July 6, 2009

Agora in Grant Park - Chicago, IL

I first became familiar with Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz through her work "Standing Figures" that is visible in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art sculpture garden, this first place I visited on The Yellow Brick Road Trip (see my first trip here). So I was happy and surprised to see "Agora" in Grant Park while waiting for a CTA bus. I immediately recognized it as the work of Abakanowicz, she has an incredibly distinctive style of creating massive faceless bodies, an anonymous crowd.

"Agora" is 106 cast iron figures, each about 9 feet tall. Abakanowicz and three assistants hand created the molds for each individual figure and then spent three years (from 2004-2006) casting them. The name comes from the crowded appearance of the figures. The word "agora" refers to an open "place of assembly" in ancient Greek cities. In early history, Greek men would gather in the agora for military duty or to hear statements from the rulers. Later, the agora became a sort of marketplace. (Fun Fact: The term agoraphobia - the fear of being in crowds, public places, or open areas - is derived from the word agora.)

Wandering through the figures is a bizarre feeling. In her work "Standing Figures" the bodies are hollowed out so you could theoretically step into them and be part of the art. But in "Agora," the figures are so towering but faceless that you really begin to feel as though you are wondering through a massive, anonymous crowd. It is an especially interesting commentary in a place like Chicago, where it is easy to become lost in the city crowd among a million other featureless faces. Sometimes, you do feel insignificant when your pressed into a packed L car, like a tiny nameless person unseen among the imposing bodies.

"Agora" is truly an amazing work and I continue to be in awe of Magdalena Abakanowicz's brilliance no matter where I find it - in Chicago or Kansas City.


July 5, 2009

Heart of America Shakespeare Festival - Kansas City, MO

One of the first things I did when I moved to Kansas City was go to the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival with my family. I was still adjusting to life in the quiet Midwest, away from the bustle of the big city, and my family wanted to show me the unique and beautiful cultural offerings of Kansas City.

Last year, they were producing my favorite Shakespearean tragedy, "Othello." This year, I went back with my family to enjoy "The Merry Wives of Windsor." It was a magical evening and I loved of every second of it - it is a tradition I'm sure I will continue as long as I live in Kansas. It is absolutely free, they only ask for donations at the entrance to keep the production free and open to the public.

For the last seventeen years, the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival has put on 21 Shakespeare productions in Southmoreland Park, a small park west of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Marilyn Strauss, the festival's founder, tells the story of her inspiration for bringing Shakespeare to Kansas City, "The dream for the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival began in 1990 with a promise to my friend, famed N.Y. Shakespeare Festival founder Joseph Papp. 'You’re a Kansas City native. There’s not a festival there. You made it in New York and on Broadway – now, give something back, something you personally create. You can't beat the feeling, kiddo. Do it now, make it the best, and keep it FREE!'"

On a rainy night in 1993, Strauss' dream became a reality and her vision has reached over 450,000 audience members. Now, in its 22nd production, it continues to fill the park every night with eager Kansas Citians. If you decide to go, the show starts at 8pm but be sure to be at the park no later than 7pm to get a good spot on the lawn. Also, parking can be tricky to find so give yourself plenty of time. And ignore the people who leave at intermission, who knows why they are missing the great second half. The last show of 2009 is tonight, but I'm sure we'll see another thrilling production of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival in 2010!

Total Trip Time: 5 hours
Total Travel Distance: 32 miles


July 3, 2009

God Bless America Sculpture - Chicago, IL

At the Art Institute of Chicago, you can view Grant Wood's iconic oil painting "American Gothic." Or you can walk down Michigan Avenue. You can't miss the 25-foot sculpture by J. Seward Johnson re-creating the classic image of Americana, titled "God Bless America."

75 years after Wood created the original image, Johnson designed this work for The Sculpture Foundation. It is a very realistic, grandiose, three-dimensional representation of the original. Honestly, I look back and forth from the painting to the sculpture and it really looks like the characters have stepped away from the flat surface and into the real world. The sculptor added his own little touch to the couple. At their feet is luggage marked from world travels. The suitcase is covered with bumper stickers from all the corners of the globe such as China and Bangladesh.

Seward designed this sculpture to be part people's daily lives. He said, "We are overwhelmed in the twentieth century with what technology has brought us. We need to be reminded of the warmth of the human spirit, and so examples should be present in our environments. We have to understand that our age can be a humanitarian one, and not one which relegates the human being to an alienated condition."

The sculpture is part of a rotation of works by The Sculpture Foundation on this spot. This particular work will be visible through October 2010. It is replacing another work by Johnson, "King Lear."


July 1, 2009

Cloud Gate in Millennium Park - Chicago, IL

Like the Swedish American Museum, Millennium Park is another one of those places I have seen or passed a million times while living in Chicago but rarely (if ever) visited.

The first I was ever near Millennium Park while I lived in Chicago was my freshman year of college when I reviewed The Millennium Perk coffee shop (Get the "Friends" reference? It's okay. I didn't get it the first time either. Go look it up. I'll wait...Done? All right then, back to my story). I went one evening to have a cup of coffee, got lost on the L, managed to eventually find the place, take my notes and go back to my dorm to type everything up. That was my first encounter. After that, my only encounter with Millennium Park was working across the street from it for three months in an office building on Michigan Avenue. I passed it and forgot it was there. But that just shows you how in the hustle and bustle of life, we don't see the amazing attractions that are really there until we come back as a tourist.

After Anna had kindly indulged me visiting some shops I missed and watched while I spent way too much money on stuff I probably don't need, we went to meet Nick in Millennium Park. That's when I saw the Cloud Gate on the AT&T Plaza.

The Cloud Gate is an 110-ton elliptical stainless steel sculpture to reflect the Chicago skyline and the passing of the clouds overhead. Designed byBritish artist Anish Kapoor, it is made from highly shined, seamlessly forged steel plates to create a 66-feet long, 33-feet high sculpture inspired by liquid mercury. As you approach it, you see your reflection in the surface. But more than that - you see yourself as part of the park crowd. You see you, the other people, the city, the sky. It is a surreal experience to see not just your own shape but your position in the world around you reflected back. Visitors are invited to touch the sculpture and are even able to pass through it under a 12-foot archway.

As you approach it, you see your reflection in the mirror-like surface. But more than that - you see yourself as part of the park crowd. You see you, the other people, the city, the sky. It is a surreal experience to see not just your own shape but your position in the world around you reflected back.

I don't know how I missed this for so many years. But I thought about that a lot in Chicago, amazed by what I discovered through the eyes of a tourist that I had missed for so many years as a resident. I wonder what I would have seen in the Cloud Gate years ago? Would I have seen my reflection as a natural part of the city - the people and the buildings just as much part of my image as my face? Or was the strange feeling I had looking into that distorted mirror only possible because I was only a visitor now. Passing through the Cloud Gate, passing through the city, and disappearing like a cloud from the skyline to let the permanent and the forever gaze upon their unmarred reflections in the mirror.