at the Chicago Avenue National Guard Armory

At a time when many arts organizations are facing budget cuts and scaling down operations, the Museum of Contemporary Art is making plans to move up in the art world. The MCA heralds its planned sparkling new facility in tony Streeterville as its ticket to international acclaim. “With a new building and sculpture garden,” the museum’s promotional literature exclaims, “the Museum of Contemporary Art will be able to take its place among the world’s major art museums.”

But first a little ground clearing. The new MCA will rest on land currently occupied by the Chicago Avenue National Guard Armory, a hulking steel-frame, concrete, and masonry building dating back to 1917. Extensively remodeled and expanded over the years, the Armory is now in poor repair and will face the wrecking ball in the spring of 1993.

To honor the Armory’s passing and celebrate hopes for the museum’s future, the MCA opened “Art at the Armory: Occupied Territory” inside the old building last month. On view through January 23, the exhibition features 18 installations, 8 of which were commissioned for this show. Given the financial support of the Sara Lee Corporation, a growing international interest in installation, and the sprawling, history-laden facility, the MCA here has the opportunity to showcase new art on a scale unprecedented in Chicago. Yet somehow “Art at the Armory” is an event rife with could-have-beens.

It could have been an investigation into the nature of installation–a fluidly defined category in which artists have shown an increasing interest over the last ten years. With precursors in early 20th-century Dada and the conceptual art movement of the 1960s and 70s, contemporary installation work challenges the traditional conception of artworks as autonomous objects–independent of the walls they hang on, the environments in which they are seen.

Installations also tend to discredit the assumption that art is something to be purchased, like jewelry or a pair of shoes. They reiterate the notion that artists are in the business of producing experiences and ideas even while they’re making things that might be bought and sold. Created by carefully integrating ready-made and/or crafted objects with lighting, smells, and sounds, installation art has a highly theatrical and participatory character. It’s something you witness more than look at, something you walk into rather than observe.

Installation art tends to be time-and site-specific. It’s often created for a particular location, incorporating the idiosyncrasies and history of the place. And when the show comes down the art in effect disappears, though it may reappear, like a dramatic production, in another locale, and with a slightly different character.

The fluidity and site-specificity of installation are keys to its magic, yet these very traits also make this kind of art difficult to “collect” and, because of its theatricality, difficult to understand alongside more traditional visual art. And because contemporary artists who work in installation are such a diverse lot, it’s hard to frame their efforts coherently. Perhaps this is part of the reason that “Art at the Armory” organizers do little to guide viewers through the artist’s wide-ranging conceptual and material choices. But how are we to make sense of such pairings as that of Eve Andree Laramee’s The Eroded Terrain of Memory (1990), a cascading pile of 3,500 pounds of glittery mica flakes, with the seven bashed-up automobiles and broken video images of Francesc Torres’s Destiny, Entropy, and Junk (1990)?

Though each of these works was created for another space, both take something from their surroundings in the Armory. Placed in a large central arena that has been used for spectacles as diverse as military drills and polo matches, Destiny, Entropy, and Junk looks like the remains of some upscale stock-car derby. That reference is soberly modified, however, by accompanying images of heroic German statues damaged during the bombing of Berlin in World War II. Placed together in the arena, the cars and pictures speak of the transience of wealth and power in the ongoing, costly games of politics.

Laramee’s Eroded Terrain of Memory spills out from a dark corner behind the main space of the arena like a pile of geologic dust, alluding to the scheduled disintegration of the building that houses it and in effect comparing the Armory’s upcoming transition with the cycles of nature. Both works are site-referential. Both deal with cyclical patterns of experience. Had such affinities been articulated, they might have helped us more fully appreciate the works. Instead we’re left standing between two apparently unrelated spectacles.

