Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Paintings Below Zero in Chicago: Fall visit

Museum of Modern Ice @ Millennium Park

Yesterday, we left a west coast fall in the midst of its colorful demise. Destination: The Windy City, which by now is fast becoming our favorite North American place to be. We have personal history here, and will make news in this mid western municipality, with the U.S. debut of Paintings Below Zero -- a winter art project skedded for early 2008. People say ‘what’? when we tell them about this new art form, but after our stint in Chicago - the mid west, as well as much of North America, will be able to answer the question.

We arrive for three days of wall to wall meetings with a cast of characters at the City of Chicago who will help this project to fruition. The press conference is tomorrow. The Chicago Tribune is sending a reporter along for an interview today. The plane ride is good. The novel is a fast read. The cab ride is smooth. Even the weather is unseasonably warm. We’re happy to see the sun.

Our accommodation (and one of our proud sponsors) is The Hard Rock Hotel. A hip, black/grey and metallic uber modern design in a classic art deco building with a neat twist: every floor is devoted to a musical legend. We’re on #16, and Prince is our larger than life rock star. A shirt and a guitar from one of his international tours is enshrined in a plexiglass box next to the elevator and an image of (a shirtless) Prince mid-concert adorns an opposite wall.

The Beatles’ ‘Ticket to Ride’ plays at a rock ‘n roll level in the lobby, and our room sports a silver tinted print of John Lennon overlooking the couch. We love the suite: clean lines, lots of windows, a sense of space and Someone has ordered us a fruit plate - which reminds us of our theatre days. We feel welcome, excited to begin this amazing project. I look forward to meet the City Crew: all the professionals working to birth this art into the world.

Too excited to close our bloodshot, up-at-5AM eyes, we leisurely tour the Magnificent Mile with Nancy Cottingham Powell, our Production Manager. We know our way around this part of town, as we’ve been here many times since the early eighties for another art project which took us to The Board of Trade and The Mercantile Exchange (see

Nancy has been our behind-the-scenes backbone on two gigs: the installation in Italy for the Cultural Olympiad at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games, and two simultaneous installations, one for the City of Toronto at Nathan Phillips Square and one for Niagara-on-the-Lake, hosted by The Icewine Festival Niagara on the Lake (2007).

This one, though, is going to be the biggest - and best ever. The City has already named the whole spectacle Museum of Modern Ice. The mayor has said, “Gordon Halloran’s groundbreaking work supports our long-standing commitment to bringing world-class art to this city.” Here is the space in Millennium Park we are going to fill with Gord's huge below zero painting wall.

Canadian National (CN) is the presenting sponsor and keeps good company with the Chicago Office of Tourism, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Bureau of Tourism for the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, American Express, Lifeway Foods and the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau.

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OCTOBER 31, 2007

Wind, water and a large, white tarp

Crossing the street to our first meeting we see Valentine Judge, Assistant Commissioner and Director of International Programs for the Department of Cultural Affairs for the City of Chicago. She’s our heroine, as she kept the project in the forefront for almost a year, garnering interest among players in tourism, culture and sponsors, to bring Paintings Below Zero to Chicago. She has a radio voice and a drop-dead sense of what works and what doesn’t. She’s practical, savvy and seasoned. Here she is at her desk, in a room with paper chairs designed by Frank Gehry.

Our first meeting: production. Nancy holds court talking about Every Little Thing required to make this baby float. 100 amp feeds, compressor units, water supply, load limits on the promenade, zamboni, security, sun and shade, rush hour, dumpsters, a fork lift. How a curb on the south promenade could break the paintings en route to the Ice Wall from the workshop space.

Here’s Lucas. He’s our Main Man in Production, following the footsteps of the legendary Mike Brisbin. He says things like: “We we’ll probably get the long arm” and “We don’t own anything.” And he's always got a smile and a giggle.

Nathan Mason (red beard stubble) waxes philosophical. “It’s up there for a hurricane, or it’s not up there at all,” and we all contemplate how the wind can shred a sail. “We can find clampers and bolters, no problem,” he assures us in another discussion.

