The sculptures in Millennium Park have been up for over a year and at the end of this week they’ll be leaving, as “A Conversation with Chicago: Contemporary Sculptures from China” comes to an end.
Millennium Park is a world-class venue: loads of foot traffic, free entry, prime real estate location in downtown Chicago neighboring the Art Institute of Chicago, and already iconic works from Anish Kapoor and Jaume Plensa are permanently installed. As an artist you couldn’t ask for a better place to show your work.
The temporary shows like “A Conversation with Chicago” become a part of the fabric of the city due to their length; these artworks have been on view since April, 2009. I’ve spent countless lunch hours by the sculptures in “A Conversation with Chicago,” visited them with friends and family, and just wandered through in my spare time. So on the occasion of the “Conversation with Chicago” coming to an end it’s time to assess the second sculpture exhibition that Millennium Park has hosted, after Mark di Suvero’s excellent 2008 exhibition.
Wu Hung, University of Chicago Harrie A. Vanderstappen Distinguished Service Professor of Art History and a Consulting Curator for the Smart Museum of Art, curated “A Conversation with Chicago” along with the oddly anonymous “Millennium Park staff.”
These sculptures came to Chicago as one of several China-related exhibitions, rumored to be the result of Mayor Daley voicing a desire to celebrate China on the occasion of their first hosting of the Olympics. The subtext of which is attracting tourism from China and the now-failed Chicago bid for the 2016 Olympics. When “The Mayor” suggests you do something in Chicago, you do it. Not surprisingly then, the next exhibition slated for Millennium Park is the work of sculptor Yvonne Domenge, which is expressly scheduled to “coincide with Mexico’s 2010 bicentennial celebrations.” Both exhibitions seem to be driven by politics, which could be to the detriment of the art.
The three sculptures on view in the South Boeing Gallery were originally placed there without any guardrails, as seen in the images. As I noted in my ’09 review of the exhibition for NewCity “most people seemed more inclined to give [Zhan Wang’s Jia Shan Shi No. 46, 2001] a knock to see if it was hollow than to give it contemplation.” Since then, brutally ugly barriers have been erected around the sculptures to prevent the public from getting too close to the art. These eyesore barriers haven’t been entirely successful either; the gold leaf on Chen Wenling’s Valiant Struggle No. 11 (2006) has been picked off in a couple of places. As a Chicagoan I’m a little disappointed that we’ll be returning the sculpture with vandalism damage. The barriers definitely detract from the sculptures while being only moderately effective.
The fourth sculpture included in the show is located in the hard-to-find North Boeing Gallery. Shen Shaomin’s Kowtow Pump, 2007, fits nicely into the space (di Suvero’s work was much too large for this smaller area). Punning on our dependence on oil, “kowtow” is the act of bowing in respect to another person, and the pumps supposedly look anthropomorphic when in action, as if they are bowing. The problem is that I feel like I’ve never actually seen the piece. Sure I’ve walked by it and looked at it a lot, but the work is in fact motorized, seeing the pumps moving is fundamental to the work-it's part of the title! It supposedly operates once a day, during noon tours of the park, which ended in August. I’ve been by the piece at different times during the noon hour, in hopes of catching the artwork in action. But inaction was all I ever got. Displaying a work that is not fully functional is a missed opportunity; it’s like including a video artwork in an exhibition and then never turning it on. It would have been far better to include a different work by the artist, than to include this piece since it cannot even perform its titular action.
Back in the South Boeing Gallery, two sculptures rely on Pop Conceptual strategies. The sculpture by Wenling consists of gold-leafed Botero-esque figures hanging onto a giant pig, suspended in the air by the long tongue coming out of a red skull, that is also a mini car, which anchors the piece. The figures are struggling over the pig, which is a symbol of success and virility in China. The seriousness of the piece is offset by the goofy aesthetic, I don’t know how many people have associated the red skull car with communism or that it’s about to devour the people clambering to get on top of the pig, a metaphor for capitalistic struggle. Sui Jianguo’s Windy City Dinosaur, 2009, is a steel sculpture in the form of a red (again a significant color choice) Tyrannosaurus Rex with the text “MADE IN CHINA” running down the dinosaur’s front. The piece references the Chinese mass produced toys, like toy dinosaurs, but doesn’t go much further than that.
After a year and more, the best piece on view still seems to be Zhan Wang’s Jia Shan Shi No. 46. The work is a shining stainless steel copy of a scholar stone, a stone that is appreciated for its aesthetic qualities (interesting texture, abstract shape, or that it appears like a miniature landscape) and used for contemplation and/or in a garden. The image at right shows the work with its source rock, for comparison. Wang updates this tradition for the 21st century, modeling his stainless steel version on an actual rock. Wang creates something that is distinctly “now,” alluding to China’s rapid modernization and entrance on to the world stage, as illustrated so vividly by the Olympics. Simultaneously, Wang references the long history of Chinese art. It’s curious that he is the only artist to so, his synthesis is quite successful.
The success of a single artwork means that “A Conversation with Chicago” falls short of the di Suvero exhibition that previously occupied the Millennium Park spaces. The di Suvero show put art ahead of politics by giving a major artist the inaugural show in a prominent exhibition venue, Millennium Park. One hopes that art will again become the driving force for showing art in Millennium Park, not politics.
-Abraham Ritchie, Senior Editor, ArtSlant Chicago
(All images courtesy of the respective artists and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs)