Nora Schultz, parrottree—building for bigger than real, 2014, mixed media. Installation view.

Nora Schultz, parrottree—building for bigger than real, 2014, mixed media. Installation view.

Nora Schultz

Nora Schultz, parrottree—building for bigger than real, 2014, mixed media. Installation view.

Berlin-based artist Nora Schultz’s American solo debut, “parrottree—building for bigger than real,” featured a single installation of the same title, which referenced the monk parakeets that famously build elaborate roosts in the plentiful aeries of Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. The rogue South American parrots are a reminder of both colonial encounters and local politics, as the late Chicago mayor Harold Washington once protected the birds from removal. Mimicking the parakeets’ repurposing of found materials for their nests, Schultz (whose work was recently featured in the 2012 exhibition “Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York) built in situ sculptures that blended locally scavenged materials with a heavy dose of tropes borrowed from the interwar avant-garde.

At first glance, the Renaissance Society appeared empty but for a work titled Peregrine Falcon Nest, 2014, which consisted of a wooden window frame mounted horizontally on table legs placed over a few bits of rocklike debris; a sculpture composed of four dented white and green pillar forms (Legs Were Walking Out, 2014); and a loose sheet of the January 2 issue of the New York Times with an article describing recent applications of drone technology. However, one ultimately realized that Schultz’s installation was mounted largely overhead, on a steel grid suspended below the gallery’s vaulted ceiling. As one looked up, subtle sculptural forms became discernible. Coiled metal wire, white poles scrawled with text, and silver foil were clamped to the grid; and suspended or affixed to the ceiling were textiles and transparencies inscribed with obscured texts and an elongated C, recalling the logo of both the University of Chicago and the Chicago Bears. The viewer was thus enticed to embark on a sort of hunt, forced to reorient her gaze from objects at and below eye level to elements high above, while Blue Note, 2014, a looped audio track by Schultz and Chicago sound artist Andy Ortmann, provided an ambient sound track of avian squawks.

The show’s overall aesthetic was “unfinished,” which was no doubt Schultz’s intention. In her exhibition text, curator Solveig Øvstebø echoed tenets the avant-garde has held since the 1960s, arguing that “this work is ‘finished’ when it is shown, but only at that moment, in that place; everything will finish again and again.” Øvstebø claims that as the artist collected quotidian materials from her environment and moved them from one context to another, she rendered them autonomous via a process of estrangement. And, in an artist’s talk, Schultz explained that site-specific elements serve as triggers for the production of independent gestures in her work, rather than as vessels of locally driven content. While her installations struggle under the pressures of a site’s superstructure, she elaborated, she hopes her work will transcend the historically heavy device of site-specificity.

Ultimately, Schultz’s relationship to site remains unclear. Parrottree—building for bigger than real indeed takes up the conventions of site-specificity (from the grid on which it is built to the local symbolism it mobilizes to the sixteen days that Schultz spent building the piece in the gallery), but the artist seems to be in search of an additional layer of value that exceeds any single location. One is left to wonder whether the installation is a formal experiment or an interrogation of place, or perhaps both. The corridor from Hyde Park westward draws national attention for its daily violence—a context that seems difficult to ignore. Across the park, Theaster Gates also engages site-specificity, but has détourned found objects to implicitly critique the fetishization of poverty while using the proceeds to literally transform a tumultuous and impoverished pocket of a wealthy city. In comparison, “parrottree—building for bigger than real” only exemplified that at the potentially fraught boundary between the self-contained and the site-specific, drawing psychic energy from a place and giving it a new context may not be enough.

Ian Bourland