Renaissance Society invites participants’ interaction

“It felt cavernous—wide-open and spread out—and yet every object was within just a few steps from the other.”

By Andrew McVea

Museum visits are often individual endeavors. While you may go with some friends and comment on a piece that particularly struck you or take part in a museum tour, at the end of the day it is just you and your reaction to the work of art. However, The Renaissance Society’s new exhibition featuring Colombian artist Gabriel Sierra is not one of those museum trips. Visitors are encouraged to attend with a group and every piece, regardless of size or placement, has some sort of interactive element.

The exhibit, Sierra’s first solo show in the U.S., has a different title depending on the time of the day, ranging from Monday Impressions at 10 a.m. to Did You Know Who Built Your House at 5 p.m. Each is supposed to represent a different way of viewing the space and interacting with the art. I personally visited on a drizzly Sunday afternoon when the title was Few Will Leave Their Place to Come Here for Some Minutes. Upon entering, I received some “Assembly Instructions,” put together by the artist, for how to interact with the room. At the entrance were two parallel white bars where visitors are encouraged to “Walk between the lines as slowly as possible while smiling softly. Stop smiling outside the lines.” Admittedly it felt a little bit awkward, especially since I went by myself, but, even as contrived as the situation was, I couldn’t help but feel a bit melancholy after leaving the lines.

I’m always surprised by the size of the Ren Society’s space, and this exhibit in particular used it well. It felt cavernous—wide-open and spread out—and yet every object was within just a few steps from the other. While there is not one single way to move through the exhibit (although there is a recommended path) all of the pieces flow together very naturally, and each subsequent structure welcomes the participant as they progress through the gallery. I was immediately drawn to the back left corner, which was occupied by two stalls filled with straw and old newspapers (including a couple of old copies of the chicago maroon). The scent of the slightly damp straw gave the room a warm, earthy smell that reminded me of the animal pens at the Nebraska State Fair—a place I had visited when I was younger.

Other installations included a space where visitors were encouraged to “stare into each other’s eyes without blinking for 15 minutes” and a tall platform filled with coarse, gray gravel. Except for the straw and the gravel, the entire room is a uniform white, and even the slight deviation in the color of these objects is striking. However, my favorite installation was a small space that allowed people to check their watches every five minutes for 20 minutes (21-year olds had to stand with their hands in their pockets). I myself had my hands in my pockets at the time, and the social commentary, while not exactly biting, was spot on. I had to laugh.

Whether you follow the artist’s instructions or not, Sierra’s new exhibition is worth visiting with a few friends. His self-described exploration of “inhabiting different moments of space and timae” is best experienced when you can participate in the activities as a group and truly see the exhibition come to life through the people interacting with the art.

There is a gallery walkthrough today at 6 p.m. with Zöe Ryan, one of the curators at the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibition runs through June 28 on the third floor of Cobb Hall. Free.