Museum of Contemporary Photography
Columbia College Chicago
600 S. Michigan
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. / Thurs 10 a.m.–8 p.m. / Sun, 12 p.m. – 5 p.m.
Living in a city like Chicago, it can be hard to remember that there are some places that don’t have public transportation, snowplows and other services that make life easier. Cities haven’t always existed – at some point people and governments constructed roads, buildings, and airports, creating the cities we recognize today. Public Works, on view at the Museum of Contemporary Photography through July 17, focuses on infrastructure—dams, airports, factories and other constructions – and examines the role they play in society today.
The exhibit features work from more than 50 international artists, from the well known (Andy Warhol, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Robert Frank) to rising stars from Chicago like Daniel Shea. It’s a wide ranging show, crossing decades and spanning continents, but it’s a focused look at the ways public works become part of everyday life.
Start with Italian artist Armin Linke’s 2004 photograph Grande Dixence dam Sion Switzerland, which looks simply like a beautiful landscape with snow-dusted mountains and a pale blue sky. Then you notice the dam smack in the middle of the photograph, nestled between two hills. Other photographs present a similar interruption to the natural world and the relationship between human interaction and landscapes, but most document the up-close-and-personal aspect of technology.
O. Winston Link’s NW 720-Livingroom on the Tracks, Lithia, Virginia is a 1955 photograph of a boy, his mother, a cat, and a dog sitting in their living room. But the quiet domestic scene is shattered when giant train wheels pass by outside the window. The boy waves as the vehicle passes, while his mother sits there, annoyed by the loud intruder. Meanwhile, Link’s NW 1103 – Hot Shot East Bound, Laeger, West Virginia, 1956 shows a couple in their car at a drive-in, watching a plane on the screen as a locomotive passes through. The convergence of vehicles, with the train roaring out of the frame, the cars in the foreground, and the plane just an image in a movie, offers a meditation on where technology has been, where it is, and where it’s headed. The future is big, fast and noisy.
As a whole, the show offers a look at what infrastructure accomplishes. Airplanes and roads let us travel easily, making the world smaller, power lines enable communication, and mining provides fuel. But public works aren’t always successful. One example of a breakdown in infrastructure is the mess that resulted from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Stan Strembicki evokes the poorly handled federal reaction to the disaster in his images of “found objects in the debris field.” Strewn books and other items mingle with wreckage in scenes that stand in contrast to the constructed projects in the other photographs. But even where the photographs document the positive aspects of new technologies, they still remind us that we’ve given up a quiet and peaceful existence in exchange for more services and a more connected life.
Public Works is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Photography through July 17.