Second to None
WRITTEN BY Kitty Garner
Read the full post to learn more about the fabulous public art in Chicago!
“Let’s be frank, the Bean is hot.”
So boasted the Chicago Tribune in 2006 as Anish Kapoor’s gleaming leguminous sculpture was unveiled in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Despite the fact that the massive mirror-finished piece is patently bean-like in shape, Kapoor’s inspiration was liquid mercury rather than a diminutive vegetable, and the artist rolls his eyes at the “completely stupid” sobriquet. Instead the Indian born, London-based artist prefers Cloudgate, a moniker that is perhaps too precious for a midwestern venue. While the official name does mirror the reflective quality of the sculpture on a cumulus-laden day, as well as the artist’s philosophical bent, Chicagoans are not metaphorical by nature—rather they are straightforward and call a spade a spade (or a bean a bean).
Whatever one chooses to call the sleek, spare piece looming over the Loop, it was immediately embraced by an enraptured populace and became an instant icon for That Toddlin’ Town, garnering applause from all camps, high-brow, low-brow, et al. The simplicity of the Bean’s appearance belies the technical trials involved in designing and creating the piece. Fabricating a seamless surface over the steel armature was one of the most taxing technical obstacles for the engineers, and such technical conundrums led to a cost overrun in excess of $10 million (saddled by private funders).
The Bean borrows from a minimalist heritage, with a nod to Judd, Serra, Nauma and Hesse. Kapoor’s work, however, has a sensuality which is generally lacking in the art of his forebears. The Turner prize-winning artist calls his pieces “non objects” and his works blur boundaries, leverage illusions, and challenge perfunctory perceptions. Even his largest works have a certain “sculptural incorporeality”. Critics have waxed that the Bean bridges two realms and have lauded Kapoor for inviting us to consider a state of “inbetween-ness”.
Still, the throngs who flock to Millennium Park each day don’t appear to pander to the spiritual elements of Kapoor’s work when playfully circling the Bean. Rather, they seem to delight blithely in the fun of the piece. After all, when one is in the underbelly of the Bean gazing up at the omphalos, the funhouse-like mirrors create the sense of a carnival arcade, with stretched, distorted reflections repeating to infinity.
While there may be a few who contemplate the Bean as a portal leading to an enlightened realm, most simply seem to relish indulging in a gleeful moment of narcissism, as they, smartphone in hand, take the requisite selfie with Bean. And perhaps that is what the best public art is able to do—provide satisfaction to the surface for all, as well as fodder for those who wish to probe a bit deeper.
THE CROWN FOUNTAIN
Just a short stroll across Millennium Park is another massive contemporary piece, The Crown Fountain by Jaume Plensa, which stands in stark contrast to the Bean, despite their similarity in scale. If Kapoor’s piece is a vision of minimalism, Plensa’s work is a maximal magnum opus—a sensory playground meant to enthrall, amuse and unite a diverse urban community. The work was made possible by the uber philanthropic Crown family, which desired to make a civic donation in the form of a water feature in Millennium Park.
A number of contemporary artists were considered for the commission, but it was Barcelona sculptor Jaume Plensa who ultimately was chosen. Known primarily for his conceptual work, Plensa researched the historical and philosophical nature of the fountain before engaging in his design. The more he considered the fountain as a trope, the more he became intrigued. Transforming the concept of a fountain into a visionary and socially relevant piece of public art was a challenge which enthralled the artist. “Plensa was immediately captivated by the chance to co-opt an ancient, historical symbol, a fountain, a meeting place where once people came to obtain water, the substance of life, exchanged ideas, learned of each other’s accomplishments, consoled one another in their losses and celebrated their common humanity.”
The possibility of creating a contemporary work with a distinct tie to the past also dovetailed with the artist’s interest in time as an organizing principle for his work: “I have always maintained that sculpture has more to do with time than with such secondary problems as scale or space—this concept of time as the sediment of experiences within a general memory where our recollections also fit. The finished work begins it own cycle, and just like another memory it becomes linked to the vaster memory, in which no chronology makes sense. Time is the substance of my work.”
Plensa often explores dualism in his work as well, a theme on obvious display in The Crown Fountain, as the work is made of two 50-foot towers of illuminated glass brick united by a reflecting pool of ebony granite. The opposing dynamics of the piece create a dualistic frisson: the vertical towers contrast with the horizontal pool, the softness and the lightness of the spraying water play against the unyielding, dense stone. Using more than one million light-emitting diodes, the colossal screens randomly display the countenance of more than 1,000 Chicago residents who “converse” with one another across the water, just as people historically did when at a village fountain. The screens display images of the faces smiling, frowning, guffawing for several minutes, and then, for the last 60 seconds of the display, they pucker up as a spray of water pours out of their mouths (from a spout embedded in the brick). Thus, they are instantly transformed into digital gargoyles, linking them to historical fountains such as the Trevi. The screens go black as the images transition, and during the respite waterfalls cascade from the tops of the two towers until two new Chicagoans brighten the screens.
In the dog days of summer the fountain becomes a bit of a high brow Wet ‘n’ Wild, as children splash and romp in the water, squealing with peels of laughter as the gargoyles spray and the waterfalls cascade down on to the granite. Sensory overload may develop as one takes in the bright visuals emitted from the screens, the timbre of the falling water, added to the visceral sensation of being in close proximity to others engaged in the same frenetic experience in the sultry summer swelter. The images reflect the diverse Chicago population and so do those who come to frolic in the joy of the piece.
