In the fall of 2011, Chicago-based artist Joseph Ravens—founder/director of Defibrillator Gallery—asked me to join him, then-graduate student Giana Gambino, and Chicago-based artist Julie Laffin in establishing a performance art festival in Chicago. At the time, performance art remained somewhat under-recognized within the greater arts ecology of the city. So Ravens, Gambino, Laffin, and I set out to create a more visible platform for groundbreaking performance work. That idea spawned the Rapid Pulse International Performance Festival.
Highlighted below are a selection of artists who I think reflect the uncategorizable nature of performance art practices. While some of these works may be disturbing to some (and, frankly, that is part of their conceptual conceit, as they engage with difficult subject matter), others explore how movement, play, and the somatic experience (i.e. the experience of and through the body) open up new and different paths for the production of knowledge and subjective understanding.
Chicago-based artist Michal Samama’s performance took place inside the context of the gallery and involved only a plastic woven bag, the clothes she wore that day, and her body. As the title subtly implies, the underlying tone of the piece was antagonistic. The bag is one that is often used by immigrants and migrants, and its presence offered insight into the social classification of the performer. Samama entered the space nude with the bag balanced precariously atop her head. For the next 30 minutes, she moved deliberately throughout the space, drawing attention to and exploring the relationship of the bag to her body—whether as an oppressive weight, or an object of affection. To complete the performance, the artist unzipped the bag, took out its contents (her clothes) and dressed—slowly, methodically—in front of the audience. Samama is highly regarded for her work with the body, investigating its physical qualities and limitations. In this performance the body also became an object, along with and akin to the bag, raising questions about the objectification of the body—specifically the female body—and its (de)valuation in a capitalist, global society.
Cuban artist Carlos Martiel’s performance also addressed the movement of bodies, though in a much more direct and politically charged way. His work focused on the suffering, both physical and psychological, that immigrants often face. For the piece, he invited Chicago-area immigrants to donate blood, temporarily transforming the gallery into a blood bank on the night before the launch of the festival. Martiel chose blood as his medium in part because it is an extremely affective material, one that most people have a strong aversion to, in spite of its vital importance. On the opening night, Martiel created a tableau vivant, lying naked on the floor of the gallery in a pool of the collected blood, his body flexed and tense, trembling. It was a difficult sight to take in—the experience raw and challenging to the viewer—but deeply moving nonetheless, especially to those who donated their blood and felt a sense of shared experience, of political and social status, with their fellow participants.
Founded by Guillermo Gómez Peña and Roberto Sifuentes, among others, La Pocha Nostra comprises an ever-evolving roster of artists. The performance for RP14 was at times pedagogical in nature, at times carnivalesque, and focused on creating images for mass consumption and distribution. To this end, Peña would halt the performance and invite audience members to take photos and upload them to social media sites, calling on them to “send these images all over the . . . world.” Throughout the performance, Peña also gave instructions to the other performers—Roberto Sifuentes and Erica Mott—along with the audience members, all the while developing a kind of meta-critique of the live performance as it unfolded in real time. At various moments there was a skinned goat draped across the back of a performer; the likeness of a Madonna covered in roses with milk pouring down her bosom; a boxing match; and a prop gun offered to audience members to pose with, held to Peña’s body and head. Ultimately, the piece created a critical space around which all things performance were thrown into question, and in which moments of profanity mixed with references to the sacred.
The work of Alastair MacLennan—a member of the notorious avant-garde performance collective Black Market International—was meditative in nature, engaged as it was in unknown rituality. He embarked on a process that was very much experimental, improvised and momentary. Whereas La Pocha Nostra dissected performance through a series of loosely choreographed gestures, MacLennan created an impression of genuine, unscripted openness. The artist requested a seemingly random series of objects—fresh fish heads, an orange, a green apple, two buckets of water, ticker tape, a bundle of sticks, and so forth—which he arranged in a turnabout down the block from the gallery. As audience members gathered around him, he removed his shoes and blindfolded himself, relying entirely on his other senses to enact an open-ended process, punctuated at times with specific actions, like the pouring of a bucket of water containing fish heads and fruit over his head. A number of random passersby also encountered the piece, intrigued or bewildered by MacLennan’s actions. Perhaps they assumed the rest of the audience members understood what was happening. In fact, none of us did. But to be there in the moment, to be aware of one’s own physical and mental experience in that moment and nothing more, was precisely the point.
