Chicago should light up more of its signature buildings — even on nights when the Blackhawks are not winning the Stanley Cup. For one thing, projection technology has advanced to the point where any exterior surface can be an exciting canvas, flat or otherwise. For another, even we longtime residents take for granted the glorious exteriors of buildings like Daniel Burnham's Field Museum, replete with those relief panels and amazing caryatids by Henry Hering. Sit for a while — as I did between storms on Monday night — and stare directly at the illuminated north facade of the Field for an hour or two and you'll be amazed by what you've always missed dancing on its surfaces.
The occasion for the staring was "Divina Natura," a sound-and-light installation created by the Italian artist Marco Nereo Rotelli, an illustrious fellow known for his large-scale European installations (so-called son et lumiere shows on the exteriors of buildings have a long history in Europe, especially on the exteriors of French chateaux). Working as part of the government-sponsored celebration of Italian culture in the United States, Rotelli took as his text the work of the great medieval Italian poet Dante, he of the 14th-century epic poem "Divine Comedy," best known for its depiction of the nine circles of hell, which for the rest of Chicago early on Monday evening might have been construed as the Boston Bruins scoring nine goals.
Rotelli's images — a mix of animated visuals, numerology and text in a style familiar from those CAPTCHA questions on the Internet — were accompanied by an assortment of poetry written (and read) from the steps of the Field in a variety of languages from English to Hebrew to Portuguese. The writers included Robert Pinsky (who translated "The Inferno"), Reginald Gibbons, Lia Simaou, Ana Castillo and others. Some of the writers were present to read their own work; most poems were read by others.
Rotelli designed his projected work to interact with the neoclassical elements of the Field exterior, and that was the one truly successful element of the evening. Because the Field Museum's building is, in itself, an early 20th-century interpretation of an early classical ideal, so Rotelli's fusion of classical images (from the traditional to the, frankly, almost Pythonesque) and starkly contrasting messages on matters hellacious was a fascinating overlay. The depth of the building (the columns don't make a flat surface, of course) made the images more illusive and harder to discern, but also more complex.
Unfortunately, the rest of the show was not as illuminating. The problem mostly lay in a lack of coordination with the images and the texts. In essence, readers would descend in turn down the front steps and read their (or someone else's) poem at the microphone, with the soprano Karolina Dvorakova singing off to the side. The soundtrack was by Adrian Leverkuhn and Thomas Masters.
The issue was not so much with the choice of poems (many of which were compelling), but in the flatness of the presentation. It's never ideal when you mix poets reading their own work and poets (who "could not be here tonight") having their work read by others. It feels like catch as catch can, especially since the night begun with a declaration of uncertainty of whether one reader would be there or not (she walked in, during the show). The music had a soporific quality and so, to be honest, did the humorless and chilly mode of presentation, clearing out the seats before the end. Demonstrably, not everyone wanted to explore every circle of that place below, and who could blame them? Even Dante knew the value of cultural distraction.
At times, the visuals would end before the reader stopped reading; at times the reverse. By design? Impossible to know. Either way, one felt like one was watching an interesting idea, rushed and flawed in execution on, to be fair to all, a stormy, distracted Chicago night.
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