In winter, the water feature is suspended and the piece takes on a more serene, ethereal presence, particularly on a snowy or foggy day. The physiognomies of the residents are to be updated periodically, so that the two faces peering across Millennium Park reflect the current state of the populous. The emphasis of this fluid, evolving video sculpture is primarily on conversation and interaction, as were ancient fountains. The result is a dynamic artwork which provides a 21st century gathering place for Chicago’s oppidan mix.
A COLORFUL HISTORY
The extraordinary success of Cloudgate and The Crown Fountain today reflects the propitious state of Chicago’s
public arts program, an agenda that has matured over time and is now considered the gold standard of public art initiatives. Rewind several decades, however, and very different zephyrs were blowing across the landscape of public art in the Windy City. In 1963, as plans were laid for Daley Plaza, which would become one of the city’s preeminent public spaces, a Chicago architect, Dick Bennett, penned a prose poem to Pablo Picasso, entreating him to create a sculptural centerpiece for the plaza.
Picasso was coincidentally working on a commission for the city of Marseilles at the time, another town noted for its connection to organized crime. When the artist received Bennett’s lyrical supplication, it was less the poetics that drew the artist in than the cheeky intrigue of working on a project for the world’s “other gangster city”. He agreed to accept the commission and ultimately became so enamored of the the City of the Big Shoulders that he refused payment and bestowed the sculpture as a gift to the city. The result was The Picasso—a cubist sculpture of Core-Ten steel standing 50 feet tall, which, unlike the Bean, was initially met with opprobrium rather than acclaim. When the artist presented the city with a maquette of the piece, the public was outraged. One public relations firm who had Pickle Packers International as a client erected an enormous pickle on the plaza where The Picasso was to stand. The piece was presented to the city of Chicago as the “Picklecasso”.
Further frustration erupted when Picasso refused to name the piece (to this day it is simply referred to as The Picasso) and would not comment on its inspiration. When asked what the piece meant, Picasso simply shrugged. He could have borrowed a line from Kapoor, who feels it is absurd to ask about the meaning of an artwork: “As an artist I really have nothing to say. Otherwise I would have become a journalist.” Still the public could not resist conjecture about The Picasso’s inspiration, and speculations ranged from the artist’s pet Afghan hound to a baboon head. But Picasso’s grandson believes the work reflected the artist’s obsession with Lydia Corbett, a young French woman who sat for him on numerous occasions in the 1950s and 1960s.
The installation of The Picasso may have initially caused a bit of a flap, but the maelstrom eventually subsided. Time softened the public’s misgivings and wholesale skepticism somehow morphed into full-blown adulation.
The fetching Picasso soon became a beloved symbol of the city and even captivated Hollywood, having cameos in The Blues Brothers, The Fugitive and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Prior to The Picasso, public sculpture in Chicago was most often a practice in monumental verisimilitude—capturing an historical figure in a moment of grandeur or reflective repose, and presenting that figure in a literal manner. The Picasso, with its modernist ambiguity, initially flummoxed a city in the nascent stages of its arts program, but over time the piece helped the city mature in its consideration of what makes a piece of public art truly remarkable. The success of the work ultimately made the city keen for more of the same, and yet the cost of major works was often prohibitive and difficult to justify when streets needed paving and other city services were lacking.
PUBLIC ART ENGAGES
Reconciling a desire for a premier public arts program with the constraints of a limited budget prompted the city of Chicago to pay attention to something that had happened back East, at the hands of a rather brilliant Philadelphia lawyer. Michael von Moschzisker was a strapping man standing 6’3″, looking even taller with his shock of flaming red hair. And it just might have takenva man of such stature and presence to push through the extraordinary notion whirling around in his robust brain. Von Moschzisker believed that experiencing art is, indeed, what makes us human and that art is a necessity, not an option, in any civilized society.
Those holding the city purse strings in Philadelphia at the time did not necessarily agree. Rather, they felt that it was chimerical nonsense and fiscally indefensible to spend tax dollars on public art projects. Undaunted, von Moschzisker had an ingenious idea which blossomed as he was chairing the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. He proposed that private developers building on municipal property should be required to commit one percent of construction costs to site-specific public art. Von Moschzisker argued: “The psychologists and efficiency experts now find that beauty increases productivity. It necessarily follows that true functionalism in man-made edifices must include artistic expression.” It is tempting at this point to digress and pursue a tangent on Kantian aesthetics, but suffice it to say that Von Moschzisker’s fanciful idea came to fruition as the Percent for Art Ordinance. His visionary concept eventually swept the nation and was enacted on federal, state and municipal levels, but it was arguably Chicago’s implementation of the concept that gave it true viral gravitas.
In tandem with remarkable philanthropists and art-inclined corporations, the adoption of the Percent for Art Ordinance has made Chicago’s public arts program the nation’s best. Notable pieces are simply too numerous to name here but a few highlights would include: Alexander Calder’s Flamingo, Marc Chagall’s The Four Seasons, Claes Oldenburg’s Batcolumn, Ellsworth Kelly’s I Will, Sir Henry Moore’s Large Interior Form, Jean Dubuffett’s Monument with Standing Beast, Sol LeWitt’s Lines in Four Directions, Richard Serra’s Reading Cones and Tony Tassett’s Snow Sculpture for Chicago. Chicago’s arts program has also supported temporary art projects such as Botero, Herbert Migdoll’s Swimmers, and, most notably, Cows on Parade, which brought a herd of fiberglass bovines to the streets of Chicago in 1999.
So what’s next for Chicago? Well, wunderkind Jeff Koons lost out to Kapoor in the Millennium Park competition. The city chose the Bean rather than Koons’ enormous riff on a playground slide, which was to stand 150 feet tall with an observation deck at the top. Who knows? Perhaps a Koons’ piece will pop up on another Chicago plaza, providing yet another venue for a community to come together and frolic with a piece of art.