“Art at the Armory: Occupied Territory”

Before the Museum of Contemporary Art can move to its new Josef Paul Kleihues building in 1995, there is the matter of tearing down the structure that now occupies its future home—the Chicago Avenue National Guard Armory. The delay in demolishing this massive, rather anachronistic building presented an opportunity to take a kind of metaphoric possession of this space before it is razed, destroyed, and recreated.

Ergo, “Art at the Armory: Occupied Territory,” a collection of 18 rather largish installations scattered over some 75,000 square feet and parts of five separate floors in which artists mainly recreated preexisting installations, though eight were commissioned specifically for this project. The riotous mixture of rather decrepit stairwells, mess halls, visitor’s quarters, gymnasium, offices, turrets, briefing rooms, arenas, basement storage areas, etc., and their subsequent alterations turned the Armory into a fun-house of art, metamorphosing unwieldy corridors and spaces into esthetic mazes.

While very inventive and often extremely lively, the exhibition did not transcend the conceptual problems that haunted it from the beginning. This was a project that did not appear to be born out of a particular curatorial vision; rather, it seemed in many important ways a gesture toward the ongoing history of the MCA. Neither Armory nor museum, the building became a pawn, a mute witness to its own invasion, creating a rather dreary subtext to the entire exhibition.

Of course, much of interest could have been developed out of this episode in architectural necrophilia, but few of the artists did work that rose to the peculiar possibilities they were offered. In the belly of the beast, given an opportunity to take arms against a sea of militarism, only a handful of the installations actually engaged in overtly occupying enemy territory. However interesting, it was not clear why a 1985 installation like Bill Viola’s Theatre of Memory belonged in this venue. Eve Andrée Laramée’s The Eroded Terrain of Memory, 1990, functioned better in its resiting, its cascade of several hundred thousand slivers of mica mimicking the situation of the building that was beginning to collapse around it. All in all, though, the exhibition too often hovered between attempting an incomplete history of recent installation art and a more focused assessment of the many possibilities the space offered.

The work specially commissioned for “Art at the Armory” was in all the strongest. Rumor, 1992, by the Chicago-based collaborative group Haha, took the Armory’s rather forlorn visitor’s apartment and prepared it for a loving implosion. Vacant and decorated in K-Mart chic, the rooms were carefully adjusted to exude the stultifying aura of the thousands of unending empty hours they had witnessed. Haha then wired this suite of rooms with dynamite, lending their determined ordinariness an undercurrent of danger and hinting at their future. Diller and Scofidio’s Loophole, 1992, brought out some of the strategies and ramifications of surveillance by occupying parts of two circular staircases with video cameras and monitors. Elizabeth Newman’s Histories of Human Flesh, 1992, was an evocative—if somewhat overworked—ode to the women who raised and nurtured the millions of young men who passed through places like the Armory on their path to harm’s way. Plastic bags of breast milk, rolled cotton bandages, bronzed soldiers boots, seeds, and much more filled over four rooms of the Armory’s south attic. The challenge to militarism and to the Armory that Newman assayed was too rarely attempted by her colleagues, or by the institution that set this project in motion. What could have been a crucial investigation into a military/ esthetic complex took a middle road instead, substituting the patterns and limited mindset of one organizational structure for another.

James Yood