With several strong pieces of new work in the exhibition, the MCA missed rich opportunities to place installation art within a broader historical context. Michael Shaughnessy’s commissioned work, Da Fainne/Cruinnige Eirig (“Two Rings/Gathered Rising,” 1992), for example, refers to an established 20th-century tradition while using an installation strategy to expand and critique it. Composed of two giant doughnuts of woven hay supported by a wood frame and twine, this installation exalts the evocative potential of an everyday material. And although Shaughnessy says in the catalog (as yet unpublished), “Hay is the antithesis of the space, the building and even the city itself,” the work hearkens back to Chicago’s past. Hay reminds us of the horse-and-wagon era when the midwest was first settled, and of the cattle and farm goods that were traded and transformed in Chicago. Its enshrinement in Da Fainne functions as a kind of homage to the region’s history, and to the city’s reliance on a vast agrarian hinterland.

Consisting of two grandly scaled abstract forms, the installation also comments on a bygone artistic era–the minimalist movement of the 1960s and 70s, in which many artists sought to strip art of its decorative, illusionistic character and present simply formed objects that would confront viewers with their sheer monumentality. Rendered in the humble media of wood and hay, Da Fainne betrays the arrogance of this earlier movement even as it emulates the minimalist aesthetic.

An essay for the catalog (not available to the public until November) by MCA associate curator Beryl Wright gives some context for Da Fainne and for all the work on view, while the current exhibit guide carries short descriptions of each installation. Still, “Art at the Armory” does little to inform viewers about the nature of installation. This is particularly unfortunate since “Conceptualism–Post-Conceptualism: The 1960s to the 1990s,” currently hanging in the MCA’s Ontario Street galleries, gives an informative overview of an era when many of the seeds of contemporary installation art were sown. The two exhibits are so closely related it seems a shame not to have given the Armory installations the same kind of informed treatment, to teach us something about one of the most challenging developments in art today. But instead of a thought-provoking museum experience we’re given merely a great big show.

“Art at the Armory” could also have thoroughly mined the layers of history in the structure that houses it. Old buildings tell stories about the cities that surround them, and some of the installations in “Art at the Armory” make good use of those tales. For their commissioned installation, Rumor (1992), the Chicago collective Haha hired former Green Berets to wire the Armory’s guest officers’ quarters for demolition, then furnished the rooms to appear as they might have been when in everyday use. Tranquil in appearance but armed and ready for imminent destruction, the rooms simultaneously refer to the Armory’s military past as well as its coming demise.

Similarly, the New York team of Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio installed surveillance cameras and video monitors in two of the Armory’s staircases for their site-specific installation, Loophole (1992), aiming some of the cameras at the street outside, some into the interior spaces of the stairs. The work disorients viewers by bouncing images taken on one stairway onto monitors in another at the opposite end of the building: we know we’re being looked at, but we’re not sure from where or by whom. Loophole effectively reminds us of the changes technology has wrought on systems of social control. The thick walls of the Armory are no longer needed for purposes of defense. There are now other ways of keeping people in line.

An excellent catalog essay by architectural historian Robert Bruegmann traces the Armory’s changing functions over time. The original impulse for civic armories was class hostility, which heated up the politics of America’s cities near the turn of the century, when elites feared actual warfare between the propertied rich and the laboring poor. Civic armories were like fortresses, built to defend the lives and interests of the powerful. As this threat waned in the 1910s and ’20s, armories came to serve the purpose of social clubs. The Chicago Armory even boasts an elegant ballroom on the top floor (unused as an installation space for the current exhibit) and hosted numerous galas and sporting and theatrical events. Still, the Armory retained a paramilitary character, housing a local chapter of the Illinois National Guard. That regiment, called into service during the political riots of the 1968 Democratic convention, still occupies part of the Armory facility today.

While some of the work in “Art at the Armory” is sensitive to the building’s history, many of the installations bear no relation to their surroundings. Arnold Crane’s rather conventional large-scale monochrome photographs, Reality in Macrocosm (1992), would probably look better mounted in a conventional gallery than in an Armory storage room, while Bill Viola’s romantic The Theater of Memory (1985), on loan from the Newport Harbor Art Museum, takes little from its basement surroundings. Neither work makes any use of the Armory’s story-telling potential.

But then they couldn’t be expected to. The MCA commissioned only 8 of the 18 works, so it’s not surprising that many of them don’t fit well into the Armory context. And while most of the commissioned artists–Haha, Elizabeth Newman, Diller and Scofidio, and Vernon Fisher–took the opportunity to explore the Armory’s narrative potential, their efforts were not coordinated in a way that would have made the works mutually enriching or more thoroughly satisfying in themselves.

