Surreality: Preview of “The Long Dream at MCA

New exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago looks to Chicago artist to help us see clearly the impact of issues emanating from an unprecedented year

Equal parts farce and harsh reality, the year 2020 has been something of a surreal moment for most of us. Few, if any, can boast of lives untouched by the events that have thrown our nation, nee world, into flux these past eight or night months. On our hands, we’ve got a worldwide pandemic which has amassed millions of victims worldwide and killed more than 200,000 (and still counting) in the U.S. alone; public unrest has mounted quickly over what is seen as unjust, state-absolved killings of unarmed African-Americans at the hands of police; shutdowns from coast to coast that have upended any sense of normalcy for most households; pulsing upticks in white-nationalism have taken place in the public square; and on top of all of that, we’ve got a contentious presidential election on our hands.

You’d be forgiven if you woke up every day thinking (or wishing, as it were) it was all a vague night terror. Such is the reflection approached by a new, major exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) this fall. Entitled appropriately, The Long Dream is inspired by the current moment we face today, giving voice to issues heightened by the pandemic and social unrest at work in our cities.

Overseen by MCA Senior Curator Naomi Beckwith, Chief Curator Michael Darling and Interim Senior Curator January Parkos Amall, The Long Dream showcases more than 70 Chicago artists collaboratively selected by the museum’s diverse team of curators and programmers with differing backgrounds and specialties, all ranging from the visual arts to performance and public practice. Sharing its name with the famed novel by renowned author Richard Wright, while The Long Dream is indeed part reflection on the state of the world after the arrival of COVID-19, it’s also part celebration of Chicago artists and creatives articulating the angst and opportunity we are presented with today. Blending work by emerging voices with established artists in Chicago, The Long Dream showcases many never-before-seen works, along with poignant labels written in collaboration with youth groups and civic practitioners, honoring a diverse array of perspectives from the community.

As Michael Darling explained, one factor that this new exhibition aptly utilizes is the efficacy of contemporary art as a medium to communicate the depth and breadth of the kinds of issues we confront today. “Contemporary art is truly the art of our time, and many of the artworks in The Long Dream invite visitors to reflect on the particular circumstances of the COVID era and to grapple with the long history of inequities and racial violence that have come into sharp relief during this time, especially in Chicago,” said Darling. “Art can be a powerful medium to envision alternatives to the status quo and help us dream toward a more just future together.” Darling pointed out that that medium is made all the more powerful by the expansiveness of the kinds of artists and presentation platforms in differing media at work in the new show. They include collaborative teams like Edgewater-based mixing, recording and mastering facility Experimental Sound Studio,  and indie television production platform Open TV, which proffers a mission that includes providing a space for different communities to “come together to experience culture, have critical conversations about identity, and meet people across social networks”; as well as live artists such as Darling Shear and Eduardo Rosario, whose artworks offer models for collective decision making and creative collaboration particularly useful in building social bonds and social justice.

The Long Dream explores the critical importance of bringing art and artists like these to the forefront of social issues facing our city and country today. Building this exhibition, the MCA curatorial team reflected on its commitment to and support of Chicago artists and the arts community, and the ways artists have historically played important roles in actions that advance social justice and racial equity. The goal of The Long Dream, Darling notes, is to advocate for artists’ voices and work in a city in the throes of a pandemic and struggling with social unrest, to empower them to make an impact during a critical time of social change. It is through the eyes of these artists that The Long Dream engages visitors around several core themes: how artists make work in the studio or at home with available materials; the psychological effects of uncertain times; structural inequities in society; and our collective dreams for a more inclusive future.

The exhibition features a diverse mix of new voices in the Chicago artist community, as well as recognized art leaders in the community who have shaped discourse around arts and creative practices throughout their careers. Well-known Chicago artists like Dawoud Bey, Nick Cave, Julia Fish, Jim Nutt, William Pope.L, and Amanda Williams all contribute timely works that speak succinctly to the core themes of the exhibition, including Cave’s Arm Peace (2020) and Williams’ Black Studies (2020). Meanwhile, artist collective Floating Museum presents their Monument Reassembly (2020), addressing a topic that has surfaced in both mainstream and social media as a crucial piece within the larger context of confronting historical and systemic injustices.

In selecting the roster for The Long Dream, the museum’s curatorial team leaned into some of the longstanding relationships it has cultivated with artists over time. Museum visitors will recognize artists from previous exhibitions and programs, including Brendan Fernandes, Edra Soto, and Sadie Woods. Another example is the collective Open Television (OTV), which will premiere their new video work, Queer Pandemic TV (2020)–developed in response to current social conditions. Similarly, Alberto Aguilar presents Quarantine Regimen (2020), a set of drawings produced during shelter-in-place that feature his friends and family members, including a portrait of Aguilar drawn by his child. The Long Dream organically developed a focus on representing the work of artists of color, artists of varying abilities, and especially women artists, with works by Candida Alvarez, Kirsten Leenaars, Tonika Lewis Johnson, Riva Lehrer, Claire Pentecost, Cheryl Pope, and Rhonda Wheatley, among others.

Moving a step or two beyond the typical exhibition experience, The Long Dream engages a variety of artists working in live arts and performance with in-gallery representation of their work, theater residencies, commissions and other collaborative events. The museum will present residencies throughout November, December, and January to three local artists – Joanna Furnans, Derek McPhatter, and Darling Shear – to highlight their working processes to audiences and to provide support for further creative output. For these performance residencies, the museum offers space for the artists to rehearse and produce new works in the museum’s Edlis Neeson Theater, in addition to participation in the museum’s Virtual Studio Visit series to present their evolving work to MCA audiences. Also a part of this exhibition, the museum commissioned local artist and sensory illusionist Jeanette Andrews for Invisible Museums of the Unseen, an interactive performance accessible through a downloadable digital app that explores the invisible forces in the world, from the physiological to the sociological.

Collaborative events taking place as part of The Long Dream kick off with a free virtual talk on the opening day of the show. Other highlights include Chicago composer Eduardo F. Rosario performing a commissioned open-form, orchestral composition inspired by the Puerto Rican independence movement of the 1970s and ‘80s. The museum presents musician and makeup artist Cae Monae in its Virtual In-Progress series, providing space for feedback on their new music and video work and highlighting their role in shaping a new generation of makers in beauty, fashion, and music.

The Long Dream culminates in a live virtual performance event on the exhibition’s closing weekend that involves artists in the exhibition performing their work live for viewers online, with space for conversation, participation and interaction between artists, audiences and the exhibition’s curators.

An incredibly expansive show, The Long Dream offers a multitude of voices across a variety of media and media platforms well-positioned to articulate the deep well of emotions and issues laid bare by the year of turbulence we have experienced. But Darling hopes the exhibition also leaves visitors with a greater sense of the breadth and depth of the city’s creativity community and their capacity to engage with the public on these important issues, interact with the public from a perspective of mutual care and power to act as a catalyst for change and civic transformation.

The Long Dream will be on view at the Museum of Contemporary through January 17, 2021