Squeezed into a narrow stretch between Michigan Avenue and a ten-foot embankment, and dominated by the hawk-like gaze of Dame Elisabeth Frink’s monolithic bust of Sir Georg, Solti Garden was never an inviting urban space until filled this month with the life-size figure sculptures modeled by the Icelandic artist Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir. Standing, sitting or kneeling throughout the park, the elegant, mysteriously introverted figures transform the lawn, paths and benches into a performance space that offers endless opportunities for interaction, especially with a camera.
As in most Western European countries, Icelandic public sculpture turned from figurative to abstract in the post-war period. Thórarinsdóttir is returning the human figure to public spaces, but she’s doing it cautiously, maintaining the simple, architectonic qualities of her pieces while limiting figurative expression. Her roughcast figures resemble dancers in tight body stockings that render them earless, eyeless and sexless—but they still have the elegant postures and contours of healthy young men. They feel like acolytes engaged in some arcane ritual, and if they came to life, you’d expect them to start beating the trees with drumsticks like performers in the Blue Man Group.
The twenty-six-piece ensemble is certainly more inviting than the 106 zombie-like rusting walkers installed seven years ago at the other end of Grant Park. Magdalena Abakanowicz’s headless army is about the horrors of the twentieth century, while Thórarinsdóttir’s quiet dreamers are about the resilience of human life in the twenty-first. Free from any kind of plinth or architectural setting, they’re like weeds sprouting up through cracks in the pavement—but they lead a distinctively Nordic life. These are figures that belong in Reykjavik or Oslo, where coldness and darkness have driven human feelings deeper beneath the skin. Scandinavian restraint, puzzlement and dignity are all good things, but don’t especially express life in Chicago. So, it’s appropriate that this exhibit is only temporary, but it’s still a great idea to turn this small dreary park into a lively stage for the kind of life-size figure sculpture that invites interaction. Hopefully Thórarinsdóttir is the first of many sculptors who will be sponsored to populate it. (Chris Miller)
Through spring, 2014 at Solti Garden, Michigan and Jackson