A Not-So-Temporary Tattoo

Posted February 12, 2015


Sailors fighting. Cari Vander Yacht. 2014.

It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and artist Cari Vander Yacht was paid quite the compliment when artist Taylor Kamees tattooed her temporary tattoo onto his leg, permanently. Cari’s work Sailor’s Fighting was inspired by David Bowie’s song “Life on Mars?” and was commissioned for a temporary tattoo set produced on the occasion of the MCA’s presentation of David Bowie Is.

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Interview with Sergio Clavijo

Posted February 10, 2015


Sergio Clavijo
Photo: Abraham Ritchie, © MCA Chicago

A great deal of effort goes into the seamless presentation of Doris Salcedo’s works and behind those installations are highly trained professionals who watch every nuance of production and installation. Before Doris Salcedo opens on February 21, we sat down with Sergio Clavijo, one of Doris Salcedo’s studio partners, to discuss the process and challenges of installing her works, his time in Chicago, and more.

MCA: Where are you from?

Sergio Clavijo: I am Colombian, but I live in Montreal, Canada.

MCA: How did you end up in Canada?

SC: My family. I am married to a Canadian, and now I have two sons who were born there. Well, one is born, but the other will be here in April.

MCA: Oh congratulations! That’s wonderful!
How long have you been in Chicago?

SC: I’ve been here for three weeks now.

MCA: How long have you been working for Doris Salcedo?

SC: Since 2001. I worked with her for 10 years, then stopped to study, then I went back to [Doris’s] studio, and then I moved to Montreal less than five years ago. I’ve been involved with the works but not with the studio production in Bogotá.

MCA: What did you study during the break from the studio?

SC: I studied architecture; I earned a master’s degree in architecture. Even today my work is in architecture.

Doris Salcedo Untitled, 2003 1,150 wooden chairs Approx. 33 x 20 x 20 ft. (10.1 x 6.1 x 6.1 m) Ephemeral public project, 8th International Istanbul Biennial, Istanbul, 2003 Photo: Muammer Yanmaz

MCA: What did you work on today?

SC: I’ve been working on the installation of Atrabiliarios, and the overall setup of the room. We’ve been finalizing bringing the work into the walls, which is a big part of that installation. Putting them together with the actual wall itself is fairly complicated to set up so that it is flush with the existing wall. That’s the struggle for today.


Doris Salcedo. Atrabiliarios, 1992–97. Shoes, drywall, paint, wood, animal fiber, and surgical thread. 43 niches and 40 boxes, overall dimensions variable. Installation view, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Mervyn Horton Bequest Fund 1997, Art Gallery of NSW collection, © Doris Salcedo

MCA: That’s almost what we were going to ask you next. What is the most difficult piece you’ve worked on and what makes it difficult?

SC: That’s a hard question to answer because there is a challenge, an extreme challenge, in each of Doris’s works. Nonetheless, it’s a challenge that’s [overcome] through the talent of several people; there’s not one mastermind here. There’s Doris who directs and creates a concept, but then anything you see happening in terms of structure, installation, or design of crates or packages is [a product] of the many people who are involved. They are part of a studio and they are involved. They’re not consultants. All the guys from the studio that are here have experience in these challenges. I think every one of them would answer very differently about what is the most challenging, but most likely their answer would be “what is to become,” that is, what they’re working on installing right now is the most challenging. It’s very hard to think of a more complicated thing after installing the most complicated thing you’ve ever done!

MCA: On a related note, what’s the hardest thing to do in your job? Whether it’s physical, personal, or even the emotional weight of the artwork.

