Installing Sabina Ott’s Work at Expo Chicago: A Consideration on Commerce in Art

Written by Cassie Kise

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It began with an ordinary dull moment, scrolling mindlessly through my Facebook feed–a pause in the downwards motion of my thumb. I stopped and skimmed over a friend’s check-in at Mana Contemporary Chicago. Pictured was my friend, Anna, arms-deep in a mammoth amount of foam. Alongside the image a caption reads, “just had a wonderful day of working on the lovely Sabina Ott’s piece for EXPO chicago!” The entire scene looked rather outlandish and Anna looked like a little kid posing for her Mom–and as dorkish as it felt, I also wanted to be knee deep in the embrace of an absurd amount of foam. I emailed Anna, and was able to get in contact with Sabina and help with her EXPO install.

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A couple weeks later, I found myself lost on Navy Pier, surrounded by the same tourism ethnoscape that exists along travel destination waterfronts throughout the U.S. Sabina had instructed that I meet her at “entrance b,” which seemed unlikely to exist in the same realm as Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and Giordano’s. Eventually, I saw her outside, flailing in her arms in the same fashion that my grandmother does when we drive away from her home each summer.

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I entered the convention center and Sabina led me upstairs to check-in. I received a florescent yellow name tag indicating that I was part of the Wednesday set-up crew. People scurried in and out of the convention center; speaking in a plethora of languages, and in a range of emotions. Many were wearing black pants, white shirts, with their iPhones glued to their ears as they hurried about; navigating around other individuals on power lifts, pushing carts, and wearing white gloves for handling precious cargo. It felt like living within Andreas Gursky’s photographs of the New York Stock Exchange.

A thought occurred to me as I watched the scene unveil before me; that many artists and visitors that attend EXPO every year critique EXPO for feeling like a garage sale, or a marketplace instead of focusing upon the art. Yet, after witnessing the energy and logistics of the set-up and the context of the Pier, it seemed as if it could not function as anything but a place of exchange.

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After checking in, we tracked down some black coffee in small white paper cups, and I was introduced to others who were helping to complete the finishing touches. These individuals were folks that install shows in various parts of the city and they were busy running extension cords across the top of the sculpture, searching for remotes and Windex, sweeping up debris, and other silly odds-and-ends jobs that seem symbiotic with any small business. I ended up with one of the most crucial and banal tasks of all; scrubbing foam off the floor.

One of the wonderful aspects about having to do monotonous task is that it allows for a ton of time to focus on a subject. So while I wore the sponge to bits, I thought about the facade of the event in relevancy to the effort that is put forth to create such an event. As I felt myself trying to flush through my personal sentiments on the subject, Sabina would unknowingly pull me away from this inner dialogue of theory, asking if I needed more coffee, or a new sponge, and where I had learned to clean so well. I laughed, and answered “my mother”, tabling my seriousness and built-in critique mind set.

I ended up making it to the last couple hours on the Sunday of EXPO weekend. It was jarring, in the difference of energy, and in the contrast to my experiences of EXPO years prior. The involvement I had had with Sabina and the community of construction seemed to melt away the unapproachability of work I had felt during prior shows. In past years, I had felt the frustrations of balancing ideologies of how art should be versus commercial production and sales. Now it seemed out of necessity–in the realm of the Art Fair at least–that they must be one and the same, shattering a belief system priorly held. After such involvement, it seems that now I cannot help but lend my critique not of the specific works on view, but on the system that has been created to house such pieces of cultural commodity.

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