Exhibition asks hard immigration questions
“Welcome to de Yunaited Estai,” proclaims the doormat at 6018North.
Made by Esperanza Mayobre, it’s as fitting a greeting as can be — both to the country and to “Living Architecture,” a show of 50-plus artists that has taken over this rambling North Side mansion. The exhibition has a tripartite theme of labor plus architecture plus immigration, which sounds like a big mess but ends up being just right for this moment in American history. It’s been a hell of a summer: More than 2,000 children were separated from their families and taken into U.S. custody while trying to emigrate across the southwestern border; the Supreme court upheld President Donald Trump’s ban on travel from several predominantly Muslim countries; and Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that victims of gang threats and domestic violence no longer qualify for asylum protection.
A house museum turns out to be the perfect place to deal with the subject of immigration, especially a house museum in Edgewater, one of Chicago’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods, with an influx of residents from the Horn of Africa and the former Yugoslavia having arrived over the past two decades. What is immigration, after all, if not the penultimate test of hospitality?
As proof of its generous reception of strangers, the entrance to 6018North has been made even friendlier than usual. The red carpet that extends from the sidewalk to the front door is there as always and the lawn chairs (inscribed “people tend to sit where there are places to sit”) have doubled. New is Alberto Aguilar’s jazzy banner, which wraps around the front fence shouting “iiiiiiin” to those on the outside and “fluxxxxx” to those on the inside because, well, getting through the gate is only the beginning. The veranda has been prettied up by Tom Burtonwood and Maryam Taghavi, who hung up an enormous acrylic design — based on the stone rosettes encircling the front door — that colors the porch in yellow and blue swirls when the sun shines through. Their fun house mirror archway, mounted right above the doorway, gives pause: there you were, here you are, and doesn’t it all look so strange?
Once inside the obvious place to go is through Julie Oh’s glowing green doorway blazoned “DOCUMENTS,” paperwork being an inextricable part of the legal process of entering a new country. But it isn’t just that. Documents are history, and the weighty — as well as aesthetic — past of immigration gets its due in artworks by Eugenia Cheng, Ji Yang and Emilio Rojas, who contributes a wall-size drawing of an unbuilt and unabashedly pompous monument to colonization, originally designed for the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition. Rojas re-created the illustration last year during a 60-hour live performance, done in the nude while standing atop a stack of historical tomes at EXPO Chicago, the art world update of the world’s fair. Instead of a pencil, he used the edge of a memorial silver half-dollar from the original exposition.
Immigration isn’t coequal with immigrants, however, and many of the artworks inspired by individual stories — Alex Chitty on Haeger Potteries, Yvette Mayorga on her grandfather — feel more elegiac than condemnatory. Jan Tichy’s two installations, both in bathrooms, honor the Hungarian emigre Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, famed for his experiments with motors and light. In the basement WC, a red neon sign spelling out “Jew” pulses like a painful reminder of why the artist left Europe a few years after the Nazis came to power; upstairs, shifting squares of projected light modulate that most private of a home’s “Untitled” by Jan Tichy
spaces into a subtly mesmerizing chamber. In an attic room, Yvette Brackman’s copper and aluminum doorways, elegantly draped with beaded peach chiffon, recall the long-ago passage of her great aunt Rebecca from Theodosia to Paris by way of a four-year detainment in Constantinople.
Other artworks deal more explicitly with the plight of immigrants today. Moises Salazar’s heartbreaking pinata children — life-size sculptures of boys and girls with ceramic hands and feet poking out of festive papiermache bodies — sulk about the house, sucking on lollipops, slouching in a corner, waiting to have their insides bashed out. A board game designed by Tizziana Baldenebro includes a deck of cards printed with absurd-buttrue scenarios that players must perform; choice samples include “Trip anyone that walks past your house,” inspired by a photojournalist caught toppling Middle Eastern refugees at the Hungarian border, and “Build a flagpole that is taller than your neighbor’s,” based on the shenanigans of North and South Korea. A colorful Mexican carpet by Oscar I. Gonzalez Diaz is in fact hundreds of luchadores figurines, laboriously cast and painted by the artist, arranged on the floor to form decorative patterns that fray at the edges with every visitor who walks on their backs, enjoying the excellent cushioning. The fisheye distortion of Sabba Elahi’s tidy embroideries — of a woman nursing her child and another wearing a veil at the supermarket — nod to the technological and cultural surveillance endured here by Muslim women.
With dozens more artworks spread throughout the house, hung on walls, strung up in the stairwells, filling bedrooms and even tucked in closets and under the stairs, it’s hard to know where to go or how to take it all in. Sometimes it isn’t even clear how a particular artist or artwork fits in. Couldn’t the curators — a team composed of Tricia Van Eck, who runs 6018North, Teresa Silva and Nathan Abhalter Smith — have been more selective? Shouldn’t they have left some of those artists out, rather than risk inviting too many and ruining the show for those already included?
But that would have been the same old immigrant story as always.
“The Library of Refuseniks” by Lise Haller Baggesen
Detail from the installation “Now as the Closer” by Yesenia Bello