BY MATTHEW KEESHIN
In a recent video, Glenn Beck donned a faux-European accent, a painting palette, and the elitist attitude of the cultured academic art snob for one of his signature rants. That stereotypical art snob –and his snarky, exclusive culture— is challenged in the exhibition Sic Transit Gloria Mundi : Industry of the Ordinary at the Chicago Cultural Center.
Adam Brooks and Mathew Wilson a.k.a. Industry of the Ordinary (IOTO), started working together in 2003, although they had previously called Chicago their home after growing up in England. The show is both a mid-career retrospective and an ongoing series of collaborations and events engaging the space between local artists, performers, and artisans.
In a piece entitled Phosphorus, the artists photographed their urine change color over time after consuming a crate of beer. Accompanied with a description to inform the view on the process, the photograph is a time-lapse of each glass of urine. All the sequence really accentuates is just the observation of what happens after you drink a lot of beer, but by documenting it, the artists elevate that action in a gallery context to reflect on it. And this is the type of work Beck was mocking, but Phosphorus is not trying to shock anyone for the sake of it. In Beck’s video, he parodies the infamous Piss Christ by the artist Andres Serrano by placing an Obama bobblehead in a jar of urine to argue it’s worth a lot of money. His perception that art is expensive and ridiculous is what the show fights. Although the exhibition was not conceived for making money, it is not exempt from some absurd antics.
The real dialogue of the show begins when the artists focus the lens on the internal workings of the building itself. In Secure, a portrait of the Chicago Cultural Center security guards is one of the stronger pieces that connect the everyday to the idea of creating and exhibiting art. The portrait gives a face, in this case faces, to the underlying group that manages the building. Between a beeswax cost-molded baby, video art, and other installations, the portrait stands out as a moment that connects the art, the architecture, and participants, both artistic and civic, together. Although a frequent presence at exhibitions to protect the art, security guards are usually ignored by the viewers. The portrait forces the viewers to address the security guards’ existence and by becoming apart of the exhibition, the security guards are connected to the daily interworking of the building.
The Chicago Cultural Center has always been a venue for art, film, and music performances, but this exhibition is different because it functions like a temporary studio for the artists to collaborate directly with their audience. The show initially looks to break down the hierarchy between the public and the art world. Through many mediums including painting, photography, installations, and sculpture, the artists explore” being normal” by looking at how art impacts us on a daily level and our relation with it. The center as a site for performance and events, such as happenings, dances, and film screenings, occupy the exhibition by engaging the audience to get up and move around, not just sit comfortably in their chairs. In One Careless Gesture Away from Destruction by artist Anna Kunz and choreographer Paige Cunningham, dancers performed in a show combing classical ballet and Vogue dancing. After the performance visitors were asked to join the artists for a workshop to dance. This is where the audience defines their own experience of viewing art and not restricted by any traditional standards.
Although the exhibition looks to break typical boundaries between art and community, the show still mainly uses the same exhibition methods to display the work. Today, people are even more attuned to experiencing art online rather than hung on white walls, pedestals, and non-threatening display cases. The exhibition excels best with the ongoing collaborations that are really what differentiates this exhibition apart from something that would happen in a museum. With so many regulations, museums don’t typically get to turn gallery space into a studio. These collaborations spark a dialogue with the city of Chicago. During the election, IOTO commissioned the Harvest, a butter sculpture bust of Obama. This is one example where they found local artisans and an “ordinary” material that became something extraordinary. Ice sculptors as well were commissioned to make sculptures that were strategically placed outside in the streets of Chicago. By not limiting the exhibition to the building and engaging artisans that are not typically viewed as “high art” skills, the art is able to infiltrate the city and generate a more relatable experience an audience can connect with.
By incorporating community participation within the exhibition space and throughout the building, Sic Transit Gloria Mundi provides a more tangible way to experience art and lets viewers leave the exhibition having a better understanding how their everyday routine incorporates art.
Matthew Keeshin is an art and design consultant whose experience has included working with galleries in New York and Chicago focusing on contemporary painting, sculpture, and design. He is the director (and occasional cartoonist) of art, architecture, and design blog DRA.