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The C.A.C.A. Review
An occasional publication of the Chicago Art Critics Association
January, 2006, Volume 7, Number 1

As we embark on the sixth year of this millennium,
Millennium Park has become a central fixture in Chicago's cultural landscape. In this issue of The C.A.C.A. Review, a few of our members weigh in on the park's relative merits...

Table of Contents:
Plensa vs. Prairie Grass, by Fred Camper
In Defense of the Bean, by Margaret Hawkins
Millennium Park’s Giant Sucking Sound, by Jeff Huebner
The Enervating Conditions of the Town, by Janina A. Ciezadlo
Millennium Park: An occasional ode, by James Yood

Plensa vs. Prairie Grass

By Fred Camper

I have to hand this to Mayor Daley: He understands the tastes of upper-middle-class city dwellers and tourists far better than I do. I never would have guessed that things like faux-antique outdoor accoutrements — from newspaper dispensers to bicycle stands — would have helped make Chicago such a “success.” On a recent snowy Saturday, Millennium Park, no antique but largely an aesthetic calamity, was alive with visitors. Can something that brings people downtown be all bad? Well, no. Frank Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion is visually engaging from a variety of angles, and Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate is really good. Elegant in itself, it’s at once imposing in its unusual shape and modest in the way it reflects its surroundings. So what’s the problem?

Well, does anyone argue that these two art works, along with the park’s third major monument, Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain, actually interact with each other, or with the park’s banal, concrete-laden landscaping, in interesting ways? Do they make a harmonious — or meaningfully disjunctive — whole? One might have hoped that the city of Jens Jensen would have learned a few things about park planning, rather than simply rejecting nature contemplation in favor of its utter opposite, the park as a magnifier of postmodern disconnectedness. Does the Loop not already offer a plenitude of clashing architecture and art styles? Millennium Park serves up a consumerist collection of objects and scenes that speak to each other about as articulately as the TV shows encountered in channel-flipping.

The worst is Crown Fountain itself. Aesthetically vapid, it also constitutes a profound insult to everything I love about cities. Offering video faces of 1,000 Chicagoans enlarged to Brobdingnagian dimensions, it recalls the oversized dictator portraits of totalitarian nations. Its bright images dominate eyesight, even in daylight, diverting the visitor from the key urban pleasure of looking at actual faces. I dislike the way outdoor advertising screens have crept their way into the urban fabric from Zagreb to Hong Kong, substituting their synthetic imagery for the cityscape, but at least these are a product of free market capitalism. Plensa’s intrusion, part of a government-created project, is more commanding and more insidious, accomplishing the opposite of its apparent goal of celebrating Chicago’s citizenry. These empty Warhol imitations draw attention away from the faces behind his videos, showing how the synthetic has come to dominate the real. By contrast, the passive-aggressive under-the-microscope views of Warhol’s portrait films actually express something. Further, the patterned skin of Plensa’s building-sized video towers imitates brick, referencing historic edifices. No need, then, to look across the street to a particularly great block of Michigan Avenue that includes Louis Sullivan’s Gage Building: video has it all. Throughout history artists have obliterated the quotidian in order to construct their own worlds, but their art enriches vision. Using TV as vision’s substitute rather than enhancement, Plensa insults the city. At least the kids don't seem to care — when the fountain is active, they play in the water and ignore the “art.”

Here’s an idea for when Millennium Park falls to ruin, if our failure to take account of the world around us hasn’t destroyed our whole civilization by then: Forget the arrogance of builders. Plant prairie grass. Provide some walkways and benches. Restore a little nature to Chicago’s center.

