Midwestern Buildings

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Weekend before last some friends and I went to see an old resale factory in Humboldt Park. The building itself was about a 20 minute walk from the Flying Saucer, where we began our Saturday with a good breakfast. It was one of those curiously warm days. Even though the trees had the look of fall it had been sunny and hot and for week prior, and because of the steady warmth, I wanted it to last all year and was pretending we lived in California.

Of course, the minute you walk through an industrial corridor in this town, you know it’s  not the West Coast. Given the number of old, massive factories — dinosaur’s from America’s past life — it’s clear this city lived through an industrial revolution. Chicago was a manufacturing base, after all. Which is why, I suppose, there is an intrinsic fascination with these architectural sites: so often fallen into disrepair. They are useless by today’s standards, because of their size, inefficient because of the time they were built (often more than 100 years ago).

The way the light came in, a pile of sawdust looked like treasure

Karsten Lund curated Two Histories of the World at 816 N Spaulding. The warehouse he chose to house this exhibit is no longer a site of production. Instead it functions as a giant, rarely visited thrift store for industrial goods. Dark, drafty and seemingly endless corridors are crammed full of cast aside objects once produced en mass; these things sleep, resigned to a life of unused (but dusty) potential. Eight feet by five feet areas jam packed with refrigerator doors. Other areas contained stacks of high school desk chairs. There was a massive, massive Bunson Burner. An old car. Two (giant) winnebagos circa 1983. The factory was cavernous and each room cast a different shade of light. Some rooms were cool, others golden. Each one contained easily missed puddles of standing water that looked like grease in the dark and reflected sharp angles of light.

I came upon a large communal bathroom with a circular, common sink. The sink was dry but one of the bathroom stalls without a toilet had a constantly dripping pipe and leaked onto the rest of the floor. (Here you imagine various factory workers from generations ago — doubtless all men (there was only one bathroom) washing their hands in a circle during a break). Like many of the smaller, adjacent rooms, there were other sculptural elements that may or may not have been consciously placed. For instance, the above chairs in the other sink lining the back wall.

You see, the building itself was sublime, even with the occasional gang graffitti I came across — suggesting a traces of midnight teenagers who might sneak in here to explore or drink, plot, confide, do drugs or have sex — excited my imagination; over the course of my uncharted path (there is nothing to indicate which way to go, or where the art objects are), I developed a relationship to the space, constructing a dream-like and hardly conscious mythology. On this day, lanky cats slunk around like shadows, as thin as slips of paper. Everything smelled vaguely like different kinds of mold and I imagined, as tarp curtains flapped slightly against windows from an outside breeze, it must have been very cold during the winter—

You see, interspersed throughout these rooms were works of art, created on site by artists Mara Baker, Mike Schuh, Sara Black and Laura Davis.

When I passed through a doorway, a light tripped on, shining bright on a metal assemblage. This was Sara Black’s piece on the right, in a far, dark and difficult to access corner. The shadows cast on the preceding wall seemed cleaner than anything else in the whole building. I had an impression of discovering treasure. The materials were scavenged on site, then purchased from the proprietor. Like small-town starlets on stage for the first time, the objects seemed insecure in their transformation and not fully convinced of their elevated status. The drama of the lighting might have been my favorite part, because it did create a kind of jarring stage.

This exhibition has two parts. In the fall of 2012, the show’s second iteration will open at The Hyde Park Art Center. The challenge is to dismantle the work as it presently exists and recreate it in a clean gallery context. How that reiteration takes shape is still unknown. Perhaps Black will melt down this assortment of metals and recombine them into a new shape, thereby reinforcing the transcendental potential of material.

