Art Outdoors is a series on the MCA DNA blog that explores the ways art can thrive beyond gallery walls—whether with murals, plaza projects, or other outdoor forms of creative expression.
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Today, the MCA celebrates its 53rd anniversary. There is a lot to look back on in the MCA’s rich history of experimental exhibitions and programming, and we focused on this history during the MCA’s 50th-year celebrations. In case you missed it, now is a great time to check out the MCA’s oral history project from that year, MCA Stories, or read about the archival exhibition celebrating the MCA’s history, To the Racy Brink. To commemorate this year, we are looking back at some examples of the MCA’s many building interventions. These projects are great examples of how the MCA has worked with artists in new and exciting ways, in pivotal moments in our history, and what happens when artists and museum staff collaborate on meaningful and intentional site-specific projects. What follows are some of the MCA’s most groundbreaking of these projects—and each one gives us a little look at some important MCA milestones in each decade.
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Perhaps the most legendary building intervention by an artist came just a couple of years after the MCA’s founding. This was one of Christo and Jeane-Claude’s well-known building wraps, Wrap In, Wrap Out, from 1969. It has often been celebrated as the first public building in the United States to be wrapped by Christo.
For this project, Christo, along with a team of MCA staff and others, wrapped the exterior of the museum in 10,000 square feet of dark canvas. But the wrapping didn’t stop with the exterior of the building: visitors to the museum who entered through the cloth-draped doorway were met with a lighter, natural-colored cloth that was draped on the floor and portions of the walls of the gallery spaces within the museum. This interior “wrap” was made with an additional 2,800 square feet of canvas. Meanwhile, in the upper galleries, there was an H.C. Westerman exhibition on view. Juxtaposing the strange and somewhat eerie feeling of the canvas-draped lower galleries, the museum went about its business, staging this more traditional exhibition in the galleries above.
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Mary Richardson, Director of Library and Museum Services, has written much more about Wrap In, Wrap Out in a blog post from 2016, which includes some amusing details about the public’s reactions, as well as the response from the Chicago Fire Department. The post also includes archival footage of the wrap itself, taken by the MCA’s first curator David Katzive, which in my humble opinion is not to be missed.
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1979 was a big year for the MCA. It was the year that the museum completed renovations on a townhouse adjacent to the existing museum building at 237 East Ontario Street, expanding the MCA's footprint. This expansion allowed the museum to grow its programming as well as its recently established permanent collection. Building renovations provide the perfect opportunity for artistic interventions, and the MCA has definitely taken advantage of these opportunities when they arrive. In 1978, for instance, prior to the renovation, the MCA invited the artist Gordon Matta-Clark to saw through the walls, floors, and roof of the townhouse for the exhibition Circus: The Caribbean Orange. The renovation also allowed for an audio work to be commissioned for a new stairwell in the museum: a sound installation by the artist Max Neuhaus featuring hidden speakers emitting low-frequency, droning sounds throughout the stairway.
In addition to these projects, a more public-facing building intervention was commissioned by the MCA. Museum staff invited the artist Michael Asher to create an installation that would sit behind the glass walls of the new Bergman gallery space, which bridged the museum’s previous building and the new annex. The work was made up of two sections of aluminum panels, removed from the redesigned facade of the building and placed in a grid that corresponded with their previous positions outside of the museum. The removed panels exposed the building’s brick, which was also an interesting visual element of the work. In part, this conceptual piece aimed to highlight the intersection where artwork and architecture meet— and to represent the museum’s new and future growth. Asher summarized his installation in a project description held in the museum’s archive:
The entire work (both interior and exterior) could be viewed from the street. It became apparent that on the exterior, the aluminum cladding functioned as a skin ornament. Once these plates were placed within the interior of the museum and showcased behind glass, their function as ornament was framed to read as an artwork embracing values idiomatic of the minimal genre.
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This work was added to the museum’s new and growing collection. This public work in part symbolized the future growth of the museum, whose expansion was largely driven by its growing permanent collection. Asher grappled with these ideas in this work. Whenever the work was deinstalled, the panels themselves were then reinstalled on the exterior of the building. “Each time that the aluminum panels are replaced to their original exterior position, they are in a sense being stored in full public view (open storage) while the rest of the Museum’s permanent collection remains inside and inaccessible to the public.” 
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Asher Lewitt Text
Concurrent to this installation was an Asher exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, wherein the artist touched upon some of these same themes. All the while, at the MCA, Sol LeWitt had an exhibition that ran alongside this initial installation. LeWitt used the 30-foot space between the two sets of panels to execute one of his iconic wall drawings.
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In 1981, the museum’s first restaurant, the Site Cafe, was inaugurated. That year the artist Charles Simonds had a solo exhibition at the MCA and was asked to create a permanent installation in the walls of the new cafe. The installation was called Dwellings and featured a winding, carved-out space in the brick wall of the cafe where Simonds built one of his iconic “Dwellings,” or small partially ruined encampments, as evidence of a migratory fantasy civilization of “little people.” Simonds started building these clay sculptures around various cities in 1970. They represent dwelling places for his imaginary little people, who migrate through the streets of neighborhoods. Each dwelling is different, representing a new time and place in the lives of the little people. They are, in a word, charming, and are intended as a fantasy activity, both for himself and the viewer. One can imagine the civilization that these little people created, and the myths and activities that they are involved in—all without ever actually seeing the little people themselves.
