Conceptual Stretch: Culturally savvy, universities nurture art that leapfrogs distinctions

Dec 1, 2005

A visitor enters an eerie dining room and sees a meticulously set table, including place settings for six, wine glasses and a centerpiece composed of a ritual loaf of bread covered with a prayer cloth. The traditional Jewish Passover dinner, or Seder, celebrating the escape of the ancient Israelites from their Egyptian captivity, is seemingly about to commence. 

The six chairs are utterly empty, however, and the scene exudes a ghostly quality. The strange wood and glass boxes that look like illuminated lanterns, some large, some small, suggest missing dinner guests who once sat around the table to eat bitter herbs and unleavened bread while meditating on the suffering of their ancestors. 

This complex and moving work, Known But Not Spoken, which the University of Illinois at Springfield exhibited in its Visual Arts Gallery earlier this fall, is the focal point of Colorado artist Brian DeLevie's one-man show called Reverent/Irreverent, an attempt to recover forgotten history and lost cultural memories. 

The persecution of the Jews did not end in ancient Egypt, and Known But Not Spoken shows how Hebrew history was repeated during the Nazi era. Each glass container on the table is actually a kind of memory box, lit from within to display Hebrew words from the Haggadah, the sacred text read at Passover, as well as digitized images of families eating together, deserted European streets, Nazi flags, German soldiers and refugees with terrified expressions. Projected on the wall directly above the table, a digital video collage flashes in a continual loop of disturbing imagery: goose-stepping storm troopers, more Hebrew script, bombed-out buildings.

Layers of digital imagery cascade one atop the other, as if they had become the ephemeral stuff of memory itself. In the background, a lone female voice chants plaintively in Hebrew, the words lapping the room like waves. 

In Known But Not Spoken, DeLevie somehow manages to combine lyrical tenderness for the victims of the Holocaust with profound revulsion for their persecutors. The overall effect of this combined assault on visual, auditory and tactile senses is emotionally overwhelming.

Known But Not Spoken represents a new species of artistic experience for the ordinary museum goer precisely because it transcends the traditional boundaries of art. Throughout Illinois, university galleries and museums are staging shows that leapfrog the comfortable distinctions between painting, sculpture, media art, theater and happenings." 

DeLevie considers himself a painter, but officially he teaches multimedia courses at the University of Colorado. His Known But Not Spoken is an "installation," the term most commonly used by artists and museum curators to describe multilayered works of art that occupy three-dimensional space while employing a variety of traditional materials and newer technologies, including film, videotape and digital media of all kinds. DeLevie, for example, encloses the Haggadah installation with a group of "Giclee," or high-definition digital prints that, from a distance, resemble framed black and white photographs or etchings but in reality are multilayered digital collages. The images are refracted as if they are glimpsed through old panes of glass or seen through the shimmering surface of a pond.

While Illinois' university campuses provide venues for showcasing this new hybrid form of art, they also serve as ideal breeding grounds for complex means of artistic expression. Universities, after all, possess a ready supply of thinkers who are art-savvy and technologically hip. The result is often a rich kind of installation art that is not only multimedia in form but interdisciplinary in content. 

A mathematician and a computer technician, for example, one writing equations, the other writing computer code, could join to produce an installation that would, with the aid of 3-D glasses and digital video projection, produce the illusion of being on the surface of a moving soap bubble as it floats through virtual space. That is exactly what happened at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The finished product, dubbed Optiverse, became one of the nine icons or applications on a computer screen available to patrons of Krannert Art Museum who visit CANVAS (Collaborative Advanced Navigation Virtual Art Studio). A nearby pedestal holds a small pile of 3-D glasses, and any patron, after clicking on an icon and slipping on the glasses, can stand before a triptych, or three-paneled luminescent screen, and watch the soap bubble as it morphs into various shapes covered with constantly shifting facets. The Atlantis application offers huge sharks performing a menacing ballet in a bluish-gray virtual sea. Their movements can be manipulated with a game pad that the patron is invited to use. The Landspeeder program can be manipulated to show houses appearing and disappearing through virtual time in an urban area of St. Louis.

CANVAS is the brainchild of Rose Marshack, who is a walking role model for interdisciplinary and multimedia studies. A former rock musician, she holds degrees in computer science and fine arts. Her master's of fine arts thesis was a performance art piece that used the setting of the sun as its principal feature. Before working on CANVAS, Marshack designed programs for a six-sided optical plexiglass cube at the Beckman Institute on the UIUC campus. 

