At the Cultural Center: A Tichy scavenger hunt and "Mecca Flat Blues"

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Mecca Flat Blues
  • Deanna Isaacs
  • The courtyard of Mecca Flats as seen in city historian Tim Samuelson's installation

Chicago-based Israeli artist Jan Tichy's "aroundcenter," which opened earlier this month at the Chicago Cultural Center, features three contiguous galleries filled with Chicago-centric photographs and videos, starting with selections from the 1986-'87 documentary photo project "Changing Chicago."

It includes images from two other citywide photo projects—"Chicago Landmarks" (1999) and "CITY 2000"—as well as student work and Tichy's own videos.

But that's only the most obvious hunk of this multipart exhibit.

The rest of it is a scavenger hunt that'll have you navigating the building's farthest reaches. Map in hand, you'll be searching out installations, most of which are clues to something in the building's (or the city's) history.

Like most scavenger hunts, this is more about the process than the payoff. History of Painting, for example, is a trio of window shades constructed of thousands of slides from the SAIC's art history collection. The slides were rendered obsolete by digital technology, so there's a thought to chew on, and if the sun's shining, they'll cast an impressive glow. But here's the main thing: To see them, you'll have to go where the public seldom treads, up the final and most exquisite flight of the city's most gorgeous staircase. Tichy wants you to explore the building.

To help you do that, he's offering a few personal tours—recorded by the likes of architect Odile Compagnon and artist Alyssa Moxley—accessible from your smartphone or computer. If you listen to the one by city historian Tim Samuelson, you'll find out why it was that he used to pee in the Cultural Center's courtyard.

Then you can drop into the Sidney R. Yates Gallery on the fourth floor for a look at a more recent Samuelson activity: "Mecca Flat Blues."

With a few massively scaled photographs, a span of wrought-iron fencing, and, most potently, a soundtrack of recordings of the Jimmy Blythe song from which the exhibit takes its name, Samuelson has put together an installation that takes the viewer out of the Cultural Center and into Mecca Flats, the apartment building at 34th and State that began as a Columbian Exposition hotel, became a legendary part of Chicago's black south side, and was the inspiration for Gwendolyn Brooks's narrative poem In the Mecca.

U-shaped, with twin atria trimmed in ornate wrought-iron and illuminated by atmospheric shafts of light from glass ceilings, the by-then-decrepit Mecca Flats was torn down in the early 50s to make way for an expansion of the Illinois Institute of Technology campus and an even more famous building: Mies van der Rohe's Crown Hall.

"Mecca Flat Blues" will be up through May 25; "aroundcenter" runs through April 27.

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