At summer’s end, the swelling anticipation of the new academic year overtakes the UofC campus and, seemingly, all of Hyde Park. But none of the Orientation Week din makes it past the heavy wooden doors of Cobb Hall, mostly empty on the Friday morning before classes begin. In the Renaissance Society gallery on the fourth floor, the only sound that echoes through the space is the metronomic crack of a pickaxe on ice.
“Suicide Narcissus,” the Renaissance Society’s current exhibit, features six installments by eight international artists, each vastly different in medium and execution. One of the two video installments, “Spatial Intervention I,” by artists Nicole Six and Paul Petritsch, is projected on a hanging screen in a dim, naturally-lit space, and features a man in a seemingly endless field of ice chipping away at the spot beneath him with a pickaxe. The sound permeates the entire space with its constant, jarring cracks as the man on the screen fruitlessly whacks away at the ground underneath him. The hole never gets any larger and the expanse of ice never gets any smaller.
“Suicide Narcissus” posits that we are frustratingly ignorant of our privilege as humans to invent our reality; that while our existence on earth is ultimately fleeting, we have the power at hand to determine what physical and environmental legacies we leave behind. “For all of our knowledge,” Hamza Walker, associate curator and education director at the Renaissance Society, asks in the exhibition’s conceptual essay, “how well do we understand ourselves, especially in light of our status as a force of nature?”
Perhaps the most intriguing piece in “Suicide Narcissus” is the one that curator Hamza Walker and artist Lucy Skaer try the hardest to prevent us from seeing. Titled “Leviathan’s Edge,” the piece features the full-sized skeleton of a humpback whale, encased on all four sides in drywall, with only a few vertical three-inch gaps in the walls allowing viewers to peek inside. This construction prevents viewers from seeing the entire skeleton from any angle, forcing them instead to use the visual puzzle pieces they gather to construct the full skeleton in their imaginations. It’s a reminder of the vast world of species that exists in an environment totally uninhabitable to humans. The subject, the whale, is an object of popular fantasy and charity, one people have fantasized about, tracked, killed, imprisoned, and studied. But the strangely-presented skeleton points to the vast disconnect that still exists between humans and the world we’ve tried for so long to understand, suggesting a perpetual divide.
Another piece, Katie Peterson’s “All the Dead Stars,” looks blank from afar. But the large black panel becomes self-explanatory as one approaches it from the entrance. Up close, thousands of small white dots painted on aluminum create an earth-like map. As the title suggests and the written description confirms, the dots represent all of the recorded dead stars as seen from our perspective on Earth. And while the piece itself is subtle, its message speaks more forcefully: we strive to know more, to explore further, to reach the bottom of the ocean or the edge of the universe, conveniently ignoring that this knowledge can only preserve us for so long.
“Suicide Narcissus” is a minimalist exhibition that is best viewed slowly. The Renaissance Society’s gallery space, which changes drastically from show to show, promotes no specific sequence of viewing. For “Narcissus,” the entrance is extended with drywall panels on either side. Four rooms flank a central hallway, each one designed specifically for the works it displays.
The gentle encouragement toward choosing paths, making various rounds of the space, and engaging with the pieces in different orders is a subtly effective way for the curator to involve viewers in the overarching discussion that “Suicide Narcissus” attempts to lead. The pieces themselves are powerful enough to conjure heavy mental storm clouds on a sunny end-of-summer day; their arrangement only heightens the sense of gloom.
While this exhibition is up, the Renaissance Society will not be a cheery place. “Suicide Narcissus” reminds its viewers of their futility, ignorance, and insignificance. In such a way, it challenges: the very representation of those qualities is a call to action. We, as a uniquely insightful and powerful species, must consider how we’d like to be remembered, especially considering that in recent history we’ve grown from blissfully ignorant to painfully aware of our impact on our planet. To Yuri Stone, marketing associate at the Renaissance Society, the exhibition represents a very generation-specific struggle to engage with our environment in a productive way. “I look at this exhibition very differently than my father would, or my grandfather,” he explains. He’s right, and this sentiment highlights the unique dilemma that we face when trying to create a bright and meaningful future from a history of mistakes.
Renaissance Society, 5811 S. Ellis Ave., Cobb Hall 418. Through December 15. Tuesday-Friday, 10am-5pm; Saturday-Sunday, noon-5pm. Free. (773)702-8670. renaissancesociety.org