This is but a snapshot of the different performances and events that make up Rapid Pulse. I personally have found the experience of working on the festival to be transformative and eye-opening. For many years I was somewhat dismissive of performance art myself, but I understand now that this was due to my own lack of understanding and willingness to engage. Now I am acutely aware of how my experiences with Rapid Pulse have begun to color the many other artistic initiatives I am involved in. In fact, many of the exhibitions I organize for the MCA involve performative aspects and are geared towards open-ended inquiry, improvisation, and the acceptance of the unknown. It has been rewarding, if not also liberating, to push myself beyond my own comfort zone and move into this other realm of artistic activity, for it is exactly these kinds of experiences—deeply affective and challenging as they are—that become all the more formative as one pushes onward, blindfolded and barefoot though we may be.
Can’t make it to tonight’s program? Preview some of the films featured below or catch the festival this weekend at Nightingale Cinema.
Joshua Mosley, Jeu de Paume, 2014
Joung Yumi, Love Games, 2013
Hoji Tsuchiya, Black Long Skirt, 2010
In Wade Davis’s audio-lecture series, The Wayfinders, Davis recounts Nainoa Thompson’s first solo voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti in 1980 on the Hōkūle’a, a handmade re-creation of a double-hull, ancient Polynesian voyaging canoe. In making this journey, Thompson became the first contemporary native Hawaiian to successfully travel thousands of nautical miles without instruments, using only the traditional Polynesian art of navigation taught to him by the last living Micronesian master navigator, Mau Piailug.
Thompson’s story is very dramatic. After almost a month at sea, Thompson and his crew faced days and nights of relentlessly overcast skies, hiding the stars and sun. Sitting in silent meditation, tracking every piece of data to sustain a mental picture of the ship’s dead-reckoning across the open sea—including waves, winds, birds, fish, clouds, and the often obscured sun and stars—Thompson felt his thread of focus unravel, and realized that the Hōkūle’a might be lost at sea. But before fear overcame him, he remembered a simple teaching that master navigator Mau Piailug repeated often: Remember that everything you need is on board the ancient canoe.
Through their work, Mau Piailug and Thompson reclaimed the legacy of ancient Polynesian navigation and its historical role in populating the vast archipelago of Polynesia—catalyzing the final undoing of the historical theory of accidental drift from Peru associated with National Geographic hero Thor Heyerdahl and his famous journey on the Kon-Tiki raft.
I was struck by the profound existential themes of Thompson’s journey. Open-sea navigation, guided only by one’s knowledge and senses, seems impossible to me, and yet Thompson overcomes this impossibility. The vastness of the sea overwhelms the tiny canoe and its crew, but they move through this vastness to pinpoint the culture they are seeking on a distant island. They make the connection to that culture through the power of ancient seafaring wisdom. The crew of the canoe faces imminent death and despair, but they have the resources within them to face both success and failure.
My performance Wayfinders is not about Nainoa Thompson’s journey. Instead, it uses the themes within his story as a point of inspiration. My interpretation branched into roughly three areas: the evolving technology of navigation (now including ubiquitous GPS carried on almost all of our persons); the role of navigation in evolution, including the theory that the evolutionary purpose of “consciousness” is to mobilize and navigate an organism; and the cultural shifts of how we relate to space and place, particularly today, when technology so thoroughly mediates our relationships with people, places, and things.
