One Week Later: Impressions of Printers’ Ball and Howard Henry Chen at the MCA

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Last Friday night, I was at the Printers’ Ball at the Museum of Contemporary Art so I could check out what the hype was all about.  Many people have said it has been the must-go event of the past three late summers in Chicago, and with it’s notorious shutdown by the cops at last year’s Zhou B. Art Center venue, it’s curiosity value, and yes, cool cache, has increased several dozenfold. The Poetry Foundation sponsors this annual event where Chicago-based publishers and publications give away their wares for free to the hungry reading public in a party-type atmosphere, complete with free food, cash bars, performances, and DJs spinning house music.  So, first off, I do want to say that anything that encourages people to read is worthwhile, so kudos to the Printers’ Ball organizers, sponsors, and participants for getting the event off the ground.  However, any event that has several hundred people shoving their elbows into other people’s eyeballs, and looking like they’re the frenzied Bridezillas in the Today show’s race for bridal gowns contest, all for free stuff, is insane.  I wasn’t sure why people were grabbing “The Textiles of Indonesia” softcovers from each other’s hands (these were people who should be paying attention to the textiles they were wearing first – honey, wearing a gold lame tanktop when you’re outrageously Rubenesque will make you look like the groom’s elephant in an Indian royal wedding anyday).  People were taking anything that was laid out on the floor or on the tables, whether they were books, magazines, journals, tsotchkes, flyers for a Chinese restaurant, whatever wasn’t locked down was grabbed and pawed….it was really tacky actually.  Now, I did grab my share of free stuff (and contributed $3 to the Poetry Foundation for a, uhmmm, ok, I need to be revived with a hot towel, quick…green and yellow tote bag) but, at least, I thought I was pretty selective.  And after the freebie grab, the attendees began gorging themselves on the free hotdogs as if they just arrived from a Somalian refugee camp! Really, what was up with these people?

Thank goodness, I was able to extricate myself from the Printers’ Ball melee, and like Alice who tumbled through the looking glass unexpectedly, I serendipitously found myself in the MCA’s current UBS 12 x 12 exhibit area.  The UBS 12 x 12 series showcases emerging Chicago artists from a variety of artistic media, and this month’s featured artist is the brilliant Howard Henry Chen, a young photographer and mixed media artist, who was born in Vietnam but immigrated to the US when he was 3. This exhibit is only running till this Sunday, August 31, so avid blog readers, run in your stilleto heels to the MCA quick or else you will miss one of the most dazzling, most provocative, most interestingly novel and fresh art exhibits you will see in Chicago this year.  In only six pieces, Chen tackles questions of immigration, cultural identity, cultural permeability and eradication, colonization, and racial conflicts.  I liked two pieces the most.  The first one was a collection of thirty Buddhist prayer bowls, which I guess was pretty common in traditional Vietnam, set out in an orderly row, which were either empty or filled with a variety of  things such as foie gras canisters, a box of condoms, dried fish, candy, etc. but which seemed so incongrous when seen inside the bowls. This piece powerfully communicated the (sometimes) clashing influences of a culture and how these influences can be integrated into the culture over time.  The other one which blew me away was a piece which contained three Ho Chi Minh head busts all sealed in vacuum packs with beef stock, “sous vide” style.  My foodie readers know that sous vide is the technique of sealing food in plastic bags while cooking them in low temperatures to maintain their natural freshness. In this piece, Chen wanted us to think hard about cultural assimilation:  how, regardless of where we immigrate, and how much we think we have assimilated/integrated with our new communities, we still carry with us our undeniable cultural roots, identity, biases, and propensities.  Word!

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