Chicago seems a fitting place to host Skyscraper: Art and Architecture against Gravity. It is the birthplace of the form that helped inspire these works of art, after all. But for those who live here, it is also a place of tension, yearning, and a peculiar sort of beauty Nelson Algren once described as “like loving a woman with a broken nose.”
The exhibition features a diverse group of artists from around the world and across time, working in many media. Their work does not focus on formal beauty, although paeans to the Chrysler Building and Marina City appear. Instead, the show’s artists dwell on ideas of memory, isolation, and reinvention.
Ahmet Ögüt’s Exploded City is a sculptural amalgamation of buildings damaged or destroyed in terrorist strikes since 1990, accompanied by text written in the style of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities: The imaginary city’s inhabitants know they will be “blasted to the ground,” yet they go on “excitedly decorating the house.” The ghost town notably omits the World Trade Center towers, but is denied any nuance (intended or not) their absence offers, due to a curatorial choice to surround Ögüt’s work with a room full of work about the 2001 attacks.
The humanity of skyscrapers is a common thread—far beyond the exhibit room labeled “personification,” in which gallery goers can crank Vito Acconci’s hilarious High Rise to reveal a 20-foot tall erection. Phalluses aside, architectural forms are made human with remarkable subtlety at this exhibit. The form is erotic and overpowering, but with a depth of emotion and a weakness imparted by the hands of its builders.
Yin Xiuzhen’s Portable City project speaks to transience and memory with her suitcase sculptures of various cities made from used clothing. Even in the at-times somber Installation No. 3 by Jan Tichy, an abstract paper structure seems fragile against the projector’s harsh light. Its shadow morphs behind it as the projection shifts, a nod to the people who appear later in silhouette and their crucial, ever-changing perspectives.
Kader Attia’s 2007 installation Untitled (Skyline) looms in the corner of a mostly unoccupied, darkened room. The 40 recycled refrigerators covered in tiled mirrors form a glitzy skyline of garbage, winking in the distance. It’s a beautiful contrast to the video piece by Fikret Atay, projected on the wall opposite Untitled (Skyline). It features a man drumming on buckets on a hill above a Turkish town, toward which he kicks his makeshift instrument after a raucous drum session. His declaration of individuality amid an unsympathetic city is not out of place here, but its clamor overwhelms the installations in other rooms.
Drumming is still audible from the passageway housing Andy Warhol’s anti-film Empire, a stationary shot of the Empire State Building over 8 hours, condensed here to 50 minutes. It’s a majestic, perhaps nostalgic, voyeurism—reverent, or at least compassionate, curiosity for one’s own world.
Michael Wolf’s Transparent City photographs depict high-rises in all their claustrophobic wonder. Marina City is one of many subjects photographed in beautiful detail. The buildings’ own architectural forms overlay the intricate patterns of daily life that make these vertical cities hypnotic. Shizuka Yokomizo’s Dear Stranger project is a bit of willful exhibitionism—Yokomizo’s portraits capture high-rise residents just before they close their blinds. The subjects know they are being photographed, but they cannot see their photographer.
This is a wonderful show regardless of the viewer’s knowledge of architecture. After all, the skyscraper has served ambivalently as hero, villain, oppressor, and martyr in the story of urban life for nearly 100 years. Now, with the help of these artists, they speak back.