We’re kicking off Giving Tuesday early this year! Your donation today will be matched up to $10K, doubling your impact! If you donate $50 today, the Reader will receive $100.

The Reader is now a community-funded nonprofit newsroom. Can we count on your support to help keep us publishing?


at the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, through August 27

Tobias Rehberger: The Sun From Above

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through first frost

Olafur Eliasson

at the Art Institute, through August 13

By Fred Camper

In mainstream usage, environmentalism most often means preserving nature for our use, a view in which humankind is a sort of gardener encouraging yet carefully controlling nature, weeding out any unwanted offshoots. The goal is to make a better world for ourselves and our children, one in which the motors on duck-hunting boats won’t get clogged by algae spawned by eutrophication. To quote the headline of pre-Exxon Valdez ads from a multinational oil company touting its efforts to keep the oceans clean, “we swim in it too.”

At the other extreme is a tiny minority of advocates for “deep ecology” who argue that nature does not exist solely to serve us. We should be preserving lakes and forests for their own sake; we should try to see nature from the point of view of species other than ourselves. Environmental lawsuits should be permitted not just on behalf of humans but on behalf of “valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air,” as Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas argued in a notable 1972 dissent to a decision holding that the Sierra Club lacked standing to stop a resort development. The Earth Liberation Front claims it committed a multimillion-dollar act of arson against another resort development in Colorado in 1998 “on behalf of the lynx.”

Similar splits can be found in the art world. Some artists see nature primarily as subject to human manipulation, while others center their work on growing or decaying plants, ceding a large part of their artistic control to natural processes; the best such work creates a tension between some container and the organic shapes within it. Seven site-specific installations by five different artists commissioned by three Chicago museums include works at various points on this spectrum.

Dan Peterman’s art is often made of recycled materials, and for years he’s provided space for such low-tech ventures as a bike co-op in a building he owns on the border of Hyde Park and Woodlawn. There isn’t much nature, though, in his Excerpts From the Universal Lab (Plan B) installation–one of four in “Ecologies”–at the Smart Museum. The Universal Lab was a place where people could pursue low-tech scientific investigations, recently shut down due in part to a lack of funds and space. The “Plan B” in the title refers to the fact that Peterman’s original idea, which involved displaying chemicals from the lab, had to be scrapped due to legal and safety concerns. Obviously an admirer of the lab, Peterman calls it in a wall text “a domain of science that was modest, local, accessible, and connected to immediate human needs and goals.”

This odd memorializing installation displays diverse materials from the lab–electrical devices, laboratory glassware, old technical magazines, a 16-millimeter film–on a circular platform. At first it’s frustrating not to be able to identify everything. But then the viewer sees that many of the pieces have tiny numbered labels on them: the platform is used between 2 and 3 PM most days to catalog the items, and the results can be found in a binder at the museum’s front desk. Eventually a computer database may be used to try to find a home for all the items. What the installation may lack in aesthetics (though some of the objects are elegant in themselves) is made up for on a conceptual level, as each tiny thing is lovingly documented in an effort to find the best use for it. Peterman stands against our culture of waste, of interchangeable disposable shavers and pens and fast food; he treats each object, however humble, as having a unique value.

Peterman’s second installation is a small, solar-powered electric cart, sitting outdoors in the museum courtyard, that he uses to move materials. For the museum to display this nice nonpolluting machine is all well and good, but a mammoth, multistory parking structure under construction a mere block away presents an oppressive contrast. While not as obscene as the Brobdingnagian parking lots at the University of Illinois–which is well served by public transit, unlike the University of Chicago–this structure does suggest that the university has not exactly bought into Peterman’s ethos.

Peter Fend’s Smart Museum piece, China Basin Plans: The River Dragon Breathes Fire, uses disturbingly gigantic earth-art-like modifications to a model to propose changes in the flow of the Yangtze River, currently being dammed by the Three Gorges project, a monstrous enterprise that will flood historic river gorges (the subjects of Chinese landscape paintings for a thousand years) and displace vast numbers of people. Despite some protests, the project is proceeding; Fend’s model and an accompanying text suggest a series of massive diversions of the Yangtze and other bodies of water with the goal of lessening the ecological damage of the Three Gorges project. The land is represented by a huge rectangular container holding piles of earth that slope downward just as China does toward the sea; placed on these piles are 16 rectangular concrete forms representing Fend’s proposed changes to water bodies and land (the land indicated by a thin layer of earth). Each documents a different modification, such as a river or lake diversion, explained in the text.

Fend’s proposals may be good ones, but they’re clearly oriented toward making the land and water work for us: he wants to increase fisheries in some regions, for example. And even though he indicates opposition to the Three Gorges dam, his project still seems to partake of the Army Corps of Engineers ethos that the land is ours to manipulate. One has to wonder just how ecological Fend’s thinking is when he writes in a statement that one result of his ideas would be to “show ways of working with China that would provide companies such as Caterpillar and John Deere with much more to export.”

