In October, Goshka Macuga and Dieter Roelstraete spent a week inside the archive of the Warburg Institute at the University of London. There, they were able to study the Hamburg Comedy written by Aby Warburg in the winter of 1896—the year of the eccentric German art historian’s widely publicized travels to the American Southwest (a journey broken up by a visit to Chicago, we learned during our visit to the archive).
This playlet, which was only performed once, at a Warburg family gathering in Hamburg on December 31, 1896, has never been translated or published; it only exists as a manuscript written down in the late 19th-century German longhand, the deciphering of which effectively requires paleographic expertise. The play’s classic generational dynamic—it tells the story of young and old clashing over what should be considered good or progressive art, or what should be considered art at all—sounds a familiar note, and it is this age-old story of the “quarrel of the ancients and the moderns” that acts as the inspiration guiding the writing, now well under way, of Macuga’s Chicago Comedy.
Goshka Macuga in front of (top) and entering (above) the Warburg Institute at the University of London. This is not her first visit to the building that holds the archive and personal library of the pioneering German-Jewish art historian. In 2008, Macuga turned to Warburg’s fabled Amerikareise as the main point of reference and source of inspiration for her solo exhibition at the Kunsthalle Basel . Warburg’s revolutionary associative way of thinking about art and culture could be said to act as something of a model for Macuga’s own way of doing things—something which this particular part of her MCA residency is meant to tease out.
The stone seal above the front door depicts the four elements, air, earth, fire and water, encircling the holy trinity of man, world, and year. The Greek inscription above the first door inside the building reads “memory.” Mnemosyne was actually the mother of the nine muses (one of which, Thalia, is the proverbial patron saint of comedy). She also gave her name to what is arguably Aby Warburg’s best-remembered opus, the so-called Mnemosyne Atlas—a series of 63 wooden boards on which Warburg depicted hundreds of different images spanning centuries, cultures, traditions—in effect, a collage-like technique of ordering things not unlike that practiced by Macuga herself.
Another view of the Warburg Institute is the archive on the fourth floor, where the blinds are never drawn but perennially lowered. The institute’s revered library is on the ground floor, while Warburg’s massive photo collection—including those images used in his Mnemosyne Atlas as well as the photographs he made (or that were made of him) during his trip to the States—is stored on the second floor.
Whosoever thought secrecy had no future or place in the world after Edward Snowden should pay a visit to the Warburg Institute, where it is forbidden to take photographs. We were not allowed to photograph the manuscript of Warburg’s original Hamburg Comedy; the only reproductive technology tolerated within the walls of the Institute is that consisting of pencil (no pens) and paper.
And so we set about hand-copying the manuscript in question, or rather, the different drafts, written by different people (Warburg, his fiancée Mary, an unnamed secretary), one less legible than the other, all adhering to orthographic conventions long since lost. Still, this was a singularly thrilling experience, shedding light on questions that had long vexed us with regards to the actual contents and structure of Warburg’s play, and thereby providing decisive guidance in the process of conceptualizing and refining our own Chicago Comedy.
These are the hands of Goshka and the institute’s head archivist Claudia Wedepohl; Goshka’s hand is resting on her own book, on a page depicting a diagram drawn by Warburg that might inform some of the movements planned to be written into the Chicago Comedy.
Here we see the artist in her studio, tinkering with the model of the MCA’s Edlis Neeson Theater that was made to her specifications during an earlier trip to Chicago. Visitors to the MCA may perhaps recognize the maquette shown here on a stool in the studio and deposited on the model theatre’s stage: it is the original sketch for Model for a Sculpture (Family), 2011, one of the centerpieces of Goshka’s exhibition at the MCA.
Warburg Week was concluded in the London townhouse of George and Marjorie Greig, long-time supporters of the MCA who recently acquired one of Goshka’s tapestries. A photo collage like her other tapestries, this piece depicts an assembly of women in various states of undress gathered in front of Karl Marx’ grave in Highgate Cemetery, a mere seven miles from where this picture was taken.
