Notebook: The Weight of Charles Ray @ AIC.
A year ago, The Art Institute of Chicago was given the title of #1 Museum in the World by voters in TripAdvisor's Travelers' Choice Awards. I wasn't sure if they'd embrace this title. The kind of art world the museum occupies — the world of great works, stuffy institutions, rich donors, marble stairways... a very heavy world where beauty goes to become relic, where engagement is always at odds with "do not touch" — is a world where authority typically comes from learned scholars and ensconced critics. Taking very seriously the opinion of 6,500 — what's the word? — people, from some internet travel thingy, well, that's just the sort of awfully populist nonsense one might expect the old Art Institvte to dismiss outright.
But they've proven they're not quite so antiquated. AIC has worn their "we're #1" badge proudly. They embraced their status as "World Champions of Art," an achievement marked (with appropriate tongue-in-cheekiness) using a giant foam finger and a hashtag, #artchampions. They've elected to lean in to the "of the people" vibe of social media. And they seem to get it.
On Instagram and and YouTube, the museum's feeds regularly offer images and videos that are not only playful and inviting, they function as an extension of the mission. The social channels become a space to get a behind-the-scene glimpse, a bit of additional context, a new perspective.
I've found the series of YouTube "Video Postcards" about the Charles Ray show particularly good — they're as quick and watchable and sharable as that medium demands, but they still manage to point us toward the slow contemplation more appropriate for Ray's work. The videos have certainly added to my own experience of the show.
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Charles Ray: Sculpture, 1997–2014 is on view for just a few more days at the Art Institute of Chicago. If you haven't yet, and you can, you most certainly should.
I've visited the show a handful of times, each with different friends curious to check it out. Everyone is immediately drawn to Unpainted Sculpture, aka, "the car." While it is indeed a sculpture, we should be clear that it's not unpainted, and it's not a car. Right away, with this "not," we're hit with some of Ray's favorite themes — and with his attitude toward exploring them, at once winking and grave.
The object is profoundly material — all this fiberglass standing in for all this metal. But the wall text tells us the piece emerged from an interest in the immaterial, the haunting. Ray wondered whether the ghosts we suspect may lurk around sites of death might also come to inhabit a copy of such a place. (Meanwhile, the "Jesus is Lord" emblem on the back of the not-a-car evokes our most monumental story about the interplay of immaterial spirit and material flesh.) We're also told that much of what's at stake here has to do with process, the how of bringing this thing into being through obsessive disassembly and replication.
Ray talks about this sculpture as something that "turns into an abstraction." He insists that "it becomes about form" rather than exact duplication, as the narrative or subject of the piece "drifts away." In other words, Ray is challenging us to look at this thing and see something other than a car. It's very difficult to do. I've had an easier time imagining the ghost of the person who died in this car than I've had success at seeing that this is not that car at all.
With each visit, I've come to appreciate more of the show's sense of humor. Even the show's title contains a kind of joke — "Charles Ray: Sculpture, 1997–2014" includes work dated 2015. Or is that a kind of mistake? An accident of some elaborate process? Ray's sculptures make us ask precisely these same questions, so.... Or consider the (seemingly) delicate pseudo-triptych of small works: the "hand" in "Hand Holding Egg" is just as much a shell as its egg is; there is no hand at all in "Handheld Bird"; "Chicken," a clever and mesmerizing simulacrum, perfectly reproduces something that can't have existed quite like this in some "real world" prior to its (re)production here in porcelain and steel. "Future Fragment on a Solid Base," a magnified rendering of a piece of a kid's toy, weighs several tons as the wall text is quick to point out. More than half (I'd guess) of its thousands of pounds are in the great aluminum "base." The work's title reminds us that this "base" is no mere pedestal; it's part of the art, for Chrissake. Yet everything in our experience of looking at art pushes our eye upward; we want desperately to ignore this giant massive thing, as if it weren't really there at all. There's that line from Marx — "All that is solid melts into air" —
The life-size and larger-than-life-size human figures in the gallery are certainly the most compelling objects in the great space AIC has made for this show. And by human figures, I mean both the sculptures and the people there interacting with them. Visitors crouch down as if playing alongside the child of "The New Beetle." Confronting the sculptor's pendulous bits in "Shoe Tie," they politely avoid too much gawking. (Again, as if this massive thing weren't really there. But wait until you get to Huck & Jim. It's here. But not there.) Visitors mimic the pose of "Young Man" when they stand next to him for a picture. You could dismiss this kind of interaction as cheesy, touristy behavior, or you could see it as part of the work of the show. Here the viewers are engaged in their own experiments with haunting, with duplication, with space, with time. Their presence is not immaterial. I'm fascinated with the way cameraphones and Instagram have transformed our engagement with art — especially public art and sculpture. The "Bean" in Millennium Park was conceived before "selfie" had become a household hashtag, but now much of that object's success as public sculpture seems inseparable from its iPhoneographability. So why not embrace this mode of interacting with Ray? The AIC seems to have; they're even re-gramming some of their visitors' shots.
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Right now on Instagram, the Art Institute is holding a little contest — guess the weight of the show. They write:
"Charles Ray’s Sleeping Woman weighs 5,775 pounds. Can you guess the collective weight of all 19 sculptures in the exhibition? The artist himself will purchase a dinner for two (in Chicago) for the winner! Leave your best guess in the comments section below for a chance to win"
As of this writing, 150 or so Instagrammers have commented, almost all of them offering their best guess in pounds. Only a few have asked any questions — is the statue in the garden included? Is the contest "Price is Right style," where the winner is closest without going over?
No one's questioning more substantially the terms on which the question is posed. Does this exhibit alone have weight? What is the nature of the weightlessness achieved by "American Gothic" or "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte"? Would it be rude to ask about the weight of Georgia O'Keeffe? I couldn't help but (ahem) weigh in, wondering: Should we include the weight of the ghosts in "Unpainted Sculpture"? Is the weight of the fiberglass more important than the weight of the steel? How much to subtract for the phantom clothes in "Shoe Tie"? Can we keep ignoring the "base" in "Future Fragment," and Jim's junk? Ginbserg says, "the weight of the world is love," is it more or less than that?