But Fend’s piece does expand on the tradition of artist-made earthworks, and the huge model, the modifications to it, and fragments of a map of China on the wall raise the viewer’s awareness of rivers and lakes and how their flow affects a region’s overall ecology, including the sea into which they drain.

The finest work in the Smart show is Mark Dion’s Roundup: An Entomological Endeavor for the Smart Museum of Art. At once nature oriented, visually elegant, and humorous, it also has a point. In a few hours over two days, Dion and some volunteers endeavored to gather all the insects they could find in the Smart Museum; microscope photographs of many are displayed on two walls, one of which, painted with chalkboard paint, is labeled “Arthropods of the Smart Museum” and identifies each picture by the room the bug was found in: “Lobby,” “Room 213 (Senior & Mellon Curators).” The central part of the installation consists of a little lab with stools, a microscope, Ziploc bags, and other apparatus and a mannequin in explorer’s clothes–the same clothing Dion wore during the hunt–in a gentle joke on the macho explorer.

Part of the piece’s humor is that the Smart is located in an antiseptic modernist building that one would not imagine housed insects. Lit from behind, the black-and-white photographs reveal the symmetrical beauty of the insects’ bodies, whose delicate translucence underlines their fragility; indeed, most of the insects were already dead when they were collected. Joking on the typical self-enclosed museum, which presents its works as windows on the world or the soul, Dion pays attention to this museum’s actual environment: life and ecologies of living beings are everywhere, if only we stop to look for them.

Though understandably visitors can’t inventory lab objects or photograph bugs, I found the noninteractive nature of the “Ecologies” exhibit a little at odds with its spirit. The same complaint can hardly be leveled at Tobias Rehberger’s The Sun From Above at the Museum of Contemporary Art, an installation that visitors are encouraged not only to touch but to nibble on. A huge array of large, curvy planters sprawls across the plaza in front of the museum; a few planters are also placed on the steps and in the lobby. Arranged asymmetrically in front of this deadeningly symmetrical building, the piece seems partly a response to the museum’s architecture. And indeed Rehberger (who’s German) wrote me that The Sun From Above “is a response to the building…[which] is very rejecting and uninviting….I hope the piece…work[s] against that.”

Each planter is filled with mostly edible plants–corn, chives, cabbage, and strawberries among them–which are regularly watered and weeded and seem to be growing nicely. The arrangement of the irregularly shaped planters is itself organic, and they mount the forbidding steps of the museum like some unruly vine. This is nature directed toward human use to be sure, but the way the installation seems a bit out of control and its relation to the museum building gently remind us that nature has its own forms–from which much of our cityscape is deeply alienated.

Olafur Eliasson’s two humorous, ecologically aware pieces at the Art Institute are also genuinely great works of art, using simple, elegant, poetic forms to develop the idea of a journey out of the self and toward nature.

Your Intuitive Surroundings Versus Your Surrounded Intuition consists of a gallery whose light dims and brightens at varying rates and irregular intervals; the most obvious reference, noted in the Art Institute’s booklet on Eliasson, is to a partly cloudy day. Computer-controlled fluorescent light tubes on the ceiling of the gallery are covered by a white scrim, creating a diffused white light. The gallery is otherwise empty, and visitors can be heard at the entrance asking the guards if there’s any art in the room or not. This emptiness and the variable lighting are partly a joke on the “purity” of artificially illuminated museum displays, where daylight is often considered a hindrance because of its variability. By referring to nature’s unpredictability, Eliasson transforms the museum room into a metaphor for one part of nature.

Eliasson, a Dane who spent part of his childhood in Iceland, has objected to the attention some critics have paid to his Icelandic background. Yet he acknowledges his Nordic roots, perhaps visible in this use of cool, diffused light. Here the scrim’s pure whiteness is disrupted, however, by the little black corpses of more than a dozen flies. This perhaps unintended feature reminds the viewer of the way good art often suggests a new way of seeing–Dion’s entomological exhibit helped prepare me for Eliasson’s bugs.

Eliasson’s other installation, Succession, relates specifically to Chicago. A door marked “Succession” leads to a space with large windows that look west at train tracks, other Art Institute buildings, and the Loop’s towers. Just outside the windows, alongside the building, Eliasson has placed a large square planter (supported by a 30-foot-high scaffold) full of grass. It’s ordinary enough to be mistaken at first for some haphazard bit of landscaping in progress, but ultimately its effect is extraordinary, leading you out of the massive rectilinearity of the exhibition room, the rail line, the Loop, and the planter itself to focus attention on its irregular maze of blades. In what is perhaps another little museum joke, we see a tiny piece of nature outside an actual window instead of the illusory windows onto nature of traditional paintings.

The alien, alienated space surrounding the planter–it’s suspended above train tracks, floating between buildings–is one of those wonderfully bizarre urban plots disengaged from land and sky. Floating in space, the planter both reflects this suspension and counters it, reminding us of what is lost in cities: a sense of place anchored to a bit of ground. The verdant grass is regularly watered by an irrigation system, but this is not just another assiduously tended garden plot–it’s an almost surreal miracle that makes us see nature and the city anew.