Bronze, marble, oil, and canvas: prior to the twentieth century, art-making materials were pretty predictable. But moving into the era of contemporary art, you begin to see artists working with an unusual range of materials, media, and technology—from sugar to blood; from works created for a very specific site to ephemeral performances; and integrating TVs and computers into artworks. This poses a challenge to conservators who have to determine how to preserve or even replace these nontraditional materials. They have to figure out how to maintain technology and equipment that is becoming obsolete. They also have to decide if it is appropriate to take any action at all or just let a work erode naturally.
Many contemporary artists intentionally chose nontraditional materials to communicate specific ideas and emotions, and some deliberately created works that were aesthetically less than pristine. While some artists intended their works to be temporary or unstable; others just never gave much thought to the longevity and stability of their materials. Because of the possible connections between meanings and materials, understanding the artist’s intent can be crucial to the conservation process. To make these decisions, conservators and institutions gather as much information about a work and the artist’s intentions as possible. This is where archives play an important role in the process, providing an excellent source of information about artworks and the artist’s intent that in turn can affect the work’s presentation and care.
Several months ago, the MCA’s Library and Archives received an inquiry from the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) about an installation by Jesús Raphael Soto (1923–2005). Although the work is part of their permanent collection, the AIC contacted us because they suspected it may have been included in the MCA’s 1971 Soto retrospective. They were planning to restore and install the piece and wanted to learn details about past installations of the work and flesh out the provenance.
We consulted the Soto exhibition records in our archive, but couldn’t find anything about the piece referenced in the email—Raintree Forest. Based on a photograph of the work on the AIC’s website, we could see that Raintree Forest resembled a number of other installations in the show titled Penetrables—a series of works composed of long filaments hung from the ceiling that visitors can walk through. In our exhibition archives we found a Pénétrable plan with technical specifications produced by Soto’s studio as well as correspondence from Soto, various MCA employees, and the MCA’s founding Board President Joseph R. Shapiro that discussed a new Pénétrable created specifically for the MCA’s exhibition and the materials used. Shapiro happened to be the donor who gave Raintree Forest to the AIC and although we suspected that it was the work created for the MCA, we could not be certain. We sent the AIC scans of the exhibition checklist, correspondence, and the Pénétrable plan, along with scans of installation photographs provided by the MCA’s Rights and Images staff.
I recently followed up with Nora Riccio, Collection Assistant in the Department of Contemporary Art at the AIC, to see how they utilized the MCA’s archival materials in the reinstallation of the Pénétrable. The AIC worked with Atelier Soto throughout the restoration process and shared the MCA’s archival documentation with them. Using the MCA checklist and the titles from the shipping crates, they were able to confirm that the piece created for the MCA’s exhibition is indeed the piece in the AIC’s collection and that the title on file was incorrect. Atelier Soto determined the official title of the work—Pénétrable de Chicago.
There were two main challenges to reinstalling Pénétrable de Chicago: the condition of the original materials and translating a site-specific work for a new environment. Because of these factors, the piece had to be completely refabricated. According to Riccio, “the original plastic filaments had degraded and were no longer usable. They were yellowed and sticky. We ordered new filaments through Atelier Soto who oversaw the manufacturing for the right color and clarity.” Additionally, when Soto created the work, the MCA was located in a building with relatively low ceilings. Using the MCA’s documentation of the original installation, Atelier Soto, “along with remaining Soto family members, determined the remaining details on design, fabrication, installation, etc., specifically for an AIC installation (and any future installations).” Because the AIC’s ceilings are six feet higher than the MCA’s original building, “we sent drawings and ideas back and forth until everyone was satisfied,” Riccio explained. Not only did they need to be sure that the work would be accurately refabricated and reinstalled, but “safety requirements were a factor as it needed to hang from our inner concrete structure, not the ceiling tiles. We even had to make new ceiling tiles so that we could drill holes through them in the necessary locations. The overall length of the filaments, and the overall dimensions of the entire sculpture, exactly match the artist’s original drawing—which, luckily, you had!”
