This is what Expo does to Chicago. Credit: Thierry Cohen

It’s that glorious four days of the year when the international art world converges in Chicago for Expo and Chicagoans with exquisite eyeglasses and architectural wardrobes trek out to Navy Pier to join them. They also allow in reporters, which is why I got to go too, although I was clearly marked for consumption by overeager PR reps by my press pass, notebook, and ten-year-old trousers. (I was hoping they were old enough to be considered charmingly vintage, but I don’t think anyone was convinced.)

I was glad the PR reps hijacked me, though, because otherwise I would not have gotten to meet Pearl Lam, a gallery owner whose eponymous establishment has branches in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore. Lam has spiky purple hair, sports aggressive cat-eye eyeliner, and speaks in an accent that sounds sort of British. She was very excited to be in Chicago because it gave her the chance to see the architecture. If she just came here for vacation, she said, she would not get to engage with any people. So Expo was the perfect excuse.

She was very excited that I had been to Shanghai, but berated me for not visiting Suzhou, Hangzhou, and other nearby cities. I told her I’d only had eight days, all my remaining vacation time for the year. She looked at me with pity and suggested I combine my next visit with the Christmas holidays. I told her I only had Christmas Day. She looked appalled. I asked her to speak about art, and she talked a little bit about how modern Chinese art does not come from the modernist tradition as American and European art do, but she had clearly lost interest in me.

<em>Increasing Progressive Accumulation</em>. It looks better in real life.
Increasing Progressive Accumulation. It looks better in real life.Credit: José Patricío

Anyway, Lam’s gallery is the only Asian gallery at Expo (or so the PR people told me), though my favorite work she had on display was not by an Asian artist, but by a Brazilian. That would be Decreasing Progressive Accumulation and Increasing Progressive Accumulation by José Patricío. They are companions: geometric designs created by plastic puzzle pieces mounted on wood.

I quite liked Love Stream #2 by Randy Polumbo, a vintage AirStream trailer parked outside the festival hall, filled with silver cushions and phallic-looking glass tubes. It looked like a Studio 54-era Andy Warhol sex bus, but in a really good way.

Sipho Mabona's origami elephants
Sipho Mabona’s origami elephantsCredit: Danielle A. Scruggs

I also liked Sipho Mabona’s enormous origami elephants and rhinoceroses. He makes them out of gigantic sheets of paper, custom-made in France, the gallery assistant told me. Laid out, they are three or six times the size of the booth we were standing in, depending on whether he is making a life-size elephant or just a small, Expo-friendly elephant. There is video footage in the back of the booth of Mabona literally wrestling the paper into submission. It is really quite something.

Continuing the African wildlife theme, the Edwynn Houk gallery had some impressive photographs by Nick Brandt. There was a large photo of elephant in trunk-touching range, but even more arresting was Quarry With Lion, which juxtaposed a life-size photo of a lion standing majestically on the savanna, gazing at his dominion, with a photo of the same place, now a quarry, all the grass and wildlife destroyed.

Houk also had on display some photos of Chicago by Thierry Cohen that place well-known landmarks in front of an enhanced starry sky. At Expo, Chicago 41०47’20” N 2015-09-18 LST 3:20, which shows the Museum of Science and Industry, dazzled me a little, though now that I’m home and looking at it on a computer screen, it looks a little kitschy.

AinaCredit: Ayana V. Jackson

One of the most thematically coherent booths was the one belonging to the South African Gallery Momo. It featured three different artists’ depictions of black women: Ayana V. Jackson’s serene and formal portraits, Kimathi Donkor’s illustrations of historical events (Harriet Tubman Escaping to Canada), and Mary Sibande’s disturbing sculpture of a woman in a Victorian gown with snakes escaping from her belly and her head (maybe her guts and her brains)? Together, maybe they all say something about women in history: they mostly appear serene, sometimes they commit heroic acts, but secretly they are incredibly pissed off.

Nearby was a feminist time line by UIC prof Jennifer Reeder and the social justice initiative Tracers Reading Group. At important markers, there are dolls representing Sojourner Truth, Gloria Steinem, Angela Davis, and other icons of feminist history; visitors are encouraged to add dates to the time line.

Over at Kavi Gupta, Tony Tasset mocked American excess with Western Miracle, one of his “spill paintings,” which features open cans and bottles of junk food expelling their contents onto the canvas, which has been covered in resin for posterity. Upon seeing it, I felt ashamed and vowed never to eat anything from a can from the supermarket ever again. This resolution will probably last two days, if I’m lucky.

Elias Sime makes mosaics out of used computer parts. His work on display at Expo, at James Cohan, had mostly keyboard keys and wires for accent, but some of his other work uses chips and pieces of motherboards. It is very cool.

A larger version of <em>The Flesh Is Yours, the Bones Are Ours</em>
A larger version of The Flesh Is Yours, the Bones Are OursCredit: Michael Rakowitz

Michael Rakowitz impressed me a couple of years ago with his installation The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist, which re-created artifacts from the Iraqi Museum with cardboard, newspaper, and food wrappers. This year, he explores the Middle East again with The Flesh Is Yours, the Bones Are Ours, an exploration of the work of Kemal Cimbiz, a Turkish plaster caster whose embellishments still decorate Istanbul’s buildings, and his mentor, Garabet Cezayirliyan, an Armenian. The work touches on Turkish architecture and the Armenian genocide.

The last thing I saw before I had to leave was Carpet Painting (Bedroom and TV Room) by Rodney McMillian, part of the In/Situ program, which focuses on large-scale and site-specific installations. The piece is literally the carpet from McMillian’s former home—the bedroom and TV room specifically—mounted on a wall. The carpet is shit brown in color with a textured pile. There is an enormous stain on it. I was reminded of the carpet in my childhood bedroom, which was pale green with a smaller stain from when our dog ate a gum wrapper and then vomited it back up. It never would have occurred to me to hang the carpet on the wall. That is why McMillian is an artist and I am not.