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Eye Exam: Public Eye

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By Jason Foumberg

Tony Tasset’s new sculpture, a thirty-foot eyeball installed in a downtown public plaza, is a masterwork in the surrealist tradition, a method of art-making now almost a century old. It is still effective. The giant eyeball disrupts—temporarily and safely—the usual workaday street life in this busy corner of the city. We could use more surprising interruptions like this colossal eyeball inserted into our well-worn footpaths.

So far, the go-to referent for Tasset’s “Eye” is Mayor Daley’s love affair with surveillance. Chicago’s network of public cameras is the nation’s most extensive, and with the downtown prison skyscraper looming just behind “Eye,” the Big Brother approach is an easy entry to appreciate the sculpture. Unlike other forward-thinking contemporary art about surveillance, “Eye” doesn’t have interactive or high-tech features to allow viewers to subvert or question breaches of privacy. (For instance, Christian Moeller’s 2006 “Nosy” captures passersby’s images and projects them on a nearby wall, or “Double-Taker (Snout),” an interactive robotic tentacle that spies on visitors, installed atop the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in 2008, developed by the Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute.)

If the popular interpretation prevails, then “Eye,” as an immobile and indifferent body part, and decidedly inhuman, is a simple exaggeration and celebration of totalitarian law enforcement. But “Eye” is a better work of art than that, and Tasset, we know, doesn’t operate void of irony, criticism or creative inspiration.

Instead, “Eye” is a pop surrealist monument (and a much better one than the Claes Oldenburg public sculpture in Chicago, a monument to wiffle ball, I think). “Eye” addresses the public and asks us to consider a passing event: the passing stranger. We actually do it all the time, undirected. We inspect what’s strange about strangers, and maneuver through the streets accordingly. Passing eyes look coy, or threatening, or drunk, or weary. Dislocated from its lids and lashes and socket, the eyeball seems emotionless, neither erotic nor criminal, and not judgmental, but it implores you to gaze. Gaze widely! It says, just as you are gazing wide-eyed at it, go and gaze freely, without motive or moral—perhaps creatively, artistically—at the things and people around you.

Balloon ride at Navy Pier

Today, we explore our surroundings with the aid of hand-held technologies. Shopping, loitering, cruising and people-watching are all performed off the street now. Visitors in Chicago may prefer some of the other vistas afforded by the city, from the Willis Tower skydeck to the eyeball-ish balloon that hovers over Navy Pier. All this makes unaided explorations with our naked eyes seem a lost process. “Eye” is shellacked with nostalgia. Strolling and crowd-gazing harks to a nineteenth-century practice, taken up by the twentieth-century surrealists, who detoured off the beaten promenades in search of the arcane and the strange. In their books and artworks they presented all the collected gritty scraps they encountered by chance, to make sense of what the modern city offered. Return your eyes to your body, “Eye” seems to say.

Louise Bourgeois, "Eyes," 2001

In previous art works, Tasset has similarly stoked the nostalgia campfire. He’s mourned himself, in “Pieta”; nature, as cast bronze magnolia and cherry trees; rural life, as an exhausted lumberjack; childhood, as a smashed jack-o-lantern forever fixed in bronze; and life itself, as a memento mori in “Capuchine Chandelier,” a light fixture composed of human skulls and bones. All these are fakes, in plastic, bronze and paint, made like theatrical props to romanticize, and instigate, a yearning for the originals.

“Eye” comes from a long line of artistic precedents, including “Eyes” by the late, great sculptor Louise Bourgeois. These creepy eyes look like testicles slithering across a hilly terrain, and are permanently installed on the Williams College Museum of Art campus, in Massachusetts. Bourgeois’ eyes, like the tortured ones in a 1997 Tony Oursler video installation, or the sacrificed eye in Dali and Bunuel’s classic surrealist film from 1929, “An Andalusian Dog,” serve to bother or discomfort viewers, or at least make familiar objects seem horrifying. Tasset’s “Eye” is more kitsch than shock, like a so-bad-it’s-great roadside attraction. Though disembodied and red-veined, it won’t scare anyone out of their daily preconceptions. Instead, the giant eyeball’s success is in its civility. It seems pleased to be an amusement, and to make a naked entrance onto our public park. Excuse me, it says, would you mind using your eyes a bit more sensitively?

“Eye” on view through October 31 at State and Van Buren. See more works by Tony Tasset here: http://kavigupta.com/artist/tonytasset

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