Critics’ Picks

Pamela Bannos, Couch Tomb, 2008. Installation view.
 

Pamela Bannos, Couch Tomb, 2008. Installation view.
 

Chicago

“Hidden Truths: The Chicago City Cemetery & Lincoln Park”

Lincoln Park
"Hidden Truths"
May 21–November 21, 2008

In one corner of Chicago’s Lincoln Park, an imposing gated tomb bears the name Couch. Close to the road and surrounded by grassy fields and popular footpaths, this disused family vault belongs to another time. Such a disjunction between monument and environs combined with the new online availability of the Chicago Tribune, dating back to 1849, moved Pamela Bannos to embark on an exhaustive research project into the park’s history. She discovered that from 1843 to 1859, the Chicago City Cemetery, the site of all official burials during the city’s first decades, occupied this land. Amassing hundreds of records—including handwritten disinterment orders after the cemetery closed to make Lincoln Park bigger—Bannos reconstructs history at its source, making the past visible through a network of six official-looking markers spread across the park. Midcentury cholera epidemics, Confederate prisoners of war, and the 1871 Great Chicago Fire all come out in the telling.

Despite reams of documentation on the accompanying website, most viewers are apt to encounter the project by chance. And the revelation that baseball diamonds were once burial plots for the city’s poor does give pause. Indeed, Bannos suggests that thousands of graves may remain. (While many were relocated to new cemeteries farther from downtown, others are regularly unearthed during construction projects.) The installation suffers from its aesthetic appropriation of historical documentation, which makes the signposts easy to overlook. But when noticed, they reassert forgotten histories and reshape the understanding of this place. Applying the lessons learned in Lincoln Park, one becomes attuned to the histories that surround us at all times, soliciting their own exhumations.