This month, Pénétrable de Chicago will be on view for the first time in over 30 years at the Art Institute of Chicago. This successful restoration is an excellent example of how important archival documentation is to preserving and installing contemporary art. It is just one of several recent requests the MCA Library and Archives has received related to restoring and/or installing a work of contemporary art. As contemporary art ages and artists continue to work with irregular materials, we anticipate that these kinds of fascinating inquiries will only increase!
More and more, traditional notions of Christopher Columbus as “heroic explorer” are giving way to the historical facts of Christopher Columbus’s voyage: As indigenous peoples had been living in the Americas for several millennia, crediting him with “discovering” the continent isn’t quite accurate. Instead, Columbus’s arrival brought with it slavery and colonialism; and as we understand thanks to contemporary historical research, Columbus himself was in fact an ambitious and quite ruthless individual. It is these historical facts that have prompted both Minneapolis and Seattle to celebrate “Indigenous People’s Day” today instead.
These facts are also at the heart of the upcoming drama on MCA Stage, La Reunión—a work that imagines a final conversation between Queen Isabella and Christopher Columbus where he explains his actions and pleads for absolution in the hours before the Queen’s death. Produced by Chile’s innovative Teatro en el Blanco, the historical personage of Christopher Columbus is explored, while the celebratory myth is left behind.
“I wanted to watch the music,” Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker once remarked about her choreographic relationship to sound in a piece she created.
De Keersmaeker’s company, Rosas, has often created austere works whose appearance of minimalist simplicity masks a more intricate engagement with the subtleties of musical composition. As Rosyln Sulcas wrote in the New York Times, “Ms. De Keersmaeker has always been intensely focused on the musical components of her pieces, often using a score’s structure as a tool for choreography.”
Rosas danst Rosas contains a particularly deep sense of musical awareness, since it emerged from an extensive collaboration with fellow Belgian composer and filmmaker Thierry De Mey.
De Mey’s score is repetitive, full of bell-like and metallic tones that resemble the work of Steve Reich, another composer whose music De Keersmaeker has used. But it is full of melody as well. As the critic Cathérine Raes has written: “De Mey and De Keersmaeker create a tension between a cold, predetermined form and the physique of the (female) dancers who constantly repeat a number of figures.”
In Rosas danst Rosas, in Raes’s words:
The ensemble . . . in geometrically repeating patterns. In the foreground, a soloist repeats De Keersmaeker’s minimal dance, which is based on the actions of straightening out a t-shirt, making fists or running hands quickly through the hair. These gestures from everyday life determine the rhythm and the choreography.
De Mey’s composition, according to Raes, accentuates the tensions between casual and often sexualized female expression and a more rigorous, machine-like formalism:
These movements are complemented by De Mey’s musical language, which is based on a simple, repeated rhythm of crotchets in unison, in which the original melodic shape of four pitches is used in different combinations and shifts within the bar. This basic process is in turn varied a number of times by changing the pitches.
Rosas does not merely move to the music in Rosas danst Rosas. (For that, see Beyoncé’s rip-off in the music video for her song “Countdown,” an appropriation that De Keersmaeker protested.)
Instead, music and movement align around De Keersmaeker’s and De Mey’s interest in what she calls “scoring” a dance and he thinks of as incorporating movement and visual awareness into his musical compositions.
Their collaboration on bringing dance and music together in Rosas danst Rosas took on a whole interplay when, in 1997, he filmed a performance of the piece in the empty RITO School in Leuven, Belgium. Now dance, music, and architecture converged to create a sensibility at once stripped down to bare essences and loaded with references to social conventions and assumptions. As Raes explains:
De Mey filmed Rosas danst Rosas in the empty RITO School in Leuven. This architectural monument with its austere geometric forms, built in 1936 by Henry van de Velde, was perfectly suited as a décor for the work. Architecture, dance and film are thus woven together into a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk.
