One hundred and twenty-three years ago, the world set its gaze on Chicago. Would this new city of one million citizens, only 22 years removed from the Great Fire, pull off a world’s fair, the grand Columbian Exposition? To the surprise of everyone – including those promoting the initiative – the city did.
A major challenge was finding housing to house and entertain the fair’s more than 27 million visitors. One such place was the Chicago Beach Hotel (1892-1927), an Art Deco-style resort located at 1660 East Hyde Park Boulevard. The hotel’s developer reportedly brought up sand from the bottom of Lake Michigan to extend the shoreline. Years later, that shoreline was pushed eastward and South Lake Shore Drive was paved.
The hotel was located quite close to the Hyde Park Art Center’s (HPAC) current location. HPAC’s newest installation pays homage to that lost shoreline. For Shoretime Spaceline, textile and installation artist, Karen Reimer, also dredged and imported sand into the gallery—40 tons of it.
This relocated mass of shoreline now fills HPAC’s front room. One could hear the clunk…clunk of people’s steps echo on the boardwalk that encircled the large mound. The wooden planks were mixed with local lumber and preserved wood came from trees which predate Lake Shore Drive – a contribution from artist and environmentalist, Bryan Saner. The space’s garage-like door opened, facing east toward the lake; an apartment complex and its parking lot now shield the view that the work commemorates.
Above the sand hung a tapestry that quivered with the wind of the open air. The patch-worked sky resembled stained glass, sewn together in cool hues of blue, azure, sea foam and indigo. The fabric was pulled taut, showing the material’s fibers: over lapping pieces of cotton, silk and linen, thatched, embroidered, and tie-dyed. The pieces were different sizes, fit together in both gridded and radial patterns, like city neighborhoods and the ripples in a pond.
Rarely do pieces provide the opportunity to be viewed from below and above. Upstairs, viewers could examine the canopy from above, the fabric coming to meet one’s feet like lapping lake water. The woman who collaborated with Reimer to color the fabric stood on the balcony while a family of swimmers discussed the temperature and color of the lake’s water that morning, when they earlier went for a dip: “It was more this shade today,” one said, pointing at a square of steel blue.
Below, visitors walked along the boardwalk and around the sand, hesitantly gauging how to interact with the work. Slowly, they began to participate, taking one step to press a shoe print into the sand, then eventually kicking off their socks and shoes altogether to walk through it. Families were soon taking pictures as if documenting an enjoyable day at the beach. Children began sliding around in play, up to their knees in sand, kicking around dirt. An older man strolled along the boardwalk, head cocked back as if counting clouds, and began to whistle.
On the surface, Shoretime Spaceline, which was on view at the Hyde Park Art Center May 22 to August 13, was so easy to take pleasure in that few probably felt the melancholic undertones as I did, ambling slowly through the sand. The typography of the work shifted and changed as people began to engage with it—make it their own—just as this great city has. Displaced shoreline, displaced people. Sand, dirt roads, pavement, and steel. Over a century later, few of time’s remnants remain the same.
Reimer’s work revealed the city’s lost essence, but one needed some knowledge of the neighborhood and history to understand this. Whether or not the audience took the time to read the accompanying wall text for the jolt back in time wasn’t clear, but they certainly were immersed and enchanted.
Art need not always shock, preach, or hypothesize. A dissection of theory or the power of a political statement need not be the sole mark of success. Sometimes a work can simply capture and make incarnate something we can’t control. Reimer’s work embodied this city’s only two constants: the Chicago sky and its lapping lake below.
Jac Kuntz is a writer and artist from Atlanta. She holds a painting BFA and recently graduated with an M.A. in New Arts Journalism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is currently working on a journalistic project on contemporary art in the South
Volume 30 number 6, July / August 2016 pp 30-31