SC: The hardest thing is to get people involved, the other workers. Meaning that there are professionals attached to each exhibition venue, like drivers, electricians, lighting technicians, even security. When you have worked on a piece of art you have a certain sensibility towards certain aspects of the piece. Not in conservation, but in terms of the piece itself. There’s an extreme care and professionalism at a museum, and especially here at the MCA, but somehow you want more. That’s very difficult because people are doing their jobs properly and correctly but you say, “No, no, you can make that drywall more flat if you put a shim in there.” So we ask for a shim. It doesn’t follow the logic of a schedule, it doesn’t follow the logic of building codes, but it’s part of this difficulty to [make it perfect]. . . . The MCA crew has shown me their equipment and their process. They open up and tell me the way they do the work normally. By sharing this information we’re able to work together to get the best result, for instance, “if you do two coats of that we might be able to get a better result,” and that kind of collaboration is happening. There’s no planning for this kind of work, there are no instructions. It’s in the interaction.

MCA: Since you’ll be here for a while longer, is there anything you want to do while you’re in Chicago?

SC: I want to get the installation done on time! But I’m also very interested in the architecture of Chicago.


The skyscrapers but also the Prairie-style residences, the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, the [Louis] Sullivan’s, and also the Mies van der Rohe work that’s here. It’s all very valuable. If there’s a chance, some of the studio people here would like to try to go to the [Frank Lloyd Wright–designed] S. C. Johnson building in Racine, Wisconsin.

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Samantha Hill
10 Body Performances, 2015
Photo: Priyanka Fernando, © MCA Chicago

“One thing that I love about the MCA is its rich history of performing art,” Samantha Hill declared on Feb 3 as she introduced the first of three projects she will present at the MCA. Taking a cue from past performance art occupying the museum galleries, Hill invited visitors to reinsert performance back into the galleries for an evening through their own actions using Hill’s prompt, “How can you engage the art to create a new work of art?” As snow fell outside, museum guests, sometimes strangers, collaborated with each other throughout the evening to create new physical responses to the works on view.

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Installation view, Bodyworks, MCA Chicago
Mar 8–Apr 27, 1975
Photo © MCA Chicago

We asked Chicago artist Samantha Hill to reflect on her series of happenings occurring on three Tuesday evenings this winter/spring, the first of which begins tonight at 6 pm. Because she depends on the kindness of strangers for installation source materials (stories, photographs, group dancing at landmark locations), Samantha often uses the letter format as an artistic tool, allowing her to talk directly to her audience.

Dear Friend,

I hope this letter finds you well. I have exciting news to share about my latest project called The Happenings: a series of events inspired by the MCA Archive. For this series, I developed three performance events that bring art history alive through interactive music, dance, and play. I would love for you to join in on the fun!

You’re probably wondering . . . What is your inspiration for this performance series?

I found my muse for this project in an introduction statement from the MCA Chicago on our Fortieth Anniversary catalogue:

“No discussion of the past and future of the Museum of Contemporary Art can begin without the art. Loud or quiet, bold or subtle, it plays varied roles within our galleries: the innovator, the empiricist, the explorer, the storyteller, the soothsayer, the provocateur. Contemporary art is alive, enthralling, and at play.

Yet we have stood fast in our role as a guardian of cultural wealth. We have withstood booms and bursts in the art world and beyond, periods in which contemporary art has been celebrated or reviled. Through it all, we are committed to introducing new audiences to the art of our time, maintaining a broad and diverse marketplace of ideas, and cultivating future generations of art lovers. At the same time, we celebrate and encourage artistic pioneering and risk-taking. Since we first opened our doors in 1967, we have presented and helped immortalize living artists, bringing their forward thinking work into the hollowed halls of art history. We mine the terrain and dig for the innovative and substantive, pulling new gems to the surface.”

After I read this statement, my first thought was AWESOME! I felt completely inspired to develop interactive performances influenced by the MCA’s history but with a contemporary twist!

For me, play is the catalysis for the imagination, social bonding, and expression. I enjoy creating opportunities for social and playful experimentation in my performances. It would be amazing if you could join me in ‘rewriting history’ by participating in this series of performances:

  • 10 Body Performances (a tribute to the 1975 Bodyworks exhibition by connecting public performance to photography)
  • Uma Celebração da Cultura (a tribute to the history of the MCA’s music and dance performances though Samba music and social dancing)
  • Art & Soul Redux (a tribute to the history of MCA community engagement on Chicago’s Westside in 1969 through experimental music-making)

In the first “happening,” 10 Body Performances, you can create your own performance art in the galleries. I am leading MCA visitors in a series of workshop exercises to assist them with the creation of personal body performances.

