Abelardo Morell's camera obscura image of the Empire State Building in bedroom
Abelardo Morell's camera obscura image of the Empire State Building in bedroom

The Museum of Contemporary Art hasn’t dispensed with the dick jokes. In fact, a whole room of “Skyscraper: Art and Architecture Against Gravity” is devoted to artists’ anthropomorphic glosses on the modern tower, which tends to look like a penis even when it’s not trying. The centerpiece of the so-called “personification” section of the exhibit is Vito Acconci’s hilarious High Rise, a structure that visitors can hand-crank to the point of full erection. Extended some 20 feet, the piece bears on it the spray-painted outline of the organ in question. “Make no little plans,” wrote Daniel Burnham.

Burnham is an appropriate reference here because of Chicago’s centrality to the development of the skyscraper and Burnham’s centrality to the development of Chicago, which is still no slouch in the tall-building department. Twenty-aught-nine saw the completion of Donald Trump’s 1,170-foot Windy City outpost, which for a moment surpassed the nearby Hancock to house the highest residence in the world. But the Trump was soon trumped by Dubai’s Burj Khalifa—unbelievably, about twice as tall. Both buildings were designed by Chicago architect Adrian Smith and the Chicago firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. The “my-tower-is-bigger-than-your-tower idea,” noted lead curator Michael Darling during a recent exhibit tour, lives on.

The sexual connotations of skyscrapers don’t end with phalluses. In the way that it organizes urban space, the vertical hive makes semivoyeurs—and semi-exhibitionists—of all its inhabitants. Michael Wolf’s glittering photographic series, The Transparent City, builds on this idea, as it were, emphasizing the extreme density of the residential high-rise, where homes are stacked atop, next to, and facing one another.

While Wolf depicts the macrocosm, Shizuka Yokomizo zooms right in. For her project Dear Stranger, the Tokyo-born, London-based photographer sent letters to urban dwellers asking if they would, at an appointed hour, turn on the lights in their apartments and pose in front of their windows for a picture taken from outside. They wouldn’t be able to see Yokomizo. The individuals in these photos face out from behind the glass, generally looking serious and a little uncomfortable. If you’d happened by an hour earlier or later, they might’ve been doing anything from the mundane to the compromising. In Yokomizo’s Stranger No. 5, a handsome, aggressive-looking young man fairly invites us (or me, anyhow) to use our imaginations; as cocurator Joanna Szupinska notes in the catalog, his pose is “somehow sexual—welcoming if frightening, like a dare.”

The skyscraper may be erotic, but it’s also romantic—it’ll take you to dinner first—and this exhibit makes note of that fact. The Empire State Building shines like a beacon through the black-and-white frames of Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film, Empire (1964). In Fikret Atay’s 2004 video Tinica, a young drummer sits atop a cliff overlooking the impoverished Turkish city of Batman, making music for a community that can’t hear him. Kader Attia’s 2007 installation Untitled (Skyline) consists of about 40 old refrigerators collected from North African immigrants in France; covered in small, mirrored tiles, they’re arranged to resemble a skyline at night. The piece offers a commentary on urban consumerism, garbage, and identity—but it’s also gorgeous, like the set for a Manhattan love story.

Both Atay’s and Attia’s pieces confront the ever-shifting demographics of the city, but then the influx of new populations has always been part of the urban experience. “Skyscraper” reminds us that at some point, the crush will be such that there’ll be nowhere to go but further up—and insofar as it provides a solution to that problem, supertall buildings like the Burj Khalifa are a high achievement indeed.

Just as loftier buildings are an inevitable part of our future, the events of September 11, 2001, are an inevitable subject of “Skyscraper.” The attacks are de rigueur for a show of this kind, though Ahmet Ogut’s 2009 Exploded City—an assemblage presenting scale-model replicas of buildings around the world that have been targets of attack—serves as a reminder that where violent tragedy is concerned there’s no American exceptionalism. A stark emotional power pervades Hans-Peter Feldmann’s 9/12 Frontpage, which simply displays 151 headlines from the day after, each expressing its own horror.

But what’s most striking here is the art created before 9/11 that’s been retrospectively transformed by it. You can’t look at photographs taken by the guerrilla collective Gelitin, to document a balcony they constructed off the 91st floor of one of the World Trade Center towers, without imagining bodies falling across the structure’s skin. Gabriel Orozco’s photograph Isla en la Isla frames lower Manhattan and the WTC from afar; in the foreground there’s a wide, empty swath of asphalt, closed off by concrete barricades. The image could be a critique of the increase in domestic security measures following the 9/11 attacks, except that it was made nearly a decade prior to them. Similarly, Robert Moskowitz’s 1998 gray-black oil painting Skyscraper depicts the two buildings in silhouette, as much absent as present. There may be a sense of inevitability to the skyscraper, but this show suggests that many other things, with hindsight, are just as inevitable.