In a series of workshops, including one conducted at the MCA, the performers, designers, and I created pieces of performance around musical sketches. When confronted with a creative obstacle, we reminded ourselves that everything we needed was with us, in the theater. In this way, the work became about the meta-narrative of a set of people cocreating their own reality and their own journey. This idea led to the notion of an isolated spaceship—inspired by Thompson’s description of the voyaging canoe as “the spaceship of the ancestors”—in which technology comes to mediate consciousness itself, allowing a kind of virtual world in which place, trajectory, and identity are all fluid constructs that the passengers can actively imagine into being.
Very quickly I realized we were in the territory of science fiction. A chance re-viewing of the original Matrix film led me to the writer William Gibson, who coined the term “cyberspace” in his Sprawl trilogy and predicted the notions of “the matrix,” virtual reality, and even the World Wide Web. I found a synchronicity of thought between the ideas we devised in workshop and the narrative threads of Gibson’s writing, particularly how his books discuss the notion of living entirely virtually, even after the death of the body.
Thinking about the degree to which we relinquish our privacy to benefit from an increasingly connected existence, I began paying attention to how social media is transforming our relationship to death and loss. Online profiles of deceased friends and family take on an active life of their own. Reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead, I found a connection between its description of the stages of death and our own contemporary surrendering of our personal boundaries. Wayfinders imagines a kind of convergence of William Gibson’s vision of a virtual afterlife with the Buddhist belief in the last, most subtle mind as the final boundary before a oneness with all things.
Wayfinders occurs in a highly meta, non-linear, imaginary state of consciousness. In many ways, the creation of this work has coincided with my own personal journey—an attempt to align words, music, and stage picture to an existential question: “Where am I?”
I invite you to come and experience the world of Wayfinders at MCA Chicago.
Janet Wolski, Assistant to the Director: “American Horror Story: Freakshow has got nothing on us!”
Joel-Peter Witkin, Feast of the Fools, Mexico City, 1990
Leah Singsank, Assistant Registrar: “I discovered this artist through a friend from grad school—a photo specialist interested in post-mortem photography. We ended up fast friends because I, too, have a penchant for the bizarre, though for me, the bizarre was more firmly rooted in cabinets of curiosity and 18th-century phantasmagoria.
Long story short, this friendship led to my introduction to the work of Joel-Peter Witkin. This guy is just bizonkers. For me, his work is the intersection of a 1920s traveling circus and a mad-man’s cabinet of curiosity. When I look at his works, I am transported to a tiny room in the back of an immaculate Victorian house. Past the silver. Past the stuffed, much beloved hunting dog. Past the creepy family portrait of a long-dead, little-loved aunt. Past the library. Behind the heavy wooden door. Here I find a room bursting with photographs of dismembered and reattached people. Photographs haphazardly hanging from the walls by nails next to others delicately framed, or laying stacked one on top of the other, waiting patiently to be catalogued like the others . . . you see it too, right? Or, maybe I just have watched too much TV during my formative years.”
Hiba Ali, Visitor Services Associate: “When I first saw Ivan Albright’s Into the World There Came A Soul Called Ida (1929–30) I was in high school. To this day, I remember the haunting image that was etched into my memory. The painting is meant as a reminder that life is impermanent. It also reminds us that dramatic lighting can completely change the way one is perceived. When we look at each other in the daytime we don’t see the shadows under and around our skin, these blotches that Albright outwardly depicts. Ida Rogers—the woman portrayed in this painting—looks into the mirror, recalling her beauty. She prompts us to think about the weight of time, its effects on the body, and the impermanence of life.”
Abraham Ritchie, Social Media Manager: “‘An encounter with [Katharina’s Fritsch’s] imagery, whether a single sculpture such as Monk or group of assembled objects, can be startling and disturbing.’ This description of Monk by the Art Institute was proved absolutely true when I first experienced the life-size, all-black artwork in the mid-2000s. Cleverly installed at the time on a plinth by the bottom of a staircase in the back of the Morton Wing, the closed-eyed monk silently stood to startle any unguarded visitor descending into the gallery—I think I jumped about a foot into the air when I turned and saw it.
