We keep us safeErin Toaleon December 7, 2022 at 3:31 pm

This exhibition is a much needed reminder of our interconnectedness in the face of the toxic individualism touted by much of contemporary American culture. It explores the increasing overlaps between artistic practice, mutual aid, and political activism. The title,“For Each Other,” references the ways the included artists “consider care in their work and in the contexts they create for their work,” writes exhibition curator Lorelei Stewart. Care, a word that has thankfully reentered cultural discourse as of late, takes many forms here: prompts for audience self-reflection, bowls for sharing soup, publications about resource sharing, flyers calling for community volunteers, multiple seated reflection spaces, and so on. Some of the works are straightforwardly interactive, some abstractly encourage rest and reflection. Unsurprisingly, given the communal conceit of the show, several collaborations and collectives are featured.

 “For Each Other”Through 12/17: Tue-Fri 10 AM-5 PM, Sat 12-5 PM, Gallery 400, 400 S. Peoria, gallery400.uic.edu

A striking installation by Kennedy Healy and Marley Molkentin titled Care is the standout. The series depicts their relationship as personal care assistant and receiver of care services and grapples with, as Molkentin tells me in a joint interview, “how broken our state care system truly is.” Both artists are invested in social justice, disability justice, and media production, and are driven to make work that calls attention to what they call “violence framed as care.” (Healy runs a disability media company, Crip Crap, that creates work about disability by and for disabled people.) This refers to, says Healy, “state in-home care and many other institutions like psychiatric wards, group homes, work programs, nursing homes, etc. that claim to offer care but often strip people of their rights, autonomy, and dignity in exchange.”

This room-sized installation of several distinct works thoughtfully documents the logistics of the daily interactions between the two artists but goes beyond simply archiving them. Materials used include the logistical accoutrements of medical care: time sheets that document Molkentin’s hours worked, continuous positive airway pressure gear, and catheters. Stunning portraits of the two of them throughout their daily routine, printed large, are hung salon-style across a single wall. These include a nude portrait of Healy in a pink-tiled shower; her pose is a supported contrapposto, reminiscent of Botticelli’s Venus. There is also an image of Molkentin guiding Healy in a Hoyer lift sling (an assistive device used to transport patients with mobility issues) adjacent to a suspended life-sized figure sculpture—made of medical bills—also seated in a Hoyer lift sling .Though there is tenderness in the interactions between the two, the works bluntly recount the reality of living with a disability in the state of Illinois and make clear the need for social reform and increased community support. 

Latham Zearfoss’s video installation Grant Us Serenity explores infrastructures of care while emphasizing the healing power of pleasure. Zearfoss invites the viewer into a relaxation cave with a sumptuous padded rug and tree stumps to sit on. The lights are dim, and both the walls and floor are a soothing blue. Projected on the wall is a cerulean sky occasionally interrupted by a passing cloud or bird—which fades to lavender at the end of a five-minute loop. (This was shot at the experimental residency Poor Farm.) The soundtrack is a gentle, ambient compilation of field recordings taken near the artist’s home, including a wind chime and a freight train. The room encourages both emotional and physical presence and reminds the viewer that rest can function as both self-care and resistance, especially if you are queer, BIPOC, or part of an otherwise marginalized or vulnerable population.

Latham Zearfoss, still from Grant Us Serenity, 2022, looping video, stereo sound, sections of a dead maple tree, hand-dyed deadstock velvet, recycled carpet padding, 5:00 mins.

Zearfoss offers the viewer an intermission from the exhaustion of being sentient in the world today. In addition to creating a quiet, meditative moment in the midst of—as the artist describes—a “very text-heavy and thematically heavy” exhibition, this work also brings up the relational politics of space and power: who gets it, who doesn’t, who needs to cede more in public discourse (usually the person in the room with the most privilege). Zearfoss writes, “I thought of this as a supportive gesture to the viewer but also to my fellow artists, who are doing such important work. Sometimes fading into the background is the most powerful thing we can do.”

Zearfoss’s positing a world in which all public spaces include zone-out rooms echoes the cheeky installation by Real Fake Artists, Inc., a collective of six recent University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) grads (Gallery 400 is housed at UIC). The Stuff Is Fake but the Need Is Real consists of playful cardboard renderings of a proposed student lounge, to be hypothetically housed in the same building as the gallery. Public spaces can be forms of care, amenities for students at a public institution can be forms of care, and—as frequently espoused in the transformative and restorative justice movements—constructive criticism can also be forms of care (for more on this, see adrienne maree brown’s writings on the topic). Institutional critique is alive and well; long live institutional critique!

Kathleen Hinkel, The Love Shack Love Fridge at 2751 W. 21st Street near Little Village, 2021, color photograph, courtesy The Love Fridge Chicago and the photographer

There is more than one art world in Chicago, and it was great to see some nontraditional works and spaces outside the constellation of usual suspects. I am talking mostly about The Love Fridge, an incredible food-access and neighborhood beautification initiative launched at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic—now boasting 24 locations. The refrigerators, and often accompanying pantry shelves, are painted to reflect the neighborhood in which they are located. The organization’s rallying cry, “solidarity is not charity,” makes the argument that providing food to a neighbor in need is not an extraordinarily philanthropic act but a basic gesture of community support. Their mission reads: “Feeding oneself is not a privilege but a right.” Especially during times of collective tragedy, we really aren’t meant to go it alone. 

This show was generous with both public programming and ephemera, and I left with a tote full of treasures (of course following The Love Fridge ethos “take what you need/leave what you can”). My favorite was the zine Take Me With You: Waiting Room Edition by the UIC Disability Cultural Center Community Care Cohort. It reads, “Have an upcoming doctor’s appointment? Take this zine with you!”—the compiled poems, coloring pages, games, tips, and other enrichments are designed to “alleviate the wait and anxiety of waiting rooms.”

This exhibition’s series of gentle gestures in both intimate and public places act as a handbook for how we can keep each other well-cared for. I left with zines, recipes, resources, and a renewed curiosity in what the future of mutual aid and community care looks like in Chicago—where we keep us safe.

Gallery 400 offers accessibility measures that should be standard in public cultural spaces. Here are some best practices courtesy of Stewart: -Engage with folks in the disability art and activism communities. Healy offers consulting services on creating disability friendly media through Crip Crap. -Put captions on all videos.-Provide verbal descriptions of every artwork and all exhibition texts available both in audio recordings and on a dedicated screen readable webpage.-Present virtual tours of the exhibition. Partner with disability community leaders, artists and/or activists when doing so. Always provide ASL interpretation and CART captioning.


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