If someone were to compile a scouting report of all seventy-seven Chicago neighborhoods in order to determine the ideal epicenter for the city’s antiwar scene, Hyde Park would certainly rank poorly. Neither fashionable nor youthful, the neighborhood draws its identity between one of the most influential of conservative universities and a liberal establishment of middle-aged, limestone-crazed apparatchik. Somewhere in the wash, there’s a mess of pretty architecture and, occasionally, Barack Obama.
In defiance of conventional wisdom, two neighborhood cultural vanguards launched a consolidated effort this month to plunge some fresh wartime dissent into Hyde Park’s blue veins. The Renaissance Society’s exhibition “Meanwhile in Baghdad” and “Consuming War,” the centerpiece of a twelve-week series of shows and events organized by the Hyde Park Art Center, both opened to heavy traffic on the fifty-third month since Bush declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq. Truly, in regards to this endeavor, mission accomplished.
In any topic as thoroughly explored as the recent occupation of Iraq, executing with fresh language is incumbent on anybody looking to add to the pile. “Meanwhile in Baghdad” strikes countless lurid notes concerning U.S. action in the Middle East, a credit owed to the vast diversity of perspectives employed. Much of its success in achieving novelty lies in a refreshing international focus; the rest is a product of masterfully subtle but provocative posturing. The atmosphere descends instantly with a soundtrack of Iraqi weather reports that slowly evolves into a complex poem. Meanwhile, the eyes draw downward to Jonathan Monk’s latex and paraffin fallen soldier—peaceful and fake as if conjured for distant television audiences. By the end, the show is sure to evoke a more troublesome thought: why discussing the war in such a purely extrinsic and empathetic way seems such a vast departure.
Trading “Meanwhile”’s arresting climate for levity, “Consuming War” takes comical jabs at modern America’s bizarre wartime behavior, while offering peripheral glimpses at the horrors that complicity affords. From Michael Hernandez de Luna’s amusing experiments with postal fare to Mary Brogger’s tonal metallurgy, the show forms a whimsical wreath around a multimedia display compiled by Iraqi refugee Wafaa Bilal, which highlights numerous administrations’ sordid selection of foreign projects. Yet, hampering a fine use of gallery space by curator Barbara Koenen, some of the works feel alien to the theme, simply trite or both.
Several related events sponsored by the Hyde Park Art Center occupy the docket in the upcoming weeks, including a series-closing January 16 discussion slated to feature Dr. Donny George Youkhanna, exiled former director of the National Museum of Iraq. On any other given day, either antiwar exhibition would make a trip to bucolic Hyde Park decisively worthwhile, but if you can make only one, make it “Meanwhile.” (Patrick Klemz)
“Meanwhile in Baghdad” remains on display at the Renaissance Society, 5811 South Ellis, (773)702-8670, through December 21; “Consuming War” runs through January 20 at the Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 South Cornell, (773)324-5520.