Accenting the sparse floor of the gallery, a lone road sign, yellow and drab, points upwards towards the junction of two metropolises: Chicago and Detroit.
The current Chicago Urban Arts Society (CUAS) show, “Tale of 2 Cities: Chicago & Detroit,” is both imaginative and ambitious, capturing urban life in these two similar yet distinct cities. Surrounding the solitary road sign lie twelve televisions. Each screen rests on a pedestal of cardboard, draped in gritty photos depicting the nameless concrete canyons that run through the metropolises. The audience gravitates towards the televisions, entering a matrix between these two declining industrial Midwestern hubs.
Each television plays a film depicting a vignette of urban life, ranging from a tale of environmental activism on Chicago’s South Side to the plight of urban education in Detroit, and even including a piece combining the opening of Picasso’s statue at Daley Plaza with an exploration of the female body. Although a mix as eclectic as this may appear somewhat disorienting, they are cleverly woven together within comparisons between Chicago and Detroit. Chicago’s relative prosperity versus Detroit’s insipid poverty, the two cities’ deteriorating industrial infrastructure, and the continuing decline in the cities’ populations all figure into the juxtaposition in the tale of two cities.
According to curator Abbey Odunlami, the aim of the exhibit is to focus on the intertwined relationship between the two cities. Odunlami, who hails from Detroit, found inspiration for the project in the “increased merging of Detroit and Chicago via technological means like Facebook and Twitter.” The project attempts to portray this merging by immersing the viewer in the gel of televised stories. Odunlami says that he wants the viewer to experience “a blend of cities,” showing the Midwestern metropolises bound by their industrial histories. Yet, important differences, like Chicago’s financial prosperity since the Daley reforms and Detroit’s economic turmoil distinguish the two cities and are also key to the exhibit.
One striking piece, filmed in Chicago, shows desolate streets and disquieted citizens on the day of the September 11 attacks. The scattered response of an elderly woman captures the atmosphere in Chicago following the catastrophe. Another film depicts the demolition of the historic Madison-Lenox Hotel in downtown Detroit. Despite its magnificent architecture and historic status, the hotel had been abandoned during the city’s economic decline and had lain vacant for years–until it was razed to clear ground for a Super Bowl XL parking lot. The film unleashes vivid imagery of a decaying Detroit, exposing the sad reality of abandonment and demolition.
As each of the twelve films focused solely on one city, the juxtaposition between Chicago and Detroit was largely left to the viewer. Although the exhibit could have benefited from more symmetry between the Chicago pieces and the Detroit pieces, it largely succeeds in its attempt to contrast the two cities while preserving their respective characters. And though a few technical difficulties prevented some of the films from being shown for a time, the exhibit managed to transport viewers to the distinct worlds of each metropolis.
Looking towards the future, Odunlami has big ambitions for this style of exhibit. He hopes to apply the same idea to the cities of Beirut and Paris. Odunlami is very keen on the idea of creating a parallels and intersections between cities in order to explore their connections and differences appeals, and he envisions this inter-city collaboration as the first step in a larger project of connecting artists from different cities across the globe. The “Tale of 2 Cities,” then, could tell the tale of many more.
Chicago Urban Arts Society, 2229 S. Halsted St. Through April 23. Thursday-Friday, 6pm-9pm; Saturday, 1pm-6pm. (773)951-8101. chicagourbanartsociety.org