No matter what was happening with the outside world, everything was alright in Chicago last week — especially as digital public art program ART on THE MART inaugurated its fifth season last Friday night by unveiling a short, bright animated feature from Derrick Adams amongst the balmy weather welcoming EXPO CHICAGO. Adams showed work at the art fair with West Town-based Rhona Hoffman Gallery, and installed another “Funtime Unicorn” on Navy Pier, where it went down.
That’s one of the things I love about Chicago
ART on THE MART’s founding Executive Director Cynthia Noble told me earlier that Friday afternoon.
There’s not that competitive ethos, but rather this very collaborative opportunity to celebrate an artist and come together around them.
“Ruby Rides Through Four Season,” Adams’s narrative debut, marks another appearance by his recurring “Funtime Unicorn” character — and culminated the April 1st close of his sixth solo show “…and friends” at Rhona Hoffman — by taking over the facade of Chicago’s historic Merchandise Mart. Topping 2.5 acres, it’s the world’s largest permanent projection mapping canvas. Adams’s story, co-produced by The Channel, follows a unicorn named Ruby as she savors all four seasons, though she favors summer. Voiced by a young girl and scored by the Roots, Ruby hurtles through wormholes to play with the planets, ruminating on the state of her playground between each trip.
Adams’s commission for ART on THE MART accentuates their mission to pair accessibility with conceptual rigor. The Merchandise Mart is highly visible to passersby on public transport, car, and foot alike. Over 30,000 people encounter the structure each day. Art might not consciously mean much to every visitor who witnesses “Ruby Rides Through Four Seasons,” but the vivid hues and enthusiasm of Adams’s vision sparks emotions on sight. Capitalizing on the embankment, the show’s audio can only be heard on the riverbanks — limiting distractions while maintaining intimacy.
Noble (formerly of the Art Institute, Guggenheim, and the Whitney) has curated ART on THE MART since the program, powered by parent company and commercial developer Vornado, kicked off in 2018 alongside the completion of Chicago’s luxurious Riverwalk. Previous features span Nick Cave, Barbara Kruger, and community powerhouses like Chicago Public Schools and The Joffrey Ballet.
“Even before I knew Derrick was going to use unicorns as a subject matter on our facade, I often used the playful symbol of a unicorn for the type of artists we’re seeking,” Noble explained. “We don’t want this to be an empty light show — we want to find that unicorn of an artist who also has the generosity of spirit to connect with the public.” Adams understandably creates his celebrations of Black joy to honor the expansive Black experience, but Black joy begets delight for the world. Everyone felt it Friday night — and not just because Adams appeared, to help set the night alight.
TheMART itself, Noble noted, has always offered a hub for commerce and culture. Well before the massive building — so big it has its own zip code and CTA station — came into existence, its site at the confluence of the Chicago River’s three branches offered a trading post for disparate people from the Potawatomi tribe to the French. The Marshall Field’s department store christened the 4 million square foot Merchandise Mart in 1930 to serve as their central warehouse. Now it’s home to numerous design showrooms, and Fortune 500 companies like Motorola, ConAgra, and Jim Beam.
Next, Adams is on to exciting projects like the new Art at Amtrak initiative in Penn Station, another temporary work for the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and welcoming the first class of residents to his Last Resort Artist Retreat in Baltimore this spring. “Ruby Rides Through Four Seasons” will remain on view for screenings through July 5 — followed by theMART’s first time showcasing SAIC students, a sustainability-centric show from Gensler, and commissioned artists like Yiyun Kang.
“She’s really proficient with the technology,”
“Once in a while we want to work with an artist that can tap into the bells and whistles of the system, because the system is pretty fancy.”Noble said of Kang’s work in particular.
Proprietary software makes it all possible — theMART’s many windows, for instance, are blocked out of the proverbial screen as negative space so light doesn’t impact tenants inside. Its peculiar material facade requires that artists reconsider color, too.
To celebrate half a decade illuminating the Riverwalk, ART on THE MART is expanding their advisory board and launching a guest curator program to complement recent moves at the Guggenheim and Cooper Hewitt by offering one awardee, announced this May, $40,000 and 18 months of work to commission new artworks and expand ART on THE MART’s aesthetic impulses.
Eventually, ART on THE MART intends to bring the rich legacy of their building, and Chicago’s greater spirit, to the world at large — all through curating, commissioning, and staging digital art.
Chicago has its own particular cultural artistic DNA that we want to always tap into and respect at the same timeNoble explained
ART on THE MART plans to elevate the city’s cultural exports in a spirit similar to 2021’s Footwork film projections on theMART, which honored the Stan dance style that arose from Chicago’s storied house scene, thriving on the south and west sides since the 80s.
That’s a good example of tapping into what’s here and sharing it out
At the same time, we want to bring people like Derrick here, sharing that with Chicago residents and visitors.Noble said.
It’s an exchange they intend to foster well after the art fair festivities end each miraculous Spring.