February 25, 2005

Museum of Contemporary Art exhibit runs gamut of Universal emotions

Passing a fire station on our way to the Museum of Contemporary Art, my boyfriend and I were nearly run over by a fire truck screeching out, sirens wailing. Coming up to the museum, we encountered what seemed to be a horrific, albeit comical, accident—a crumpled camper tilted backward, as if into a huge pothole, with a tiny car practically dangling from the trailer attachment, its front end slammed into the ground.

After a moment of confusion at this disconcerting sight, we recognized it for what it was—not an accident at all, but a vacationing vehicle emerging from a sightseeing journey straight through the center of the world. Or our first glimpse of the exhibition we had come to see—Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset's Shortcut.

It's a rare experience for a museum to devote its entire gallery space to one exhibition, but this is just what the MCA has done with Universal Experience: Art, Life, and the Tourist's Eye. From the huge mural in the entranceway, with the phrase "don't be afraid" written in various languages, to Pole Piotr Ulanski's photograph of 3,500 Brazilian soldiers arranged to form a portrait of Pope John Paul II, Universal Experience is less about tourism and travel than it is about globalization and artists' awareness of an increasingly homogenous world culture.

These culture clashes are often unintentionally hilarious, as with Andrea Robbins and Max Becher's series of photographs, entitled German Indians. The two photographers documented German festivals celebrating American Indians, at which German men, women and children dress up as American natives to emulate the "noble savage." Their portraits show mostly stoic, pale-faced individuals; a "chief" with blue eyes and a ridiculous headdress glares at the viewer from under his too-large headband as if daring the tourist to laugh out loud.

The most striking work by far, for this tourist at least, is Doug Aitken's the moment, a video installation set up with nine hanging video screens in a dark room, each with a mirrored back. The screens depict people sleeping, waking and wandering in transitional settings, from airports to hotel rooms. A pseudo-industrial soundtrack provides a jarring background, especially coupled with half-understandable voices plaintively murmuring phrases like, "I want to be everywhere; I want to be every place." This piece in particular emphasizes the interactive natures of both art and tourism. Meandering about the room, the viewer sees himself reflected in the screens' backs while watching others at their most vulnerable moments. If that isn't voyeurism, I don't know what is.

Visitors to the Art Institute are likely to recognize the giant pile of candy in a corner of this exhibit. Portrait of Ross in L.A., by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, not only evokes feelings for its subject (the artist's partner, who died of AIDS after increasingly debilitating illness) but also prompts the tourist to take a souvenir or two. This work and several others raise the question of just what travelers take from their experiences, both physical and emotional.

Universal Experience challenges views of travel, as well as our perceptions of advertisements and a changing, increasingly globalized culture. Above all, though, Universal Experience is a University of Chicago student's dream, offering plenty of fodder for metaphysical discussions. What does it mean to be a tourist in an exhibition about tourism? How can one avoid the follies of tourism if one is a visitor, a voyeur in a new space?

Alternately whimsical and somber, Universal Experience offers a lot to world-weary travelers and casual tourists alike. If you visit this show (and you have no good excuse not to—it's only $6 with a student ID), be sure to give yourself a couple of hours to take in the various video installations scattered throughout the galleries.