Artist David Hartt on his MCA exhibit "Stray Light"

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Stray Light, David Hartt
  • "Stray Light," David Hartt

For Chicago-based artist David Hartt, “place” is a way to investigate community, narrative, ideologies, and the intersection of private and public life. Hartt’s work is contemplative and quiet. In his exhibition “Stray Light,” Hartt uses three mediums— photography, film, and installation—to create an immersive narrative with no ambient sound and few people onscreen. “Stray Light” drops a viewer into the middle of the Johnson Publishing Company building, suggesting a space with no boundaries, one that exists within the imagination. I recently sat down with Hartt to discuss his practice, research, and “Stray Light,” which closes April 29.

Why are you interested in place?

Buildings are made with a specific idea in mind. Over time, the needs required of a building often drift from the original ideological purpose. I’m interested in the distance traveled between the purpose and ideology of a site. My work can be read as intimate portraits of dreams and ideals that have not failed as much as been subtly displaced or altered.

Can you give an example?

I have two images of libraries. One library is from an intentional community in Tennessee and the other is the Bartholomew Public Library in Columbus, Indiana. It was designed by I.M. Pei.

The library in Tennessee is an ad hoc creation according to need. The original commune went bankrupt and the first generation left, but the library is a way to keep the best aspects of that original belief system.

Columbus, Indiana, is a company town and has the headquarters of the engine company Cummins Inc. The company underwrites the city’s architectural budget. All of these Pritzker Prize winners have designed the city’s public buildings. Columbus is an island of civility in the prairie.

Both are libraries, but the spaces express very different ideas.

How does your work reflect these places?

The best possible outcome for my work is that it can operate as a catalyst for discussion about the host site.

Can you talk about "Stray Light"?

"Stray Light" is a fiction. It’s my subjective experience of Johnson Publishing. It's important to differentiate the actual subject of any work of art from its portrayal. The work is entirely reliant on historical narratives, but that does not necessarily translate into a documentary practice. The work is about building my own opinions. And finding things missed, missed opportunities.

What about the installation? Is there some ideal way you imagine a viewer dividing their attention between the film, installation, and photographs? They seem to require a very different kind of attention.

My primary concern was to invest an ambient quality in the installation of the work. The genius of someone like Jacques Tati is the way that he uses the qualities of architecture and geography as narrative devices. The plot is connected to the individual’s experience of space and time. I've said in the past that photography is for me a heuristic practice with somatic qualities. It has a left-handedness and a right-handedness that probe the world. Intuitively I've extended those modalities to the installation of the work.

Tue 10 AM-8 PM, Wed-Sun 10 AM-5 PM, Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, 312-280-2660, mcachicago.org, $7-$12, free for children 12 and under and military members. Also, free on Tuesdays.

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