Chicago's Millenium Park Sculptures

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I was in Chicago a couple of weeks ago for my 10-year grad school reunion and spent an afternoon at the Millenium Park near the edge of Lake Michigan. There is an orchestra shell designed by Frank Gehry which punches a striking profile in the sky as one approaches from downtown, silhoutted against the lake is immediately behind it. It’s clearly a Gehry and designed to impress, but what I enjoyed much more were the relatively modest sculptures arrayed around it. In particular these sculptures managed to be public in the true sense of the world and it was wonderful to see how people, and children especially, engaged with them.

The most fun one is known as The Cloud Gate, and was designed by British artist Anish Kapoor. It is 110 tons of stainless steel polished to a mirror finish. Its location allows it to reflect the fantastic Chicago skyline, and at a more intimate scale it reflects the immediate environment and the people around it. The most trippy effect is standing directly underneath it and staring up, it’s like being inside a mirrored sphere. Children have a great time seeing their fun-house reflections in it, but adults too can’t help but express joy.

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The other sculpture is The Crown Fountain by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa and it is of a much larger scale. Two huge rectangular slabs face each other, water falling from the top of each on all sides. The facing sides of each are filled with a single moving image courtesy of LCDs arrayed over the surface. On one a caucasian face, the other a black one, at least when I was there. Apparently there are over 1000 images of Chicagoans used on the fountain. I can say from having lived in the city that it is still wracked by racial divisions and the fountain clearly plays on that. But it is playful at another level, as the kids romp in the huge waterfalls and in the shallow pond that forms in between. (The Millenium Park website shows water spouting from the mouths of the faces like old fountain cherubs, but that wasn’t happening while I was there.)

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While the Gehry pavillion was bombastic, the sculptures were more concerned with effacing themselves and letting the people come to the fore. Chicago has one of the best architectural and public sculpture heritages in the US, and these are two worthy additions.