I know live performance may not be your cup of tea (even though I think you’d be great at it!), so you can also join in by photographing the workshop performances using your smartphone. Tag #MCAStudio to your photos on Instagram or your tweets, and your images will be projected throughout the gallery during the program. So, whether you are an exhibitionist or a voyeur there is an opportunity to participate in the fun!

10 Body Performances takes place tonight from 6 to 7 pm, starting in the MCA Atrium. I hope to see you there!

Your friend in art,

Samantha Hill

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Doris Salcedo on ART21

Posted January 29, 2015

In this video produced by PBS’s ART21, Doris Salcedo speaks in powerful terms about her experiences as a citizen of a so-called “third world” country and how they inform her artworks.

We open the first retrospective of this major international artist on February 21 with an opportunity to hear from Doris Salcedo herself.

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Installation view, Kerry James Marshall: Painting and Other Stuff, Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen, Feb 27–May 4, 2014
All images courtesy of the author

In the spring of 2016, the MCA is presenting the first major museum survey of Kerry James Marshall, one of America’s greatest living painters. For more than two years now, a curatorial team, consisting of Abigail Winograd, Dieter Roelstraete, Helen Molesworth, and Ian Alteveer, has been working on assembling an unmatched number of masterpieces for this ambitious exhibition project. This preparatory work has involved a fair share of travel, allowing the curators to see the paintings in person—Kerry’s work is of a kind, after all, that really has to be appreciated and experienced in the flesh. In this series of posts, the curatorial team reports back on the sights seen at museums and galleries around the world as they hunt down the artist’s greatest works—regularly bumping into the great man himself in the process.

The journey begins in Vienna back in September 2012 at the opening of Who’s Afraid of Red, Black and Green at the Secession, the city’s most prestigious contemporary arts venue.

I took this photo of Kerry and his wife Cheryl at the opening in Vienna. This was the first exhibition of Kerry’s I went to see in my capacity as a curator at the MCA; it also figured in my research for the Kerry James Marshall survey show I initiated during my last months as a curator at the museum of contemporary art M HKA in Antwerp. (It was with an eye on inviting Kerry to do that show in Antwerp that I first visited Chicago in April 2011.) VIE2 VIE3 As noted before, Kerry’s triptych is based on Barnett Newman’s large-scale color field expanses. Here is a Newman original, photographed at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam during the same trip (the museum had just reopened after a 10-year restoration and expansion effort). This particular painting gained worldwide notoriety some years ago when it became the target of an attack of vandalism.


The Antwerp museum of contemporary art M HKA is next; the site of the exhibition Kerry James Marshall: Painting and Other Stuff. Curated by my successor Nav Haq, the exhibition opened in October 2013, an occasion I certainly did not want to miss.

ANT1 The Antwerp show—which would go on to tour the European continent, with subsequent stops in Copenhagen, Barcelona, and Madrid—focused on the broad disciplinary range of Kerry’s work and the heterogeneity of artistic methods and practices. It included this photo installation, the tellingly titled The Art of Hanging Pictures, an earlier iteration of which was shown at a Kerry James Marshall exhibition organized at the MCA in 2003. The Garden Party, Kerry’s take on the pointillist aesthetic, hangs ready to be used as a backdrop for the opening remarks. This is one of the paintings I remember seeing in the studio when I first visited Kerry in the spring of 2011—it seemed fitting that, during that maiden voyage to Chicago, I also got to see Seurat’s La Grande Jatte (1884–86) at the Art Institute. A trompe-l’oeil, of sorts, taken at the exhibition in Antwerp, featuring my cyclopic reflection in the shining glass covering a painting that will also be included in the MCA exhibition. ANT6


After closing in January 2014, the Antwerp show decamped to the Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen, where it opened its doors in late February.

