At most exhibitions I can barely raise my arm to post a photo on Instagram. As an inveterate skeptic and occasional hater, it’s not always easy to get out of bed in the morning. In lieu of being moved by art, most days I will settle for a vaguely positive omen: a bird shitting on my windowsill, or an unusual cluster of raisins in my breakfast. Attending a recent exhibition opening, I was pleased to see a table of snacks which compensated for the art rather well. When a friend offered me a slice of bread and I clumsily dropped it on the floor, to my surprise and delight it landed buttered-side-up. The exhibition may have been mediocre, but the rest of my weekend was a guaranteed success!
I considered reviewing the slice of bread falling on the floor, but good omens don’t always make good art. Fortunately, though, there are rare occasions when the two coincide. In fact I came across an object recently which threatened to put me in a good mood for the entire winter—a fourteen-feet-wide virtual SAD lamp1 on the streets of Humboldt Park. Next to a dentist’s office on a busy stretch of North Avenue, above the nondescript storefront of a modest four-unit greystone, someone has installed an awning the shape and color of a cartoon sun.
For one thing, it makes the delightful meta-maneuver of being both a sun and a device to protect people from the sun. More surprising, however, is its failure to fulfill its more commercial function—to advertise for the business whose customers it will presumably shield. Basically just a big blank yellow aluminium-and-canvas sun plonked in the streetscape, it has a remarkable, if inarticulate, power. On the day I first saw it, there was a woman sitting in the window of the McDonald’s across the street, transfixed by it, absentmindedly playing with some shredded lettuce. It’s as if the awning has its own readymade theater seating, with the venerable restaurant’s parking lot, indoor tables and drive-thru all providing patrons with unparallelled sunshine vistas.
It would be a cheap trick to convince you that behind this object lies a singular artistic vision; that it’s the work of a hitherto unknown local artist, or an Adbusters-esque intervention in the corporate landscape. It’s simply a quirk of commercial design that will evaporate once the sign-writers come to complete the job. I prefer to think of it as a perfect example of what the late Japanese artist Genpei Akasegawa called ‘hyperart’:
Art is something an artist sets out to make. But hyperart is something a hyperartist makes unconsciously—without any idea that they are doing so. A work of hyperart can have an assistant, but not a creator. In the end, all hyperart has is the person who discovers it.2
The big blank sun on North Avenue has the kind of soothsaying power that art only rarely manages to achieve. I am not about to enter into a discussion about climate change, dark ecology, or the post-Anthropocene, but suffice it to say that when such an ancient and recognizable symbol appears so unexpectedly in urban space, I find myself willing to ascribe to it the quality of an omen. Of course, omens can’t function without diviners. In these troubled times, what’s needed might be a re-investment in the prophetic potential of objects—those made by artists and hyperartists alike. For the sake of getting out of bed each morning, perhaps we should all be brushing up on our divination skills.
- A vernacular term for a device which provides bright-light therapy treatment for seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Many of these lights explicitly mimic the effects of sunshine on the human brain.
- Akasegawa, Genpei and Fargo, Matt. Hyperart: Thomasson. New York City: Kaya Press, 2009. First published in 1987 in Japan by Chikuma Shobo Publishing Co., Ltd.