Up on the fourth floor of the Public Library Cultural Center, there’s a series of partitioned spaces filled with strange objects and constructions–“site-specific installations,” as they’re known in the art world. Such works, built specifically for a particular site and often creating an environment into which the viewer enters, are not readily salable commodities. Indeed, this type of art can trace its origins in part to a conscious revolt, beginning in the late 1960s and early ’70s, against the commercialization of art, which has by now reached almost obscene heights. The show, which comprises the work of five artists, is titled “Present at the Creation”–suggesting perhaps that the viewer’s presence and participation are necessary to the making of meaning in such works.
One of the five installations seems particularly meaningful to me. Entering the northernmost space, the viewer is immediately confronted with a huge valise or purse, carved out of what appears to be granite (although it isn’t), displayed under a large glass case, as if in a museum. Also in the case are a small model of the Columbus Monument, the original of which exists in London, and a large anonymous bone. Inscribed around the top of the case is the legend: “That Which We Domesticate Domesticates Us,” a phrase that also serves as the subtitle of the work. And that’s just the beginning–the whole area is awash with mementos, artifacts (real and imitation), and texts, resembling a mad cross between museum, curio shop, and school. Marco Polo in the Garden of Eden–that’s the title of the installation.
Around the space, as if in a classroom, runs an imitation chalkboard; above, it looks at first as if the usual alphabet is written in that careful script used for teaching penmanship, but the writing turns out to say CULTURE NATURE CULTURE NATURE, on and on. Attached to the “chalkboard” is an assortment of clippings and objects, including a large twig; a fake carrot; an ad for family histories (“Is Your Name Here?”); a news story concerning a Memorial Day pig roast that ended in a deadly brawl when one family’s dog tried to mate with another family’s purebred; and a picture of Richard Nixon with the legend, “During the summer months President Nixon cooled the White House to temperatures which would allow him to comfortably enjoy the simple pleasures of an open fire in the fireplace.”
Another item is an illustration of “Hubbell revival blankets” and an explanation: Lorenzo Hubbell was a trader in the American west who, in the 1890s, hired a painter to reproduce traditional Navaho blanket and rug patterns–designs no longer made by Navaho weavers, who were doing the more commercially profitable Oriental patterns. Hubbell then hired Navaho weavers to reproduce these patterns from the paintings–a practice that continues to this day at the Hubbell Trading Post Historical Site.
Marco Polo in the Garden of Eden is by Robert Peters, a veteran Chicago-area artist whose work is always strongly conceptual and who uses his art, he tells me, as a means of thinking. What is he thinking here? The starting point, he says, is the observation that “in this culture, we’re so concerned with authenticating things.” The phenomenon of Hubbell revival blankets–a resurrected and frozen authenticity–is an obvious case in point, as is the importance that can be attached to a purebred pet or to the “authentic” history of one’s family name (anxiety about one’s own “purebred” nature?).
This is just the initial line of thought embodied in a work whose implications go off in several directions at once. There’s also the suggestion, central to the piece as a whole, that we tend to identify authenticity with nature–an “unspoiled nature” that exists beyond the spoliations and restrictions unposed by culture, and which we tend to look for, Peters says, “in other places, especially the exotic.” Many aspects of the work offer ironic commentary on this idea–like the “jackelope” (a jackrabbit’s head sprouting antlers) mounted above the doorway into Peters’s space–and the idea is given explicit voice in several inscriptions: “We assume everyday life to be inauthentic,” says one; another says, “The person who gets out, often breaking the bounds of everyday existence, is believed to be morally superior to the person who stays at home.”
Peters wants to say that our search for a natural authenticity is a false quest, built on illusion. We may dream of an immediate experience of nature (one, that is, that’s unmediated by any cultural forms), but what we actually tend to do is to go out, capture some bit of presumed nature or authenticity, and preserve it like a butterfly on a pin (there’s one here, of course, along with the bone, the twig, and the carrot, all counterpoised to the story of the Hubbell revival blankets). As these examples demonstrate in various ways, we assimilate nature to ourselves and transform the supposed authentic thing into a cultural artifact.
The installation also prompts ruminations on what it means to be a tourist; on our frequent attempts to suppress time (as by trying to lift things out of time–those Hubbell blankets again!); and on the cultural operations of making things bigger (as in monuments) and smaller (scale models). All these lines of thought relate to and bounce off one another, and that’s the virtue of Peters’s work–there are mutually interacting ideas and suggestions everywhere in this complex and multilayered piece of art.
Not that the art is simply a means of symbolizing fully formed ideas; nor do Peters’s lines of thought necessarily lead to predetermined conclusions. Rather the act of these objects and installing them is, he says, a process of thinking and coming to know. And even then, he tries to avoid closure: “I try very hard in these pieces not to come to a final conclusion.”
Peters sees himself as a political as well as a philosophical artist. He wants to open up a dialogue, to present certain ideas and get people to ruminate over them, to present questions about the cultural constructs that underlie our world. “For me,” he says, “that kind of activity is the only hope to get the world to move in other directions that might be somehow more equitable, a better place for all of us to live.”
“Present at the Creation” will remain in the fourth floor exhibit hall of the Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, through November 11. Peters will speak there about his work today (October 27) at 12:15 PM.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chicago Photographic Company–Burkhart/Phillips.