Also, for anyone that saw Stephen King’s IT when they were too young, Bruce Nauman’s Clown Torture needs no theoretical explanation for the reaction it provokes in nearly everyone and its excruciating affect on the body. It is not, contrary to the recommendation given by one guard years ago, an artwork for kids.” (Joseph Goins also nominated this work via Facebook.)
Ruth Suttie Gauss, via Facebook: “Janitor at the Milwaukee Art Museum was so realistic, it would really bother me to be in the same space with him!”
National Veterans Art Museum, via Facebook: “Derek Brunen’s Plot, six hours of a man digging his own grave—quite chilling!”
Molly Fitzharris, via Facebook: “Tony Oursler pops up in my nightmares quite a bit”
When I began my Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellowship in February 2012, one of the first projects I proposed emerged directly from the work that the MCA’s Library and Archives staff had been doing to organize, archive, and digitize materials related to the museum’s exhibition history. The project I’ve been working on is collaborative at its core, and illustrates the close connection between curatorial work and the various archival projects taking place in the MCA Library and Archives.
Currently unnamed (I refer to it as plainly the “MCA Exhibition History Project”), this collaborative effort will make the MCA’s exhibition history prior to 2000 available in a dynamic format on the museum’s website. In anticipation of the museum’s 50th anniversary in 2017, I’ve been working closely with the Library and Archives staff, as well as a couple of curatorial interns, to compile a comprehensive list of the museum’s exhibitions, write exhibition descriptions, and locate photographic documentation in the museum’s archives.
For a historian and researcher like myself, the museum’s exhibition files and ephemeral material are a real treasure trove. There are few things more exciting than working with primary materials and original documents, and the MCA’s exhibition records often contain notes and correspondence that complicate the more straightforward narratives published in exhibition catalogues.
When I was working on my PhD, I spent a lot of time doing primary research at a variety of film and museum archives including MoMA, the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, and Anthology Film Archives in New York. I was always thrilled to locate audio or moving image documentation of the artists I was writing about. Hearing an artist speak about their work to an audience, answer questions during an informal chat with curators, or introduce a screening all provide invaluable insights into their work, influences, and thinking at the time of the recording. I was incredibly excited to discover that the MCA has a long history of interviewing exhibiting artists, and that many of these tapes have survived and are now housed in the archive.
Because I have a background in film archiving and preservation, one of my concurrent and connected projects has been to gradually start digitizing these artist interviews, most of which were mastered onto ¾” Umatic tape, a videotape stock that is rapidly deteriorating. The interviews—with artists including Nam June Paik, Sol LeWitt, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Jeff Koons, Alice Aycock, and Max Neuhaus, among many others—are fascinating portraits and documents of the MCA’s early exhibitions. When the project is completed, these digitized interviews will be made available to researchers and integrated into the MCA’s online exhibition history. Check back for future blog posts containing excerpts from some of these video interviews!
With the hope of locating more documentation of the museum’s early history, the Library and Archives staff and I made a few trips to the MCA Warehouse last spring. (For more information on the visits and discoveries made there, read page 13 of the MCA Magazine online PDF.) We were specifically looking for two cases of audio cassette tapes that contained artist interviews and recordings from performances and lectures in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as 16mm film footage that we heard included documentation of the MCA’s earliest exhibitions. We were incredibly excited to find both the audio cassettes and the 16mm film, and quickly started the process of inventorying the collections and preparing them for digitization.
The weekend following our discovery, I spent a day inspecting and making very minor repairs to the film reel, which was covered in dirt and dust.
It was clear that the reel was a composite of many films spliced together—some of the footage included title sequences and soundtracks, some appeared to be documentation of exhibitions both in the installation process and on view, and others were creative responses to the exhibitions (one really remarkable example of this is a single-frame animation sequence created using the individual panels of Warhol’s famous Flowers piece ).