Besides the Optiverse, Atlantis and Landspeeder applications, CANVAS includes the Coaster (a roller coaster), Hspace (a graphic representation of non-Euclidean geometry), Cosmos (a spin-off of 2001: A Space Odyssey), Lorenz (a digital ribbon knotting itself), Tornado (houses being shattered) and Circuit Breaker (a graphic novel designed by an art professor that features "drive through" narrative panels that dissolve into one another).

All of these CANVAS programs were created by UIUC staff or students. In its official description, CANVAS is touted as a "virtual-reality open lab for research and teaching projects." It is a cutting-edge model of installation art and pedagogical innovation that surely will be emulated by other institutions. Although the CANVAS computer and operating system are permanent, the applications will change about every month. 

CANVAS may sound like a glorified computer game, but it is infinitely more sophisticated. The possibilities for teaching and learning are endless. 

Other institutions, including Western Illinois University in Macomb, have presented art exhibitions based on collaborative work that crosses departmental lines. Earlier this year, art professor Bill Howard and biology professor Shawn Meagher presented a series of intaglio prints titled An Aesthetic Study of Parasites and People. The images were derived from microscopic slides of viral bacteria and parasites.

Perhaps the largest exhibition of installation art is a new show at the Krannert Art Museum, scheduled to run through the end of this calendar year. This group installation, which features the work of more than two dozen artists and occupies a huge space on the top floor of the museum, deals with the theme of privacy and snooping. The exhibition is meant to be an artistic response to such phenomena as security alerts, surveillance cameras and reality TV. Balance and Power: Performance and Surveillance in Video Art consists of a room filled with translucent screens on which "archived" or prerecorded video images are displayed, each commenting in a distinct way on the loss of privacy in a world of ubiquitous video cameras, camera phones, personal computers and "data mining."

In a separate room near the entrance to the exhibit, Jenny Marketou, who uses live digital feed, has installed her large and strangely unnerving 99 Red Balloons: Be Careful Who Sees When You Dream.

Marketou is a Greek native who lives in New York City, and earlier this year she exhibited another balloon work (Flying Spy Potatoes) at the Eyebeam Atelier Digital Museum in Manhattan. Her Krannert installation features 18 red helium-filled balloons, four of which contain tiny TV cameras, with the wires for the cameras doing double-duty as tethers for the balloons. Because all the tethers look alike to anyone walking under the balloons, the viewer cannot determine which balloons are transmitting the live images to a bank of four video monitors parked against the wall. Thus, the viewer is caught in the act of viewing while being viewed, perhaps an appropriate comment on identity theft and voyeuristic uses of digital technology. 

Marketou, like the other artists in the show, is deadly serious about the political and social implications of her work. She wants society to take notice, but she also appreciates the playfulness of her work and sees the balloons as a kind of pop art statement.

Of all the postmodern forms, pop art is probably the most familiar style to the average museum patron. Most have probably encountered at least one of the images associated with the master of pop art, Andy Warhol, who popularized multiple images of Campbell's soup cans, portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, and silk-screened prints of electric chairs. 

Possibly the most talked-about installation on the Illinois art scene is a piece of pop art by Conrad Bakker called Untitled Project: Dumpster, an orange, hand-carved ooden trash bin intended to serve as an architectural marker on the plaza in front of Gallery 400 on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Bakker's Dumpster is part of a series called At the Edge: Innovative Art in Chicago. But because a Dumpster is, after all, a receptacle for garbage, and because the artist is interested in the use of space and the expenditure of capital, this installation slyly comments on the nature of art and its place on the campus. 

The trash container also calls attention to itself as an unappreciated urban object and to Gallery 400, which is a temporary structure on a campus of permanent brick and concrete buildings. The bright orange hue and odd placement of the piece are part of the whimsy and play-fulness associated with pop art, but this installation also is a subtle way of redefining the spatial environment for all the people who work and study on the campus. Bakker enigmatically calls it "an empty container of strange promise."

Another installation that borrows heavily from the pop art tradition is Clark Whittington's Art-O-Mat, a throwback to the "automat" restaurants in Manhattan that once dispensed sandwiches, pies and puddings after consumers inserted quarters into the slots. A little glass door could then be opened to extract the edible item. Whittington played with this idea of buying something interesting from a glass-fronted dispenser and hit upon the notion of refurbishing old cigarette machines and dispensing small, original works of art in little boxes that mimic cigarette packages. 