The tapestry is meant to roll on to the floor, and you’re meant to sit on it, as if enjoying a picnic in the park, all the while taking in the spectacle of a young woman cleaning the Marx memorial. Death of Marxism, Women of All Lands Unite, as the work is titled, could scarcely have found a better or more appropriate home, especially given Goshka’s long-standing interest in theatre and the arts of the stage: this is the former house of the legendary English playwright Noel Coward, who had a stage built in it so as to better rehearse his plays. We can easily imagine the preparations for the Chicago Comedy taking place in such a historically apt location…
Dieter Roelstraete, Dmitry Samarov, and Goshka Macuga pose in front of a statue of Alexander von Humboldt, after whom Humboldt Park (the first station of a string of parks Dmitry drove us through that day) was named. The park was planned in honor of the centennial of Humboldt’s birth in September 1869. Humbolt was a pioneering explorer of Latin America; his first trip to the Americas dates back to 1799, and concluded in 1804 with a stopover in Philadelphia and Washington, where he was a guest of Thomas Jefferson.
With his brother Wilhelm, Alexander von Humboldt was one of the leading figures of the Prussian Enlightenment, driving the transformation of the dreary garrison town of Berlin into a world-renowned center of learning and discovery. Goshka’s proposal for the 2014 Berlin Biennial is to stage the Chicago Comedy in the Humboldt’s place of birth and final resting place…
The Calumet Fisheries on East 95th Street in Chicago’s Far South Side has been a family-run operation since 1948; eaters of the joint’s excellent smoked fish look out at monuments of Chicago’s industrial past that already then must have looked seriously rusty.
Here, Goshka can be seen photographing the lift railroad bridge spanning the Calumet River; a movable bascule bridge (a counterweighted drawbridge) leads car traffic east and south—these are all popular spots for Blues Brothers location hunters.
Former Chicago cabbie (now full-time artist and writer) Dmitry Samarov’s lower left arm features a tattoo depicting the central scene of Pieter Bruegel’s The Blind Leading the Blind from 1568, now in the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, Italy. We did not ask him about the specific motivation for choosing this particular scene; browsing Dmitry’s website a little while ago, we came across another allegorical painting, this one a much more recent make: Gabriel von Max’ Monkeys as Judges of Art, from 1889, now in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich.
In September, Chicago-based artist and writer Dmitry Samarov took the residency team on a tour of the city’s lesser known sites. The drive was guided in part by suggestions from the MCA’s online audience.
When Abraham Ritchie emailed from the MCA to ask if I’d be interested in giving their artist-in-residence a tour of Chicago, I wondered whether someone was playing a prank. I’ve spent years talking trash about the MCA and having little appreciation for much of what goes on within its walls. For their part, the MCA (and the rest of the local art world, for that matter) has had little curiosity about my work and even less curiosity about my opinion about them. It seemed like a reasonable arrangement. A sort of mutually-agreed-upon and reciprocated indifference.
So what did they want me for all of a sudden?
Ritchie explained that Goshka Macuga (the artist-in-residence) wanted to see the Chicago beyond the Magnificent Mile, the real Chicago. They thought of me because I’d been a cabdriver in town for years. In fact, I think they thought I still drove a cab. Maybe they thought a tour of the city in a cab would appeal to Macuga? Fit in with her work somehow? In any case, this was too odd a proposal for me to refuse. I agreed but told Michelle Puetz (who was now my contact at the museum) that I no longer drove a cab. She offered up her own car, so we were on.
As the date of the tour approached, I tried to get some clue as to what was really wanted of me. I Googled Macuga to get some idea of what her work was like without getting any definite impression. She seemed to do all sorts of things and there was a lot of heavy-duty language attached to a lot of it. I did learn that she was from Poland and currently lived in England. Perhaps immigration could be a point of connection for us. I kept asking Michelle at the museum what she might want but got no definitive answers. The route was up to me.
The week before the tour, in early September, Michelle told me she wouldn’t be able to come and thus her car wouldn’t be available. We decided to rent a car instead. On the appointed day I took the train downtown and drove out of a rent-a-car place on Wabash in a Chevy sedan. It’s strange to be renting a car in your own city. It made me feel a bit like a tourist, a visitor, which, maybe was appropriate for the occasion.
I picked up Goshka Macuga, Dieter Roelstraete (a curator at the museum), and Abraham Ritchie, at the side of the hulking edifice on the corner of Chicago Ave and Mies Van Der Rohe Way. I blasted the A/C on the unseasonably hot afternoon. They were all relieved as they climbed in. After introductions, I asked Goshka where she wanted to go and she said it was up to me, so I headed west toward Humboldt Park.
