photographer successfully delivers a coherent and intriguing body of work that raises an array of questions.[i] Given the nature of photography, it is not surprising that many of these issues revolve around concepts of documentation. For instance, although Heather Rasmussen initially seems to present Minimalist images of randomly distributed blocks of color, her series of photographs in fact records model reconstructions of catastrophic freight accidents, which she hand-makes out of cardstock and arranges to resemble found journalistic images from the web. What at first engages the viewer through abstract design slowly reveals itself to be a complex reference to the impact of modern standardization practices in shipping on industry and economics, of which large-scale and far-reaching disasters are a significant unintended consequence. Meanwhile, on two other sides of the room, Matt Keegan’s multi-part installation utilizes several forms of reference, documentation, and presentation—such as artist’s books presenting historical photographs of New York with brief texts related to Chicago’s contemporaneous industrial and social development—to evoke relationships between the two cities. Keegan’s strategic use of juxtaposition directs the viewer without dictating any conclusions, and thereby encourages both intuitive and logical engagement. Clearly, both Keegan and Rasmussen freely borrow from or make reference to strategies of production and evidence-gathering derived from scientific fields. However, neither do so as concisely as Katie Paterson.
In capturing mute expansions of nothingness, Paterson’s slides and photographs of black, empty space are reminiscent of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s visions of the sea and theater, while her meticulous labeling and concern with the mundane suggest the rigorous documentation strategies of performance and conceptual artists like Tehching Hsieh. Yet the interest of her work, History of Darkness (ongoing), does not lie in its relationship to its artistic predecessors, but rather in her adoption of scientific documentation and subsequent disruption of the intended consequences of such documentation. Taken in Hawaii with the aid of “one of the most powerful telescopes in the world,” the images capture points in space that are completely devoid of “celestial illumination.”[ii] Although essentially identical in appearance, they each represent different locations in both space and time, and are labeled according to their distance from earth in light years. In highlighting the negative space of outer space, Paterson draws attention to areas that not only typically go undocumented, but which, as photographs, represent an apparent paradox. By recording literal nothingness, these photographs become information about a lack of information, reversing the very purpose of such documentation and the expensive tools used to produce it. As an additional touch, Paterson continues the light humor of her project and its preoccupation with the untenable by numbering her prints as editions of infinity, a move which similarly makes the numbering of editions meaningless (in the conventional sense of establishing value based on scarcity) while neatly tying back to the underlying concept of the series.
Visitors exiting Exposure can step directly across a narrow hallway to enter the exhibition space of Talo/House (2002; on view until November 27, 2011), a three-channel, semi-immersive video installation by Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila. As the portrayal of a woman whose concept of time and space is collapsing due to her perceptual inability to filter, place, and logically organize sounds, House represents an updated, more sympathetic, continuation of Surrealism. Like the early 20th century movement, Ahtila is concerned here with the portrayal and experience of people diagnosed with psychotic disorders, and similarly attempts to recreate the sensations associated with these alternative states for her audience. Also like the primarily male members of the earlier group, she has chosen to relate this experience through the eyes of a woman. However, far from the mental freedom Surrealists associated with such conditions, Ahtila portrays her subject as increasingly isolated. Over the course of the film, the character tries to block-out the outside world from her home and head as a means of gaining some sense of quiet sanity.
More important for the topic at hand is the way in which the artist gathered her material. While the Surrealists were intrigued with the ideas of Freud and tended to form romantic relationships with women who operated as their muses (some of whom later spent time in mental institutions), Ahtila composed her story based on research and interviews. Although more clinical than her predecessors, Ahtila’s method and subsequent product is perhaps more sympathetic and grounded in reality, resulting in work that seems to give her subjects a voice beyond that of mere muses.
Viewers who also had the opportunity to see the 2008 exhibition, Arctic Hysteria: New Art from Finland, at PS1 in New York will be reminded of the contemporaneous videos by Ahtila’s compatriot, Veli Granö, whose work in that show consisted of the recreation of scenes or moments described as real by his subjects, but are more likely understood as signs of mental illness or delusion by the general public. Perhaps to an even greater degree than House, Granö’s productions suggest sympathy with his socially alienated subjects by withholding critical comment and allowing them a neutral space in which to relate their singular visions of the world. Ironically, the neutrality also suggests a similar level of clinical detachment, suggesting—as a scientist would—that it is only through such disinterestedness that the subjects’ experience may be fairly expressed and understood.
Finally, the multi-media, sculptural installation, Lunar (2011), by Spencer Finch represents yet another attempt to merge aspects of science with art. However, in this case the final product tends to both mine and mimic technology and design rooted in the forward-thinking sciences of the 20th century. As a kind of earth-bound lunar module, the sculpture utilizes solar-power to reproduce the moon’s luminosity, which the artist has measured using a colorimeter. At night, the collected energy shines as light from a large buckyball, a form that automatically references environmental experiments in geodesic domes, as well as the shape’s visionary namesake: Buckminster Fuller. Although visually engaging, Lunar is ultimately less rigorous and satisfying than works like House or History of Darkness, because its engagement with science is more cosmetic than conceptual and its apparent goals—to create a different way of depicting moonlight and suggest a fanciful narrative of a space module landing on the museum—is more novel than probing. Nonetheless, the very idea that simple references to the “hard” sciences can spark the imagination of viewers and therefore enhance an artist’s work is itself an indication that scientific thinking and its markers are not only acceptable within contemporary art, but are actively sought by current artists.
Lunar will remain on the Bluhm Family Terrace until April 8, 2012.