But what of Mike Schuh’s work? Perhaps he was the one who put those chairs in the sink. His sculptural interventions also seemed to center on a myth, not of the space, but of the artist: or how those two myths conflate. Apparently he went through the warehouse over the course of several months, collecting objects from the space and building small sculptures and arrangements that highlighted artistic qualities latent in these castoff items. The gesture reminds me of going hiking in the woods as a child and coming across piles of rocks that previous hikers had left behind: to mark the trail. There was something comforting in those rock piles and I was often compelled to add my own. I came across the above mustard containers and wondered whether or not they were set aside by Schuh. With that in mind, the entire space became suspect: what objects had been set up like little aesthetic winks and which were accidentally glorious? And doesn’t this somehow become an unnerving question about gods and devils and coincidence and syncronicity. Is someone in charge after all? Because it’s also possible Schuh played the biggest joke, making his action conceptual. Perhaps he has never visited this place at all. How would that movement translate into a space like HPAC? And was it alright that sometimes I wanted to recombine my own findings in this big space (I did not, which I also think is interesting: What stopped me? Was it a sense of propriety?).

On an elevated mezzanine, perhaps the only uncluttered area of the building, Laura Davis created a gallery. Erected into organized plinth-like structures, she also reconfigured material from the warehouse. She seemed to have chosen softer objects (foam cubes, for instance, or q-tips, or decomposed strips of toilet paper). The chosen objects also pointed to the idea of commerce: a cash register, a SALE sign.

The filth on the floor colored my attention

After crossing back over the catwalk, I climbed downstairs again and into another room. This room had a glowing pile of sawdust. Shafts of light shone from the ceiling, calling attention to ambiant particles in the air. There was a car surrounded by piles of wood. The wood on the bottom was sodden and wet.

The next room was bathed in a blue-green light. The must smell was different and skylights overhead had been covered with cardboard after splitting into bits from the hail storm last summer. Portions of glass that remained uncovered had brittle crystal shards hanging down precariously—it’s own sculptural moment, ad hoc and accidental. At such times it seemed like the building itself was so massive and, even, complete, that any artistic gesture could not help but be engulfed by the aura of this place, its history, its testament to failure.

Then I came upon Mara Baker’s work — three wall pieces, paintings put together with newsprint, cardboard and papers found on site. They clung to the brick work, hanging half on and half off like drifting veins with nowhere to go. In the first instance, above, the piece sat beside an occasionally flapping tarp. In the second, Baker used a smaller, adjacent room like a gallery.

These are not ideal pictures, and maybe to contribute to the future of this project (where documentation has been deliberately avoided), I should black these images out in the coming days: so as to further reduce tangible points of reference, but this last video image, I love for the way it combines the space of the room with Baker’s work by way of the dripping faucet. Is this really a place that care has forgot so much? And what does it mean to activate it as a place for visitors, specifically aesthetic tourists not interested in purchasing, but instead absorbing the aura of the architecture.


I wonder with all of this, especially having just posted that interview about Meg Turner’s work, and in thinking about Dan MacAdam from Crosshair (who also recreates the old warehouse facade), and then too, Amira’s book, Forgery: What is it that we want from these sites? Why are they so fascinating to us? Is it because of the optimistic ideas of production they contain? Becuase of the charming failure they now possess (like old grandparents, near deaf and half blind)?

"Tortoise" Crosshair, silk screen, 20x30", 2007.

In Amira’s book, she pulls text from multiple sources, including a journal of her own and historical, legal texts. Everything centers on the A. Finkl & Sons steel fore on Clybourne. As with Lund’s project, (and Crosshair’s) there is an attempt to create a contemporary intervention on an historical site. That’s the moment I am most interested in, because I don’t know exactly what it means, even though it is an intervention I also want to participate in.

Mary Jane was not born a Finkl. She exhibited an innovative touch by crossing the first of the “Chicago-style” bridges, over the seesaw leaves hinged on opposing riverbanks, to the forge at Southport and Cortland, passing into the hands of men who continually stir her puddling furnace for meteoric growth of the surrounding community. The keep boiling out impurities. She become the first successfully water-quenced Finkl.

-Amira Hanafi, Forgery, (p. 23).

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