Evening at the Art Institute
I didn't want to over-program our visit to the Art Institute of Chicago last week, so some of the time I let Ann decide what we were going to look at. Sometimes she surprised me. In the lower level is an exhibit area always given over photography, and she wanted to see that.
My reaction was, really? You want to look at these pictures? She did. The gallery sported a kind of photos that I like: Depression-era B&W. Prominently on display were images by Margaret Bourke-White, including a good many shots of factories. One shot immediately caught my eye -- Fort Peck Dam, Montana, 1936. I recognized it as the picture used for the first cover of Life magazine. Another image of hers looked familiar, but maybe that was because it resembled a still from Metropolis, even though it was not. The image depicted three enormous gears of a stamping press at a Chrysler plant in the mid-30s, and one worker off in the corner, dwarfed by the machinery.
Elsewhere, Ann was intrigued by displays of East Indian artifacts. For my part, I didn't know that 18th-century India produced such aesthetic daggers (katar), which tended to be of steel and gold in the case of the Art Institute's examples, one of which featured a tiger feasting on an ungulate of some kind. Not quite as compelling as some of the southeast Asian kris collections I've seen, but well worth their place in the museum.
I did direct her attention to a few places, such as Chagall's "America Windows," which I was glad to see has been re-installed toward the east end of the museum. We spent some time sitting on one of the benches facing the windows, taking a longish look. The windows seem to be an international favorite, since I overheard other groups of people on the benches having conversations in French and German. I asked Ann what she saw, and she said a sun, a moon, a hand holding a wand, a man blowing a "flute-whistle-telescope," a city, a ghost lady flying, the liberty [Statue of Liberty], a bird flying in the sky, candles, and a turtle jumping. If we'd spent more time at it, I'm sure she could have come up with more, since the texture of the work is that rich.
I wanted to see the new(ish) Modern Wing, which I hadn't visited before. Mostly this meant wandering along its vaulting atrium rather than inspecting its galleries, since by that time both of us were getting tired. Being a free-admission Thursday evening, the place was swarming with museum-goers (note to the AI: $18 is steep admission for adults, though kids under 14 free almost makes up for it). The Modern Wing is a Renzo Piano design, and much complimentary prose has been written about it. Maybe I wasn't in the mood for it, because I kept thinking that I was in an airport. Just add some gate signs in the atrium, open a few airport restaurants and give the museum-goers some carry-on luggage, and the place would be a terrific replica of a well-designed airport terminal.
Back in the older part of the museum, just before we left, we took note of an installation called "Public Notice 3," by an artist named Jitish Kallat. It's notable because Kallat installed LED text in five colors on each of the risers of the museum's grand staircase.
Later, I looked up the basis of the text, which was a speech by Swami Vivekananda at the First World Parliament of Religions, which was held at the Art Institute concurrently with the Columbian Exposition of 1893. "Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful Earth," he said, among other things. "They have filled the Earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now... I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen."