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Dolores Wilber
Monument: Bodies on Foreign Soil (2004)
Installation view, Grand Army of the Republic Hall, Chicago Cultural Center

Monument: Bodies on Foreign Soil

Mountains Clouds Turbulence Coastlines

Mountains Clouds Turbulence Coastlines


Chests (Video)

Christine Rojek
Ecce Hora (Now or Never!)

Expanding Catfish

Eco Chambers

Metal worker Luis Molina

Artist Christine Rojek

Prairie Smoke
by Victor M. Cassidy

Here are two Chicago artists with very different goals and professional lives.

Wordless Conversations
"Art is a way of having a conversation without limiting ourselves to words or language," says Dolores Wilber. "Words fail us everyday and they are not necessarily the best way to express complicated idea or feelings -- or thoughts that defy everyday language and description."

Wilber calls herself "a Chicago artist who deals with the ties that bind us together, our physical bodies, psychological/social violence -- and how to say what we mean and mean what we say." She often collaborates with others to create multi-media works that she writes and directs. She also creates individual works in video and visual art.

Wilber says she feels "a loss of home and a place in the world." We don't know, she tells us, "where we belong, nor do we understand what kind of faith and desire we can have in the face of such loss." Her work, which she terms "serious, baroque and over-the-top, but never ironic," explores "what happens to human beings in an unsteady world."

In Nov. 2004, Wilber, along with long-time artist collaborator Julie Laffin and ecologist Liam Heneghan, presented Monument: Bodies on Foreign Soil, an elaborate performance installation in the Grand Army of the Republic Hall at Chicago's Cultural Center. The GAR Hall was the ideal place for this performance, says Wilber, because it commemorates some of the bloodiest battles of the US Civil War.

Monument seeks to start a conversation about why nations constantly get into tragic wars and then later build memorials to the bravery of the combatants that celebrate "untoward and unwanted death and destruction." The performance employed 40 used military blankets, fused with photographs printed on cotton featuring images of hands, feet and navels. Some blankets were provided with hidden mechanisms that simulated breathing. In an adjacent dark room was a video of ethereal leaves blowing on a US Army blanket. Performers, including Wilber and Laffin, performed the symbolic gesture of stripping bark from two invasive 25-foot-tall buckthorn plants that had been pulled out by the roots.

To advance her work, Wilber founded Wholesale Chicago, a collaborative that "initiates all manner of artistic investigations," as she puts it. In March, Wholesale Chicago staged the multimedia performance Mountains Clouds Turbulence Coastlines at a local interdisciplinary arts festival. In the complex symbolism of this work, two men who are "headless," decapitated or who simply have lost their (cast polyurethane) "heads" investigate the making of a hand grenade. A ten-year-old boy in video projection ponders a Scoutmaster's ruminations on the merits and problems of 'Impertinent Punishment.' A hand-wrestling duel takes place repeatedly, and suicide bombers' longing for death is staged to excessive music. "Losing one's head is like losing ones' soul," the artist explains, enigmatically.

Forthcoming this fall is a site-specific installation, destined for the Cultural Center, building on the themes in Mountains Clouds Turbulence Coastlines. For this project, Wilber is photographing cast reproductions of real heads and working with a found handwritten diary entitled "Vadja 1942" that she discovered in a used bookstore in Estonia. The next performance promises to be just as mystifying and provocative as its predecessors.

The artist has a background in sociology and expert knowledge of digital technology, which she uses to montage photographs. In Chest (2002), she integrates a crumbling building faade onto a man's bare chest to suggest personality disintegration. Belly, another layered photo image, shows a man's uncovered stomach with a door on it that's held shut with wire.

Chest Bashing (2004), a video, comments on male aggressiveness and bonding. We see the bare chests of two men who puff themselves out and crash repeatedly into each other, audibly grunting and groaning. This video, which cannot be entirely serious, never shows the faces of the none-too-bright belligerents.

Wilber teaches at De Paul University and often travels abroad. Working with Chicago sculptor Frances Whitehead, she emptied an abandoned Estonian root cellar of old liquor bottles and junked farm implements, cleaned everything and put it all back. Next, the artists installed a laptop computer in the cellar that played a narrative titled "We Need Heroes," commemorating Russian scientists who laid down their lives for biodiversity during the Siege of Leningrad in 1942. Trapped in the Vavilov Institute in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), these scientists starved rather than eating carefully preserved seed bank specimens of rare plants.

This work was one section of a three-part installation called Unmaking the World, which incorporated 300 vinyl globes, 60 feet of foam, six-foot weather balloons and eerie video projections of an animated circus replica, bubbling mud and squiggling insects.

"None of Your Business!"
Christine Rojek makes large, colorful steel sculptures for public spaces. She does much welding, grinding and painting and often needs help. In 1998, while she was working on Ecce Hora (Now or Never!), a piece that's now installed in a park near Chicago, a friend at a local steel firm gave her materials, cash and 40 hours of Luis Molina's time. Molina, who knows steel fabrication, owed the man money and this settled the debt.

When Molina learned that he would be working with a woman, he was not amused. Relations were rocky at first, but slowly he became absorbed in Rojek's project and even began to second-guess her. One of their early conversations went like this:

He: Why are you doing that?

She: None of your business!

However, when the 40 hours were up, Molina stayed with the job to completion, working for free. He and Rojek became friends and now, seven years later, he still does her fabrication, rents studio space to her and their two families socialize after hours.

Over the past seven years, Molina's firm, Industrial Freight & Maintenance, has grown from one employee to 24 and today it occupies a 54,000 square foot building on Chicago's south side. For industrial clients, Molina warehouses, semi-fabricates and ships steel. For sculptors, he does restoration, fabrication, painting and ships finished works to the site. "We've become a one stop shop for artists," says Molina. "We do what we can do well, and make money."

When we visited, Molina was restoring a Louise Nevelson sculpture and finishing a fountain for Richard Hunt. Rojek's commissioned sculpture, Earthbound Spiral (2005), which will be roughly 18 ft. tall by 20 ft. wide with benches and plantings at the base, lay in pieces near her studio space, all primed and ready for painting and assembly. Rojek and Molina posed for us inside the spirals that comprise her sculpture.

As Rojek explains, the configuration of Earthbound Spiral is taken from the galaxy formation Pegasus, which has a straight bar connecting two identical spirals. The 'earth' side of the formation displays familiar images, most of which share common shapes and patterns. Overlapping perforated metal represents the abstract, ambiguous 'heaven' side. The figures representing each side are moving toward each other as if to exchange gifts and understanding.

The Tulsa Parking Authority commissioned Earthbound Spiral for the courtyard next to a new parking garage in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma. A Caesar Pelli stadium will be built across the street in 2006.

VICTOR M. CASSIDY writes on art from Chicago.