My plan—such as it was—was to show them a bit of the Emerald Necklace, the system of parks and boulevards planned in the late 1800s. It’s one of the first urban green space plans and covers a lot of the Chicago that I knew from driving ordinary people around all those years in the cab. We passed below the Puerto Rican gates on Division and on to Humboldt Park. I took the boulevard north to show off the lagoon and fieldhouse. By the statue of Humboldt himself, they decided to park and walk around a bit. Goshka wanted to know why there was a statue of Humboldt here but I couldn’t recall the history. He never set foot in Chicago but because the area used to have a large German population a local booster installed it as a symbol of ethnic pride. They took a bunch of pictures below the statue. I might’ve even made it into one or two of them.
Dieter and Goshka discussed various upcoming exhibitions and projects. It was evident they’d been working together for some time. The thing about the art world—or much of any kind of world, for that matter—is that it really is about who you know. I’ve been making art fairly seriously for almost thirty years, yet what they were talking about may as well have been quantum mechanics or sharecropping for how little it related to what I did. This is not a critical judgment, only an observation of fact; I hadn’t the faintest clue what they were talking about. For all I knew it was all wondrous and amazing. I tried to find out how they’d be using our little trip for their work but never really found out.
We drove south through Garfield Park and past its gorgeous Spanish Revival fieldhouse, on into the Lawndale neighborhood. I wanted to show them the Sears Tower. Not the one now called Willis, but the original one on Homan, near Roosevelt Road. This was once the center of Sears & Roebuck’s vast empire, the place from which thousands and thousands of catalogs were dispersed all over the country to fill the minds of the populace with aspirational dreams. Now the grounds were quiet, occupied partially by city and county agencies of various types and the tower itself stands alone, traces of once-attached structures visible on its southern wall. We walked right up to it and peered into the dimly-lit lobby. There was a security desk within, but little other sign of life. It was somewhere around here that Dieter mentioned Detroit.
At this point the word “Detroit” is enough to summon a flood of images and ideas, most of them negative. For a certain segment of artists, there’s an attraction or romance to ruin and decay. Elevating the falling-apart and failure is a kind of fetish with these types. I don’t know whether this was the case with Dieter and Goshka but it wasn’t my intent to lead them on any sort of misery safari. What’s always attracted me about Chicago is the endless variety of ways that people live and survive here. The places they live form the setting and often the subject of much of my artwork. I don’t go looking for ugliness or despair, though I’m certainly aware that a lot of it exists here.
To underscore that point, our next stop was the massive complex of criminal courts and jail facilities around 26th and California. I told them that “Going to California” on Chicago had nothing to do with catching some sun. We made a loop south on California Ave, then west on 31st Street, north on Kedzie, and east on 26th Street. This is the main drag of Little Village, the largest Mexican neighborhood in the city and as lively as the area around the jail—a couple blocks away—and it is ominous. These jarring contrasts are a huge part of this city and I hoped the visitors would get some sense of it. There was some talk about the evils of America as we left the area and headed toward Hyde Park. We were looking for a place to stop for a snack and Dieter suggested a coffee shop at 63rd and Woodlawn, downstairs from his apartment.
A couple hours in I still had no firm feeling about the purpose our trip. There was some talk of making a comedy set in the Chicago art world; maybe they were auditioning me for a part? Who knew? After we finished our coffee I had to choose whether to show off Beverly, where I now live, or to go to Pullman. I decided on Pullman for its importance in the history of the city and the country. George Pullman built his strange quasi-utopian worker’s village here and provided many African-Americans a chance out of poverty and second-class citizenship.
What’s left here is a mixture of dilapidated ruin and neat, cared-for row housing. It’s a place where Chicago’s past, present, and future intersect. There have been plans to revive the area for years and there are indications in the neighborhood that maybe it’ll finally happen. Goshka and Dieter remarked upon was how nice and calm it was here. My whole intent with this tour was to show them that, no matter what they’d seen in the news or heard from people they knew, most of Chicago’s “bad” neighborhoods are filled with people just living their lives day to day. It’s not as sensational a picture as drug-war shoot outs, deep-dish pizza, or Al Capone, but it’s the city I’ve come to know and continue to learn from over my 20-plus years here.
Our last stop was Calumet Fisheries on the southeastern tip of the city. I think of all the places I took them they liked this place best. They took dozens of pictures of the bridges and industrial edifices visible in every direction. They ate breaded shrimp on the picnic table outside the fish shack and thanked me for taking them around.
