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Dig Into Without You I'm Nothing

By Laura M. Browning in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 13, 2011 5:20PM

We’ve mentioned this Museum of Contemporary Art exhibit before, but finally got a chance to check it out this weekend. And we’re sorry we waited this long. Vito Acconci, the artist who created the exhibit’s Convertible Clam Shelter, puts the exhibit’s philosophy succinctly: “A piece should be inhabitable, used by people the way they use other things in their everyday life…”

Taking up the two galleries on the main floor, Without You I’m Nothing: Art and Audience explores the relationship between art and artist with provocative works from the permanent collection. Some of the art is physically interactive (like a pre-fab-style compartment you can walk through), and some of it invites more contemplative engagement. Each work’s label sets the boundaries, inviting you to walk through it or climb inside it or move it around. We’re so accustomed to museums’ hands-off policies that we actually had to walk around the gallery a couple times before we got comfortable enough to dig in, and we noticed other visitors who were just as tentative about touching/walking on/traipsing through some of the art. We love how the MCA is challenging our ingrained beliefs that art is something to be viewed, not experienced.

Start by walking on top of Carl Andre’s metallic ground coverings at the gallery’s entrance, or take off your shoes and walk through Andrea Zittel’s A-Z Cellular Compartment Units. One of the exhibit’s largest and most interactive pieces is Dan Peterman’s Villa Deponie, a sort of open-faced shelter made from recycled foam that you can walk inside. Interestingly, the piece was originally created for an outdoor festival in Italy near a major landfill. We imagine we wouldn’t have been wary about walking inside of a foam structure at an outdoor festival, but put the same piece inside a museum, and suddenly it’s hallowed art.

The most haunting and provocative piece in the exhibit is Chris Burden’s The Other Vietnam Memorial. An enormous, upended rolodex, each of about half a dozen panels are etched with painfully tiny words: 3.5 million Vietnamese names, in fact. They represent the South Vietnamese who were killed during the Vietnam War, many of whom remain unknown (Burden used names from four different Vietnamese phone books). You can move the panels around to get a closer look at the names and what they symbolize. It’s interactive art at its best: you can physically move the piece around to get a closer look at the names, but it’s also art that punches you in the gut.

It’s a rare exhibit that can marry the interactivity usually relegated to children’s museums with the thoughtfulness of good fine art.

Without You I'm Nothing is on exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave, through May 1. Suggested general admission is $12, and the museum is free every Tuesday.