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The Museum: The Art of Communication

Chicago Actors Ensemble, through September 23

Very few art exhibits invite viewers to play along. Participation at interactive galleries generally falls into the safe zones of button pushing, video watching, and moving through altered space, often mimicking the entertainment-as-education model of children's museums. What a pleasure, then, to encounter the complex stimulation of "The Museum: The Art of Communication," an "exploratory gallery" dedicated to active dialogue between artists and viewers. Curated by Greg Bryant and Tony Martin, these collaborative performances and installations by 26 artists celebrate the sacred and the goofy.

I started my exploration at the Barbie booth, officially called Richard Stasewich & Friends. Stasewich (who first created Barbie scenarios in his front yard, as the Reader reported about a year ago) has set up a green-carpet croquet lawn, with Barbie dolls as wickets and heads of Ken dolls as balls. Each wicket tells a little Barbie story: Indian Maiden Meets Space Cowboy, Barbie Gets a Spanking, and Catfight Barbie were my favorites. As an added perk, Stasewich has provided a Barney Bowl--I knocked down nine of the cheerful purple dinosaurs with the onions he supplied. Very satisfying.

After that catharsis I took a break, lounging in the cafe in a recliner with a bowl of Peanut Butter Cap'n Crunch Cereal and some coffee (the Sunday-brunch menu). Here I found out that the belly dancers, two of the storytellers, and another dancer wouldn't be performing. (It's probably better to go to one of the evening shows: bigger audiences and a full cast available.) But I was able to talk Osundele Oyayemi into telling me an African myth in the grass-thatched "dangerous hut." I also made a collage/journal page to be posted in Jennifer Savarirayan's installation Carry On, a piece about travel and change that incorporates slides and a wallful of maps with an intimate crafts area at its heart. As the small audience wandered through the exhibits Monika Kimrey and Sylvia Arnstein worked on their paintings, and everyone was willing to talk. Oyayemi gave a few of us a tour through her subtle piece, Faces Of, a series of altars lit by candles and decorated simply with cups of wine and objects related to deities from both the Christian and Yoruba traditions. Like most of the artists, she displays audience responses as part of the exhibit: we wrote down on index cards our answers to the question "How does your higher power speak to you?" integrating our spirituality with others'.

Visually, the large hall was dominated by the red Dragonwalk, a scaley stairway that gave an elevated view of the installations and sheltered several painting exhibits underneath. This abstract dragon provided different angles on the art and artists, although a viewer who values polished presentation over raw edges might tire of the effect sooner than I did.

Once I settled into the casualness of "The Museum," I began to enjoy the way tiny details in the artwork and the thick pipes and chipped walls of the former Masonic hall, now the Preston Bradley Community Center, together inspired audience participation--no chaste gallery-white walls elevated the art to untouchability or intimidated viewers into passivity. Children and adults alike responded to the museum's invitation both individually and collectively, some simply watching, others making themselves part of the exhibition. As I left, several artists and a family with two children had just finished decorating themselves with rainbow mustaches and beards using the watercolors available at Carry On. Museum turned do-it-yourself circus--not a bad idea.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.

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