Alone on the second floor of the Hyde Park Art Center, I push aside thin felt curtains to enter a gallery featuring “The City,” the first of four video installation programs in “Spatial City: An Architecture of Idealism.” There are two pieces in this exhibition, Sarah Morris’s “Midtown” and Bertrand Lamarche’s “Autobrouillard.” The second is playing.
A white light passes over an otherwise dim scene of a city at night. The movement repeats over and over again, like a searchlight scanning desperately for the hint of life amid ruins, while the wreckage consists of glass and cement buildings. The only other movement on the screen, besides a blinking red light off in the distance, is the occasional appearance of a woman’s face, made visible by a reflection of the white light. Her hair has fallen back and her mouth is open as if producing a scream; she is frozen in that position, appearing momentarily on a glass panel in front of the city scene. It seems as if the white light is coming from inside of a building, shining through a window to probe the outside world.
The video art on view sits above the rest of “Spatial City,” an exhibit inspired by the theoretical structures of the same name by Israeli architect Yona Friedman (born 1923). After fleeing his native Hungary during World War II to settle in Paris, Friedman famously declared in his 1958 manifesto “Mobile Architecture” that the structures of an ideal city were to occupy a minimal surface area on the ground, to “be easily broken down and moved,” to be transformable by the individual inhabitant. His ideas were disseminated widely in post-war France, and most recently provided the conceptual framework for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Nicholas Frank, the originating curator of “Spatial City.” Each piece in the exhibit relates in some way to the architecture of a utopic city that is alternately optimistic and cynical. The artists selected for the exhibit, like Friedman, make reference to the brutality of war, dehumanizing conditions in totalitarian states, and the impact of urban living and industry on the environment and individuality.
Walking through the exhibit, any trace of unstained wood is startling–the viewer is overwhelmed by steel, plastic, and, especially mirrors. The layout of the art in the exhibit looks as if it could be modeled after the plan of a city. In Friedman’s drawings and collages at the entrance of the exhibit, urban spaces are geometric sets of layered circles and boxes. Likewise, the position of each piece has been carefully chosen to highlight the beauty and horror of these monuments to progress. In Didier Marcel’s massive “Sans titre (labours 4),” stained black wood contains waves of freshly turned dirt. It is a frozen garden, set on display with steel, polyester, resin, and glass fiber instead of flowers. Made with several hundred pounds of actual resin, the structure could have theoretically served as the bed for new life. Near the opposite wall of the gallery is Philippe Ramette’s “Objet Cynique,” a four-person electrical chair constructed of wood, rope, electric cable, and aluminum. The image suggests that a collective exit from the world we’ve made has the potential to mollify the pain of death. The most conscious use of urban planning is seen in the arrangement of Kristina Solomoukha’s “Shedding Identity,” a set of neon digital prints behind Plexiglass and mirrors. When stepping between certain prints, the viewer becomes an inhabitant of a city that no longer looks beautiful.
While occupying HPAC, the exhibit also features works by Chicago-based artists Sara Schnadt, Jeff Carter, Hui Min Tsen, and Detroit artist Ben Hall, in addition to those from the French Regional Contemporary Art Funds (“the Frac”). Schnadt’s “Network” hangs above a gallery attendant, who reads silently in the corner. Electric yellow twine is tied in knots overhead in a site-specific web, suggestive of a virtual network landscape. Jeff Carter’s “Untitled #1 (Chicago Tribune Tower)” is made entirely of modified IKEA products in the form of the eponymous structure.
It is the first time that these works, brought together by the Frac from each region of France, are being shown together in the United States. Dwelling in our own metropolis until August 8, “Spatial City” is a bold and terrifying reflection of humanity’s complicated relationship with the structures it enables.