Thursday, April 2, 2020

Flashback 2009: Art lives! With a little help

Take your time: Olafur Eliasson, MCA Chicago—May 1 - Sept. 13, 2009 (Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago)

    I spoke to a curator at The Art Institute yesterday, for a future column on COVID-19 kneecapping Chicago culture. Which made me think of this piece from 2009, when I benefited from the insight of the director of the MCA. 

     One of the pitfalls of my job is something I call "The Curator Effect," where you are led through an experience by an expert and later undervalue the role of your guide — I guess we could also call it "The Virgil Syndrome." A prime example of this occurred years ago, in Boulder, Colo. My colleague Roger Ebert was showing "La Dolce Vita," stopping the film almost frame by frame to comment on the Fellini masterpiece. 
     It was fascinating, a bravura display of knowledge and passion.
     Later, I rented "La Dolce Vita," excited to see it again, only to be disappointed to find that, without Roger, it seemed flat, a lugubrious black-and-white movie in Italian. I couldn't finish it.    
(Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago)

     My fault, I'm sure. Yet a reminder that certain experiences pall without an expert — the Colosseum in Rome is just a ruin baking in the sun unless you pony up the euros for a guide to tell you the stories behind the stones. 
     Or the Museum of Contemporary Art. Over spring break, the boys and I, looking for an alternative to the standard slog through The Art Institute, took in the MCA, a process that didn't fill an hour, including the gift shop, and left us all agreeing that while the museum store was truly remarkable, the museum itself was a pretty box with not much inside.
     Unfair, since at the time, half of the museum was being set up for a big show by Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. The show opened Friday, and I felt obligated to return and walk through it, led by museum director Madeleine Grynsztejn.
    "You are standing in a room of light," she said, as we stepped into a large space bathed in a lemon glow. "Light is the material he knows in his bones." This is exactly what I'm talking about. Left to my own devices, I might sweep through the yellow room with a shrugging glance at the placard. It would reinforce my general belief that contemporary art is a symptom of cultural decline—Renaissance Italians hewed pietas from white marble, and we install a few yellow bulbs in a bare room, cook up a few lines of explanatory gibberish and call it art.
     Then, Grynsztejn, who came to Chicago last year from San Francisco, where she curated an Eliasson show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, went to work, pointing out how, in the yellow room, the colors fall away—everything looks black-and-white. Indeed very cool. Then, the viewer looks into the next room, and the white walls appear blue.
     "You've created blue!" she said. "When you see that room, that's when this piece is completed— he wants you to co-complete this piece with him. That blue is totally yours." I'm not doing Grynsztejn justice. Most people can't put four words together, even if you feed them the first two, so I never carry a digital recorder. But Grynsztejn offered such a torrent of erudition and enthusiasm, I cursed myself for not bringing a recorder while I desperately tried to scribble down the highlights. Still, 80 percent of her words outraced my overwhelmed fingers and were lost into the ether, itself a small, spontaneous act of performance art, a subtle comment on the ephemerality of knowledge, like those Nepalese monks who create gorgeous mandalas out of colored sand, sing a little song, then sweep them away. Nothing lasts.
     Eliasson is from Iceland, and several works attempt to convey the harsh landscape and austere beauty of that remote island nation.
     "Can you smell the piece?" Grynsztejn said, as we walked into a room where an entire wall was covered with delicate bone-colored clumps of arctic moss. "We shipped it out from Iceland." A complex fragrance, pleasant, like herbal lace.
     The next room had a wall of black hexagonal shapes.
For some reason I didn't mention this room, where an
industrial fan raged above visitors' heads, like a chained
beast. (Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago)
     "This is compressed Icelandic soil," she said. "Aren't they beautiful? Aren't they gorgeous?" They did indeed seem gorgeous, though I worried that I was under her spell, bewitched by erudition, and that readers, not so blessed, would merely wander, puzzled and disappointed, through the galleries.
     Some of the works seem like they might dazzle without commentary.
     "This is a piece he created in response to my request for him to create something new for San Francisco," she said, standing inside "One-way colour tunnel," a passageway of rainbow glass. "The piece symbolized where we live now in the 21st century, half on screens and half in the real world. It looks like a computer rendering, but it is also physical, like our lives now." Unlike the online world, you need to be present to grasp it.
     "Olafur gives us the gift of actual experience," she said. "It cannot be commodified because it belongs to your personal self." As long as you have the background, I suggested.
     "This is very visceral work," she said. "You don't need a degree in art. You need curiosity, you need empathy." Perhaps. I left the Museum of Contemporary Art impressed with the austere beauty of Iceland, the virtuosity of Olafur Eliasson and the geysering intelligence of Madeleine Grynsztejn, though not in that order. You can only see something for the first time once, so I can't go back and experience it afresh without her, though I imagine public reaction will range from viewing it, like much art, as something of a scam, to being swept up in the artist's complex vision.


How many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb? Two -- one to hold the zebra, the other to cover the sofa with brightly colored dental tools.

              —Originally published in the Sun-Times, May 3, 2009

(Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago)


  1. Thank you.
    You have taken me to many places over the years. Places that i would never have known existed - but now can't wait to experience first hand.

  2. Maybe it's just the curmudgeon in me, which grows stronger as I age, but I'm afraid I share your "general belief that contemporary art is a symptom of cultural decline." To me, if you have to explain a joke, it's not funny, and if you have to explain a work of art, it's not artistic.

    1. Although I have to admit with some shame that my initial reaction to non classical art tends to be curmudgeonly, I have found it wonderful, even enchanting, to have someone like Madeleine Grynsztejn explain an unfamiliar work of art. Not too long ago, my sister and I visited a museum of American Indian art in Phoenix and it was truly a delight to listen to an expert translate, deconstruct and explain works that without her help, I would not have appreciated beyond wonderment at how anyone could call this "art" in comparison to Rembrandt, Cezanne, Monet, etc.


    2. I'm as curmudgeonly and as cynical as they come...and my response to a great deal of modern art is: "People make money from THIS?" And sometimes: "People with too much money are forking over the big bucks to OWN" If that makes me sound like an unsophisticated rube, so be it. (I do love Mondrian, though. But maybe he's not so modern anymore.)

      Some contemporary artists have really made me shake my head in amazement. The worst example was that crucifix standing in a vial of urine. Massive uproar and outrage. Churchmen were...dare I say it?...PISSED. They leaned on the authorities. The artist was threatened with arrest. Instead, the health inspectors shut down what was known as "Piss Christ" (what else?).

      Pass that pipe over here, dude.

  3. Even a Rembrandt can be viewed dismissively by someone ignorant of the context.
    Compare a Rembrandt to a photo and you get s shrug from a young person.
    Explain to them that such an image wad created without the benefit of machines - and then go into detail of technique and the tools used and suddenly there is a glimmer of appreciation.

  4. The Impressionists were under appreciated in their time. Of course, art appreciation — like beauty — is in the eye of the beholder. I must say that the artist who planted a crucifix in urine and called it Art was a scam artist trying to cash in on people’s gullibility. There are undoubtedly many individuals out there who wouldn’t recognize a Picasso if it were hung in their living room.


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