As the birthplace of the modern skyscraper at the turn of the 20th century, it is fitting that Chicago should be the home of a museum exhibition devoted to the subject. But Skyscraper, now on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, isn’t your typical architecture show: Rather than displaying models and plans, it presents artistic interpretations of the skyscraper as a potent symbol of our urge to reach ever higher into the skies.
“At the beginning, I did think of having architects involved in some way,” says Michael Darling, who curated the exhibition with Joanna Szupinska. “That disappeared when I realized how much material I had to work with if I just concentrated on artists.” He whittled his choices down to more than 50 international artists, spanning film and video to painting and sculpture, and organized them according to several themes: verticality, reflecting the optimism embodied by skyscrapers; personification of architecture, in which the works blur the line between human and architecture; urban critique, exploring dystopian themes; improvisation, showcasing playful takes on modernist forms; and vulnerability of icons, summing up our changing relationship to structures of power after 9/11.
Of course, one of the unavoidable themes is phallic imagery, exemplified by Vito Acconci’s High Rise (1980), which invites viewers to hoist a 25-foot translucent structure into the air using ropes and pulleys until a tower (and, on one side, a spray-painted penis) is erected. More than 140 years since its arrival, the skyscraper remains a male plaything. It’s worth noting that a female architect hadn’t built a skyscraper in Chicago until Jeanne Gang won the commission to build the Aqua Tower, completed in 2010, and one is hard-pressed to think of other women who have enjoyed such opportunities in other parts of the world.