“I have a large white tarp,” Nancy offers, after discussing Bubble Wrap and Styrofoam, and we laugh: how we gonna get it here from the west coast of Canada?

“We’ll want to drain it,” Joel Preciado, Chief Engineer for Millennium Park makes his point again. The pipes under the park have already been emptied for winter. But PBZ needs water in sub zero temperatures. Someone suggests a large plastic container with a sump pump. After Alma, Pete and Joel leave, Valentine says, “let’s get back to the tent discussion.”

“This is the artwork,” says Gord at some point, and I am glad these are the concerns of others.

After the meeting we tour potential workshop spaces, where Core Crew will make the paintings out of almost nothing: water, pigment, temperature.

NOVEMBER 1, 2007

We dress quickly for the press conference. I’ve given Gord his ‘talking points’ in bullet form and he tucks them into his black suit coat pocket. He almost never wears a tie, but today a starched white shirt, coal black pants and coat.

Yesterday Christine Carrino introduced us to Noreen Ahmed-Ullah, from The Chicago Tribune, a young, soft-spoken journalist in a hijab, and she tells us she’s from Canada! She called us three times at the hotel to check facts and her understanding of the art, a good sign. “It’s going to be on the front page, she said,” Gord tells me and we wonder: the front page of what section? Entertainment and Arts? But the article is full color in the lower right hand corner of the front page of the entire paper, which Nancy reads with her early morning tea at the cafe. The article is fantastic, this reporter really Got It, and the headline sort of named the installation: 'Bean' to get a companion: The 'Popsicle'. Apparently it was the photographer's idea, but I think Gord is going to go with it. "As a painting medium, I haven't found anything like (ice) in terms of expressing color. It's so luminous." His photo, which extends across the page, reflects him in Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate, affectionately known as "the bean".

We’re going to meet The Commissioner today, (here she is in the pink jacket, next to Dot Coyle). Also the presenting sponsor: CN, as well as American Express, The Hard Rock Hotel and Georges Rioux, the Consul General of Canada, among other VIPs. We arrive in the room, whose glass wall overlooks Millennium Park -- in all its fall multi colored glory. The bean reflects the sky back at us, as the sun shines brilliantly. It’s ten o’clock in the morning. On either side of the room are large posters on easels of the ice artwork from earlier installations - reprinted in glorious colors. Several larger than life posters adorn the wall behind the podium. Five chairs are set up on stage and a roomful of expectant chairs in rows.

We congratulate Christine for attracting the reporter to the story. Noreen appears in a beautiful turquoise hijab which matches a jewel in her cheek. She seems proud of her work, and rightly so - all this press is here because her article gave it the final seal of importance. The room begins filling up, and there is a palpable excitement among the staff. Soon, it seems like we’re at a very hip party.

There are at least four television stations with their cameras here, who line up at the back. Photos are being snapped all around. I see name tags: ABC, AP, WGN, FOX. I set up the laptop on a table and program in a slide show from the Italy installation to play.

It soon becomes one of those moments in a life. Dot Coyle introduces Gord and the applause dies down. Every seat is full; standing room jammed to capacity at the back.

With cameras trained on him and the room silent in expectation, it seems incredible that everyone is gathered here to see what Gord has to say about this work he invented and brought into the world. We’re in the company of people who appreciate and marvel at the jewel he has created out of his imagination. They have invited the rest of their known world to see the simulation of ‘the wall’ for Paintings Below Zero at Millennium Park. They have described it in a way that enhances its importance and novelty, and we are here, playing out our roles in the scene they have scripted for us. The City of Chicago has pulled out all the stops, the marketing, communications and publicity departments and all their minions have done their professional job. As luck would have it, no one has been assassinated today and the press here are eager to be present for this news.

I sit next to Valentine in the front row. Gord stumbles at first: thank you for the opportunity, the wall will be 95 feet long, the inspiration came from my experience as a boy . . . , etc. but the room is listening to his every word.

