After 50 Years, MCA Chicago Is Building on the Past

Emily Gallagher

Marisol's Six Women, 1965–66. Art © Estate of Marisol Escobar/Licensed by VAGA, New York. Photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

“We Are Here” may be the overarching name of MCA Chicago’s epic three tiered 50th anniversary exhibition, but “it’s both a title and a declarative statement,” says curator José Esparza Chong Cuy. who, along with Naomi Beckwith and Omar Kholeif, are the team behind the episodic museum collection show. At 50 years, the curatorial team of “We Are Here,” wants to assert new something about the MCA.

For one, the radical potential of an exhibition centered on a rapidly evolving museum collection, catalyzed by the influx of distinctive voices that have joined the MCA in the very recent past. “Our primary assertion with We Are Here is to talk about the museum itself, says Beckwith, the most tenured of the group. “The MCA is here. The MCA still here after 50 years, thinking about the contemporary, even with historic works.”

Rather than the typical “greatest hits” pitfall that plagues most anniversary shows, the trio describes eschewing the idea that a conventional gathering of iconoclast could or should sustain a conversation about the MCA itself.

“Okay, we are a contemporary art museum,” Kholeif said of their thought process, “how do we tell a story of what we believe to be an ‘alternative narrative’ of what a contemporary art museum is, what it should do, and how its collection can be represented?”

What emerged is thematic presentation broken into three parts: “I Am You; You Are Here; and We Are Everywhere;” each part a progressive zoom outward to capture the broader narrative of anniversary statement. Here, the trio speaks with Cultured about their individual contributions, their collaborations and what they envision for the future of MCA.

Jonathas de Andrade MCA Chicago

Still from Jonathas de Andrade’s The Fish, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and MCA Chicago.

“I Am You”
In the midst of install, Pamela Alper Associate Curator José Esparza seemed introspective. It makes sense given the subject matter of his chapter, entitled I Am You.

The newest member of the team, Esparza joined the MCA from an associate curatorial position at Museo Jumex in Mexico City last year, and faces the most the imminent deadline. While his co-curator’s chapters won’t be unveiled until late October, Esparza’s section opens August 19th. He will set the tone for the next chapters of “We Are Here.”

“For me,” Esparza explains of his section’s vision, “It’s to give the institution a human voice.” This comes across quite literally in the first chapter, “I Am You,” which focuses on the personal identity of the collection’s artists.

O Peixe (The Fish), 2016, a film by Brazilian artist Jonathas de Andrade demonstrates Esparza’s thought process in action. De Andrade is an artist extremely engaged with the regional experience of Brazilian life in its beauty and complication, and his film renders the surprisingly fragile rituals of local fishermen. Esparza expressed his eagerness to bring in a film that explores the nuance of global localities to the Chicago audience for the first time: “We are excited to present a work that epitomizes what we are trying to say, and how it hints at where we are going with the museum in the future.”

Esparza displays an uncanny ability to create emotional landscapes in the opening note of We Are Here. Other moments include the show opener, Six Women, 1965–66, by the cheeky Venezuelan sculptor Marisol, who entrusted her sculpture to be the first work of the MCA collection.

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s Group 4 [Convertible Series], 2010. Photo by Nathan Keay.

“You Are Here”
In Naomi Beckwith’s chapter, “You Are Here,” the experience of the personal in the first section suddenly becomes focused on the relationship between the viewer’s body and the art objects.

The arc of You Are Here goes through the MCA’s strong holdings of 1960s minimalism, from Donald Judd’s stacked sculptures to a Carl Andre floor piece. These icons serve more as a means to an end though, orienting a much more pressing shift in “You Are Here.”

“All of sudden, being there isn’t about sitting on a work, or walking on a work, but about seeing yourself,” says Beckwith. This emerges quite literally, with mirrored works by Rashid Johnson, and a scintillating recent acquisition by the Iranian artist, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian.

The tables turn once again though, with Adrian Piper’s film installation Cornered, 1988, which captures the complication of moving from one’s body, to being a politicized agent interfacing with others. As a talking head on a small television screen, Piper directly addresses the viewers in a sort of “I to you” statements.“I’m black” is one of Piper’s declarations.

“If [Piper] says ‘I’m black,’ Beckwith explains, “and doesn’t look it, what does that make you?”

In the face of misapprehension, Beckwith touches on a line that runs through We Are Here: how art history, especially from the contemporary perspective, gives way to social history and inevitably to a political history.

“We as a curatorial group, are a collection of bodies of color,” Beckwith says. “Two of the curators have moved here from outside the States to literally be here, to create this exhibition. We are quite specific in saying that we want to don’t want to do a show about the news. We are aware of the news. We want to say that we are here for our audiences, thinking about the present global condition. There’s a way in which of course, what we present in the galleries is somehow going to be responsive and affected by what’s happening in our contemporary moment.”

MCA Chicago

Andy Warhol’s Jackie Frieze (detail), 1964. © 2017 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

“We Are Everywhere”
The final chapter of “We Are Here,” once again zooms out, this time way out. It addresses how art in the MCA collection relates to broader society especially the shifts in globalization and technology.

Beginning with the pop art movement, Manilow Senior Curator Omar Kholeif became interested how artists like Warhol, with his work Jackie Frieze, 1964, were able to contort images to create new perspectives. “When you put those objects into conversation, they start to look like characters in a play, who are narrating a different view of history,” Kholeif says.

This very much plays into how the trio represents CA’s history and uses its collection to create a constellation of new meaning, prioritizing works that come from broad geographic stretches near and far, from Chicago Imagists Karl Winsum to Beirut-based Jordanian-British filmmaker Lawrence Abu Hamdan. “We wanted to diversify the artist in the collection, but also bring in younger voices engaging with new mediums as well,” says Kholeif.

In other words, you will encounter Robert Rauschenbergs and Jeff Koons in We Are Everywhere, but look for younger, newer and lesser-known voices negotiating identity through photography, digital mediums, even the internet. Less conventional works include work by the collective DIS, a group of artists utilizing a range of platforms, to explore the tensions and exponential possibility of the internet.

By the end of our conversation, I circled back to ask Kholeif about the title, “We Are Here.”

“Well,” he begins, “We were originally going to call the show ‘I Am You; You Are Here; We Are Everywhere.’ Then we were in a meeting and I said, ‘we should just call it We Are Here.”

“I was thinking of myself as an immigrant, who came to the US, moved here quite recently, and this museum was a civic institution that gave me shelter from the world, gave me space to express ideas and think, to use art as a kind of lens to an experience of the world. I believe museums should be safe spaces of expression, that can be challenging, that are free of the broader social and political tensions in the world. They explore those issues, but they also allow you to a space to retreat and reprieve from them. So we wanted to say: ‘We are here, we are here for you, the public.”

“I Am You,” the first part of “We Are Here,” opens August 19th and will run through April 1st, 2018. The second and third parts, “You Are Here,” and “We Are Everywhere” will open October 21st, and continue through January 28th, 2018 at the MCA Chicago.