Finally, and perhaps most unfortunately, “Art at the Armory” gives barely any attention to the many Chicago artists who do installation. Only three commissions went to Chicagoans (Haha, Crane, and Jin Soo Kim), and a fourth to an artist who trained here (Newman received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute). The list of absent Chicagoans is considerably longer: Mitchell Kane, whose witty, cynical vision seems to change with every show; Hirsch Perlman, who in recent work collapsed the disparate environments of the art gallery and the courtroom in an investigation of how our culture comes to definitions of “truth”; the host of local artists who have utilized ARC Gallery’s Raw Space, one of only a handful of venues in the U.S. devoted exclusively to installation work; Dan Peterman, whose current exhibition at N.A.M.E. elegantly transforms a gallery space into a forum for environmental issues; the collective X-Girlfriends, who work contextually to make pointed, mass media-inspired political statements. And Inigo Manglano-Ovalle, and M.W. Burns, and . . .

Though the degree to which the show’s curators sought out local talent is unclear, a third catalog essay by independent scholar Anne Rorimer indicates that Chicago artists played a scant role in the MCA’s version of local art history. Rorimer’s essay, “Context as Content, Subject as Object,” deceptively subtitled “Installations in Chicago Since 1967,” is essentially an account of famous out-of-towners who have happened to do work here over the last 25 years. The essay gives particular attention to the blue-chip artists who made installations at the MCA-Dan Flavin, Sol LeWitt, Gordon Matta-Clark, Michael Asher, and Lawrence Weiner–and at the Art Institute: Marcel Broodthaers, Dan Graham, Giovanni Anselmo, and Daniel Buren. It says nothing about indigenous artists doing installation during these years.

This blatant omission of Chicago artists might have been a bit more palatable if “Art at the Armory” had garnered new work from a greater number of the most noted installation artists. It didn’t. Instead, most of the work has come on loan from other museums or has otherwise been exhibited elsewhere, meaning it’s been robbed of the site-specificity, immediacy, and temporal freshness that are the prime sources of energy in installation work.

Yet it is just this immediacy, this sense of newness that the MCA must have been banking on with “Art at the Armory.” Though none of the shows advertising material says it outright, the MCA’s embrace of installation art’s spectacle and its explicit celebration of the Armory clearly refer to the history-making Armory Show of 1913, the first major exhibition of modern art in the United States. Held at the Sixty-Ninth Regiment Armory in New York City, it introduced the American public to the bold new European art of Marcel Duchamp, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Gauguin, among many others. It had a profound effect, drawing New York into the art-world limelight.

The MCA is using “Art at the Armory” to announce itself as an institution on the cusp of international acclaim, paving a self-celebratory path right up to the new facility’s front door. Included in the admission fee to “Art at the Armory” is free entry to the MCA’s Ontario Street galleries, where a small exhibition called “Modeling the Future: The New Museum and Key Works From the Permanent Collection” is on view through November 8. Floor plans and a scale model of the new MCA, designed by noted German architect Josef Paul Kleihues, are displayed alongside works by Francis Bacon, Rene Magritte, and Andy Warhol, as well as big-name Chicagoans Ed Paschke, Roger Brown, and H.C. Westermann.

The building will be impressive. To be constructed at an estimated cost of $55 million, the 125,000-square-foot museum will rise from a 16-foot base of Indiana limestone, climb another 56 feet (with a cast-aluminum exterior), and be capped by a series of skylights that will illuminate the upper galleries. Visitors will enter via a grand staircase from Mies Van Der Rohe Way (formerly Seneca), and walk through a soaring glass-curtain wall that will link the museum visually to its Michigan Avenue environs. In anticipation of new installation work and traveling exhibitions, the museum’s first-floor galleries will feature flexible walls and movable ceilings, adjusting to heights between 16 and 22 feet.

If all goes according to schedule, Chicago will have its new museum by the fall of 1995, with its critically acclaimed design, its Lake Michigan vistas, and its high-tech gallery spaces ready for brash new art. And maybe, maybe then, we’ll believe Chicago has what it takes to play in the big leagues.