One of the secret pleasures of producing an exhibition with artists in Chicago is being able to stop by their studio repeatedly as they develop new works. For Sarah and Joseph Belknap, an experimental process is at the heart of what they do, so you never quite know what you’re going to see on a given day. It could be a silicone sculpture fresh out of the mold, a set of color tests, or prototypes testing out a new materials or production methods. The photographs here are from earlier in June, as the Belknaps were finishing some of the “moon skin” sculptures and planning out the large installation for their MCA exhibition, which opens October 11.
One of my most euphoric experiences in the arts was watching the way Belgian dance ensemble Rosas built a swirling energy at MCA Stage with Drumming in 1998. I love their unstoppable force—the way it makes you both think and feel as it builds and builds, lifting everyone. On October 9–12, Rosas’s founder Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, one of contemporary dance’s great choreographers, and her company return to the MCA with their iconic work, Rosas danst Rosas.
A few years ago, people in the dance world were alarmed when Beyoncé created her “Countdown” music video with dance sequences that mirror sections of Rosas danst Rosas. Rather than feed a controversy, De Keersmaeker’s company created a special open source project, the Rosas Remix Project, which features choreography instructions for one of the most recognized and mesmerizing passages of her dance.
This open call allows anyone to create their own Rosas danst Rosas and share it on the Re: Rosas site or on social media. People from around the world have jumped in. Now you can too! We invite you to join MCA Stage and the dancers of MegLouise from the video above by participating in the Re:Rosas project. Here’s how:
Step One: Learn the choreography.
Step Two: Add your creativity to the dance, a unique setting too perhaps, and record it.
Step Three: Post it online via Instagram, Twitter, Vine, or Facebook with the hashtag #ReRosas and mention the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago using the “@” function (Twitter, Instagram, Vine: @mcachicago). Be sure your privacy settings are set to public so everyone can see it!
We are excited to see your Re: Rosas submissions! On Oct 8, our favorite will win tickets to a Rosas danst Rosas performance, October 9–12, 2014, at MCA Stage.
“Wolfie E. Rawk is a visual artist who has shown their work throughout the United States.”
Does the above sentence contain a typo?
Answer: Yes and no.
Most editors—myself included—love the certainty and structure of grammar. We nerd out about split infinitives and misplaced modifiers, and we have strong opinions about serial commas. We like to think that there’s a perfect name for every object and a perfect way to describe every situation.
Most artists—on the other hand—are risk takers, rule breakers. They want to push boundaries and defy conventions, even the conventions of the English language.
Unsurprisingly, the MCA editorial team often struggles to use specific, rule-oriented language and grammar to describe many of the genre-defying, rule-breaking artists we work with. In April of 2014, for instance, the MCA invited Chicago-based artist Wolfie E. Rawk to speak at the museum. Rawk, whose work explores ideas of cuteness and monstrosity as they relate to transgender bodies and identities, has chosen to reject gendered pronouns. Instead, the artist prefers to be referred to as “they.”
This preference is certainly justified. It is also, however, tricky to effectively honor without confusing readers or upsetting grammarians. While attempting to describe Rawk’s body of work, we wondered whether we ought to explain why we were using the pronoun “they” to refer to a single artist, or whether we ought to assume that our readers would understand that Rawk preferred the pronoun “they” because it was not associated with a specific gender, or with the idea of gender at all.
We ran into another, similar issue while editing object labels for the David Bowie Is exhibition. David Bowie famously created personas that explored ideas of gender binary and androgyny through music and performance.
His Ziggy Stardust character, for example, seems to be an otherworldly being who is neither male nor female. And yet, each label that refers to Ziggy Stardust uses the pronoun “he.”
This seemingly minor pronoun problem raised a series of major questions. How can we clearly and concisely describe a work of art created to defy description? How can we help others understand an artist’s work when the artist does not want the work’s creative power to be diminished with labels or descriptors?