We took South Chicago north, then Jeffrey, and on to Lake Shore Drive back downtown. As we pulled up to the side entrance of the MCA entrance, Dieter asked if and how often I visited the museum and he was surprised to hear I hadn’t been inside in years. What I make art for, and what art is made for there, are fairly different species. Perhaps this little tour was an attempt to bridge that gap a bit. I still don’t know what, if anything, Goshka and Dieter got out of it. I just hope I was of some help in showing them my city.
* * *
Dmitry Samarov was born in Moscow, USSR in 1970. He immigrated to the US with his family in 1978. He got in trouble in 1st grade for doodling on his Lenin Red Star pin and hasn’t stopped doodling since. After a false start at Parsons School of Design in New York, he graduated with a BFA in painting and printmaking from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1993.
Upon graduation he promptly began driving a cab—first in Boston, then after a time, in Chicago—which eventually led to the publication of his illustrated work memoir Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab by University of Chicago Press in 2011.
He has exhibited his work in all manner of bars, coffee shops, libraries, and even the odd gallery (when he’s really hard up).
He paints and writes in Chicago. He no longer drives a cab.
This is a view of the former Sears Merchandise Building, part of the (now abandoned) Sears, Roebuck & Co. Complex on 900-930 South Homan Avenue in the Lower West Side. Founded in 1886, the company moved into this complex in 1906; it was the largest mail-order business in the world at the time, occupying the largest commercial building in the world (now largely destroyed).
In 1974, they moved into what was then the world’s tallest building, now known as the Willis Tower, but by that time the company’s iconic mail order catalogue, once printed on these very grounds, had become an outdated reminder of the golden age of the mail-order retailing business that has done so much to establish Chicago’s dominance in mercantile matters.
Going to California, in Chicago, typically means going to Cook County Jail on California Avenue between 26th and 31st streets. It is certainly an incongruously busy corner, or string of corners, in the family oriented neighborhood of Little Village.
Cook County Jail is apparently the largest jail in the US—really the “largest (96 acres) single-site county pre-detention facility in the United States. It houses close to 13,000 inmates; in the past, famous people, such as Al Capone and John Wayne Gacy were inmates. It also used to have an electric chair.
Monday’s Dmitry-guided ride concluded in the fascinating microcosm of Pullman, the famous company town founded by railroad car manufacturer George M. Pullman in 1880 (the actual Pullman works closed definitively in 1981 after building its last ever car for Amtrak). A mural commemorates that railway century—now definitely a thing of the past. Pullman’s greatest contribution to that history is probably the sleeper car, first introduced in the late 1860s.
Aby Warburg doubtlessly made use of one to travel across the US in 1895, passing through Chicago from New York (which he disliked) to Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California. At this point in time, we have yet to find out where in Chicago (or with whom) Warburg stayed, but we do know that he enjoyed a night out on the town and went to see a theater play.
As the theatrical ambitions of Goshka’s project come into focus ever more sharply, we decided that a model of the MCA’s Edlis Neeson Theater would be a useful thing for her to have around the studio. Here she is shown inspecting the model, expertly built by MCA preparator Araidia Blackburn. Goshka has especially fond memories of working with the MCA prep crew on the (labor-intensive) install of her survey show Goshka Macuga: Exhibit, A—the workshop really is her second home here in Chicago.
Five pictures snapped during a sunny Sunday afternoon in Oak Park, where we took Goshka to see the finest offering of Frank Lloyd Wright houses in the world. Visiting his house and studio, where this photograph of the master architect’s typewriter was made, was especially inspiring—the history of design has long been a source of inspiration for Goshka.
We imagined a meeting of the minds between Aby Warburg and Wright—they are only born a year apart, in 1866 and 1867 respectively—involving a debate about the Werkbund, predecessor of the German Bauhaus. Wright’s house was built in 1889 and expanded in 1899—a formative decade in Warburg’s life as well, during which he traveled to the US and actually visited Chicago. In two photographs, the current owner of a Wright house is seen talking on his mobile phone while sitting on the house’s roof—an incongruous scene. In another photograph, MCA curator Dieter Roelstraete is seen wearing a t-shirt co-designed by an artist colleague, half a salute to Wright’s native state of Wisconsin.