Fresh from its debut at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia earlier this year, “Barbara Kasten: Stages” opened Thursday night at the Graham Foundation with an introductory talk by the artist herself, part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial’s opening weekend events.
Excited to hear Kasten speak about her five decades of work with light and the architectural form, I went early to the opening. Not early enough, however. Just 15 minutes past the 5 PM start time, a nearly impenetrable crowd had already gathered in the third-floor ballroom where the artist gave a short talk and revealed a brand-new site-specific video installation, Scenario. (I spotted star curator Hans Ulrich Obrist in the far-left corner snapping pictures and video of the piece.)
The white installation, an assemblage of several large blocks that nearly reaches the ceiling in places, cuts into a corner of the room. Images that utilize the same blocks in different arrangements are projected onto the piece with alternating light displays in blues, oranges, and teals to mimic the light cycle of the hours of the day. Although I knew the video was looping and showing the same patterns, I was glued to my spot on the floor, mesmerized by the bright arrangements highlighting the corners of the blocks.
The title of the exhibition refers to its staging, the many stages within Kasten’s career, and the way Kasten has used staging in her photographic process in her many architectural interventions. The show fills the entire Graham Foundation building. On the first floor there’s a collection of her photographs and a single sculpture, and the library is dotted with random historical bits of photographic memorabilia. This continues on the second and third floors, in exhibition galleries and hiding along corridors. The detailed architectural photographs play with the century-old building’s staircases, hearths, and ceiling beams.
A favorite feature of the exhibition was a set of three diazotype prints of nude bodies sitting in chairs with the camera angled up, situated next to woven figures affixed to actual chairs in the second-floor gallery space. I also was attracted to Kasten’s black-and-white archival pigment prints from 2011 and 2012. Rips and scratches create a subtle texture that contrasts with the bright hues of her sleek sculptural construct images from the 80s. Lastly I adored the “Architectural Site” series in which Kasten created arrangements with lighting and mirrors within existing architectural environments, each final piece requiring months of scouting, test shooting, permits, and a large crew from the film industry. A polaroid in the library shows the final shot of one of these shoots with an ecstatic “THIS IS IT!” inscribed in ink on the left side.