CHICAGO — Invented in 2011, Zachary Cahill’s USSA 2012 began as a one-off joke, a half-sketched theoretical future where America was reshaped as a socialist nation. In the following years, the project has become a loose conceptual wrapper for Cahill’s at times wildly disparate interests: the USSA 2012 project has included explorations of critical comedy, the mythic afterlife of Soviet Communism, Chicago’s political history, and the artist’s ongoing concerns about contemporary art’s agency within the political sphere.
This complexity of ideas hasn’t always settled into sense. The first “phase” of USSA 2012, titled The Orphanage Project at Chicago nonprofit space Threewalls, featured documentation of a proposed orphanage for the hypothetical and mythic Orphan alongside spurious paintings linking the bear as Russia’s historical cultural mascot to Chicago’s football team, the Bears. The second phase, The People’s Palace Gift Shop, converted a disused gift shop at the Chicago Cultural Center into a living installation, offering the shop’s former merchandise alongside Cahill’s sculptures of bears and political figures and propaganda for USSA 2012. Risking the twist and tangle of simultaneity, USSA 2012 traffics in conflated terms and leaps between registers, settling only briefly into exhausted abstractions.
Cahill’s third USSA 2012 project is itself nested as his exhibition Snow, one in the yearly series of locally focus Chicago Works exhibitions sponsored by BMO Harris Bank at the Museum of Contemporary Art. It takes the form of a hypothetical institution within the museum, called the USSA 2012: Wellness Center. The exhibition occupies three adjacent spaces on the museum’s third floor: a gallery of paintings and sculpture, a welcome center containing information, banners, and drawings, and the library, where two chairs flank a clunky tabletop architectural model and a promotional video plays above a small shelf of selected texts.
Though billed as an institution-within-the-institution designed to heal and restore visitors, the Wellness Center hardly creates a break from the regular order of the museum, and is worlds away from the type of distant center for recovery that Cahill’s title suggests. Snow rather feels more like an exhibition of objects brought back from some retreat, evidence of the Wellness Center as a place where art can make one well. As the exhibition it claims to be, Snow is a cracked and confused failure, juxtaposing average paintings with high ideals and sophomoric politics. Its salvage comes through Cahill’s investment in the discourse of contemporary art, where such intentional confusion and failure may be (somewhat generously) extrapolated as critique.
Painted from the imagined position of a resident of the Wellness Center during an art therapy class, Cahill’s paintings are as much evidence of the center as they are propaganda for USSA’s abstract ideology of art and healing. Like a friend just home from rehab, the works in Snow are anxious to tell us about what an amazing time they had and how beautiful it all was. Written in block letters across the oversaturated paintings, phrases like “Painting for Life!,” “Wellness is Not You or Me, Wellness is USSA,” and “Only a Painting Can Save You Now” emerge with hypnotic optimism. Other works show the restorative landscape of the center’s campus, with campfires, sailboats, snowy mountain ranges, and peaceful abstracts. Equally serene and psychedelic, Cahill’s architectural model of the Wellness Center calls to mind the isolation and madness of place in Stephen King’s The Shining, which nods from a nearby bookshelf.
By conjuring the possibility of the Wellness Center, Cahill taps into the popular imagination of the sanatorium and its rhetorical ancestors like the mental health retreat, the rehab clinic, and any enveloping institution where one goes to get better. The center also connects to the more modern phenomenon at the heart of the exhibition: the participatory space of social practice artworks, wherein the gallery, museum, or exhibition space becomes a separate stage for social reconfigurations. Like the sanatorium, especially as imagined in Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel The Magic Mountain (another bookshelf nod), participatory art can provide a temporary world apart, where participants might encounter new ideas and experiences within the safety of an artificial environment, quarantined from the regular order of society. The challenge — and the source of much criticism for social practice — is in the enduring question of whether such projects performed within the experimental space of art can effect social change outside of it.
As a meditation on this new friction in art, Cahill’s response is both suspicious and wryly optimistic: in Snow, the Wellness Center is not exactly a parody of art projects that seek to restore or educate participants, but rather an attempt to question the social drive that makes such projects attractive — the desire for a zone of possibility, perspective, and reflection, where the world we live in might be examined and experimented with. Claiming so much and delivering so little, the irony and criticism lurking in the Wellness Center comes as this inventive potential is reduced, as it is in the dregs of participatory art, to therapy, to a desire only to ease the pains of a corrupt social order at the level of individual experience. Seen from this angle, the banal phrasing in Cahill’s text paintings — “We Will Paint the World in Wellness!” — reads like rolling eyes.
BMO Harris Bank Chicago Works: Zachary Cahill continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago through September 28.