“You see half the moon, its crescent, and one of the planets, maybe Saturn, maybe Jupiter, in the early night sky over Berlin, through the windows of a taxicab, near Potsdamer Platz.
You think: Beauty.
No, this is not beauty, maybe not, maybe, this is the rest of it, maybe not, maybe, the rest of beauty,
maybe not, maybe, what remains of beauty,maybe not, maybe, what is visible, certainly, uncertain.
Your arms would not be able to stretch as far as necessary to form an adequate gesture for beauty
(You know that, don't you?).
So, beauty remains in the impossibilities of the body.”
--Einsturzende Neubauten, “Beauty”
If beauty doesn’t stop you dead sometimes, catch you breathless and reeling, I’d go have your pulse checked or your head examined. Or stay away from me.
It had been a little while since something left me totally speechless but still trying, desperately trying to articulate my reaction to it (maybe God’s Ear at Available Light, or the William Forsythe exhibit at the Wex) and like I knew it would, Chicago came through in spades last weekend. My batteries were in terrible need of a recharge born of whiskey, wine, pizza, some rocking music, and mostly some art.
The Eliasson has been making the rounds from SFMOMA to MoMA but the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago was the first chance I had to actually see it. And large chunks of what I knew about Eliasson almost made him sound like Christo, whose work I enjoy but don’t really remember.
This exhibit opens with a series of the most intricate spectrum paintings I’ve ever seen, “Your Eye Activity Field”, showing the 300 nanometers of the spectrum the eye can see, and it’s immediately followed by a long hallway lit in monochromatic yellow. So it’s teasing you, showing all the colors you can see and then bleaching everything into a yellow that’ll drain the aesthetic appeal out of anything and everyone. By the time you get out of the hallway, you’re so grateful to get your eyes back that you’re overjoyed to find… a wall fan hung from a cable in the middle of a room.
The fan’s swinging is entirely propelled by its blowing and it works as a prank but it also has some beauty to it, some swing. You move from this to the bones of Eliasson’s work. Wire models, photographs of nature. And the photographs are in grids that almost but don’t quite tell a story. A river runs through a row but it doesn’t quite match up. A horizon shifts slightly. All perception. There’s a moss wall in this same section, growing and alive over the wires.
The light and the nature come up again in the second half of the exhibit, which has mirror tricks and an inverse disco ball (black matte glass facing out and light and mirror within so it projects these astonishing patterns on the floor directly underneath, not flung like coins of light over the room), and a kaleidoscope hallway (positioned as the opposite of the monochromatic hallway) where you see visions of yourself in other colored mirrors until you stop and look directly at the wall and all you see are other people.
The two pieces in this that bring everything home are A Room With All Colours and Beauty. The former, a 360 degree space that travels across the color spectrum either by colors chasing across the wall or all shifting at once, in what Ken Hite dubbed “$12 Ecstasy”, you actually feel your heart rate slow or speed up and your brain chemistry turn over like an engine. when you get close enough it fills your field of vision. But you need to come to it slowly, standing in the middle and getting the overall rhythm, watching it as a backdrop, then moving in.
And one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen is just called “Beauty”, a dark room with a man-made waterfall running over small jets of air that create sculptural illusions in the water, and two spotlights that make rainbows when the water flows a different way. You feel the slightly-warm mist and you breathe in the humid air and you can’t see anything but the waterfall and maybe yourself. I wanted to live in that room for a week or two.
Staggering out of this into the daylight we made our way to the Art Institute of Chicago and the beautiful new Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing. Still the first museum I fell in love with, still repays that love in spades.
This time there’s a new Cy Twombly show and I’ve always respected his work but I’ve never been the biggest fan, this blew me the hell away. Some blurry photographs and the sculptures and paintings he drew from them, and it’s all nature work, Untitled (paintings and sculpture) is based on a garden with deceptively sloppily blended acrylic, wax crayon, pastels and wadded bits of paper that bring to mind the flowers you made in art class as a child.
But the pieces that really killed me are Gathering of Time and Untitled (Winter Pictures) which are beautiful giant seascapes with this crude dark energy right underneath the surface, and they’re juxtaposed so you can feel the heat and warmth breathing out of the canvases. So glad I saw this.
The rest of the trip was great, good friends, good music (Jack Oblivian was one of the best rock shows I saw all year), good food (Enoteca Roma made the best polenta I’ve ever eaten), and good whiskey (I discovered the reasonably priced but amazingly tasty and cinnamony Templeton Rye on this trip), but both those exhibits alone made this work going. Well, plus seeing a smile on Anne’s face.