In Defense of the Bean

By Margaret Hawkins

I love Millennium Park, and my favorite thing about it is “the bean.” When people say bad things about the bean, it cuts me to the quick. I feel protective of it, connected to that bean, like it is a member of my tribe somehow, or some huge endangered animal I’d like to keep as a pet, or a friendly space alien that hatched from the husk of the Gehry band shell one moonless night and then hopped across the park to its present perch. I want to feed it peanut-butter crackers and Orange Crush. It looks like it eats a lot. And I like the bridge. Okay, I know Jim Yood calls it “The Bridge to Nowhere,” and he’s right, of course. It would have been nice if it were planned to serve some socially beneficial purpose — like, for instance, transporting people somewhere they wanted to go — but to me futility and purposelessness are givens in life and do not diminish my appreciation. I don’t mind not going anywhere as long as I can stand on top, magically unharmed, and watch the traffic roar by below. But I have to admit that I’ve noticed the public seems to have a few quibbles with the park, so in the interest of fair representation, here’s my list of the

Top Ten Soul-searching Questions Overheard at Millennium Park:

10. Were we supposed to bring our own benches?
9. Doesn't the band shell kind of remind you of Farrah Fawcett’s hair 25 years ago?
8. Trees in a cage: you call that a garden?
7. Am I the only one already sick of looking at those giant pink fountain faces?
6. Did they have to name everything?
5. Why didn’t they get a bean that makes everybody look thin?
4. Shouldn’t it be Millennial Park?
3. Where are the hot dog stands?
2. Cloud Gate?
1. For 11.5 million dollars, couldn’t he have finished it on time?

Millennium Park’s Giant Sucking Sound

By Jeff Huebner

In books like The Cultures of Cities, sociologist Sharon Zukin has researched the impact of artists on urban economies (beyond what they contribute to art markets). What she said about New York ten years ago could just as well apply to Chicago — including Millennium Park — today: “Public officials and developers are more at ease discussing the image of the city as a culture capital than attending to demands for support by artists, musicians, theater owners, and museum workers,” she wrote, continuing, “When push to comes to shove, culture has been an interim development strategy, useful in periods of uncertainty … while creating only sporadic gains for independent cultural producers.”

Sure, Chicago’s cultural establishment does keep devising strategies to recognize and support its (visual) artists, partly in an effort to stanch the talent drain to the coasts. But to look at it cynically, or pragmatically: The city has also gotten around to realizing it needs artists to help sustain its emerging postindustrial economy; i.e., one increasingly based on the provision of culture, entertainment, tourism, and new media rather than on the old manufacturing model. In the meantime, though, pay no attention to that $20-million “Bean-doggle” behind the curtain (more than 100 percent over budget, and rising), or to Millennium Park’s nearly half-billion-dollar cost in general.

With its collection of theme-parked, corporate-leveraged, public-art spectacles set in the city’s front yard, Chicago has made a bid to reinvent itself as a global cultural capital of the twenty-first century. Yet in doing so, the culture industrialists have railroaded art producers toiling mightily in their own backyard. So what else is new? At least 1999’s precedent-setting tourist-art extravaganza, “Cows on Parade™,” threw bones at local artists, buying off any complaints that the city never gave them a high-profile public commission.

It’s not just that Millennium Park lacks a major project by a Chicago-based artist — it seems almost a cliché to mention that now. And it’s not so much that the park sucks. It’s what it’s sucked up. Sucked up in terms of money, in terms of the media’s arts coverage, in terms of (inter)national attention. All that local arts-philanthropic largesse it devoured — about $200 million of it — that could’ve been funneled into the cultural community; taxpayer dollars too. (And then there are ongoing conservation and maintenance costs.) All that newspaper space — tireless reams of it — that could’ve been devoted to the local art scene. That occasional few seconds of arts “reporting” in your nightly TV newscast? Send the cameras to cover Bean-gazers, Gehry bandshell wing-dings, Plensa splashers.

(You could think of Kapoor’s Cloud Gate and its shiny, self-reflective surface as a fitting symbol of Chicago’s peculiar second-city-syndrome art-world solipsism: How easy it is to forget public officials’ insecurity with local artistic achievement when we can look into a warped funhouse mirror and see our city in all its magnificent world-class glory!)

One hopeful note, maybe: Earlier in 2005, Chicago artists Patrick McGee and Adelheid Mers were commissioned to create a site-specific sculptural installation about renewable energy for the park’s new Exelon Pavilion. The electricity that runs the piece’s displays is generated from solar panels embedded in the building’s walls. Didn’t hear about it? The press came to the summer dedication, in large part because Mayor “Mr. Green” Daley did, too. But reporters were much more interested in asking him about the latest revelations to emerge from the city’s ongoing corruption scandals. And that’s what made the news.

