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Too Much Light

A provocative show about the Holy Land at the Spertus is shut down, then tweaked.



If Spertus Museum director Rhoda Rosen had cooked up a piece of performance art to launch her new exhibit, Imaginary Coordinates, it couldn't have been more surreal than the events that have played out at that center for Judaica over the past month. Spertus's intriguing contribution to the map festival that's been running at city cultural institutions since last year, Imaginary Coordinates juxtaposes antique and modern maps of the Holy Land (mostly from Spertus's own collection) with the work of eight contemporary Israeli and Palestinian artists. Rosen wanted to "explore the limits of mapping," reveal its cultural context, and "invite discussion."

Imaginary Coordinates opened May 2 and was scheduled to run through September 7. But a week after the opening it was suddenly and mysteriously shut down. When I dropped in on May 11, the elevators wouldn't take visitors to the tenth floor exhibition gallery, and museum staff were saying that the show would be closed indefinitely for "building maintenance."

This was surprising because the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies, which includes a college and a library as well as the museum, had opened its celebrated new ten-story structure on Michigan Avenue only six months before. The building, designed by the Chicago firm of Krueck + Sexton, and constructed for about $38 million, won immediate plaudits for a sculptural facade that manages to be both innovative and respectful of its neighbors along the Michigan Avenue street wall. Made of more than 700 panes of gently folding glass, the facade's stunning from a distance, reminding viewers of a cut diamond or a huge piece of origami. From the inside, however, it turns the world gray. The acclaimed facade is embedded with tiny ceramic dots that control light and heat and prevent God-knows-how-many fatal bird crashes but also veil the view. With your nose to it, it's like looking at Grant Park through a pointillist lens. From a few steps back, it's a Windex emergency.

With the map exhibit off-limits, I made my way to the permanent collection, now located at one end of the the ninth floor event space and displayed like so many tchotchkes in your bubbie's breakfront: a selection of art and artifacts from the museum's 15,000-piece trove, encased in a heavy sweep of glass cabinetry and stacked to a neck-craning height. In architectural jargon this is called "open storage"; in practice it provides an experience akin to bird watching without binoculars.

The museum's Holocaust exhibit, a few steps away, is even more remote. Consider, a multimedia work by Indian artist Ranbir Kaleka, includes video projected on a wall separated from the viewer by a gaping hole in the floor—an atrium opening to the library, a level below. The gap is a literal distancing device, perhaps meant to provoke thoughts about the viewer's relationship to atrocity, but watching it is like viewing a movie on one of those little screens four rows away in an airplane. This was weirdly compounded by the smell of the space: the remains of a Mother's Day buffet were still spread out, the sumptuous odors mingling with the soundtrack of recounted Holocaust horrors.

For the next few days the museum's Web site carried a notice that Imaginary Coordinates had been closed due to "unanticipated maintenance." Reached by phone early in the week, Rosen blamed "building issues" but declined to elaborate. A call to Krueck + Sexton was referred to architect Tom Jacobs, who hadn't heard anything about it. Subsequent calls to Rosen were returned by the museum's outside public relations rep. No further information was available.

Meanwhile, word on the street was that the exhibit had proved too controversial for some key members of the Spertus audience. The Jewish United Fund, a major Spertus supporter, had taken a look and promptly canceled a May 13 fund-raising dinner booked for the tenth floor boardroom. Michael Kotzen, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, says he moved the event after hearing from "a number of people who thought the exhibit wasn't appropriate" in "content and point of view."

Then came word that the show would reopen "tweaked," as Rosen put it, and with a new protocol: visitors would be admitted only on guided tours, to be conducted hourly. On May 15, she led the first tour herself, providing background on everything from Heinrich Bünting's 16th-century German map, The Whole World in a Clover Leaf (with Jerusalem as its nexus), to Barbed Hula, a two-minute video of Israeli artist Sigalit Landau on a Tel Aviv beach, twirling a hoop of barbed wire around her naked torso. Other pieces include Ahmad Ibrahim's Memory Map of Jimzu, showing every house destroyed in his Palestinian village in 1948, and artifacts like a menorah with shell cartridges for candleholders.

Rosen's catalog essay discusses the difficulty and rewards of her efforts to recruit Palestinian artists for a show in a Jewish museum. The core of this exhibit, she says, is the understanding that "maps have less to do with landscape than with the intention of their makers." It's a project congruent with Spertus's newly adopted civic mission to "speak to people of all backgrounds" and present "programming that asks questions and invites discussion." Rosen says she's driven by the "potential here to really be a public intellectual space."

Rosen, who worked on the exhibit for three years, notes no art was removed from the show during the closure, although wall cards were revised and objects were rearranged. A case containing a paligirl T-shirt and black shorts with palestine emblazoned across the butt (sold by Detroit-based HZwear) was moved from its original spot on the path between the elevator and the boardroom. Rosen no doubt had some difficult days during the hiatus, but insists she's not defensive about the result: "The board, staff, and myself stand behind the integrity of this exhibit," she says, adding that the guided tours will provide "context" and encourage discussion.

As for the maintenance issue: it seems no one realized that the light-drenched exhibition space would be dangerously bright for the antique maps, even in their protective glass cases. When the show reopened, each case was topped with its own black felt blanket and blinds had been ordered for all the windows. But controlling light in a gallery is museum design 101. So is reducing extraneous noise and odor. As Rosen conducted her tour, the waitstaff in the event space below, visible through another atrium, began preparations for another catered event. She strained to be heard over the clatter as carts stacked with tableware rolled across the floor and the smell of lunch a-cookin' wafted up and attached itself to the viewers' experience of the embattled Holy Land and its people.v

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