Chicago's Newest (and Biggest) Piece of Public Art

Daniel Hautzinger
Art on theMART (Chicago's Merchandise Mart off the Chicago River). Image: Art on theMART
Art on theMART provides a 2.5 acre canvas for digital artists. Image: Art on theMART

What was once the world’s largest building will soon be the site of the world’s largest permanent digital art projection. At around 7:15 pm on September 29, the massive façade of the Merchandise Mart (now called theMART) will light up as 34 projectors beam across the Chicago River to create an enormous and dynamic piece of public art.

Chicago is home to many striking works of public art, from the Picasso in Daley Plaza to Cloud Gate in Millennium Park to the murals of Pilsen, but none are quite like Art on theMART. First, there’s its size and prominence: the projection will cover 2.5 acres and is located directly on the River with nothing to obstruct it.

There’s also its mutability and medium. Unlike most public art, which is made of semi-permanent materials like metal, stone, or paint, Art on theMART consists of fleeting light. During the day, it won’t even be visible; it will only be displayed for up to two hours a night, five days a week (Wednesday through Sunday), for ten months of the year (March through December). And because it is a projection rather than something solid, it can change throughout its existence, featuring the works of different artists over time. (Perhaps the closest parallel can be found across the river at 150 North Riverside Plaza, where digital art has been displayed on LED blades as part of 150 Media Stream since 2017.)

The inaugural program, which will run until December 31, features the work of four artists. Two – Jan Tichy and Jason Salavon – are Chicago-based artists selected by the Terra Foundation for American Art as part of their Art Design Chicago initiative (WTTW’s upcoming series and website Art & Design in Chicago is also part of the initiative). Their work is “focused on really tapping into the creative DNA of Chicago as a city,” says Cynthia Noble, executive director of Art on theMART.

Tichy, a Czech-born professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago whose work often addresses social and political issues, has created Artes in Horto: Seven Gardens for Chicago. It “takes inspiration from the place of nature in Chicago’s urban space,” he explains, and seeks to challenge the public “to reconsider their relationship to urban nature.”

Salavon was born in Indiana and formerly worked in the video game industry before beginning to exhibit his work. He is now a professor at the University of Chicago. His Homage in Between draws on archives of Chicago painters to explore and celebrate the city’s artistic legacy.

A rendering of Jason Salavon's 'Homage in Between' for Art on theMART in Chicago. Image: Art on theMARTA rendering of Jason Salavon's 'Homage in Between' for Art on theMART in Chicago. Image: Art on theMART

The other two artists featured in the inaugural program were selected by Art on theMART’s curatorial advisory board, which is made up of Chicago curators and artists. The Los Angeles-based Diana Thater’s work often focuses the natural world, and her True Life Adventures is no exception. “It’s a kind of safari film made in Kenya over the last two years,” she says. “I am continually inspired by the overlay of nature and culture and am excited to bring a bit of the wild to a great city.” Including footage of large animals such as giraffes, elephants, rhinos, and zebras – “icons of the wild,” she calls them – True Life Adventures is “conceptualized as a collage of colorful images that is non-narrative so viewers don’t have to wait for a story to play out,” she says.

Shanghai- and San Francisco-based Zheng Chongbin is inspired by both ancient Chinese ink drawings and Western abstract art. His Chimeric Landscape is a mercurial piece about our changing world. “All four artists are each pioneering the relationship between digital art and architecture in unique ways that ultimately operate on multiple levels,” says Noble, the executive director.

While Art on theMART is primarily a visual work, the opening night on September 29 will also include audio, as well as a fireworks show at 8:00 pm. After that, audio for each piece will be available on the Art on theMART website. Given that Art on theMART is an unprecedented venture in Chicago, the curatorial advisory board have not yet determined the best way to proceed with programming when it relaunches in March of 2019; they’re hoping to learn from the inaugural program. “Right now, we are thinking about programming seasonally, but we would like to be responsive to what we learn from this first installation and program accordingly,” says Noble.

“It is my hope that each person who witnesses Art on theMART is actively engaged in this immersive experience,” she says, “an experience I hope becomes a part of the city’s cultural fabric, transforming the very nature of its urban landscape.”