There are no easy answers for these questions. And maybe that’s for the best. Maybe, as writers and editors, it is our duty to continuously look for new ways to explain the unexplainable, to describe what defies description, to seek—without every hoping to really find—a perfect name for each object and a perfect way to describe every situation.
In this sense, art and language are not so dissimilar. Both are creative processes, and both are in a constant state of evolution. Noam Chomsky, the acclaimed linguist, once wrote that “language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied.” The same is true of art.
The opening day of David Bowie Is took an unforgettable, unexpected, and slightly surreal turn at six o’clock when around 25 individuals dressed as David Bowie from various eras and as different Bowie personas arrived with one Freddie Mercury in tow. For about 10 minutes they performed a fully choreographed dance routine to David Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” “Fashion,” and “Let’s Dance,” and closed with Queen and David Bowie’s duet “Under Pressure.” Above is a shortened and edited video of what some lucky visitors experienced.
In January of 2013, with virtually no advance publicity, David Bowie released The Next Day, his first album in a decade. Not only was the record unexpected since its creation was kept secret, but following the singer’s serious heart attack and subsequent surgery in 2004, many assumed he’d retired from music altogether. After decades of relentless reinvention—both musically and visually—he appeared burned-out. In fact, the cover art for The Next Day seemed like a metaphoric admission that Bowie had reached the end of the line as feverish groundbreaker; a white square with the title plainly running across its center was dropped over the original artwork for his brilliant 1978 album “Heroes”, a thick black line through the original album title, as if the singer no longer cared about his image now. The answer might be that the music inside, arguably his finest effort in three decades, summons the spirit of experimentation and emotional torpor of his celebrated Berlin phase in the late 1970s, when he worked with producer Brian Eno.
Between his emergence in the late 1960s and the release of his 1980 classic, Scary Monsters, Bowie and his reserve of ideas—musical and visual—appeared inexhaustible; few musicians have ever delivered such potent and peripatetic work in such a concentrated period. He was an artistic sponge, sucking up the sounds, visions, and ideas all around him, and reshaping them in his own image with unparalleled brio and creativity. In this period Bowie was the ultimate chameleon, famously changing his image at breakneck speed—a true fashion icon fully grappling with his next challenge just as the public was coming to terms with his last phase. He was way ahead of the curve in understanding the volatile, variable nature of pop culture. His music changed shape and complexion just as rapidly and vigorously, and without the musical shifts his image transformations wouldn’t have had nearly the same impact. As he told a reporter for Melody Maker in 1977, “generally my policy has been that as soon as a system or process works, it’s out of date. I move on to another area.”
His work bears out that ethos. After several years in which he struggled to find an identity, he struck gold as the 1960s ended with his song “Space Oddity,” a chilling portent of modern alienation inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The tune’s claustrophobic chill was no calculated adaptation of what was happing in London at the time; instead, Bowie forged an expression of solitude set deep within the cosmos. As that track began to earn him a following, Bowie was finding his voice as a songwriter. His 1971 album Hunky Dory, for which he affected a Marlene Dietrich–like pose on the cover, was a pop masterpiece musing on the underground culture of New York containing his indelible classic “Changes,” a piano-driven gem that forecast his mercurial future: “Every time I thought I’d got it made/It seemed the taste was not so sweet/So I turned myself to face me/But I’ve never caught a glimpse.”
