“Gelitin is comprised of four artists. They met first in 1978 when they all attended a summer camp. Since then they are playing and working together. 1993 they began exhibiting internationally.” These four sentences make up the entire biography of the internationally known Viennese group, Gelitin, comprised of four artists: Ali Janka, Florian Reither, Tobias Urban and Wolfgang Gantner. Celebrated for their boundary-pushing, ludic installations and performances, “Gelitin: Democratic Sculpture 7,” curated by Dieter Roelstraete and presented in collaboration with the Chicago Architecture Biennial on view at The Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, marks the first time the group’s work has been shown in Chicago.
The work, an interactive installation titled “Democratic Sculpture 7,” is a large sculpture resembling a slice of pizza. Covering the top of the slice are brightly colored pieces of various clothing items and five large holes through which the viewer is invited to stick their head—thus transforming them from a passive viewer into an active participant (and essentially, a pizza topping). The work’s presence is not far off from an interactive installation one might find at a children’s science museum, which ties in perfectly with Gelitin’s playful ambition. The work, however, is seemingly less about the aesthetic appearance of the pizza and more about its participatory nature. The element of “play” takes center stage as the participation of the viewers serves as the main driving force for the work’s narrative (though it should be mentioned there is no sole narrative to be driven to).
In order for the work to be viewed in its truest form and to its highest potential, there must be active participants willing to play, which at the time of my own viewing was unfortunately not the case. Without these active players, one is simply left looking at a large sculpture of a slice of pizza made of clothing. This is of course the Achilles heel of all interactive work, as there is no assurance that viewers will take it upon themselves to play their role. In this instance, the location of the work might have been an added hindrance to this concern. The work sits in a large empty room with a fairly stately appearance and is so large in size that it takes up the majority of the space, with a few chairs placed at the tip of the pizza to allow for viewing. The resulting atmosphere created is one akin to a theatrical performance—should one choose to participate they would pop their head out of one of the holes and immediately lay eyes on an expectant audience. It is hard not to imagine if the work had been displayed in a different location viewers would be more willing to jump in.
It is, however, this theatrical placement of the work that also allows it to be considered beyond its playful nature and opens up the discussion of what narratives can be formed in the static. The work feels almost out of place in its esteemed university-room setting, and a deeper exploration of this is worth reflecting on. Curator Dieter Roelstraete begins this conversation in the exhibition’s accompanying text, proposing consideration of the issue of the Western world’s dismissal of both food and play as serious aesthetic or academic matters.
True to its nature, “Democratic Sculpture 7” certainly offers food for thought, and Gelitin have delivered a work of art worth pondering, but one should not get lost in the academic discourse for fear of losing sight of the work’s most important ask: to play.
“Gelitin: Democratic Sculpture 7” is on view at The Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, 5701 South Woodlawn through January 12, 2024.