6018 North, outdoor installation view of the exhibition Living Architecture. Image credit Nathan Keay

Walking through Living Architecture at 6018 North feels much like discovering an ancient ruin. The architectural framework of the mansion-turned-house-museum envelopes the viewer in site-specific installations that respond to the structure’s embellished 19th-century doorways, intimate nooks, and winding wooden staircases. Living Architecture’s curatorial theme is inspired by narratives related to immigrant culture, labor, and citizenship. Immersive work across mediums showcase accounts of intergenerational immigrant experiences in the context of migration, of home, and of belonging. This thematic coherence allows for a spatial and sensory continuity throughout the three-story house.

Three curators devised Living Architecture including 6018 North’s founder and director, Tricia Van Eck, Chicago Artist Coalition’s Director of Exhibitions and Residencies, Teresa Silva, and the director of the Roger’s Park art space Roman Susan, Nathan Abhalter Smith. Created in response to the nation’s current political climate that frequently divides communities along socio-economic, racial, ethnic, and gender lines, the show not only celebrates the unique artistic practices of fifty diasporic artists based in Chicago but also convincingly advances a political commentary grounded in cultural equity. It challenges dominant narratives that position immigrant identities as marginal to the history of American visual culture to instead center the artwork made by and for immigrant communities.

Julie Oh, Documents, 2018 Neon, aluminum.

All fifty artists identify as first or second generation immigrants and, as Van Eck expressed during a tour of the exhibition, “issues of immigration have been truncated into two ethnicities, and [Living Architecture] demonstrates that these problems have been embedded within America’s cultural fabric for centuries.” It problematizes the notion that the immigrant body is antithetical to the American identity by showing the way several ethnic and cultural identities have coexisted within American culture since its inception.

The works on display, spanning from 19th-century architectural designs by German-American architects to contemporary artists originating from immigrant families, bridge past and present manifestations of art, design, and culture to center the artwork of immigrant voices and their diaspora. Moreover as one of the many exhibitions included in the Terra Foundation’s year-long Art Design Chicago– a citywide initiative exploring Chicago’s history of art and design– aesthetic legacies related to design, typography, patterns, and symbols serve as a unifying theme in the exhibition’s aesthetic.

Eugenia Cheng Sunset on the American Dream, 2018 Chalk on chalkboard paint. (L) and Julietta Cheung, The American. 2016 Pigment inkjet prints on Somerset. (R)

The first piece that the viewer encounters on the gate surrounding the 6018 North complex is  Alberto Aguilar’s Entre (Between), a vinyl sign that reads “influx” in fluorescent pinks, purples, and greens. Each repeated “i” and “x” in the word is reinforced by simple lines and zigzags that mimic the movement of waves on the ocean. The piece refers to moments of physical and emotional instability experienced by waves of immigrants who have chosen to resettle in the city of Chicago–especially in the context of the historically multi-ethnic neighborhood of Rogers Park where 6018 North resides. Once the viewer enters the interior of the repurposed home, they are invited to step through a door frame lit with neon lights stating “DOCUMENT” in all capital letters. This installation called Documents by Julie Oh resembles the bodily screening devices found in security checkpoints due to its shape and construction. It is a metaphor for the level of dehumanizing scrutiny involved in the bureaucratic processes required to obtain American citizenship.

The rest of the first-floor features work by several artists including Eugenia Cheng, Julietta Cheung, Benjamin Larose, Roni Packer,  Emilio Rojas. Each installation, sculpture, and work on paper is ordered chronologically to map out historical time through space, starting with America’s colonial beginnings leading up to present-day American culture. Cheng’s work, Sunset on the American Dream, uses a large-scale wall drawing to delineate a family tree in several pastel colors showcasing words such as “slave”, “transported”, and “visitor”. Each branch is meant to depict the many paths that immigrant communities have historically taken to arrive on U.S soil, most noticeably by forced migration. Cheng’s vivid didactic usage of chalk on a blackboard is reminiscent of a school classroom and emphasizes the different ways that American society has characterized the immigrant identity. This, in turn, further reveals how the majority of the American population originates from immigrant ancestry.

Kioto Aoki, frame, ways, inflections, 2018 Digital projection of 16mm black and white, silent, 3’.

Most work throughout the rest of the exhibition contains a subtle intimacy that quietly speaks to physical boundaries and borders experienced in enclosed spaces. Kioto Aoki’s piece frame, ways, inflections does this skillfully. Her monochromatic silent video projection is shown in a dark closet behind a cluster of stacked doors. Inspired by Japanese artist Idaka Yuichi who studied at Chicago’s Institute of Design, the work showcases Aoki’s bare hands and feet gracefully moving within domestic interiors from the perspective of a handheld camera. The continuity between light and dark spaces within a home allows the piece to be personal without the need for context, sound, or words. Jan Tichy’s piece Untitled uses red neon letters to spell out the word “Jew” in an elegantly written script. The piece, which is installed in a repurposed bathroom, is meant to consider the architectural space of a bathroom as a psychological place of refuge and also to represent those who emigrated from Germany to England during WWII. The saturation of the red light in such a dark area of the exhibition slows down time in a way that allows the viewer to focus internally.

Other pieces stand out by using bold phrases and patterns to communicate the urgency of liberation from oppressive, state-sanctioned violence.  Yvette Mayorga’s diptych of portraits, F* is for ICE 1975-2018, 2018 (After Portrait of Innocent X c. 1650, Diego Velázquez) on display shows two front-facing figures surrounded by ornate sugary signifiers of cakes, tootsie roll candy, cherries. and the shirt of the figure to the left reads “Fuck ICE.” The hot pink installation satirically features elaborate backgrounds that use Tetris-like blocks of saturated color and recognizable motifs from Mexican-American culture to symbolize politics related to the U.S/Mexico border. This strategy of displaying playful, emoji-like imagery, juxtaposed against socio-political messages assert a perspective that affirms the necessity of pleasure and condemns the institutional violence embedded within the American political landscape.

With careful intentionality, Living Architecture elevates the creative contributions of immigrant voices and their diaspora by showcasing a multiplicity of individualized vignettes of immigrant stories through art and design. Its curatorial theme, criteria for selecting artists, and spatial location move the show passed value-based judgments of the immigrant body to reveal a kaleidoscope of personal and collective identities that were, and continue to be, intrinsic to America’s roots. Through a collection of installations across mediums, Living Architecture invites audience members to engage in sensory experiences that shed light on cultural stories not often shared in the American mainstream.

Installation view of Yvette Mayorga, F* is for ICE 1975-2018, 2018 (After Portrait of Innocent X c. 1650, Diego Velázquez), 2018 Acrylic piped on canvas.