Impressions of Artropolis Chicago

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It’s been nearly a week since Artropolis Chicago came to a close- that intimidating, overwhelming, thrilling, intriguing, and ultimately rewarding, art fair of 780 exhibitors and 16,000 artworks from close to 20 countries on three floors of the Merchandise Mart, but I’m still awestruck by the wonderful windows to creativity and artistic experimentation that the event provided to Chicagoans.   I spent three hours at Artropolis during the Preview Parties on Thursday, April 24, and another three hours on the Saturday afternoon immediately following, but I barely scratched the surface of what was on view.  Which was alright, since as Chicago Tribune art critic Alan Artner said in his preview to the festival, “(t)he impulse is to take in everything but that is immersion akin to a ducking stool.”  Since I didn’t want my experience of art to be similar to that of being strapped into a medieval torture device, I decided to wander, linger, rest, wander again, stop and reflect, and when I had had enough for the day, leave.  I thought that was a good way to take in the pleasures of Artropolis.  I did make a couple of choices beforehand:  I skipped two of the festival’s shows, the International Antiques Fair and the Intuit Show of Folk and Outside Art, since Biedermeier chairs and Art Brut weren’t really my thing, respectively; and I decided to limit my wanderings around The Artist Project, the independent artists’ show, to my friend Sarah Stec’s booth and a couple of aisles over (actually, many of the artists who exhibited here also show at the Old Town Art Fair and other fairs around the city, so there would always be an opportunity to catch them at some place sometime soon).  So I concentrated my time and attention on the works on display at Art Chicago, the main Artropolis show, and NEXT, which was the curated show of cutting-edge, next generation art.  I still didn’t get  to see many, many wonderful artists and pieces, but here’s some of the works that I thought were very memorable- either because they were provocative, challenging, infuriating, inspired, or personally affecting, or all of these, which for me, good art should always be:

  • AES+F is a Russian artist’s collective, comprised of 4 artists, who was recently acclaimed at the 2007 Venice Biennale, one of the most important contemporary art exhibitions in the world.  There were several pieces from AES+F’s “Last Riot” series at New York’s Claire Oliver Gallery booth in the NEXT Art Fair.  These pieces were like photographs superimposed on computer generated graphics, and featured violent, aggressive portrayals of androgynous teenagers (more the boys than the girls, I thought), in scenes that recalled war, imprisonment, or fighting frenzy.  I thought this was an interesting commentary from the artists’ on the state of mind of adolescents today, and how in many parts of the world, there were kids who were either conscripted into guerilla armies, or were parts of belligerent street-fighting gangs.  I think the pieces really tried to capture this almost primal, violent world that some teenagers live in, and the implication it made on contemporary society as a whole.  I was disturbed, though, by some of the almost subconscious sexual imagery in the pieces:  the androgynous-looking boys all were bare chested; while in some of the pictures, the subjects were straddling each other or were frozen in positions that could be interpreted as sensual.  Interesting and challenging work, but ultimately, I wasn’t sure if I bought into the artists’ world.
  • At the booth of the Finnish gallery, Galerie Anhava in Art Chicago, I was very impressed by the wall sculpture made of plexiglass on aluminum by the Icelandic artist Kristjan Gudmunddson, called “Clear View on Top of Grey View”.  These were 4 long strips of windowglass, dimensions 1.5x .08 x 79 inches, in grey, purple, and other colors.  I loved the simplicity and the use of something industrial and workmanlike such as plexiglass to create a sculpture.  I thought it was pretty stunning especially against a white wall backdrop.
  • At the Ronmados Gallery from Amsterdam who was participating in NEXT, there were photographs by a really young, but very provocative Dutch photographer, Levi Van Veluw.  The artist photographed himself with various “stuff” (for lack of a better, more artistic sounding term), such as dirt and grass, and ballpoint ink on his face.  I thought the images were very arresting, although jarring (no one expected to see grass and little twigs and shrubs on someone’s face!), but I was really intrigued by the blurring of the artist-subject dynamic in the pieces, as well as the subtle hint of masochism (why would you want to put all that guck on your face, even for the sake of art?) and exhibitionism in the works.
  • Another New York gallery which exhibited at NEXT, Black and White Gallery in Chelsea, had works by Isidro Blasco, a Spanish artist who now lives in New York.  These works spliced together photographs mounted on laminated boards which gave the works a dazzling three dimensional quality.  I thought they were fascinating, especially the one of back alleys in Shanghai which were really pieces of photographs of different alleys all put together to form one interconnected landscape view.  I thought the works made you think of the nature of space and whether space was a tangible reality, or something that could be constructed, or as one of the gallery staff said more, ahem, articulately (?), what’s “the nature of space volumetrics” (had to Google that one!).
  • As an art lover, but more importantly as a Filipino immigrant, the two pieces that really floored me were those by Michael Arcega, a Filipino artist in San Francisco, in the Marx and Zavattero gallery’s booth at Next.  I very nearly missed this booth, since it was in an aisle that was a little tucked away and closer to the Boffo section of the fair than to the water-cooler pieces (see below).  The first piece was a spectacular video installation called “Loping Honoring” which was a continuous loop of a film of an opera singer singing something called “Loping Honoring” which turned out to be the national anthem of the Philippines, but with the words replaced by words produced when the lyrics were written in a Microsoft Word file and then spell-checked.  Of course this word filter would replace most of the Tagalog words with commonly-accepted English words from its data dictionary.  The impact was so powerful and shattering, articulately communicating the artist’s view of how cultural assimiliation could overlay and then ultimately erode one’s native values and cultural mores.  The second piece was called “Spam/Maps:  Oceania” which re-created a map of the Philippines, the South Pacific islands like Cook islands, and parts of Australia using, hold your breath, Spam meat. Again, the power for me was indescribable, since it brought home very strongly the impact of colonization and the presence of US military bases on this part of the world (Spam was introduced in the Philippines when the country was a US colony, and grew to become a staple of the Filipino breakfast diet, which was pretty ironic since in the US, Spam was, and continues to be, a looked-down upon food product which many people avoid eating- disturbing stuff!).  This work was recently exhibited at San Francisco’s DeYoung Museum in the Collection Connections art series.
  • The conversation piece of the NEXT art fair was the installation “Slow and Inevitable Death of American Muscle” by Jonathan Schippers.  Everyone was asking about the crashing cars when I got there on Saturday afternoon, and this was it.  Two Thunderbird cars started apart on Thursday night when Artropolis began, and were programmed to incrementally come towards one another and collide with each other by Monday afternoon, when the fair ended.  I thought it was a little gimmicky, and I wasn’t really sure if there were any new insights being provided by the work, but I did ask my buddy Joel, himself a fine example of American muscle (he’ll skin me alive when he reads this), to take the picture below (on Saturday, the front bumpers were already touching).


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