Mary Richardson, the MCA’s Library Director, and I were able to determine that David H. Katzive, the museum’s first curator, shot almost all of the footage on the composite reel. Katzive was not only a talented curator, but a very astute filmmaker. Some of the footage was fairly straightforward documentation of early exhibitions (dating from 1967–1970), but the reel also contained two complete films that Katzive made and distributed through Chicago’s Center Cinema Coop: Christo–Wrap In–Wrap Out, which documents Christo’s legendary 1969 wrapping of the MCA, and Concrete Traffic by Wolf Vostell, which captures the process of creating Vostell’s concrete sculpture in 1970. The reel also includes a short film made by Jerry Aronson and Howard Sturges that documents the participatory art exhibition Options, which was on view in the fall of 1968. In addition to these completed films, the reel contains documentation of the museum’s earliest exhibitions including 1967’s Pictures to Read/Poetry to be Seen; 1968’s Made with Paper, George Segal: Twelve Human Situations, Robert Whitman: Four Cinema Pieces, and Tom Wesselman: The Great American Nude; 1969’s Art by Telephone; and 1970’s Andy Warhol Retrospective.
Our archiving and preservation of the film consisted of multiple stages, and has taken eight months to complete. First, I inspected the film on a rewind bench to identify the content as best as possible.
This was followed by a gentle cleaning and minor repairs made to torn perforations and old splices.
After this initial work was completed, we had a quick telecine made of the entire reel, which allowed us to see a low-quality transfer of the film. I can’t even begin to explain how excited I was to see everything that the reel, almost an hour in length, contained. Because I spent years working at the Chicago Film Archives with unique 16mm film material, specifically amateur and home movies, I knew that the film reel was not only irreplaceable (it is the only extant copy), but that it was essential to quickly make plans to preserve both the original film and make access copies available to researchers.
Traces of forgotten events from the museum’s past are sometimes uncovered in our everyday work of processing the museum’s archives and facilitating research, leading us to fun rediscoveries. Last year, Library Director Mary Richardson came across a WTTW press release related to the exhibition Art by Telephone while she was consulting the archival materials for a different exhibition, the museum’s 1970 Roy Lichtenstein retrospective.
Art by Telephone, a controversial exhibition at the time, included conceptual artworks by such artists as John Baldessari, James Lee Byars, Claes Oldenburg, Richard Serra, and Robert Smithson. Each of the 39 participating artists phoned in instructions to MCA staff members, who then created the works on behalf of the artists.
The press release describes a 30-minute special that aired on WTTW in March 1970, featuring the works from Art by Telephone and local students from Harlan and Von Steuben high schools in conversation with MCA staff members Jan van der Marck and David Katzive, respectively the museum’s first director and first curator.
Thrilled by the possibility of seeing early MCA staff and local students interact with this exhibition, Mary and Michelle Puetz, the MCA’s Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow, began an eager quest to locate a copy of the footage of the WTTW program. Unfortunately, neither the MCA’s nor WTTW’s archival collections contained copies of the film. After inconclusive WorldCat searches and correspondence with various film repositories such as the Museum of Broadcast Communications and the Chicago Film Archives, it seemed that footage of the program would never be found and that a piece of the MCA’s history was lost forever.
Then, in June of this year, an unexpected package arrived at the MCA addressed from David Katzive. To everyone’s surprise and delight, it contained a film reel and a digitized copy of the WTTW program. Library and Archives staff celebrated the serendipitous arrival by immediately watching the program, reveling in the intelligent and earnest dialogue between the students and the MCA staff as well as the fantastically hip fashions and hairdos of the 1970s.
Below are some of the highlights.
All clips taken from the film reel of WTTW program Art by Telephone, 1970. MCA Archive. Gift of David Katzive
In the spring of 2013 I was busy researching MCA DNA: Chicago Conceptual Abstraction, 1986–1995, for the MCA’s ongoing “DNA” series devoted to featuring iconic works from the collection, and Hudson—the performance artist and curator turned pioneering gallery owner—was very much on my mind. Hudson had been an essential part of Chicago’s art community in the 1980s, opening his gallery, Feature, in 1984, after working in the nonprofit realm, most notably with the now-legendary Randolph Street Gallery.
