Trace in Chicago: finding Ai Wei Wei in Lincoln Park

For the last couple of years, we have walked by a construction site half a block from our house, wondering what they were doing in there. It was an older four story apartment building, and what at the beginning looked like a regular renovation, soon enough was clear to be something else. They were preserving the facade, but you could tell from the outside that they had emptied the building, all four floors of it. By that, I really mean emptied, walls and floors torn down and all. Then they proceeded to add a very modern fifth floor. We continued guessing: Could it be a school? An architecture studio? A very large guest house attached to the modern mansion next door? Still, the mystery persisted. Because, who would spend that amount of money on a prime location in Lincoln Park, if it wasn’t for profit?
Last week, as I was walking home from work, the mystery was finally solved. Or, to be accurate, run into. Because I didn’t really solve anything. But right there, all over the fence, there were signs advertising an exhibition by Chinese artist and activist Ai WeiWei, Trace in Chicago. I giddily skipped all the way home, and within ten minutes I had bought two tickets for the weekend. I was excited.[/caption]

To be clear, I cannot draw a stick figure. I am as poorly talented for the arts as an elephant can be. I don’t even dare sing karaoke. But, regardless of my limitations, I love art and architecture. And I spend as much time as my schedule and budget permit experiencing them and exposing my kids to both. And this seemed like an exceptional opportunity to do so.

Trace is a collection of portraits of activists from a myriad of countries, all of whom have suffered attacks to their freedom of speech and integrity. I won’t abound on the details, as Ai WeiWei didn’t seem to want to dig into the violent nature of some of their stories. Rather, he seemed to want to focus on their achievements. Knowing how many years each one of them has spent in jail just for trying to stand up for freedom and justice is enough of a shock. The portraits are colorful, made out of thousands of pieces of Legos and laid on the floor, like a huge jigsaw puzzle of faces. The exhibition, that had originally been set in Alcatraz, is breathtaking. After you are impacted by the beauty of the art itself, you can check the stories of the portrayed activists in several interactive screens that sit throughout the gallery. The excess, the saturation, the repetition, all of that makes the art hit you. In a good way, of course. It also sends chills down your spine. The third component of the exhibition are some of Ai WeiWei’s books, which are available for the audience to check. You can also watch two videos that describe the origin of the exhibition and the process they used to create it.

The website was so sophisticated and minimalist that I decided to do a trial run without kids. And I am happy I did. That allowed me to pace around the space, take the time to look at both the art and the building, which is almost as impressive as the portraits themselves. What Tadao Ando (Japan, 1941) has done with the building is incredible. I was lucky to go with a great friend, who happens to be an architect. If you don’t have an architect in your life, you should go and find one right away. They make for the best company for long walks and house watching (come on, I know you have also peeked in through windows…). Mine also doubles as a favorite photography model. She was able to explain to me how they had been able to remove floors and walls from the old building, and still manage to keep it upright.

We walked, and looked, and turned our heads in every single direction, breathing the light in, in utter admiration. What they have done there is very special, very moving, and absolutely beautiful. The only other place where I had seen light bring a building to life in the way it does here is at the Unity Temple, one of Chicago’s most characteristic constructions.

It will be open until June 30, and if you can, you should check it out. It is possible to buy tickets, as I did, but every Monday they open the weekly schedule for free reservations on their website. You need to obtain your tickets beforehand, and entry is timed to allow small groups to take it in. The docents were extremely friendly while unobtrusive, and willing to answer any question we could have.

As for the kids? I will return with them. Probably bringing a few of our own Legos in my pocket to curb temptation. Worst case scenario, if they act up, we are half a block from home.



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