After more than an hour in traffic on Lake Shore Drive, I made it to the Renaissance Society Thursday night just minutes before they closed. (The gallery had special afternoon hours for those attending its annual gala, the RenBen.) The unnamed exhibition on view, seemingly organized by Bruce Hainley and Shahryar Nashat, is just the latest local show to offer up (almost) no didactics to visitors. (Read the latest issue for Emeline Boehringer’s feature on “stanley brouwn,” another PR-free exhibition.) The reason? The organizers want viewers to experience the show themselves, unmediated by any prepackaged curatorial vision.
Featuring live pole dancers, courtesy of Divine Em and Fly Club Chicago (tips appreciated), drawings of Chelsea Manning, a troubling archival video from The Phil Donahue Show, and a poster of Robert Pattinson, among other works, the exhibition features the kind of experimental, artist-centered work typified by the Renaissance Society, which has ventured into fresher, more provocative territory since Myriam Ben Salah took the reigns in late 2020.
The exhibition’s themes carried over to the RenBen, held down the street at The DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center’s Rotunda. The gala shared installation pieces with one of the artists from the show. The evening, while somewhat unscripted, was shaped by the model Lily McMenamy, who started off the night dressed in high-heeled shoes and layers of lingerie. She stared out at the assembling crowd from the center of the Rotunda, moving in jerky, unexpected ways, mocking the incessant chatter and making lewd gestures, and erupting into mostly feral bursts of sound.
When Ben Salah took over at the Ren, she reconfigured the annual gala—an event that raises “a significant portion of the museum’s annual budget.” What were formerly traditional auctions or Ren-curated evenings of performances have become sponsored affairs conceived by a singular artist. (This year, the sponsor was Gucci.) Last year, Piero Golia put together a fantastical night at the South Shore Cultural Center, complete with skywriting and servers on stilts. This year dancer and choreographer Adam Linder took over creative direction.
The mood upon first entering the gala was unsettling, the round, dramatically lit Rotunda providing a circuslike atmosphere. (The hanging lights were conceived by Linder and custom-made for the night.) In addition to McMenamy’s uncanny movements, speed skater Jeffrey Swider-Peltz, dressed in head-to-toe black, zoomed along the periphery of the circular room, like a shadow you’re not sure is really there. Ominous music was piped in. Eventually a trio of black-clad performers came out to cut a towering, gorgeously asymmetrical white cake—detailed with fresh flowers that seemed to be growing from all sides—by Hyun Jung Jun of Dream Cakes Test Kitchen. (The cake took nearly two hours to cut.)
After a round of cocktails and wine was offered, guests were seated to enjoy a family-style meal prepared by Lula Cafe: salad, steak, risotto, a marvelous cracker served with radish-strewn butter. The menu was sung out operatically over the sound system. While the food was divine, the highlight of the evening was absolutely a vocal performance by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo—particularly a stunning cover of “Liquid Days,” written by David Byrne and Philip Glass, whom Costanzo has worked with in the past. Costanzo was accompanied by Mark A. Shuldiner on clavicytherium, (aptly a Renaissance-era instrument), the resonant harpsichord sound of which was a perfect match for Glass’s mathematical composition. Clad in a satiny, ruffled red gown, Costanzo was bathed in a Lynchian, orange-red light; the clavicytherium seemed to be glowing orange.
Ben Salah, dressed in a dazzling red sequined Gucci suit, preceded the DJ with a speech thanking the event’s producers, who paid between $1,000 and $25,000 for the honor. She declared her love for the institution “stronger than ever,” and encouraged guests to have another drink and offer up their gratitude in the form of donations. “I don’t want to idealize artists . . . I also don’t want to ask too much from art itself,” she said. She then went on to note the ways art can generate ideas, break our hearts, and contribute to dissonance, before reconsidering: “Maybe we should idealize art after all.” She didn’t need to spend too much time listing all the incredible work the Ren supports, from its Intermissions performance series to its robust programming, from the playful “Smashing into my heart” to the dark “Abattoir, U.S.A.!” Exiting the Rotunda into the warm, spring night of Chicago, the sounds of late-90s R&B fading into the background, the night seemed full of romance indeed.
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The Renaissance Society live on your TV
A new partnership between the Renaissance Society and CAN TV brings excellent avant-garde music to the small screen: Tony Conrad, David Moss, Jacques Demierre, and more.