Keeping Amused with Leah Zeldes

Puzzling over art at MCA

"Part of being cultured is an acceptance of arts one doesn't understand." Or so I told myself as I followed in the wake of Francesco Bonami, recently appointed senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, as he led a tour through "Unfinished History," his first exhibition at the museum (though originally organized for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis).

The exhibition features the works of 23 artists from 16 countries in film, video, photography, sculpture, architecture, installation art and electronic music. It appears in a warren of little rooms, some containing only one work, some containing several, some with only a film or video playing. The curator has described it as "An exhibition based on primary relations, on communication flowing in both directions, in any direction -- from the artists outward to the public or from the public inward to the exhibition's center or around the margins of it all."

The only communication that flowed from me was, "I don't get it."

Take, for example, Japanese artist Yutaka Sone's "Amusement," a miniature roller coaster carved in marble. It's a very good carving of a roller coaster, I suppose, though kind of stiff. I mean, isn't the point of roller coasters that they move?

Well, maybe that's its significance, somehow -- "Unfinished History," motion frozen in marble. Maybe I do understand this stuff....


"The significance of the roller-coaster sculpture is that it contains within itself the potential for human annihilation," says Bonami in the exhibition catalog. "Monumental and playful at the same time, this gigantic tool of entertainment could rapidly become obsolete and abandoned as local communities learn how to enjoy more sophisticated forms of leisure." Hmm ... I guess this isn't about Riverview.

In another work, "Spin-off" by Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn, a giant cutout of a Swiss Army knife stands festooned with aluminium-foil snakes that reach out to a framework onto which are taped a lot of plastic bags containing what look like pages from magazines. It's ... well, sort of messy looking, with all that tape and tinfoil here and there.

Bonami calls it "a totem to dispersed energies in society, and an attempt to direct them toward forgotten issues, isolated zones of the mind. The Swiss army knife ... stands as a violent Shiva in the middle of European consciousness, where the philosophy of nonintervention is revealed as a tool of greediness and capital accumulation beyond morality and guilt."

Of course.

At last, we come to Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan's "Novecento (Twentieth Century)." It's a dead horse, stuffed, hanging from the ceiling.

According to Bonami, the horse is "a convex vision of Italian history, a synopsis of the conflicting changes of our century. Agriculture sucked into an industrializing stampede only to end in a society weighted down by media consumption."

That's right, blame the media. Everybody else does. (But I don't think we killed the horse.)

I don't believe art has to beautiful. Art can be disturbing, disgusting even, to make its point. Its mission is to make you feel, make you think. It doesn't have to come in an approved medium. It doesn't have to be something I'd want in my living room.

But I'm blessed if I can comprehend what a marble roller coaster, a lot of tinfoil and tape, and a dead horse have to do with each other, or why anyone wants to go see them.

It disconcerts me to think of myself as a philistine. Yet here I am, reduced to mumbling, "I may not know much about art, but I know what I like."

This isn't it.

"Unfinished History" continues through April 4 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave., Chicago. The exhibit is free with museum admission, $6.50, or $4 for students and seniors. Bonami will give a free talk about it at noon March 5 in the gallery. Call (312) 280-2660 or see .

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Lifeline Theatre's new artistic director, Dorothy Milne, says patrons can expect to find few big changes under her tenure. "We're not going to fix what's not broken," she says, though she anticipates branching out a little beyond the Rogers Park theater's successful history of literary adaptations. "We're thinking of actually developing some work from the ground up. I think we're at a place where we can experiment with building it ourselves."

Milne, 41, is a native of Milwaukee. She has been a Lifeline ensemble member since 1992, and directed Lifeline's productions of "Cotillion" and "The Talisman Ring," as well as the KidSeries production "101 Dalmations." Elsewhere, she's directed "Eleemosynary" for Interplay Theatre, for which she was nominated for a Joseph Jefferson Award, and "Cooking With Lard" and "What Cats Know" for Famous Door.

While the first Lifeline MainStage production under Milne's tenure, "Strange Case: Jekyll & Hyde," playing March 3 through May 23, will be directed by Ann Boyd, in June Milne will direct "The Mother Lode," a multimedia monologue show developed and performed by The Sweat Girls, a local troupe of which she is a member. "It's based on a year we spent videotaping our mothers," Milne says.

Among its literary adaptations, Lifeline has been one of the few Chicago companies to regularly produce fantasy and science-fiction works, and Milne anticipates more of those, though the genre's not an enthusiasm of her own. "I'm getting to know it better," she says. "I thought I left that behind in junior high school, but I guess I didn't."

Besides "Strange Case," plans are in the works for "The Two Towers," based on the second book in J.R.R. Tolkein's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

"We have really strong audiences for that and several (Lifeline ensemble members) have really strong interests in that area, so I think it will be something we continue to do occasionally," Milne says. "Those sci-fi people, they're passionate."

"Strange Case," was adapted from the Robert Louis Stevenson's story by departing Lifeline ensemble member Steve Totland. Totland is married to Meryl Friedman, Lifeline's longtime producing director, who left at the end of last year for a theater in Burbank, Calif., after her last production, "A Wrinkle in Time." "It's kind of nice that they both had their swan song," Milne says.

For more information about the productions of Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood, Chicago, call (773) 761-4477.