On the same Friday that the VFW first rushed to the Art Institute to rescue the flag, a show they might have liked a lot better opened at another gallery associated with the School of the Art Institute. This was a performance-art piece by student Renee Landry called The Crying Room; it took place at the school’s Gallery 2, in a former lamp factory on West Huron that the vets would have needed a map to find.

Before the performance, Landry was downright secretive about it, tossing off a smokescreen of artspeak (“deconstruct,” “transforming qualities”) and swearing everyone working with her to silence. For all anyone could tell, she was planning something ordinary in the way of performance art–biting off the head of a mouse or setting fire to her hair or something like that. But when the black-leather and rent-denim opening-night crowd filed in–men in ponytails and earrings, women in micro skirts and boot-camp haircuts: hard-edged, hip, and primed for action–they found an otherworld of things soft and pink, a surrealistic lineup of ten identical white cribs equipped with musical mobiles, ruffled bumper pads, and ten real live babies. Discreet white cards identified each infant as a work of art (medium: human DNA). “New Acquisition,” the cards explained; “On Loan From the Artists.” Behind each kid was a set of beaming parents.

Landry was not keen to explain the work, but did offer that her larger-than-life nursery was “a critique on art openings,” a comment on “everything I don’t like about them.” The idea came to her, she said, after she attended a lecture on performance art; she found three crying babies in the audience more interesting than anything else going on there. People were intolerant of the infants, and that started her thinking about where babies belong and what the priorities are in the art world.

The artist said she spent months hanging out at Lamaze classes, in search of willing mothers-to-be, and writing letters to potential sponsors. She needed $2,500 to cover the cost of cribs and other materials. In the end, she got the babies but not the money, even though she had explained to some 300 prospects that the props would be donated to needy families after the show. After raising only $750, she borrowed the rest from the hand that rocked her own cradle.

From the look of it, The Crying Room was a huge success–all that black leather cooing and grinning at all that pastel terrycloth. Except for a moment here or there among the babies themselves, no one was the least bit cranky. Certainly no one was rude enough to fuss about the fact that Ms. Landry, in the nicest, sweetest way possible, was thumbing her nose at them. As far as I know, no one even suggested that this might be just one more manifestation of a generation’s late-blooming fascination with progeny and all its accoutrements.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dread Scott.