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He speaks about these dwellings and the concepts around their creation in a video held in the archives. The interview was conducted by the MCA in 1981, the year this work was created and the same year as his MCA exhibition. Throughout this clip you see Simonds meticulously working on the little clay bricks to build the structures in the dwelling and carefully assembling the various buildings while he talks about the fantasy elements that draw people to the work.
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Simonds was aware of the ephemerality of these structures, with the growing pace of gentrification and neighborhoods inevitably and constantly changing. It was clear that many of his villages would be torn down, covered up, or eroded over time. Perhaps the migratory behavior of his little people's civilization touched upon this theme, with some of the dwellings in near ruins and some looking like they were up and abandoned just yesterday. Dwelling at the MCA was no exception to this fate. In 1996, the museum moved from its former location to the current building on Chicago Avenue. As far as we know, Simonds’s work sat within the walls of the old MCA building in its various iterations over a span of about 20 years. Then, in 2017, the property was torn down and a hotel was built in its place; the little people’s ruins were turned to rubble. Thankfully, the folks working on the project took some last photos of the work and shared them with MCA staff. The hotel is now decorated with photography from a variety of MCA programming that took place in the old building.
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The move to the new building brought with it many more opportunities for site-specific works and installations that weren’t possible in the old space. From the sculpture garden to plaza projects to atrium and wall projects to the koi-pond-turned-art-installation, the current MCA building has seen a lot of artistic interventions in its spaces. Much like the old building, the new building also featured a cafe for its guests, which has likewise served as a spot to view original, site-specific artwork. With its high and vast ceilings, the old cafe’s second-floor location was a perfect canvas for an expansive, airy installation. If you are having trouble picturing this space, it’s because its high ceilings have since been used to expand the floorspace within the museum. The bottom half of the former cafe space is what is currently the Commons, while above it lies the new education wing. The current cafe and restaurant, Marisol, is now on the first floor.
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In 1998, Jacob Hashimoto was invited to fill the cafe space with his site-specific installation. Titled An Infinite Expanse of Sky (10,000 Kites), this work was indeed made up of 10,000 miniature bamboo and velum kites hanging from the ceiling by cables. The kites were modeled after a traditional kite style from northern Japan. They have been described as undulating gently due to airflow from the MCA’s ventilation system, though the work was otherwise a static yet flowing piece. The kites themselves were sky blue with cloud imagery, which was fitting in the cafe’s large-windowed room overlooking Lake Michigan. Both calming and whimsical, the work went over well with visitors and brought a warmth to an otherwise cool (and somewhat stark) space. In fact, the work was scheduled to come down in August of 1998 but its exhibition time was extended twice, ultimately until September of the following year.
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In October 2008, the MCA staged an exhibition of the artist Jenny Holzer called PROTECT PROTECT, co-organized by Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Switzerland. It offered a range of the media in which Holzer has worked over the years, including LED technology, sculpture, light projection pieces, and groupings of her recent paintings. Holzer, who is known for using text in her work to bring challenging social commentary into her art, was by then primarily using existing texts from sources ranging from official government documents to poetry and literature rather than her own words.
In this case, Holzer’s public projection work featured the poetry of Wisława Szymborska. These projections were temporarily visible around Chicago at the beginning of the exhibition for a few days at a time. Poetry scrolled across the facades of MCA, the Lyric Opera and Riverside Plaza, the Tribune Tower, and Merchandise Mart. There were several poems, which were all selected from Szymborska’s View with a Grain of Sand and included “In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself” and “Tortures.” As you can probably glean from the titles, the poems are somewhat dark, challenging, emotional, and thought provoking—I can only imagine the effect of reading them in epic proportions across these architectural landmarks, with other passersby. These works, which existed at the intersection of visual art, poetry, and architecture, transformed public spaces and allowed viewers an experience that was both personal and collective.
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The poetry Holzer chose here feels timeless—but in reading through these, the texts definitely carry some extra weight when viewed through the lens of 2020. The images of the projections on the MCA presented here show text from the poem “Tortures.”
The MCA features an audio tour for this exhibition on our website by Holzer’s studio assistant David Breslin, in which he discusses Holzer’s penchant for public works such as these, as well as the use of language in her work.
There are an abundance of building interventions that we could mention here that have taken place just in the last 10 years or so at the MCA. Noteworthy among them are our series such as Plaza Projects. But I’d like to bring our journey back around to the present day. Obviously the hand that 2020 has dealt us hasn’t allowed for these large-scale artist interventions. But in the spirit of the Holzer projections, it seems worthwhile to take a look at a staff-driven building intervention which is similar in form.
Shortly after the MCA closed its doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a cross-departmental group of staff from our Design and Audience teams worked together to send a message to Chicagoans: “Can't wait to see you again.” was projected in MCA typeface on either side of the glass entrance. Since then, as the MCA has begun its phased reopening, the message has changed to “Love is love is love” for Pride Month and now just a simple “Hi” with a super-sweet, MCA-branded smiley face. I know that these types of staff projects may not make up for all the art that we missed seeing this year, but I for one really appreciate this small effort to bring a smile to people’s faces during this time.
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I recommend stopping by the MCA to see it for yourself. Be sure to bring your mask. And if you make it there on a Friday-Sunday stop into our galleries and be sure to wish the MCA a happy 53rd anniversary while you’re there.
1 — Michael Asher Project Summary, 1979. Michael Asher Installation Exhibition Records, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago Library & Archives.