The curators of We Are Here discuss the importance of the museum's collection and how contemporary has changed.
Naomi Beckwith: This is a collective effort of three curatorial voices trying to make a statement about what it means to be contemporary.
José Esparza Chong Cuy: It’s an exhibition from artists from different generations, from different moments in time, and from different geographies.
Omar Kholeif: We Are Here is about what it means to take a contemporary look at a collection that has evolved over 50 years.
JECC: It’s a collection of individual histories and of the places where these objects were made and of how these works arrived to Chicago.
NB: We are here in Chicago. We are here in this contemporary, present moment.
JECC: I Am You is an exhibition about language. It begins with this idea of being at a loss of words. And finding those words through these artworks and through the grouping of this artworks. A fun surprise was coming up with so many artists that I grew up thinking about and studying and to come to the realization that some of their very important works are sitting in a collection in Chicago has been quite exciting. And being able to present them to our audiences within the context of this exhibition has also been something really incredible.
NB: So the opening of You Are Here is all about all of a sudden, the visitor is aware of one’s body and their body in space, as much as they are aware of the art object as something in space and not just something to be looked at. There’s a work titled Portal by Bob Morris in the exhibition that basically looks like one of those metal detector scanners one would walk through maybe at a store, at an airport. But the key is that you walk through it. You don’t just look at it, but your body somehow has a full experience with this artwork. But there is a moment where I had to acknowledge that bodies are never neutral. And so there’s a section of the show that begins to think about how the visitor becomes a political person and what can even happen to people under certain political orders and political regimes.
OK: The exhibition chapter that I’ve curated, We Are Everywhere, is about how you take those formal aesthetic tropes and you expand them to think about the broadness of society. I expect that audiences are going to be struck by the power of the image. How has the image changed over time: from a moment when it was barred from the media and silk-screened onto canvas to when artists picked up the camera to the moment when they actually put down the camera and started to borrow images from spaces like the internet and create different kinds of images to this particular present moment now where we are actually in this fragmented flurry where everyone is producing images from all different kinds of sources.
JECC: For me it’s always been important to present a different side of this art history that we grew up with.
OK: What we do as curators is that we take contemporary perspectives about works that were made over a particular historical period.
NB: I think a museum doesn’t exist without two things—both art and audiences—and it’s my job to make them make sense to each other.
OK: This is an institution that is here for the public. It has been here serving its civic purpose for 50 years and its collection is a huge part of that DNA.
NB: We are a contemporary museum that holds contemporary thought. And then contemporary thought is the thing that frames the way we make exhibitions.