The entrance to the exhibition at the Kunsthal Charlottenborg—a central feature of the space was a sculpture consisting of black plastic flowers that Kerry first showed at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis. The exhibition was very well received in Copenhagen: the day after the opening, David Walker appeared on the cover of Denmark’s leading daily newspaper. Here we see The Art of Hanging Pictures installed in the Kunsthal, where the exhibition was cared for by director Jacob Fabricius and curator Henriette Bretton-Meyer. A fine view of two Chicago treasures at the Kunsthal—the painting to the right, which depicts a street corner around the block from Kerry’s studio on the south side, is the MCA’s,  to the left is a painting owned by the Smart Museum at the University of Chicago, where it is on view for most of 2015. Both works will be included in the MCA exhibition. A view of another Kerry James Marshall painting owned by the MCA. This one is from the Souvenir series that debuted at the Renaissance Society in the late 1990s: the artist’s elegiac homage to the heroes of the Civil Rights struggle.

Next time, join us as we look for traces of Kerry’s interest in public art across Chicago, as well as stops in London and Spain.

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Stan’s Cafe at the MCA

Posted January 22, 2015

The Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival continues this week with three performances of The Cardinals by Stan’s Cafe (pronounced “caff”) who have traveled from the UK to present their work to a Chicago audience. Full of humor but wordlessly performed, The Cardinals tells the tale of three cardinals out to evangelize but when the puppets they were using go missing, they are forced to fill in. Ultimately the play reveals itself to be more than just a funny story, but a serious look at the convergence of faith and theater and the role belief plays in both.

All four shows for Manual Cinema sold out. Don’t wait to get tickets for Stan’s Cafe, their first performance starts tonight.

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Artist's concept of exoplanet
GJ 504b, 2013
© NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/S. Wiessinger

We invited scientists from the Adler Planetarium to share new insights and perspectives on exhibitions at the MCA. Ken Walczek, the Adler’s Far Horizons Lab Manager, shares his musings on science and art after viewing BMO Harris Bank Chicago Works: Sarah and Joseph Belknap, on view through February 24, 2015.

I have always viewed art with a scientific mind whether realizing it or not; always drawn to artists that approach their work with a systematic or even a scientific approach—Duchamp’s Standard Stoppages come to mind. This personal revelation was inspired by a long discussion with friends following a visit to Sarah and Joseph Belknap’s MCA exhibition and talk. Since my job at the Adler Planetarium involves science and engineering, this revelation may not seem so surprising, and it becomes even more clear when you discover that my roots and education were in the arts.

The earnest melding of art and science is a long overdue union fertile with potential. But it is also a marriage of two worlds with contrasting geographies of language and intention, both fraught with the need for navigation and cooperation.

Sarah Belknap and Joseph Belknap Exoplanet Skin (1), 2014 and Deflated Moon Skin (1), 2014 Photo courtesy of the artists

Scientists frequently employ artists to visualize their discoveries. An explosion in the discovery of exoplanets (planets orbiting stars other than the sun) in the past few years has increased this pairing of artists and scientists to imagine these worlds according to the best interpretation of the data gleaned from observation. Perform an image search for “exoplanet” and you’ll see dozens of examples. The intention is to make these distant worlds real for the scientists as well as the public, but these visualizations are speculative at best—meant only to inspire the imagination. The Belknaps interpret the surfaces of planetary bodies by exaggerating texture and color similar to the hired artists, yet they display them as deflated shells. They have goals other than accuracy in mind. It becomes an interesting contrast between conceptualization and interpretation—the world of the scientist versus that of the artist. The Belknaps’ works, however, often toe this line between the accuracy of science and the impressions of art.

