Can children really change the world? A naive question. And yet.
On Friday, at the exact moment when as many as 3,000 Chicago students clogged downtown streets during the Global Climate Strike, a panel discussion at EXPO Chicago, gathered to discuss “Ship of Tolerance.” Conceptual artist Emilia Kabakov and her husband, Ilya, have been creating the artwork for the last fifteen years, with the help of thousands of children around the world.
The panel’s consensus: these crazy kids might be onto something.
“When you’re a child, it’s much easier for you not to notice a person’s color,” or other life circumstances, says Kabakov. She and her husband explore the concept of utopia in their giant, immersive pieces—what they refer to as “total installations”—that have been displayed throughout the world.
“Ship of Tolerance” is a whimsical, refreshingly irony-free, piece of conceptual art, offering an anodyne message of hope and peace. The life-size ship’s patchwork of brightly colored silk sails was created by local children from different cultural, religious and social backgrounds, with the intention of helping them understand the importance of tolerance and hope. Its creation starts with educational workshops where the students are encouraged to discuss and draw their concepts of tolerance.
First created in Siwa, Egypt in 2005, the artwork has been reconstructed around the world, including in New York and Havana, and for the Venice Biennale. Chicago marks the seventeenth port for this high-concept creation, which measures over sixty-five-feet long and fifty feet high.
“It’s about the future, it’s about utopia. It’s about our childish fears of unknown about different cultures and how we can change the world for the better,” says Kabakov.
This discussion was part of EXPO Chicago 2019’s symposium series, which was dedicated to discussing ideas of utopia in art, exploring what the concept means to people today.
“As long as countries exist, as long as human beings exist, people will always try to realize utopia,” Kabakov says. “We can’t promise they’ll succeed, but they always will try.”
The Kabakovs, who have lived in the United States for thirty years, but were born in the former Soviet Union, have explored utopia as a theme in their work. That’s not surprising since the Soviet Union itself was created as a failed attempt at creating its own version of utopia. But that connection is only true to a point, Kabakov cautions.
“Everyone says the Kabakovs’ work is based on Russian ideology. That’s not true. It’s based on human things that are universal. Yes, it comes from Russian culture. But it’s about people. Being oppressed by the government, by family, by circumstance,” she says. “We work with human feelings. We work with human fears. And they’re universal.” (Chris LaMorte)
“The Ship of Tolerance” will be on display at Polk Bros Park at Navy Pier through October 6