CHICAGO — A passerby looking through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the Conaway Center in Chicago’s South Loop last Friday night would have assumed she was witnessing a wedding. Presents were gathered on a table near the entrance, children danced and weaved between each other in white frilly dresses, and guests sat in rows awaiting a feast.
The multipurpose events space was in fact set up for a wedding, except those mingling in formal attire were not associated with the couple to be wed, nor with each other. All were curated guests of Alberto Aguilar for his “Wedding to Unknown.”
The wedding was a large-scale version of the dinners Aguilar has been hosting since 2009. Strangers for the events are hand-selected by Aguilar through Facebook, and the invitation is presented in his signature style of literary stacking. “Wedding to Unknown” had an invitation like this, providing guests with only a few clues as to what they might expect from the evening:
Best man toast
A Memorable cake
50 ingredient Mole
Black and white attire
Italian beef wedding soup
Left out of the description was the location, names of other attendees, and, most importantly, the identity of the couple who would be married at the event.
Aguilar created “Wedding to Unknown” in association with the exhibition RISK: Empathy, Art, and Social Practice, which focuses on a group of artists who blur the boundaries between public and private and create connections between individuals in their work. Aguilar’s second piece in RISK, “Lunch Room Expanse,” invites eight strangers to dine together biweekly at an installation built inside the Glass Curtain Gallery.
One commonality for the artists in RISK is that the success or failure of their projects can’t be guaranteed. Aguilar was aware of the high risk of his wedding plans flopping, which almost occurred when the original couple dropped out less than two weeks before the event. After asking students, friends, and acquaintances, Aguilar discovered that his wife’s step-sister and husband wanted to renew their vows. Although Aguilar didn’t get his first choice of couple, the difficulty of securing participants reinforced the exhibition’s message of uncertainty.
Decorations at the wedding were sparse: only a few strands of dangling white streamers clutched to the grid-like ceiling. Red lights illuminated the space and attendees eerily, highlighting both the warmth and strangeness of the evening. Placemats at each eight-person table offered a program that broke down the night into several time-specific segments.
At 6:24 pm, Aguilar climbed onstage, facing three projection screens that offered the words to his “Introduction Shrouded in Mystery.” He recited this formal introduction in a slow chant, narrating his actions (a technique he’s previously used for lectures and classes) and explaining that it would take him three minutes to complete the speech. As he chanted, he pointed to where the mystery couple would enter at the close of his introduction.
The stage mimicked the minimalism of the wedding’s decorations — bare except for two folding chairs and a runway of cedar branches. Ben Yahola, an activist in the Muscogee Native American community, as well as a farmer and marriage officiate, led what was described on the program as an “indigenous” wedding ceremony. Yahola, like the other collaborators for the event, was given free reign on how he should marry the couple, and he chose to lead them in a Woodlands people ceremony. Traditionally, the couple would have fed each other their favorite foods, but out of accessibility, they settled for macaroni and cheese. Yahola’s wife and daughter, of the Strawberry Moon Wedding Singers, beat drums on either side as Yahola invited the couple to kiss, then walk hand-in-hand through the pathway of cedar. The bridge and groom appeared slightly uncomfortable as they waited at the end of the stage for the drums to subside, but their tension seemed to ease throughout the evening as they greeted and laughed with attendees.
The Collective Cleaners, a Chicago artist collaborative that explores ideas of privilege and domestic labor, contributed to “Wedding to Unknown” with a before-dinner cleansing ritual and a post-dinner cleanup. The former involved members of the group placing single drops of red wine on each guest’s plate. Attendees were then instructed to wipe the stain clean with a provided rag to erase bad memories of past relationships, and to start the evening off with a “clean plate.” Collective Cleaners dually served as entertainment and function, like artist Edra Soto, who recited a love poem in Spanish to the couple and provided the wedding cake as a part her Wedding Cake Project.
Although the event was on a much larger scale than Aguilar’s usual dinner parties, the artist still made a 50-ingredient mole for all of the attendees. The dish included ingredients ranging from chocolate to Kansas City–style barbeque sauce, yet it tasted surprisingly simple and cohesive. Aguilar’s mole, which represented the idea that disparate elements can come together and still make sense in the end, reflected his intimate ceremony of strangers perfectly.
Alberto Aguilar: Wedding to Unknown took place on March 21, 6–11 pm, at the Conaway Center at Columbia College Chicago.
RISK: Empathy, Art, and Social Practice continues at Columbia College Chicago’s Glass Curtain Gallery (1104 S Wabash Ave, Chicago) through April 26.