His cigarette machine installations are now in such places as the Los Angeles Museum of American Art and New York's Whitney Museum of Contemporary Art — and the University Library at Governor's State Univer-sity in University Park. By selling little boxes of art, Whittington simultaneously satirizes the high prices commanded by commercially successful artists while pocketing a few bucks of his own. He also democratizes and demystifies the mystique of buying "serious" art, which has become a kind of ritual. Now, thanks to the Art-O-Mat, anyone with five dollars can become an instant art collector. 

The same combination of playfulness and seriousness informed a site-specific installation by Debra and Dave Tolchinsky, which was located in an elevator in Northwestern University's Norris University Center in Evanston. Students and faculty watched a piece titled Going Up? — a humorous but also disturbing film of a dachshund that stretched and shrank across three television monitors installed in the elevator. The Tolchinskys wanted to create an entertaining ambiance while raising issues about the emphasis on body image and plastic surgery in American culture. A multimedia work, Going Up? utilized video imagery of the dachshund as well as audio recordings and posted printed materials that all helped to raise consciousness about larger social issues. The Tolchinskys are professors in Northwestern's Department of Radio/TV/Film.

Another canine-inspired installation was displayed earlier this year when the University Museum at Southern Illinois University Carbondale presented Michael Peven's Good Dog, Bon Chien, a heroically scaled homage to his dog, Bandit, consisting of huge photographs nearly 80 feet square that were hung and wrapped around the museum walls. The swathed display recalled the work of conceptual artist Christo, who wrapped rocks on the seashore and altered other environmental landforms, putting them in different cultural contexts so they would be seen in entirely new ways. Peven's Bandit becomes an art-dog nearly seven feet tall, and he literally redefines the museum space. The heroically exaggerated size suggests the small dog's inherent value to the artist.

Installation art of one kind or another enjoys high visibility on the university art scene in Illinois, benefiting the campuses and nearby communities. Multilayered, it makes use of all the media and materials available. Just as contemporary jazz draws on such older styles as ragtime, blues and bop, transmuting them into a new idiom, installation art draws heavily on '60s and '70s styles. There is a bit of pop and conceptual art in all of these new constructions, and even performance art of the '80s makes the odd appearance.

Performance artists use their bodies, including their voices, to construct artistic works, like Pat Oleszko, who recently completed a residency at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston. In the atrium of the Tarble Arts Center, she presented a work called Wearing Spectacles, Logging Lincoln. Students of both genders wore Lincoln hats and beards while Oleszko arrived in a faux space ship, wearing oversized spectacles. She then proceeded dutifully to split the Lincoln logs. 

This intentionally wacky performance paid homage to the man responsible for the founding of the University of Illinois by signing into law the Morrill Land Grant 

College Act of 1862 — the beginning of the statewide university system as a means of enlightening the public. And, in that sense, installation art is a kind of cultural machine that rearranges notions of time and space, reinvents personalities and ultimately installs the future. 


Art at the edge
A selected list of contemporary art exhibits throughout the state that will confound simple definition


Altars for the Dead, Vows for the Living
Altares para los muertos, votos de los vivos
Ties 19th- and 20th-century devotional Mexican paintings with contemporary Day of the Dead altars

Krannert Art Museum
500 E. Peabody Drive, Champaign
Through December 31


Telling Tales: Narrative Threads in Contemporary African American Art
Examines storytelling in African-American visual expression using assemblage and painted and digitized wall images by artists Amalia Amaki, Willie Cole, Mildred Howard and Najjar Abdul-Mussawir

Cedarhurst Center for the Arts
Richview Road, Mount Vernon
Through January 1


Caravaggio: una mostra impossibile
Uses high-resolution digital technology to present Italian painter Caravaggio's work on illuminated glass panels 

Loyola University Museum 
of Art
820 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago
Through February 11


 Death by Design Co.™ 
Turns the gallery into a film set where visitors can explore life through their own "Hollywood" deaths  

University of Illinois at Chicago's Gallery 400
UIC Art and Design Hall, 400 S. Peoria St., Chicago
January 10-28


Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art
Includes structures, videos, murals, drawings and photographs that have been "recycled"

Smart Museum of Art
University of Chicago, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave., Chicago
Through January 15


Anni Holm: The Immigration Project
Illustrates with photography and digital images the artist's response to U.S. efforts to fight terrorism through a tracking system that "is used as a tool to secure America, yet puts us all under suspicion"

University Art Gallery
Western Illinois University, 1 University Circle, Macomb
January 17 through 
February 9

Dan Guillory, professor emeritus of English at Millikin University in Decatur, has won awards and grants from the Illinois Arts Council. His fifth book, Wartime Decatur: 1832-1945, will be published in February.

llinois Issues, December 2005