Last month was the annual Expo Chicago, an “international exposition of contemporary and modern art”, and, thanks to free tickets from my alumni association, I got to attend for the first time. It was quite a surreal experience. I’ve been to a lot of art museums, and I’ve been to even more art galleries, but I’ve never been to a massive exposition where galleries from all over the world bring their most enviable pieces in hopes of luring their next major collector. Gallerists and their interns sit at tables inside mini white-walled galleries, pens in their hands, ready to write you a receipt for a hundred-thousand-dollar Lichtenstein sculpture. Or, if you’re just starting out your collection, why not a $5,000 contemporary painting from one of our emerging artists?
Seeing art in this way, I felt more connected to the artwork, and yet more alienated from the art world. I was able to get so much closer, almost touching my favorite pieces, and getting a good look from every angle. I could never do this in an art museum, with the rails and alarms that keep you at more-than-arms-length. And yet in a public museum I can still have some sense of ownership of the art, as a part of the commonwealth; the exorbitant price tags displayed next to the works at Expo showed the vastness of gulf that separated me and the art to which I felt so close.
It was a breath of fresh air, figuratively and literally, when I found the booth for the National Resources Defense Council, who had partnered with the Seattle-based artist Vaughn Bell to create three interactive installations for the show.
The first piece, called “Pocket Bioshpheres,” allowed us to adopt a tiny handmade biosphere (basically a terrarium). They were free, we could choose the one we wanted, but we had to sign an “adoption agreement” stating that we would indeed tend and care for our little piece of the environment. After we signed the paper, it went up on one of their three walls, which by that time was almost covered with other attendees’ similar promises.
The second piece was suspended from the ceiling and called “Metropolis.” She created four boxes, each with a different micro-ecosystem representing flora (and probably some microscopic fauna) that were native to the Chicagoland area before the skyscrapers moved in. There was a hole cut in the center of the bottom of each of the boxes where you could stick your head in, and observe “nature” from the perspective of a small rodent, or perhaps Alice after drinking too much shrinking potion. It did indeed feel like a trip to wonderland. The smells, the sounds, it was enough to make any city-dweller pack up and buy a cabin in the woods to re-write Walden, almost. This piece, aside from explicitly stating in the description that this native fauna had been all but crowded out by industry, seemed the least political of the three. Yet where the pocket biosphere helped the participant make an emotional connection with the environment, this piece helped you make a literal and imaginative one. I am, of course, already an environmentalist, but this piece reminded me what it is I am hoping to save, and why it’s important.
The third piece was, to me, the real kicker. Cute and unassuming, “A Pack of Forests” comprised small pieces of land on wheels and attached to animal leashes. The idea was that you could “walk” your piece of nature around the fair. The description of the artwork stated that the artist hoped to underscore the importance of environmental stewardship and “the care and attention one must give” to nature. However, I felt the true statement here, or at least the one that packs a punch, is that nature is not a pet that we can put on a leash and dress up, and play with when we feel disconnected from the earth. We create parks and preserves and try to contain some exotic “nature” that is outside of ourselves, outside of our society. As long as we have some piece of land that is kept “natural” we feel we can destroy and recreate the rest of the planet how we see fit. What I think Bell is really saying here, is how ridiculous we are when we try to put a leash on nature and call it our own. We are a part of nature and when we destroy it, we destroy ourselves.
I hope you enjoyed the first post of my new Sustainability blog, in which I will cover many topics including art, fashion, books, DIY and more. I welcome a hearty discussion, so please feel free to leave comments!