A. Montgomery Ward Garden, Grant Park , Chicago, USA
When McDonalds sponsored the construction of a permanent ferris wheel on Chicago’s Navy Pier in 1994, the already fanciful postmodern skyline took on the profile of an amusement park. The city became officially ‘fun’. This emphasis on entertainment is underlined every summer by a growing series of celebrations downtown: festivals of music and food block off city streets and generate enormous quantities of waste. An addition to the list of summer fun this year is ‘Chicago Front Yard Picnic’: a friendly title for a friendly pair of public artworks built on waste by Dan Peterman. Peterman’s 100-foot Running Table was installed in May, while in August, a 50 x 50 foot dance platform, Chicago Ground Cover, will go up nearby. Both projects are constructed from recycled plastic extrusions. The table provides a place to sit and eat, while regular dance parties with live music and skipping contests are scheduled for the platform during August. These works slip easily into what seems like a civic mandate to provide the public with continuous, uninterrupted fun (in the face of unconscionable welfare cuts - how could this not be mentioned?), but at the same time display their monstrous nature - if you care to notice - in their construction from the fused residue of unbridled consumption.
From a distance, the ferris wheel, pulsing all night with variegated patterns of lights, seems a delicious and wicked foil to corporate structures like the Prudential building. But once you get close, the McDonalds insignia blurt from every carriage. What might (at a stretch) have been an archetypal symbol of revolution and recycling enlivened with electronic circuitry becomes a revolving prayer wheel to consumerism, reciting the mantra of the Golden Arches. McDonalds’ eagerness to set up shop in neighbourhoods in Chicago where no other businesses will enter has resulted in populations of kids who eat nothing but Happy Meals three times a day, packaged in throwaway containers. Running Table, in contrast, encourages you to bring your own lunch. And of course it invites you to sit down at the table with strangers - even if you are separated by 100 feet.
The park is simultaneously a refuge for homeless people and a lunch spot for employees up, down, and off the corporate ladder. Something both intimate and institutional is involved when sitting down here. Depending on one’s frame of reference, the experience evokes school lunches, church suppers, prison mess halls, or the generosity of the Seder table, at which there is always room for one more. Situated within the contradictions that damn and glorify public space, Peterman’s work takes on a class-crossing potential, in addition to its material ironies, that it could not achieve in a more circumscribed art space. Since the table’s installation, I have noticed an interesting range of seating configurations: everyone on one side, facing the street; a black couple at one end, and a white couple all the way down at the other end; one woman sitting all by herself in the middle, staring into space while the table extends with infinite potential in both directions.
On close inspection, the surface of the table is rough to the touch, chaotic and unfamiliar - the swirls and strings of re-melted plastic asserting themselves. Stepping back, you can see subtle undulations in the extruded panelling: unlike wood, once-again plastic remains supple - as thick as you make it, it will still want to sag. Like other works by Peterman made of recycled plastic and suggesting infinite progression, the table is of modular construction so that, by implication, it could keep going for as long as there is space to accommodate it. Supply of materials is not a problem, since what the table is in part designed to be used for - consumption - provides the raw material for its continual extension. Here, the modular form is interlocking, so that the table can’t be broken up into separate tables of reasonable size—if you took it apart, you’d have slivers of tables, like puzzle pieces, a design feature that ensures the integrity of the idea. (The bench components, however, built into the overall design, are discrete, to allow for swinging the legs around, and some semblance perhaps of smaller groupings within the collective whole).
Like the tip of an iceberg, the table is dwarfed by an awareness of the vast quantity of waste that has not been used in its construction. There is something funny about the attempt to do something useful with this humiliated material - turning it into park furniture is not a real solution in terms of the quantities involved, but it is an earnest one, a product of Peterman’s seasoned but never jaded perspective. ‘Chicago Front Yard Picnic’, like much of Peterman’s work, brings up that bizarre psychological feat we carry out on a daily, moment-to-moment, basis - knowing very well that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, but refusing to believe it in any way that would enable us to act.
That the difficulty of ethical action is in large part a problem of comprehending paradoxes of scale and number is something of which Peterman compassionately reminds us. Making such psychological contradictions tangible is the level on which Peterman’s work is most effective and disturbing.