Despite the cooler days and slightly cooler nights, the students back at school, plus a few changing leaves here and there, fall technically begins on September 22nd. The fall show season is similar. Fortunately, a number of institutions in the city are holding some of their best summer shows through October, including All that Glows in the Dark of Democracy at Weinberg/Newton Gallery, Slavs and Tatars: MERCZbau at Neubauer Collegium and Beyond the Frame. at the Museum of Contemporary Photography.
With the upcoming midterm elections in November “Everything that shines in the darkness of democracy” feels both contemporary and timeless. Let’s face it, the storms of America’s political climate no longer seem tied to a specific election season. It’s easy. How do we deal with this new normal?
The six artists in this group show have developed a variety of proactive approaches, ranging from the minimalist to the pragmatic to the downright fabulous. As might be expected, much is participatory, as democracy itself should be.
The limitations of this principle are the driving force behind Aram Han Sifuentes’ The Official Unofficial Voting Station: Voting for All Who Legally Can’t, in which he refers to an enormous segment of the population, which includes juveniles, inmates and ex-inmates , residents count US territories and non-citizens like me. Sifuentes invites us to vote, an action that would be exciting in itself, but amplifies it with black lights, neon signs, and disco-level sparkles everywhere.
Ariana Jacob revisits her 2012 project, The American Society for Personally Questioning Political Questions, in which she boldly roamed the country searching for conservatives and libertarians willing to mingle with a left-wing idealist—namely her. to talk about their political beliefs. Ten years later, she reconnects with these people and shares her follow-up conversations. Summaries can be found in a take-away newspaper, on a website, and in a series of pinpoint lawn signs.
Also included in the exhibition are formal and material solutions to our political problems, such as Aay Preston-Myint’s proposal for a new American flag, a simple lavender rectangle that appears to be the loveliest mix of red, white and blue; and Hannah Givler’s full-size house frame, whose roof is lined with thick felt walls to muffle the endless loud reverberation that makes it so hard to really hear each other.
Meanwhile, a decidedly indecent exhibition can be seen in the pretty gallery of the Neubauer Collegium: “MERCZ building” by the Berlin collective Slavs and Tatars. Part clothing store and showroom, part conceptual art exhibition, “MERCZbau” is all radical historical revisionism. Eight mannequins display merchandise that has been produced in unlimited editions and can be purchased at the front desk at prices largely comparable to university merchandise, which they definitely resemble. The catch is that the university faculty in question no longer exists: the faculty of oriental studies of the former Jan Kazimierz University of Lviv. Or Lviv. Or Lviv.
The political, linguistic, aesthetic, and ethnographic history involved is complicated, tense, and unexpectedly timely, spanning ever-changing borders and populations between Russia, Ukraine, Poland, and Germany. Hence a logo sweatshirt that reads “Ivan Franko Lviv University” in Ukrainian over a mascot lion reading a book that reads “Allah loves you” in Russian.
There’s also some great local merchandise, like an Oriental Institute baseball cap embroidered with “Szikago Jułesej,” the Polish transliteration of Chicago, USA. T-shirts with the exhibition title – MERCZbau is both a play on “merch” and a reference to the pioneering “Merzbau” environment that Kurt Schwitters built in Hanover, Germany in the 1920s and 30s – also feature a stylized door on traditional Moroccan designs, a reminder that ideas of the East and the Orient have long meant Eastern Europe as well as the Middle East and North Africa. For further reading, buy a fashionable pink and yellow scarf with the extensive bibliography of Slavs and Tatar printed on it.
Collection shows often don’t get the appreciation they deserve, especially those temporary shows that strive to be more than just a greatest hits showcase. The Museum of Contemporary Photography “Beyond the Frame” is one such show, and its very worthy aim is to teach visual literacy. Critically looking at images is a necessary skill these days, and one of the most enjoyable ways to learn it is by practicing on images from great photographers.
Abelardo Morell’s Roman hotel room with camera obscura and Berenice Abbott’s capture of light refracted by a prism demonstrate ways in which photography can be used to reveal phenomena – scientific, historical and otherwise – otherwise invisible to the naked eye are. Visually disorienting compositions by Viviane Sassen and Paul Mpagi Sepuya, plus a scene deconstruction series by Barbara Probst and a dust drawing by Vik Muniz, even if it doesn’t involve digital manipulation, insist that what you see isn’t necessarily what is. Portraits by Deana Lawson and Shizuka Yokomizo, in which the subjects are willing participants making decisions about the manner in which they are documented, explore photography’s power to shape the perceptions of others. Constructed scenes – especially humorous ones, like Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs’ view of the Grand Canyon with french fries ready to take a buffalo jump, or Peter Fischli and David Weiss’ impossibly balanced tower of bottles and a balloon – unsettle them Notions about the role of photography as a direct recorder of reality, while at the same time proving itself to be a medium capable of revealing truths.
All That Glows in the Dark of Democracy runs at the Weinberg/Newton Gallery, 688 N. Milwaukee Ave. through October 1; free, reservation required. For more information call 312-529-5090 and www.weinbergnewtongallery.com
Slavs and Tatars: MERCZbau runs through October 7 at the Neubauer Collegium, 5701 S. Woodlawn Ave.; by arrangement. For more information call 773-795-2329 and neubauercollegium.uchicago.edu
Beyond the Frame runs through October 30 at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, 600 S. Michigan Ave.; Reservations are welcome. For more information call 312-663-5554 and mocp.org