Sarah Belknap and Joseph Belknap 4 months of Sun Spots, 2014 HMI intensity gram 9 x 9 in. (22.86 x 22.86 cm) Courtesy of the artists

The work in the exhibition that ended up having the greatest impact on me was a tiny image tucked in a corner, dwarfed by their room-sized earth/moon crater work. The piece overlays four months of satellite images of the sun on a single sphere. It shows the motion and evolution of sunspots across its surface. It is an impressive piece mainly because it bridges the worlds of art and science so effectively. It is as informative as it is thoughtful. Yet it is not a work an astronomer would have made—that’s what makes it so impactful to my science brain. Instead, it is a demonstration of how artists, wittingly or not, can bring light to processes and patterns in the universe. It is informationally scrappy but visually dramatic. Astronomers think of sunspots (relatively cooler, thus darker, magnetic storms on the sun’s surface) not as blights but as part of a natural process and this work by the Belknaps demonstrates this idea that the sun is not a perfect sphere of light but that even its “imperfections” are shaped by physical processes. It is the mysteries of those processes that inspire astronomers to study it.

Artists are inspired by science and scientists are inspired by art. But this implies a gap. Science without the scientist is as incomplete as art without the artist. Where the land and the sea meet is where science and art should thrive. The geography at the intersection of science and art benefits best from shared exploration.

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Manual Cinema at the MCA

Posted January 15, 2015

All four presentations of Manual Cinema’s Mementos Mori at MCA Stage sold out overnight. If you weren’t lucky enough to get tickets perhaps this video with interviews from the Manual Cinema visual team will provide a little insight into the experience and creative vision behind the work and company.

Also part of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival, tickets are still available for Stan’s Cafe’s performances at MCA Stage next week.

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An Interview with Manual Cinema

Posted January 13, 2015

The silhouette of an elderly woman, her hair in a bun, opens a window and looks out. Atmospheric sounds hum and clatter in the distance: water dripping down gutters, the radiator pipes knocking, a bird chirping, the radio in the background, the sudden boom of thunder. We seem to be in an old movie, or something like that. But then, below the scene, we glimpse an old-fashioned overhead projector—the kind that used to sit on a rolling cart in school classrooms everywhere. There are puppeteers grouped around a table, a multiarmed beast manipulating paper and light.

This is the enchanting performance mode of Manual Cinema, a Chicago-based company that combines shadow puppetry, animation, video, stage acting, music, sound design, and more to create performances that hover uncertainly between theater and film. In Momentos Mori, Manual Cinema’s most ambitious production yet, the company unfolds (sometimes, with paper, quite literally) a story about technology, alienation, loneliness, and unlikely friendships in the face of death in the modern world.

Company members Sarah Fornace, Drew Dir, Julia Miller, and Kyle Vegter spoke with Anna Chiaretta Lavatelli, Associate Director of Digital Media, to discuss the company’s production of Momentos Mori, which appears at MCA Stage January 15 through 18.

Anna Chiaretta Lavatelli: How would you describe Manual Cinema?

Sarah Fornace: Manual Cinema is a shadow puppetry and live animation company. We use overhead projectors, humans in silhouette, and a band with a quadrophonic sound system to create an experience that feels like being at an animated movie. However, you’re seeing everything being constructed frame by frame and note by note in front of you.

Drew Dir: We use the old-school overhead projectors you had in your elementary school, and we use hundreds of shadow puppets to create feature-length stories that are told entirely through sound and music and imagery. We can do pretty much anything a moving camera can do, but we do it all on an overhead projector.

Lula Del Ray. Photo: Katherine Greenleaf

ACL: What is it like to be part of Manual Cinema?

DD: It’s a highly collaborative process. All of us come from very disparate backgrounds. Some of us come from theater, some of us come from movement and dance, from visual art, so we all sort of bring our own strengths to the process, but the stories that we tell, including the story of Mementos Mori, are all created collaboratively. We all enter a room together, and we sit down writer’s room style and hash out the story, and we continue to do that.

