The Liz Larner exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago brings two of the artist’s stainless steel sculptures to the outdoor space of the Bluhm Family Terrace. The more recent of the two is X (2013): a rounded, insect-like x-shape of polished chrome, along with 6 (2010-11): a lighter, more open version of its brother, painted lavender, white, and yellow-brown. These are united by a large, wooden platform which the wall text describes as “ash from urban lumber”.
The objects are exposed to the elements, but are protected by the half-roof and substantial steel bars surrounding the terrace. Seen against the wide open sky (a rare sight for most of us ground dwellers in the city), it should be a serene and cheerful sight. So why does it give the impression of animals in a cage? In this setting, with the large tall bars that surround the terrace, the sculptures feel trapped and claustrophobic. And, like all proper zoo animals, they come with a sign directing visitors not to touch them. This sign is somewhat contradicted by the wall text, which indicates that in the case of X (but not 6) “viewers may enter the physical space of the form itself”. To do so, most adults would have to crouch down or crawl underneath the claw-like structure, an awkward undertaking with questionable payoff.
Lengthy, contemplative viewing, however, may generate empathy for these sculptures. They seem to want to have fun, but the bars and signs and lack of space keep them caged, cowering, and untouchable.