Lois Weisberg, the famous commissioner, an eighty-something woman who rules with an imaginative sweep and who made the final decision to invite Gord says, “this newest masterpiece will be the largest ever reflected in Cloud Gate.” Her words, “enchanted and mystified” describe their initial response to the work, “we knew in an instant we had to invite him” and we’re “building a winter celebration around it.”. I nudge Valentine when Jim Caderas of CN says the sponsorship match was “a no brainer for us”, and when Alderman Walter Burnett (27th Ward) thanks Gord for “choosing Chicago”. They’re rightly proud to be the first city in the United States to host this exhibit and I almost gag on the numbers that Jan Costner, Director of Economic Opportunity for Illinois Tourism spits out in her speech: the City of Chicago had 44 million tourists LAST year. As a final note, she says, they want “to break that record” with Museum of Modern Ice.

Then, Questions? Gord takes his place behind the podium again. No one drops a pin, but the only sound remembered is the voice of the first reporter: “Does the temperature need to be below freezing to function?” and “Will people be able to walk among the monoliths?“ More reporters raise hands. “Are you the artist, or will your crew be making the painting?” “What about music?” “How many weeks?” Someone asks about the nickname, and 'Popsicle' it is. A reporter from Associated Press grills me with questions at the laptop slide show in the back.

I was only sitting in the front row, watching, as if from afar. This man is my husband and creative partner, so familiar and so cherished. We have worked together in everything either of us has attempted since we’ve known each other, but this was his moment. Others, too, have helped us significantly, but as much as we all embraced him up to this point, he stood there in the open by himself, propelled there by his own imagination and determination and intelligence. At sixty years old, he fit comfortably into the shoes he designed for himself. And this time, there was a chorus at the door to greet him and fete him as he steps out into the world.

The next day, the inevitable Let Down, which manifested itself as physical exhaustion. We had promised ourselves we’d play squash everyday, but simply sank into a chair Friday evening, and waited for our dinner date to arrive. We supped with Valentine and her husband, Tony, who works with Garrison Keillor and Studs Terkel, but that's another wonderful story which we hope, will continue.


Here’s Laura Chmielewski & Joseph Zambrano in a budget meeting. We discussed all sorts of things, including strategies to dampen effect of the weakened U.S. dollar. Jason sits in with Penny Brown, our finance chief who said, in the spirit of the budget meeting, “so yet another fluid item, no pun intended” when referring to whether or not we’ll be needing to replace glycol in the plates.

That's Nathan Mason on the left, (with other Usual Suspects) His great idea, “I’m thinking of clear colored shower curtains,” led to a potential solution to UV rays on the sunny side of the painting. Lucas grins ear to ear because he's threatening to holiday in China sometime in January (!!!)

On Friday, after Nancy went back in a cab for an afternoon flight, Valentine & Penny sat in on a meeting for retail concerns with Lisa Munizzi and Ruth Volbre of the store at the Cultural Center: re: scarves, hats, gloves with MOMI/Paintings Below Zero logo and artbooks for sale.

And then the Programming meeting. A cast of characters, headed by Eva Silverman, each with a stellar idea for the festival aspect of the Museum of Modern Ice. Nicholas Lowe from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Claire Geall Sutton will work on the Lantern Festival; Laura Rosenberg, Family Activities including an ice maze, burr blocks and popcorn ball snowmen to name a few. Brian Keigher and Judith Hines: Chill Out activities including Mocktails, non alcoholic drinks created by the Bartenders of the U.S. (who have already begun creating cocktails inspired by Paintings Below Zero). Purple Asparagus, “Plaid” (Bjork’s back up musicians), a video artist mini festival. Judith Hines unveiled her green candy sculptures: Gord will collaborate as he has already begun developing art in that parallel medium of color and crystal structure: fluid candy. The room was filled with ideas and plans.

Back home, we met with Tim Furness, on-site Production Manager and Jaz Halloran, Core Crew, over breakfast. Countdown to December!


Bart said...


We are looking forward to hosting Gordon's work. I work for the agency that promotes Illinois tourism and we are all very excited. If you guys have the time, perhaps we can buy the next pint/cuppa when you're settled in!


Bart Heird

evision said...