The typical museum experience is controlled. A pathway describes a route from one artwork to another, each illustrated by its label and narrated by an audio tour. However, three exhibitions currently on view in Chicago invite the visitor to engage in a less predictable process.
At the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art, visual-culture scholar W.J.T. Mitchell and the students of his “Theories of Media” class have colonized a gallery to realize a contemporary version of German art historian Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas (1925–1929). The result is what Mitchell calls a “media atlas.” Each student was invited to choose an image, describe why, and tack the image and the description to a wall covered in black fabric. Warburg sought to uncover the interconnections among forms and around themes that he observed resonating throughout history. Like Mitchell’s students, he pinned images of paintings, sculptures, buildings, and cultural ephemera, including magazines and newspaper photographs, to black panels. The resonances among the images on a particular panel might be more or less obvious, and during the utopian project (which was unfinished when he died), Warburg constantly moved images and revised relationships. As an undertaking, the Mnemosyne Atlas stands as a monument to the processes of visual association, history making, and memory,[i] and, as Mitchell puts it, “helps frame contemporary questions about how we use and understand images.”[ii]
Mitchell’s students have the option of explicitly demonstrating Warburg-like resonances among the images by stretching different colors of yarn from one image to another in order to suggest connections: “visual similarity” (red), “common technical basis” (yellow), and “historical adjacency” (blue). The resulting wall collage invites museum visitors to adopt Warburg’s openness to the processes of connection by engaging the specific examples of Mitchell’s students and the interconnection of following the yarn trails, and it displays these processes as concrete and visually compelling.
The visual experience of Warburgian interconnection reaches an aesthetic crescendo at the Chicago Cultural Center, a Beaux Arts wonderland with two stained glass domes, two grand staircases, and enough floor, wall, and ceiling mosaics to pave a city of Roman baths. To maximize Chicago artist Jan Tichy’s History of Painting (2014), enter on Randolph Street, climb the center’s more modest staircase, view the more modest dome, and tread the more modest mosaics. History of Painting emerges on the top floor landing as the grandest mosaic of all.
Tichy has taped together 9,261 color 35mm slides from the teaching collection of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Tichy segregates the slides by predominant hue, and the resulting three mosaic panels, each one 140 by 100 inches, pave a spectrum of color that stretches thirty feet across three windows, which gather light from an internal courtyard. Each labeled slide depicts an artwork, and the collection was once integral to art-history classes. The result is first a spectacular stained-glass window, a translucent mosaic; then a memorial to a not-so-distant pre-digital age; then an archive, visible all at once, of both art-historical icons and their lesser-known kin; and finally an atlas, like Warburg’s, of visual resonances.
From close up, the works converse across time. A random glance reveals both serendipitous formal connections, for example, between Stuart Davis’s Premiere (1957), Will Barnet’s Orange and Green Space (1958), and topical connections, for example, between Eileen Cooper’s If the Space Fits (1987) and Felix Vallotton’s Mulatto Woman (1913). The slides, rather than focusing attention on the failure of the reproductions to replicate the experience of viewing the original artworks, reconceive the experience as both sensually and intellectually stimulating, reminding the contemporary viewer of the capacity of film photography to produce sharp, clear images even when tiny, and through Tichy’s ministrations to create a work whose power resolutely resides in both its parts and their sum.
From afar, History of Painting recalls the simpler mosaics I’d already seen and foreshadows their increasing elaboration, which culminates in the Preston Bradley Hall, a 135-by-49-foot room that is tiled floor to ceiling with mother of pearl, glass, and stone, and surmounted with the largest Tiffany glass dome in the world. It is hard to maintain a position of asceticism here. At first, the hall—the whole building—seems open to characterization as the glorifying edifice of a 19th-century city asserting its stature through the pomp and circumstance of a civic palace. But the 1897 building, completed just 26 years after the Chicago fire and known as the “People’s Palace,” was in fact the first home of Chicago’s public library, and the Hall’s first use was as the library’s book-delivery room. Tichy’s panels end up resonating with Warburg’s undertaking in more ways, since the library as well as the Art Institute are each archiving institutions, and History of Painting is the archive made manifest, accessible both aesthetically and conceptually to the adventurous viewer. And like the Mnemosyne Atlas, History of Painting also scrambles the canon-defining process of art historiography.
Finally, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, there emerges the unlikeliest Warburgian connection of all: a small show of drawings, videos, and ceramics by animator Lilli Carré. Here, what comes into view are not the resonances of diverse images but the resonances of diverse experiences of movement and stasis. At one moment, the visitor engages Carré’s icon-/dingbat-like squiggles and shapes as stationary and isolated drawings; at another, their transformation, through combination and motion, into active and integrated elements of storytelling. Drawings of vaguely vegetal shapes that resemble sectioned or whole fruits or vegetables becomes animated, transforming on the screen into the activity of a village of organisms seen through a microscope, or into a bird’s-eye view of a street scene on a planet inhabited by non-humans. Even its apparently representational title, One Second (Eucalyptus) (2013), leaves this productive confusion intact.
Carré’s most elaborate work is a two-video installation, The Negotiation (2013). Each video loops at different rates, so that the combination constantly re-creates itself. As the eye takes in the action—sometimes jumping from one screen to the other as if at a tennis match, other times taking in both screens at once—the stories reconfigure themselves, unfolding in different combinations and juxtapositions, claiming different levels of attention, and inspiring different strategies of seeing. The animation turns the immobile objects Carré has drawn into activity, but the moving video never hides—or seeks to hide—each object’s origin as discrete and stationary; the visitor sees movement and stasis at the same time.
Carré’s objects, Tichy’s slides, and the media images of Mitchell’s students share a mode of operation: the juxtaposition of entities that, separate and stable at a distance, close up reveal resonances that not only expose their intersections but also put them in motion. Each of these deceptively modest installations rewards the visitor who takes the time to view and re-view, to shuffle and repeat, to fall into an extended relationship with the images.
And this is exactly how Warburg treated his atlas, as a work in process, the final years of the historian’s life spent moving images around in an activity of association and combination. What remains today of the Mnemosyne Atlas are the images of the blackboards as they stood at one moment of time, a trace of a product that was, in fact, as shifting as Carré’s videos. The gift of these exhibitions—their synchronicity—as if they had reached out to each other along Mitchell’s tri-colored yarn trails, is the revelation of the role that both intuition and intellect play not only in the composition of art—and indeed, all visual and media culture—but also in our reception of these creative and social activities. It is also the recognition that, once they are set to the music of seemingly random association, neither Mitchell’s media atlas nor Tichy’s mosaic history remain, in the act of viewing, any more still than Carré’s animations.
Academic Connections: Media Atlas is on view at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art through April 13, 2014.
aroundcenter (including Jan Tichy’s History of Painting) is on view at the Chicago Cultural Center through April 27, 2014.
BMO Harris Bank Chicago Works: Lilli Carré is on view the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago through April 15, 2014.
[i]For discussion of Warburg’s temporal process, see Danielle Sommer, “Inhabiting the Gap: Instants, Intervals, and Cinematic Time in Aby Warburg’s Der Bilderatlas Mnemosyne,” Sightlines: A Journal of New Writing on Visual Culture, 2011: http://viscrit.cca.edu/danielle-sommer/#thesis.
[ii]Wall panel for Academic Connections: Media Atlas, Smart Museum, University of Chicago.