Bowie had already established this pattern of quickly moving on, and as Hunky Dory hit record store shelves he was already perfecting his alter ego Ziggy Stardust: the flamboyant, sexually ambiguous, and excessive glam-rock icon. Enlisting the talents of designer Freddie Buretti who crafted wildly colorful, form-fitting quilted uniforms, Bowie and his crack band the Spiders From Mars morphed into alien androgynies, with Bowie’s shaggy blonde mop transforming into an angular, bright orange spiked cut. Adapting the vibrato-heavy croon of British actor and singer Anthony Newly, he reached toward fizzy feminine highs over the metallic rock ‘n’ roll riffery of guitarist Mick Ronson, all of the performances injected with a supreme sense of drama and artifice. On the cover of 1973’s Aladdin Sane, he had morphed fully into an alien, with the iconic lightning bolt makeup bisecting his face and a globule of some otherworldly liquid pooling in one of his shoulder blades. As songs like “Starman,” “Sufragette City,” and “The Jean Genie” helped propel Bowie to stardom, he dismantled the Ziggy persona and his band, announcing his retirement from live performance. In the meantime he produced classic albums by some of his American heroes—Lou Reed and Iggy Pop and the Stooges—and watched one of his songs, “All the Young Dudes,” become a major hit by Mott the Hoople.
Following a palate-cleansing covers album in 1973, Pin-Ups, he made Diamond Dogs, a concept album based on George Orwell’s 1984 with an all-new band—the hyperactive glam sound was transformed into something more restrained but equally hard rocking, producing indelible hits like the title track and “Rebel Rebel.” In the middle of touring the record in the US he embarked on his next transition, fully embracing American R&B, entering Philadelphia’s iconic Sigma Sound with yet another group of musicians, including guitarist Carlos Alomar, a former James Brown sideman, and future soul legend Luther Vandross as a back-up singer. On the cover of 1975’s Young Americans, his image had fully transformed into a suave crooner in high-waisted pants and double-breasted coats, his shock of orange hair now slicked back and blonde. Opening with the slinky, saxophone-soaked title track and closing with “Fame,” Bowie’s first number one hit in the US, the singer had affected his most radical change yet. He carried on with that so-called “plastic soul” sound on Station to Station the following year, but his most adventurous and fertile period arrived next, when he moved to Berlin, and repurposed the sounds of Krautrock groups like Neu! and Kraftwerk and experimented with the cut-up technique of William Burroughs, producing three bona fide classics: Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger. With the help of producer Brian Eno, inventive sound processing warped the feel of the drums and turned electric guitars and keyboards into fluid textures and swirls of color, but ever the master syncretist, Bowie guaranteed gripping results no matter how outward-bound the process.
He returned to New York to make Scary Monsters, his final masterpiece of the decade, where he fully embraced the nascent form of music videos, demonstrated by his memorable clip for “Ashes to Ashes.” He soon retreated from the public eye, emerging three years later in 1983 with Let’s Dance, the funked-up record that asserted his ongoing dominance for another decade. Over the next twenty years Bowie continued to change, absorbing ideas from reggae, electronica, and more, always plugged into evolving sounds around him, and while his image grew less chameleonic than it was during the 1970s, fashion and image remained crucial to his work, part and parcel, just as his engagement with acting on stage (Elephant Man ) and screen (The Man Who Fell to Earth , Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence ). Tastes and trends have never moved faster than today—Bowie anticipated this rapid cultural cycling—but his transformations were never hollow or glib, and that rigor rings truer and more meaningful than ever.
*This post first appeared in MCA Chicago (Fall 2014).
WAM BAM THANK YOU GLAM is a collection of the glitter, punk, and artful songs. We curated the mix to celebrate our September 23, 2014, performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The playlist explores vintage glam pioneers such as T-Rex, Zolar X, and Mott the Hoople, as well as contemporary visionaries such as Sam Flax, the Dandy Warhols, and Dirty Fences.
Glam unites music, style, and attitude. Wearing platform shoes and rocking an extreme haircut quickly connects a band to the genre, but it is an anti-establishment punk spirit that transports a glam contender to the glittery finish line. The artists featured in this mix are from many different cities and time periods, but they all share sparks of innovation that blend together to express what glam is about—and also continues to inspire.
You’ll just have to listen for yourself!
In addition to being a rock ‘n’ roll duo, we also DJ the vinyl records that so greatly inspire our work in White Mystery. Visit us online at whitemystery.com