Who is Watching Who?

Published in The Spread magazine, Spring 2012
Photographs by Jean Michel

The cool corridors of the Loop rest peacefully by night fall, but during work hours the street energy in downtown Chicago is fantastically diverse.  Finding solitude within the robust architecture district is surprisingly easy: the city is flooded with inspiration but, unless you've been to Lollapalooza, does not overwhelm you with its density.

At the literal and metaphorical crossroads of this cosmopolia is the Art Institute. On display in the Modern Wing are the innovative, shape-shifting designs that characterize 20th century art's obsession with abstraction. Inside the north-side galleries, these mind bending paintings and sculptures are situated beside large windows that juxtapose Chicago's reaction to them, that is, the modern architecture gleaming outside.

While exploring the contours of the rooms, I stumbled a little too far behind one of the display cases. A security guard approached with her index finger in her right ear. "They don't want you back there," she kindly informed me.

Onward I wandered until the room cleared out. The security guard caught me again, this time lost in thought. "You're an artist, aren't you?"

We struck up a conversation. "It must be great to hang out with these masters all day. Picasso. Giocometti, Dali. I'm almost overwhelmed in their presence," I gushed. "Yes, they're nice, but I think it's the people who come that make it interesting."

Her mind was lent to the artistry of the space itself which, in every passing moment, is a woven with disparate passions and energies--very much alive and thinking. While dead high-modernists still seek to impress, today they are no more of an artist than each and every one of the guests.

About ten feet away I saw two people touching one of the paintings.  Peggy-Tate's earpiece buzzed to life. Duty calls. As I got out of her way, I felt satisfied that the museum has people like her taking care of these galleries.

In the middle of the room was an enlarged chess set by Man Ray (I guess you could call it a sculpture if you wanted to). As I looked at the sleek and shiny pieces neatly aligned on the board, I wondered who was supposed to be playing.

Above my head were the jittery security cameras scanning every corner of the room. Peggy-Tate's voice echoed in the background, "You're gonna have to stand back."

If I hadn't already been impressed by the sophistication of this space, only seeing myself as pawn in this game of perspective could have further taunted my curiosity, begging me to really ask the question, "Who is watching who?"