On a wall at the corner of Ashland and Julian in the “Is this still Wicker Park?” northern section of Wicker Park, there’s a remnant sign from an art exhibit I didn’t think was very good.
“I WANT TO BE ORDINARY” the sign says in big white letters on the big black banner hanging from the brick wall.
The exhibit was by an arts group called Industry of the Ordinary. I saw their show in 2012 or so at the Chicago Cultural Center. It was forgettable and insulting, a celebration of the ordinary by people who clearly didn’t think they were.
I remember some neon and a room you went into that had a bunch of artist self-portraits. I remember a paternalistic group photo of the cultural center security staff. There was a butter sculpture of Obama.
“Through sculpture, text, photography, video, sound and performance Industry of the Ordinary are dedicated to an exploration and celebration of the customary, the everyday, and the usual. Their emphasis is on challenging pejorative notions of the ordinary and, in doing so, moving beyond the quotidian,” the group’s online manifesto reads.
That’s art-speak for “We have the common touch.”
The Industry of the Ordinary website list of past exhibits and performances reads like a bad improv troupe’s impression of an arts group. Past performances include:
- Baby: Industry of the Ordinary produce an infant to be auctioned on eBay.
- Phosphorus: Industry of the Ordinary drink a crate of beer and document the change in color of their urine.
- Current Affairs: Industry of the Ordinary purchase a copy of the Chicago Tribune, paint it white, and mail it to the mayor.
- Celebrity and the Peculiar: For a solo show at the Gahlberg Gallery at the College of DuPage, Industry of the Ordinary impregnate oxygen tents with the prescribed scents of five celebrities.
- Manual Labor: For the Intimate and Epic show in Lurie Garden at Millennium Park in Chicago, Industry of the Ordinary disperse 61 frozen hands, each tagged with the name of a worker who broke ground at the site.
- Public Opinion: Industry of the Ordinary collect names on a petition to ban performance art.
They’ve dressed as gods to play foosball on the beach. They’ve wandered Michigan Avenue with an ice Ten Commandments and bottled the melt to give to passersby. They’ve covered a couple in phosphorescent paint and displayed their sheets after they fucked. Even my Ashland Avenue sign, it turns out, is an project called Prayer with the following online declaration:
This simple yet provocative phrase intends to challenge the viewer,
question their assumptions, and invite them to contemplate
the ambiguous nature of the word “Ordinary”.
Most will first read it in its pejorative sense.
In a society that values celebrity above substance and material wealth above simpler pleasures, the desire to be ordinary will commonly be seen as pathetic.
However, it can also be read as a resounding affirmation of the power and beauty of the everyday and a rejection of our narcissistic self-obsession: a call to arms.
Who knows? Maybe I would like these guys. Maybe we would grab a beer and know people in common and make plans to go see “Winter Soldier” when it comes out on IMAX.
But in general they seem like dicks.
The whole exhibit a few years ago left a bad taste in my mouth. First, because nothing seemed to exhibit skill. If you’re going to photograph the museum security staff, make it a good picture. If you’re going to butter-sculpt the president, butter-sculpt it well. This was mediocre work masked as interesting by a confusing message.
But second and more galling was the sense of ordinary as the other. It was a separate thing from the artists and, by proxy, from the people who understood the art. You don’t talk about something being “on” unless there’s a chance it’s off. You don’t talk about something being “dark” unless there’s a comparison that’s light. And you don’t talk about “ordinary” unless you believe there’s an extraordinary out there somewhere.
And then they talked about a desire to be ordinary. That means they don’t think they are already.
I’m sure they love “the ordinary.” I’m sure they think I misunderstand the message or am reading the word in the pejorative sense. No, I get it. Simple pleasures are good. And I’m sure their love of what they deem “the ordinary” is sincere.
I just think it’s also from afar. It seems like they created an imaginary line between ordinary and extraordinary and, even if they think ordinary is pretty cool, they still put themselves on the extraordinary side of that line.
They want to be ordinary, they yell from a dangling black banner on a brick wall along Ashland. For some reason, they think we need them to tell us our ordinary lives are OK.