The Enervating Conditions of the Town

By Janina A. Ciezadlo

Romantics will be disappointed when they realize that parks have more to do with culture than nature. Any “listening to nature’s teachings” in a park is so heavily mediated by cultural and historical forms that nature’s input is meager. The great parks of London and Paris began as aristocratic hunting preserves and were converted to parks in order to provide the working classes with fresh air, restore physical vitality, and stave off social unrest. Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park and the suburb of Riverside, Illinois, had similar, but generally more altruistic arguments about social and physical improvement through fresh air and foliage, as well as the possibility for civil interaction afforded by parks, which might counteract the “enervating conditions of the town.”

The separation between commerce, where “conditions of corruption, and of irritation, physical and mental” prevailed, and where actions toward other men were characterized by “vigilance and wariness” envisioned by Olmsted does not seem to exist in Millennium Park. The schizophrenic eclecticism of its accouterments — balustrades, sculptures, walkways and the rest — mirrors, rather than suspends the restless and scattered imaginations of people who must drive from Best Buy to Target to Dunkin Donuts and then home to watch the television.

Even though nothing is really on sale (besides the seven-dollar hot dogs), the haphazard layout and pace of the views and vistas of ever-new attractions reproduce a weary consumer’s patterns of cognition. Anyone who wants a reflective, (rather than passive) contemplative or social experience, a pleasant conversation accompanied by the play of a fountain, needs to wander into another century. Even the garden on the hill seems overstuffed with plants (not like the economy of the prairie at all); although, perhaps when it is mature the logic of the design will be more affecting.

Frank Gehry’s flamboyant band shell’s dynamic surfaces argue elegantly with the static rectilinearity of the buildings that frame them. His scaled serpentine bridge recalls the Native American Snake Mounds in the woods on a bluff over the Ohio River. Even though the bridge is designed to get us from place to place, its curves keep us from speeding ahead, while the integrity of the forms and materials carry us forward. Our views of the site are gently multiplied in the same manner that Smithson envisioned for Spiral Jetty. Here, the old ideas about transformations offered by the green world are reconstructed by design and engineering; like Olmsted’s plans for happiness in what he designated as the deep woods of the park, these constructions are governed by harmony and simplicity rather than appetite.

Millennium Park: An occasional ode

(recited to zither accompaniment)

By James "O, for a Muse of fire…" Yood

Why this cloying effort to amuse,
What makes this place so frantic and so void?
Why must our coffers so relentlessly be abused,
Why does this station-to-station trek leave us drearily annoyed?

Why a bridge to nowhere, a stale journey's fitting end,
With a fun-house mirror our city's fabric to distend?
(And did you notice the lack of work done here by locals,
Do those crafty park fathers think we're only yokels?
What do they mean when talent's imported solely from afar,
That Chicago's art is third-rate, an afterthought, no star?
I know my limits, I'm no member of Mensa
But couldn't someone 606ish reach the heights of Plensa?)

This space stirs me not.
Why such fervor for Gehry's gilded Pavilion,
Who counts how many poor might feed for half a billion?
Empty, empty, empty, empty, frenzied efforts all aside,
Such patronizing circuses we should never let abide.
This place is shadow, a cynic's ploy, in civic ways perversion,
Offering thin entertainment as sop, as titillating diversion.
The public needs not so assiduously to be goosed,
There's more to life than to be shallowly amused.

More pork than park, this suits us oh so well,
Our civic corruption tale it brazenly tells.
The future is a blank the years will fill,
But I would die before setting foot into Park Grill.
Yes, yes, stroll along, stimulation around the corner,
This is the park of an administrative suborner.
Two streams of spit, some columns, a trellis grids the sky,
Let's give the rabble choice, burbled voices from on high.

This is the voyage of the duped.
Someday when mirrors chip and fountain screens go dark,
They will say Chicago erred with this theme park.
Someday when more more more seems not the urge to sate,
Our heirs may note this faked joy was not worth the wait.
A monument to culture by committee,
This manic park deflates a great, great city.

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