The art world in the mid-1980s was a very different place: pre-internet and very recently post–“Neo-Expressionist” painting (read Julian Schnabel, Anselm Keifer, David Salle, etc.), which had trumpeted a “return to painting” after decades of conceptually based and minimalist work. There were few art fairs or biennials at which to see emerging work and even so, people just did not travel as much. For Chicago’s art community, Feature gallery was a revelation. It was the place in town to see emerging national figures of the generation that came to be called, variously, “Neo-Geo” and “The Pictures Generation”—Jim Isermann, Jeff Koons, Mike Kelley, Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, Jim Shaw, and Charles Ray, among others. Hudson also showcased many of the emerging conceptually informed Chicago artists who have gone on to national and international fame, including Tony Tasset and Kay Rosen.
Those lucky enough to make their way to Hudson’s gallery space on Huron Street received quite an education. He was always present, ready to talk if you wished, but also willing to leave you alone to look. So it was quite a shock to learn, only a few months after Chicago Conceptual Abstraction had closed, that Hudson had died. He was only 63.
Hudson was also a donor to the MCA Collection. He never had deep resources, even after his gallery relocated to New York and he was insightful enough to represent such highly successful artists as Tom Friedman, whom he had met in Chicago. He once spoke of his modest lifestyle and how he ran Feature as his “move against stardom and a push for pluralism and multiplicity.” His commitment to his ideals and the art he championed resulted in gifts to museums of significant early works by many of the artists he represented, works he could have sold for a tidy profit.
In 1997, the MCA was the recipient of 14 such works, including the now ironic Talent (1986) by David Robbins that features the “art stars” of the 1980s in their youth. That fall, an exhibition featuring Hudson’s gifts was mounted with the provocative title, Fake Ecstasy with Me (suggested by Hudson). While the donation included such notable names as Robert Mapplethorpe and Raymond Pettibon, as Hudson explained in his correspondence about the gift, the art “was collected for display in a small apartment” and the works had been selected by him based on his “regard for the individual work, not for its integration into a collection or the artist’s career.”
This “regard” shines through in a number of the gifts. The Robert Mapplethorpe photograph, Sebastian and Nda (1981), is a charming portrait of two boys stage playing a smack across the face. Now a well-known image, the photo isn’t what commonly comes to mind when thinking of Mapplethorpe, best known for his homoerotic and explicitly sexual work. But that would have been typical of Hudson’s sensibilities: collect the best, but maybe not the most obvious “best” work.
Jim Isermann’s “Neo-Geo” Flower Painting (1986) is another strong example of Hudson’s collecting eye. While the work might initially come across as merely decorative, Isermann, a Los Angeles–based artist who trained at the prestigious California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) along with others who put their stamp on art of the waning years of the twentieth century, including Mike Kelley, David Salle, and Jim Shaw, slyly reinterpreted the aesthetics of the psychedelic 1960s “flower power” imagery onto enamel-on-wood paintings. One critic aptly described them as “remembrances of our overextended imaginations.”
Mondo Cane (1985), another colorful and deceptive work, was the creation of General Idea, a pioneering Canadian art collective consisting of AA Bronson, Felix Partz, andJorge Zontal. First active in the 1960s, the group created installations, posters, and artists’ books and magazines. A silkscreen version from a series of paintings featuring the neon bright outlines of poodles, the playfulness of the imagery belies the fact that the poodles are presented in various sexual positions and stand in for the three members of the collective, two of whom succumbed to AIDS–related illnesses in the 1990s. The title Mondo Cane (A dog’s world) refers to a 1962 Italian documentary that consists of travelogue vignettes of cultural practices that would have been unknown or shocking to the European and American film audiences of its day. With dry humor and considerable grace, the members of General Idea brought attention to the fact that many in the 1980s and 1990s were shocked and disturbed by the idea of homosexuality, and found the AIDS crisis a problem of “the other” and not of the entire society.
These are just a few of the 14 works Hudson donated to the MCA Collection. He was a rarity in today’s international art world, and is deeply missed. His legacy, however, will live on in the MCA’s exhibition history and collection.
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!