The text on a sign posted outside of the Hyde Park Art Center was the only advertisement for the exhibit “Signs and wonders shall appear” by New Zealand artist Maddie Leach. The work consisted of several milk crates full of apples sitting on a dock at Jackson Harbor, almost two miles away from the sign. Viewers had to make the trek. To demand this kind of persistence from one’s viewership seems to confront the usual one-way relationship between art and its audience, but visitors were rewarded; everyone could take home up to two pounds of ripe, delicious art objects. Leach humbly described her ideal viewers as “people who want to make pie.”
The show, which lasted from October 7-10, was one of several projects executed as part of an ongoing exhibition called “Close Encounters,” made up of commissioned pieces from eight New Zealand artists who were given a year to create works inspired by the city of Chicago.Â As an alien, Leach was unsure of what she could do that would be of relevance to the Second City. She expanded her geographical and conceptual scope, and focused her project on a more remote location–Beaver Island, Michigan.
Situated in the northern part of Lake Michigan, Beaver Island has historically been a religious retreat. Several religious organizations called it home during the first half of the twentieth century, including a group of monarchical Mormons and a utopian faith called the Sons of David. The faithful planted apples, and Beaver Island now contains several orchards of wild, unclassifiable apples, which serve as tasty relics of Beaver Island’s unique history. Leach became fascinated by these apple trees and by the almost mythical place occupied by apple pie in American culture. With her piece, she sought to combine near-universal aspects of American life with the unique history of the island. Leach used her outsider status–both as a stranger to the island, and as a New Zealander in the United States–to shed new light on American culture, and the idea of local culture in general.
Leach describes her project as having an absurd, even comedic quality. What happens to the apples that aren’t given away? They go back to Beaver Island, where they are fed to the local deer population. Indeed the natural response to the exhibit– crates of apples set out over the water, labeled with the names of the orchards they came from–is disbelief and awe.
The exhibit’s odd focus may seem as distant from the city of Chicago as Beaver Island itself. But the collaboration between artist and viewer is very much in the Chicago spirit. To find their apples, visitors have to trust a hand-painted sign on the door of the Hyde Park Art Center whose origins and purpose are anything but obvious. Leach has faith that passersby will discover her project for the right reasons–not necessarily because they have a background in conceptual or installation art, but because they want to make pie. “If only one person comes here for the right reasons, wanting to make pie, I will be happy,” Leach said of her exhibit. At the time of the interview, the show had attracted exactly that many visitors, and Leach seemed content with the tiny community her art had forged.