If you’re like me, you could probably use more holiday magic. That’s what 4th Ward Project Space promises to deliver this Sunday afternoon, by way of a giant, fuzzy polar bear’s lap.
“It’s not your typical art gallery atmosphere,” says Valentina Zamfirescu, one of 4th Ward’s three directors. “It’s nice to just be able to lose yourself in this moment in time in here, with the bear.”
The event is the brainchild of artist Diego Leclery, who first staged it ten years ago at the Suburban in Oak Park. Though he had no formal skills in costume-making, he crafted the bear—over six feet tall when seated—masterfully. Inviting the public for a one-afternoon-only opportunity to sit on the bear’s lap and get your picture taken was a staple at the gallery for years. It even followed the Suburban when it moved to Milwaukee in 2015. The bear returned to Chicago in 2017; last year the event was staged at 4th Ward Project Space for the first time.
“This year, we were like, ‘We have to have the bear for the tenth anniversary!’” Zamfirescu says. “Chicago is its home. So we really wanted to have the bear in Chicago because there’s so many people here that are huge fans.”
Photos of the event throughout the years show face after face of happy visitors. Adults sit on the bears lap and give it a hug. Children shake the bear’s hand. A grown man kisses the bear on the cheek. No one can suppress a smile.
Leclery initially got the idea from Coca-Cola’s holiday ads of adorable cartoon polar bears drinking the soda from vintage glass bottles. But the project has greatly transcended its origin.
“None of these things ended up being that relevant, because what I really wanted most of all from the bear is that it would function like a holiday,” he says. “And for that you need joy and you need surrender and you need a feeling of being transported and amazed. So this experience of holiday glee has taken precedence as the register for the piece. It’s supposed to be read really as an occasion for people to come together and hang out and have fun, and be all huggy and silly.”
The polar bear event is not meant to be read as performance art. “There’s definitely an aspect of imagining art as a very serious sort of thing where people intellectualize and they are competitive and show-offy and narcissistic and ego-driven, and that the bear was really meant to not be any of that,” Leclery says. “You walk in and all that stuff washes away and there’s no zone of experience versus zone of contemplation. It was just collapsed, you were just in it. You’re just lost in this fun experience.”
After ten years, the polar bear event has become a part of the city’s cultural canon, with many visitors returning year after year. And since social media has become ever more ubiquitous, it’s not uncommon for one’s feed to be taken over by bear portraits.
“All these photos end up on Instagram or Facebook, but it’s not this immediate thing, because there’s a photographer and then you wait for the photo,” Zamfirescu says. “So it’s also this anticipation. It’s a weird holiday magic—a secular holiday, an art holiday.“
Visitors to the gallery can expect not only to sit on the bear’s lap and get their picture taken; it’s an all-around festive event, with treats and warm cider.
Although occupying the costume, which has no ventilation, is physically punishing, for Leclery, the experience is rejuvenating. So much so that he doesn’t bat an eye at traveling back to Chicago each year for the event from his home in New York.
“I’ve come out very damaged from it. I’ve come out dry-heaving, coughing, brutalized, but I tend to recover very quickly. My neck will be sore for like a week afterwards, I won’t be able to turn left or right,” he says. “But it’s weird, I mean, I’m a believer in art so it’s worth it. I really think it’s worth it.” (Kerry Cardoza)
Sit on a polar bear’s lap at 4th Ward Project Space, 5338 South Kimbark on Sunday, December 15 from 1-4pm