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Public Displays: designing a disturbance

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Last Sunday morning, while most of Chicago slept, artist Ben Rubin defaced the plaza in front of the John Hancock Center, chalking a series of circles on the sidewalk and writing the word mine in each one.

"Associating the violence of laying minefields with claiming the ownership of public space is really at the heart of what I'm doing," says Rubin, who's perhaps better known for the slogan "I Keep Getting Mugged in My Sleep," which he papers over billboards and posters along el routes. "I don't have the authority Calder has, but I can lay claim to territory and bring attention to that aspect of it."

Rubin did have prior permission from the building's management firm to carry out his stunt. He's one of 15 local artists participating in "Not in My Lobby, You Don't!," an exhibition of "sculptural interventions" scattered in and around the downtown area through the end of June. Organized by the Hyde Park Art Center, the installations celebrate--or perhaps sabotage--International Sculpture Month by taking aim at the notion that public art is limited to monolithic stone, bronze, and steel objects permanently plopped in lobbies, parks, and plazas.

Officials declared May International Sculpture Month to coincide with the 17th International Sculpture Conference, which convened here Wednesday under the theme "Sculpture as Public Experience." The city pulled out all the stops to ensure that plenty of sculptures will be outdoors for the public to experience (though most will stay up only through October). There's "Pier Walk '98," an exhibit of more than 150 sculptures on Navy Pier. And this month the Chicago Public Art Program celebrates the 20th anniversary of the city's Percent for Art Ordinance--which mandates that 1.33 percent of the money used to erect or renovate city buildings be devoted to buying art--by dedicating eight new public artworks, many in Grant Park and along the riverfront.

That's why the Hyde Park Art Center decided to get into the act. "We thought we'd give an alternative to all those magnificent things marching around the pier," says Chuck Thurow, who curated the exhibit with Ruth Horwich. "It's very much a natural thing for us to be the naughty guy on the block." Viewers will be confronted with artworks made from such mundane materials as balloons, string, tea bags, and neckties. They'll be in and around buildings, as well as on sidewalks, in windows, and in trees.

The works range from Michael Sturtz's simulated fire (using cloth strips, lights, and a turbine engine) atop the McCormick Building, 332 S. Michigan, to Nyame Brown's tar and clay Tar Baby in the lobby of the Britannica Center, 310 S. Michigan, to Pablo Helguera's installation about a fictional opera star at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker, to Adelheid Mers's light projection on the river between LaSalle and Clark.

Despite the show's title, over half of the works are in corporate lobbies. In January Thurow began milking his connections as deputy commissioner of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks to convince building-management firms to participate in the exhibit. "The private sector was very cooperative," he says. "They joined in with the spirit of the pieces." But a few entities weren't all that enthused about the exhibit's premise, he admits. One firm didn't want Stephen Szoradi's cast-iron pendulums hanging in its downtown lobby because it feared people might try to rappel from them; instead, the piece has been installed at the Hyde Park Art Center. Every other morning Barbara Koenen is arranging various objects into "paintings" on random sidewalks in the Loop--but that's because the Chicago Park District rejected her proposal to stick marshmallows on bushes (park officials thought they would attract rats). And instead of being placed in a tree in Grant Park, Ken Indermark's installation of roadside signs can be found in the garden of Saint James Episcopal Cathedral, 65 E. Huron, along with Stephanie Brooks's flower-inspection certificates, which declare the flora "safe for viewing purposes."

"All the artists are dealing with themes and ideas not typical to public art," says Thurow. "The exhibit will give people a chance to think more broadly about the nature of art as public expression."

The Hyde Park Art Center, 5307 S. Hyde Park Boulevard, is serving as the command center for "Not in My Lobby, You Don't!," which runs through June 27. It's displaying artists' documentation of their public installations as well as examples of related work. For more information, call 773-324-5520 or see the listings in Section Two. --Jeff Huebner

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Mine Project" by Ben Rubin photo by Jim Alexander Newberry; "Tar Baby" by Nyame Brown photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.

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