To its credit, Skyscraper: Art and Architecture Against Gravity is not a show tailored specifically to architects and engineers. At the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago through 23 September, it cuts into a conversation in which most of us are engaging already: over morning coffee with the paper, while watching the nightly news, or while procrastinating online by connecting without connecting. On the whole, Skyscraper captures the rather emotive and certainly global subjects of displacement, dysfunction, and alienation. Surely, the best architecture addresses such subjects, as well — often in an effort to avoid or divert from their negative outcomes — but this show is not steeped in the theoretical. It's not entirely a "what if?" exhibition, but more of a "what is," anchored in concrete (pardon the pun) experience and human reaction.
Pop culture is inextricably part of the art on display, here, with "pop" also acting as surrogate word for:
— populations, as when they separate within a single massive structure, connected only by their housing unit and a communal detachment (a feeling implied by Shizuka Yokomizo's photographs of "strangers" through ground-level apartment windows from the Dear Stranger project);
— pop, the verb meaning: to hit, as when rival gangs in a St. Petersburg suburb fight against the backdrop of dense "modernist" apartment complexes (kommunalkas). In Cyprien Gaillard's hypnotizing video, Desniansky Raion, the result is a kind of medieval warfare set in present context, fit into present structures, to the music of Koudlam's pulsating track, See You All;
— pop!, like the noise made by the blast of a building's colorfully lit demolition (again, Gaillard's Desniansky Raion video, which documents the flattening of a housing block in the suburbs of Paris) or the blast of an unforeseen tragedy.
Many projects on display are rigged to trigger smirks and laughter, even as they address the potentially serious topics of skyscrapers and our modern lives. Jeff Carter's Untitled #3 (Chicago Tribune Tower), for example, reconstructs the rejected 1922 Tribune Tower entry by Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer, entirely of modified IKEA products. By way of video loop on a small moving screen, a quintet of happy finger puppets move up and down in the Tower's elevator. IKEA, love it or hate it, represents design-within-reach as much as it does diet modernism, and the jury's still out on whether it's the "true" modernist's dream or worst nightmare. Carter's project looks into that question, without loosing sympathy for Gropius; it further brings attention to material, warranty, and form and rolls out the carpet for major issues about how our aesthetic preferences are shaped, how they change, and how they're cultivated. All this, in the Tower's home-town! But, again — IKEA? Finger puppets? Funny stuff.
True to form, the show is also full of phalluses. Roger Brown's Post Modern Res-erection with Observation Deck and Vito Acconci's High Rise, most prominent among them, with other more subtle (and perhaps unintentional) representations nearby. Acconci's project invites viewer participation: using ropes and pullies, visitors can erect a 7,6 metre semi-transparent "skyscraper" to reveal a bright red male member drawn on its façade. But by the time I arrive at the show, about an hour after the museum had opened its doors for the day, the Acconci-scraper is already at full salute, and viewer participation is limited to people posing for photographs in front of the phallus. I doubt I need to spell out the analogy between skyscraper and male genitalia, but Acconci's project also brings to fore the question of strength: the "High Rise" itself appears physically weak in his case (the structure looks like it's made of sticks and plastic, easy to puncture or kick in two). The structure's force or magnetism, rather, depends on the symbol embedded into it. But Freudian analysis outside, Acconci's work is as funny as any penis drawn in the hallway or on the façade of a high rise building. Which is to say, it's pretty damn funny, and an international art form at that.
Kader Attia's Untitled (skyline) is also a clever and unusual representation of the built environment: a dazzling display of "skyscrapers" as they might look at twilight or at night — and then you realize Attia's structure's are made of altered refrigerators of varying heights and dimensions. Outfitted with mirrored tiles to mimic the shimmering effects of a skyscraper, these objects are at once utilitarian (though are they, in this setting?) and ornamental. The view would be very different were the dimmed lights in the room to suddenly switch on — symbolic of any major city's Jekyll and Hyde, daytime vs. nighttime mania.
But after sharp and witty insights like that, it is sobering and dumbfounding to walk "into" Hans-Peter Feldmann's 9/12 Frontpage. Composed of 150 newspaper pages, the project immerses the viewer into the international stammering of the day immediately following 11 September 2001. The repeating image of the Twin Towers in various stages of destruction and the various languages in which papers around the globe tried to summarize or make sense of that day's "top story" signal the shift, both temporary and permanent, in our relationship with skyscrapers, and also a shift in this exhibition's tone.
Skyscraper is divided into the following sections: Verticality, Personification of Architecture, Urban Critique, Improvisation, and Vulnerability of Icons. The case is made smartly for why each piece belongs to its respective subdivision, and the general character of each section stands on its own. Nevertheless, like strangers in a skyscraper apartment complex, the diverse elements of this exhibition give the appearance of being a single unit. Further, an argument can be made as to why many objects could also belong in a different section of the show. This is a strength of the exhibition; it is cohesive, appropriately stringing together different sentences of the same paragraph. Yin Xiuzhen's Portable City, for example — a representation of a soft fabric Hangzhou in an open suitcase — is in the Improvisation section, but it also implies Vulnerability. Then again, whose? That of the icon or of the human in response to the icon? Is Portable City an urban critique? Maybe, but it could be an urban embrace, as well. And if the city is not literally personified in the piece, the project nevertheless appeals to the idea that place never leaves person, is a vital part or organ of a person. That is the reason for a show like this, to demonstrate life in and around something larger than it. Katya Tylevich
Through 23 September 2012
Skyscraper: Art and Architecture Against Gravity
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago