Essay

Peter Schjeldahl, 2005

 

Pier Walk 2005 is about a well-kept secret of Chicago: Gateway Park, the layout of lawns, linden groves, flowerbeds, and a plaza, with a fountain, in front of the Pier. The area is unevenly used and has long been nonchalantly abused and cluttered with kiosks, signs, a couple of recreational sculptures (bronze children, bronze Bob Newhart), and other arbitrarily situated items. By being a rectangle athwart approaches to the Pier, the park (does anyone even think of it as a park?) is chopped up by roads and by walkways which, except for the broad central thoroughfare, go nowhere much and are unfrequented. The massive fountain, whose computerized spurts and splashes delight on summer days, is distractingly out of scale with its surroundings. That Gateway Park has fine underlying bone structure with lots of latent aesthetic and civic amenity, hidden in plain sight became apparent to me while we were installing Pier Walk 2004. Gateway wouldn't let us put just anything just anywhere. It had its own ideas, which were revealed as, one after another, works found fits as snug as if they had been designed for the occasion. This year, I kept the park in mind while choosing the art, considering not just what I liked but what would best entertain the genius of the place.

Start across the street, on the bare, harsh salient of white concrete from which pedestrians leave the city behind. One of Franz West's sprightly welded sculptures "the green one" waits with us at the stoplight, opposite its yellow sister in one of the park's shadowy, cool groves. Those enveloping stands of small-leaf lindens afford quiet havens within a noisy milieu, most effectively, for me, in the case of Ulrich Ruckreim's quarried granite blocks. Seen from the central walkway, in passing, the Ruckreim is a thing; approached, it becomes an intimate environment, a meditative world apart. Pieces by Ralph Provisero and by Zoran similarly nestle amid trees. Approaching them, you leave behind the show as a whole and, for that matter, Chicago to which, we hope, you then return, refreshed. Arraying Jim Benedict's and Coral Lambert's intricate, assembled sculptures in face of the fountain, I tried to bring the big, wet cube into sensible relations with human scale and to raise awareness of the plaza as a theatrical space, starring the passerby.

Three works directly address the central walkway and thus jump into the fiesta of summertime at the Pier. Ben Woitena's dog image in steel contests the park's several utilitarian signs with one that has no excuses except wit and charm. I'm told that the great eleven-ton concrete funnel, Tamsie Ringler's Receptor, is a big hit with people, and I believe it. A megaphone or a funnel opening out or burrowing in, depending on the viewer's fancy, the piece demands participation. So, much more subtly, does Nancy Rosen's painted word-play: an astronomical Scrabble score made up entirely of palindromes.

Creating a zone of mental absorption at one of the busiest spots in the Midwest, it fulfills for me an ideal of public art: to be of the world and apart from it, simultaneously, in a way that engages our individual aloneness with convivial joy.