Expo Chicago boasts local pride as another annual art fair to emerge in the United States. Now in its third year, the event took place from September 18–21, 2014, at Navy Pier, a city landmark and hub for tourists, where summer crowds line up to board boat tours and take rides on the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel to view the famed Chicago skyline. Expo Chicago is young within the U.S. art-fair circuit; it emerged in 2012, newly reenvisioned after the former venue for Chicago’s fair, Merchandise Mart, dropped their art event after thirty-two years. The 2014 post-event report showed that attendance was up from last year—32,500 people attended—and veteran exhibitors responded that the fair seems to be gaining momentum, with strong sales and growing interest from curators and collectors alike.
Expo Chicago included a total of 141 galleries from 43 cities around the world, but most notably promoted strong local connections. While boasting some of the most important museum institutions in the United States, such as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the art scene, like in any other city, is better gauged by independent galleries running innovative programming to support emerging artists, such as Threewalls and the Chicago Artists Coalition, as well as by countless smaller spaces that act as venues for those early in their career. There is a wealth of opportunity in the city for artists at all stages, and Expo Chicago took initiative to reflect this for an international art-fair audience. The fair gave exposure to the work of graduate students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Columbia College Chicago, among others, in booths along the perimeters of the main hall. And while dozens of international galleries displayed canonical work any museum would be thrilled to collect, there was also an “Exposure” section in the main hall where twenty younger galleries (those operating for less than seven years) had the opportunity to exhibit alongside well-established venues.
As art fairs become increasingly relevant not only for collectors, but also for critics, curators, academics, and artists themselves, the rivalry of satellite versions makes the competition for attendance increasingly difficult. For example, there were sixteen competing fairs that coincided with Frieze New York in the spring of 2014. In 2013, Fountain Art Fair, a satellite fair that emerged in New York as an alternative to the Armory Show, ran alongside Expo Chicago several miles away from Navy Pier. In 2014, Expo Chicago was marked by strong collaborations built into the programming, pairing with Chicago-based museums, galleries, academic institutions, and artists, many of whom previously participated in or hosted competing events. For example, Columbia College Chicago partnered with the fair to curate Expo Video with selected artists from the United States, Ghana, and Hungary. Even the Chicago Park District was named as a collaborator this past year, expanding Expo Chicago throughout the city with work by artists such as Alice Aycock, Indira Johnson, Robert Lobe, and Christopher Wool.
The IN/SITU program, which invites guest artists to create site-specific installations, has been active for two years. This past year Expo Chicago named Renaud Proch, the executive director of Independent Curators International, curator of the program. He took as his mission a Chicago-centric approach, inviting artists at a variety of stages in their careers in order to highlight the strength of artistic dialogues within the city. The installation that received the most attention was one by Jessica Stockholder, who amassed a colorful assemblage of plastic titled Once Upon a Time (2014) that ascended fifty feet to the ceiling just inside the main entrance. While I appreciate Stockholder’s work, and it was an eye-catching spectacle, it was less engaging than other projects that utilized site-specificity more successfully. Hidden down the hallway of a second-floor corridor adjacent to the main hall of the fair was a haunting and beautiful light installation by Monika Wulfers titled Five Equal Lines, but Not A Pentagon (2014). Wulfers, an independent Chicago-based artist, suspended florescent lights at various angles in an empty banquet room as part of Expo Special Projects. The result was a fantastically odd juxtaposition of elements: a densely patterned floral carpet, drop ceiling, the unglamorous room’s paneled walls, with the work’s clean lines of glowing white daggers piercing the empty space. The contrast enabled a distinctly eerie sentiment. Five Equal Lines, but Not A Pentagon invited physical exploration, encouraging the viewer to navigate changing perspectives from different vantage points throughout the room where it was installed, whereas Stockholder’s assemblage at the main entrance, which was also purportedly open for viewers to climb, instead primarily served as a backdrop for colorful Instagram posts.
Two IN/SITU projects by another Chicago-based artist, Michael Rakowitz, also used site-specificity to advantage. Rakowitz’s Every Weapon Is A Tool If You Hold It Right (2014) was an event-based project that extended outside of the fair onto the public docks of Navy Pier. The event was an extension of his ongoing Enemy Kitchen project, which began in 2004 to bring awareness to cultural misunderstanding between Iraq and the United States by sharing the experience of tasting and talking about traditional Middle Eastern recipes. During Expo Chicago, tourists strolling the pier had an opportunity to sample an Iraqi-style barbequed fish, more specifically carp, an invasive species threatening many areas of the Midwest. The fish was splayed open, pressed between grates, and cooked Iraqi-style: over an open fire on a cart that Rakowitz constructed from recycled military weaponry. While I attended, a Navy Pier tourist originally from the Middle East excitedly snapped photographs and noted to other onlookers that he had never before encountered during his time in the United States a reminder so reminiscent of home.
Another work by Rakowitz, a replica of the Ishtar Gate (Babylon, 575 BC) made from recycled Arabic food packaging and newspaper, framed the entrance of the VIP Collectors Lounge. The piece, part of the series The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (2007–present), is a commentary on precious artifacts stolen from Iraq by Western powers. Titled May the Arrogant Not Prevail (2010), the installation was subversively positioned as the gate to the VIP area; if you attempted to proceeded through the gate, as I did (not recognizing the folly), you were promptly rebuffed by security monitoring privileged access to the lounge.
Neighboring the Ishtar Gate replica was one of the more curious spectacles at the fair: the FLAG Art Foundation booth curated by former National Basketball Association player Shaquille O’Neal. Titled SHAQ LOVES PEOPLE, the salon-style installation could be connected under the theme of portraiture, but is better highlighted as an exploitation of the term curator. Despite commendable emphasis on critical and challenging work by local artists, the programming at Expo Chicago was not beyond the art-fair trend in which celebrities receive a disproportionate amount of public attention. This seemed most prominent in Miami this past December, where more than art, selfie images of pop stars and popularized artists circulated on social media as a representation of the climate at Art Basel in Miami Beach. Perhaps this should not be surprising given that the success of these art fairs is primarily gauged by sales to the rich and famous, but Chicago might benefit by continuing to differentiate itself from other models by pushing the development of enriching programs that rely on strong local collaborations.
There is divided opinion about whether art fairs are illuminating examples of what is happening in the contemporary art scene, but a growing number of artists believe that exhibiting at these fairs is as important as gallery representation—or at least an important step to enable representation. Even among some academic circles there exists a debate about whether attending annual art fairs is eclipsing the benefit of attending conferences. If programing like that found at Expo Chicago in 2014 continues to challenge and expand the framework of what an art fair can be, this shift in perception may prove warranted.
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