My experience engaging with Gabriel Sierra’s site-specific installation in Chicago
Fourteen “structures” or “areas” make up Gabriel Sierra’s site-specific installation at The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, the title of which changes every hour. Physical and social interactions activate the constructions — pulling you back to the exhibition, and prompting you to stay.
The visitor experience is at the core of the exhibition, which is echoed in the mostly large-scale structures that fill the space, along with the “Assembly Instructions” you are asked to take when you enter. It is here that Sierra allows people to relate to an environment and each other. More than a personal art experience, this exhibition elicits small, fleeting social encounters that bring people together momentarily. The encounters also alert you to the present moment: physically, socially and environmentally. These qualities make the exhibition a success. As I crunched along the pebbles, slid across the shiny gray floor and made footprints on the white platforms with dozens of others, I realized why this exhibition is significant in the 21st century, particularly on a college campus.
Entering this large one-room gallery on opening night, I stood visually overwhelmed with a room full of constructions occupied by a startling number of people. Not knowing which piece to approach first, I glanced down at the “Assembly Instructions” for guidance. It diagramed each construction with stick figures demonstrating how to access and experience the piece, along with humorous suggestions for interaction.
Should I follow the picture diagrams in order? Do I break the rules and head towards the construction that describes an “Area to drink a bottle of water and feel that you are drinking the cosmos. Abruptly leave the area when done,” where people are indeed crowded together, talking and drinking water? Even the “Area for people wearing old shoes” looked enticing. There are plenty of options for personal and social experience; each construction could be in its own gallery.
But that would defeat the purpose. The constructions and suggestions for engagement point to Sierra’s aim: “I am trying to apply universal ideas that everyone could be connected.” And we are. We are more connected today than ever before, at least virtually, thanks in part to social media. Tellingly though, this exhibition connects us physically.
Most constructions in this exhibition are large enough for multiple people to occupy. Take the caption for the construction to “Walk for 10 minutes thinking of the outdoors while you are indoors.” Instead of following directions, many socialized in small groups, sat down and relaxed or stood watching other visitors interact. And that is precisely the point. The “assembly” the instructions refer to is the connection between people, Sierra says, which ostensibly links strangers with a momentary social encounters. Despite the instructions, viewers ultimately determine the means of engagement with each construction and the exhibition.
Artists have worked to engage audiences through different means for decades. Rirkrit Tiravanija, who in 1992 famously debuted his “Untitled (Free)” exhibition at 303 Gallery in New York serving Thai curry and rice free of charge, comes to mind. Unlike Tiravanija, who set up a situation for people to eat rice and curry at tables while socializing with colleagues or potentially establishing new relationships, Sierra’s constructions offer something different: less utopian, but arguably more meaningful. His exhibition emphasizes the brief social interactions we have physically or virtually everyday and reminds us of the present moment.
Gabriel Sierra’s exhibition is commendable for bringing small, fleeting conversations and social interactions together as art. And as much as this show focuses on interaction and experience, it also reinforces a state of presentness — being in the moment — with yourself and others. Feel the surface change beneath your feet; succumb to the vulnerability of interacting with an artwork and with others; see the wear and tear of the constructions from human presence. Sierra states that we are obsessive about history and the future. He is right: we long for the past and anticipate the future. In a digital age where life happens fast, the exhibition seems to warn that we must not forget about the present.
This exhibition is well-timed. The gallery is located at the University of Chicago on a quad — the nexus of social interaction — where brief social interactions happen constantly. Sierra’s exhibition reminds us of that. As the school year draws to a close, seniors are off to graduate school or work; other students will begin internships, vacations or other summer plans. But the point is not to think about future plans or long for a past life, it is about living in the present moment.
Gabriel Sierra’s exhibition is on show at The Renaissance Society until June 28, 2015.