Tony Tasset’s giant, 30-foot eyeball has landed in Chicago. Located in the heart of the downtown area, Tasset’s Eye sculpture resides in Pritzker Park on State Street, across the street from the Harold Washington Library. Completed on June 28th and unofficially unveiled on July 7th, the sculpture has become a part of the daily grind for the downtown workforce and bears a critical examination at this point.
Chicago’s public art collection is one of the oldest in the country, at least in the recent conception of public art. The city’s collection of public artwork contains the great names of modern art history, a list that the brochure for Tasset’s Eye even repeats: Miro, Dubuffet, Picasso, Chagall, Calder. Tasset is now added to this list, though “for a limited time” as the brochure notes; the sculpture is temporary and will be removed after Halloween. The lack of Chicago artists permanently on this list has long been criticized and Tasset has been privately and publicly cited as an artist who should correct this imbalance. In fact this commission was the result of a competition, with Tasset being selected by a committee that included two curators from the Art Institute of Chicago, James Rondeau, the Frances and Thomas Dittmer Chair and Curator of the Department of Contemporary Art, and Zoë Ryan, the Neville Bryan Curator of Design.
Placing Tasset directly into this artistic lineage and context means that his contribution will be seen in terms of these other artists and their works, a comparison that Tasset acknowledges and even invites, stating in the brochure for Eye that he “aspire[s] to the ambitions of those works.” However, the works by Miro, Dubuffet, Chagall, Calder, Kapoor, etc., bear the stamp of Modern Art quite overtly, Tasset’s work is anything but, and should be assessed accordingly. Tasset described his aesthetic in a brief interview I had with him as “Pop Conceptual,” a term I like and think fits his output well.
Eye is successful in its conceptual simultaneity. It is simultaneously populist and art-insider, silly and smart, familiar and sinister. We can all relate to sight and eyeballs, and there are a host of popular phrases associated with the eye; someone giving you the evil eye, or a batter in baseball has a good eye when he lets a pitch go by. The eye has a host of art specific references too, from Clement Greenberg’s nebulous references to having an eye to tell good from bad paintings, to Salvador Dali’s (and Luis Buñuel) infamous short film Un Chien Andalou in which a woman seems to have her eyeball slit open with a razor (see the YouTube video for the scene).
Confronting Eye in person the popular associations overwhelm the art-related ones, but it also gains new associations via its location in Pritzker Park. The park itself has been a magnet for Chicago’s homeless population since it was constructed a couple of years ago, primarily because of its location near the library that has public restrooms and air conditioning. Visiting Eye now you can observe tourists going up to take their pictures with the sculpture while groups of homeless men lounge around it, usually within the frame. The homeless populations are usually invisible to most people and most cities; it’s a startling contrast to see moneyed tourists side-by-side with the poor under a giant eyeball. The work seems to ask us what we see and what we willfully do not, especially in this particular location.
Tasset’s Eye also seems to ask us who watches us, as the eye stares squarely back. Upon seeing the sketches for the sculpture in an early press release, seen above, I was immediately struck by the Big-Brother-is-watching aspect of the sculpture. Seeing it and living with it has not allayed those feelings. Granted that public surveillance is not something I am in favor of to begin with, but the location of Eye is within mere blocks of the Willis Tower, the tallest building in the U.S. currently and thus a terrorist target, with a 2007 plot already thwarted. Surveillance gazes are both a threat and a necessity, and Chicago is the single most monitored city in the U.S., according to an Associated Press report from earlier this year. Also, Eye is not the only artwork in downtown Chicago that relates to surveillance, as Joel Kuennen wrote recently for ArtSlant, Roger Hiorns’ Untitled (Alliance) takes security and surveillance as its primary topic by presenting engines from a surveillance airplane. Nor is this a new topic for artists to explore in a Chicago context, I took surveillance to be a primary aspect of Michael Wolf’s 2008-9 exhibition “The Transparent City.” Living under a regime of constant surveillance is proving to be fertile ground for artists to explore, as it seems here to stay and to expand since terror threats don’t seem to diminish and as Chicago citizens seek some way to stem the crime of the city.
It’s inevitable to notice that the technical realism of Eye breaks down a bit on closer examination, the red veins and the eyeball itself are nicely enough done, a gloss coat over it gives it a moist look. But I would have liked to see the iris of it more translucent and shimmering via techniques like heavily layered oil paint or by use of different materials like reverse-painted glass. It’s a temporary piece, and the iris is even an independent unit within the sculpture itself, so perhaps we will eventually see another iris.
But rather than its strict realism, the questions that Eye implies are what make this sculpture successful. Though I do wonder if this sculpture would prompt these questions in other locations, Tasset’s selection of the eye is so flexible I am sure it would adapt. A major aspect of public art is that the public feels a need to visit it and in that respect Eye is succeeding quite well, with Eye Tasset is bringing the “pop” as well as the “conceptual.”