You can’t easily visit one of the most sensational art exhibitions currently on view in Chicago. Tickets are not for sale, not even at the elevated prices that have become the norm in American museums, and security checks include metal detectors and the removal of footwear. Forget about bringing your own bottle of water, or any liquids for that matter. Yes, I’m talking about the airport. O’Hare International Airport specifically, where sculptures, videos, photographs and collages by some of the city’s most exciting midcareer and emerging artists debuted in October in the newly renovated and expanded Terminal 5. Finished artworks currently number 16, with three more nearing completion. The $3.5 million public art commission is Chicago’s single largest acquisition in three decades from local creators, including jina valentine, Bernard Williams and Huong Ngo. Airports are odd places to encounter art. Like hospitals and shopping malls — and very much unlike museums and galleries — their primary reasons for existence have nothing to do with art viewing. That doesn’t necessarily make them unfit to display art, just unusual, and with unique considerations related to their patients, customers and world travelers. There are also doctors, shopkeepers, Transportation Security Administration workers and custodial staff to think about. All of these people have needs extraneous to the contemplation of, say, abstract expressionism versus postmodern conceptualism, though various types of aesthetic experience can contribute meaningfully to the atmospheres of distraction, wellness and welcome that are central to these environments.
Airport administrators have caught on, with art becoming an increasingly familiar sight in hubs from Philadelphia to Amsterdam. At O’Hare, curator Ionit Behar and architect Andrew Schachman, working together as Behar X Schachman, chose a thrillingly diverse selection of artists, many of whom took creative leaps in adapting their existing practices to the large budgets and material constraints of a permanent installation in a place most move through very fast, under intense scrutiny, after the exhaustion of long-haul flights and with plenty else on their minds. Some of the most obvious display issues were smartly solved by presenting nearly all of the artworks in generous wall vitrines that punctuate the International Arrivals Corridor — an endless hallway conducting deplaning passengers to U.S. Customs & Immigration and its infamously slow lines. Captive audiences could do far worse than Mayumi Lake’s “Shinsekai Yori/From the New World,” a large collage of flowers, spirals and other motifs scanned from kimonos and arranged in the shape of a cyclone-cum-giant flying turtle, amid wispy clouds and a gold sky. Equally worth the wait is Leonard Suryajaya’s “Connection Lookup,” a diorama that expands the surrealistic intensity of his staged portraits of family and friends via realistic human-eye wallpaper, plus floor-to-ceiling shelving, itself covered in images of grinning mouths and stacked with riotously patterned soda cans, “welcome cat” figurines and fake plants. As might be expected, Chicago and Chicagoans feature prominently as subject matter. Assaf Evron offers a clever view of Lake Michigan, repeating the same perfect image of our inland sea three times, once as a framed photograph, twice as a view ostensibly being seen through a window wall hung with wavy blue-velvet curtains. (It’s really a photo mural.) Chris Pappan takes a long and recuperative position, reverently depicting a Sac and Fox chief in three ledger book drawings, enlarged and mounted against a bright purple historic map of Chicago from a time when the Fox and other tribes lived freely in the area.
“Skywalkers,” a crowd-pleasing video by Wills Glasspiegel, Winfield RedCloud Woundedeye and Jemal “P-Top” Delacruz, shows off two famously fast-paced local boogie styles: Chicago footwork, developed by Black youth as part of the house music scene in the late 1990s, and grass dancing, a surviving Northern Plains choreography. Respectively outfitted in high-tops and hoodies versus festive regalia, the dancers battle at iconic locations that would top any tourist must-see list — the Skydeck of Willis Tower and the lakeshore, with skyline behind — but just as important are less-familiar locales like the South Side Community Art Center, the oldest African American art center in the country. The center’s distinctive wood-paneled gallery, hung with five pieces from its inimitable collection, forms the setting for Faheem Majeed’s “Push Pull,” in which performer Damon Green lugubriously, tenderly, exhaustingly unrolls, gathers and drags an enormous length of fabric from one end of the screen to the other.
The Arrivals Corridor is a one-way route. Sometimes passengers align with Green, but mostly, rivetingly, they go in opposite directions. The same cannot be said for Selina Trepp’s “We Walk Together,” a boisterous stop-motion animation of figures pieced together from colorful studio scraps, all of them moving in sync with visitors, schlepping vases, herding stones, teetering with pipe cleaners and tassels. No matter how jet-lagged you might feel after that 15-hour flight from Geneva, they’re weirder and proceeding more awkwardly, but always with enough good humor to keep on going. Installed anywhere else, “We Walk Together” would not be about travel, but here it most helpfully is. Likewise, Nelly Agassi’s neon sign blinks “Welcome home” and “come home” in her son’s shaky cursive, greeting folks returned from abroad but also plaintively asking them to do so if they haven’t yet.
O’Hare hasn’t yet made the list for World’s Best Art in the Airport, an award given out by the air transport rating organization Skytrax. But it surely will.
Lori Waxman is a freelance critic.
Artwork is on display in the International Arrivals Corridor at O’Hare International Airport Terminal 5, as well as elsewhere in the airport; more information at www.flychicago.com