Dana Bassett with Polar Bear. All photographs by Kirk Faber and courtesy of Diego Leclerly.

Dana Bassett with polar bear (all photos by Kirk Faber and courtesy Diego Leclerly unless otherwise noted)

CHICAGO — For the past three Christmas seasons at The Suburban, an artist-run project space in Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam’s Oak Park backyard, artist Diego Leclery has decided to become a polar bear.

On Sunday, December 21, the polar bear situated itself in the corner of this cement-floored, white-walled gallery space, ready for lovin’. For two hours, the stuffed animal’s immovable legs, made sturdy by the magnificently artificial material of styrofoam, welcomed visitors to sit on them and snuggle its belly. Unlike the fleshy, possibly perverted legs of the jolliest red-coated Santa Claus — who can be found handing out fliers in front of shoe stores in Wicker Park, and inside packed suburban malls waiting to greet smiling children who still think he’s real — the polar bear has no ulterior motives. He exists simply to bring joy to all who visit him, explains Leclery, the man behind, and inside of, the bear.

Diego Leclery as polar bear (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Diego Leclery as polar bear (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

“Really there’s no point to this bear — it’s an art-ed up holiday thing,” says Leclery, when I speak to him on the phone days after the event. “People who go to galleries and try to intellectualize everything just see it and get giddy. I’ve never had an art piece that works so well — art with consequence and emotion and not distancing and well-worn theoretical contexts.”

Having just caught a flight back to New York City after the event, Leclery says that he’s still sore from the two-hour event. After all, it is only once a year that he dresses up as this bear, and there’s really no way to prepare for two hours of continuous hugging and loving of human bodies through the encasement of fur-covered arms and belly.

But how could one not intellectualize this bear? The idea didn’t just drop out of the sky and land in the suburban landscape. The white polar bear idea came from the Coke polar bear, but Leclery insists that it’s not a commentary on the commercialization of Christmas in American consumer culture.

It’s hard to resist that type of interpretation, especially if, like me, you are one of those people who goes to galleries and intellectualizes everything. Leclery did his best to avoid these sorts of readings, however. There was no press release for the event — only a jolly, if somewhat awkward, drawing of the Grabner-Killam family with the bear, which suggests that, yes, the only purpose of the giant stuffed animal is for art and neighborhood folks alike to come sit on its lap — er, legs. All are welcome to enjoy a shot of whiskey, sip a juice box, and munch on holiday cookies. That sounds too good to be true.

Assaf Evron and Polar Bear

Assaf Evron and polar bear

“I could always have put something on the side [of the gallery] that says ‘well, one day I was at home watching TV and the Coke bears came on, and the Coke bears are white, from the North Pole, and fluffy, and maybe this is part two of the conspiracy theory to use religious or spiritual iconography to plug product,’” says Leclery. “And I think a lot of people can come to that conclusion if they think about it.”

In the meantime, there’s a bear at The Suburban every holiday season. It is there to hug and love every single person who sits on its lap. You too can be snuggled into its cuddly arms in the amount of time it takes to watch a Coke Christmas commercial. No MFA or PhD required.

Nelly Agassi and baby Yoni

Nelly Agassi and baby Yoni


A family with the bear

Polar Bear Holiday at The Suburban (125 Harvey, Oak Park, Illinois) took place on Saturday, December 21 from 2 to 4 p.m. It will return next holiday season.

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED Magazine and the Chicago...