What’s most rewarding for me is that we’re working in sort of an impossible medium. Creating, making stories with shadow puppets on overhead projectors is an incredibly demanding kind of medium to work in, and you’re constantly failing actually, but that experience of constantly failing and discovering more things about the medium and pushing through and making new discoveries is what makes the work really rewarding. Four years on, we’re still learning so much about cinematic shadow puppetry that it’s exhilarating to work in a medium that, that gives back and that teaches you so much constantly.

Julia Miller: We work in a way that combines classic staging of theater, but also animation in a way that animators work. We work from an outline of a script, but then we transfer that into a storyboard, and that storyboard then becomes our visual script, and then with the storyboard, we use that to build all the puppets. We shoot demos of the storyboard, so we’ll film each frame of the storyboard in rehearsal, and then I’ll edit together the demos of the story, so then we have a digital version of the show that exists. That our ideal staging. Then we go back to the rehearsal room and try to figure out how to do that in real time and space on the projectors.

ACL: How does the sound in the show interact with the puppets on stage?

SF: Kyle composes for quadrophonic sound so that it is all around the audience and he likes to describe it as hyper-real, so if a door swings open it’ll swing open across the audience rather than just the amount it would swing open.

Kyle Vegter: Being the sound designer for Manual Cinema is the most exciting thing and the most terrifying thing, ever. My job is to take a 2D puppet and make it real and living and breathing and envelope the audience in this world that we’re creating. So all of our sound design is mixed in surround. There are two speakers in front of the audience and two speakers behind. The way that sound design works in our shows is that it’s a little bit augmented in comparison to film sound design. In film sound design, they don’t do a lot of panning. Sounds don’t move around a lot, but in ours I over-exaggerate gestures that happen in the world. So when a door opens, it opens across the entire auditorium to sort of give you a sense of being inside of the world.

One of the characters is dead throughout the show, so we’re still trying to figure out how that works. What kind of sound world can we create? What does it sound like when you’re dead? We’re trying out a bunch of different filters. Maybe you only hear from 500 hertz and above, so everything becomes high pitched and you’re only getting half the information. That’s the way I think about character and development and how sound worlds work with puppets.

Lula Del Ray. Photo: Jerry Shulman

ACL: How does Mementos Mori compare with Manual Cinema’s other productions?

JM: We’re experimenting with a couple of new things. It’s our first multiple protagonist show as opposed to a single character. We follow through a narrative arc.

SF: One of the most exciting parts about our MCA residency is the enormous stage space that we have access to here. This is actually the first time we have set up the set up for this show, because it’s simply too big for our studio. Usually, a Manual Cinema show will have one screen and then a table of projectors with three to four projectors on it. Then we will have one camera that is live-feeding to a large screen above it, so you’ll be able to see the actors and puppeteers creating the image on a single screen and then it’s fed to a single screen.

But here at the MCA on this new show, we have two screens on the ground, so there’s two sites of creation where the shots are being constructed and live-edited by the puppeteers together. Then there’s also a video editor on stage who takes the feeds from the two cameras trained on the two screens and then feeds it to a single screen above. Essentially we can now double the amount of information we want to put into the show. We can simply move faster; shadow puppets want to move really slow, and what we try to do is try to push them to move at the pace of film, and they don’t want to do that. By doubling the number of projectors, the number of puppeteers we have, we can edit much, much faster during the show.

JM: There are so many layers to our work, and I’m constantly learning about them, especially with this show because it’s the first time we’re working with performers that aren’t founding members of the company. There’s been a huge step in trying to articulate what our process and technique are to fresh brains who don’t have context for it yet. That has been really a great learning experience on our end.

Lula Del Ray. Photo: Katherine Greenleaf

ACL: How are characters developed on stage?

SF: One way we give a lot of character information is through the types of shots we use. Melba has a lot of point-of-view shots because we’re seeing the world, which is large and looming at her. She is seven years old and experiencing a lot of new things for the first time. We have these very stark point-of-view shots that we intercut with medium and far shots of her.

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