CHICAGO — Finding its way onto porches, birdhouses, and neighborhood lemonade stands, the Terrain Biennial is currently installed in various domestic locations around Chicago and the world, inviting the public to take a bike or carpool to check out outdoor works by over 75 artists. The biennial, curated by Sabina Ott, is in its second iteration, expanding outwards from its original location at Terrain in Oak Park, Illinois, to include 60 locations as far away as Phnom Penh, Cambodia and Viborg, Denmark. Although placing satellite locations much further than the tree-lined streets of its first run, the Terrain Biennial maintains its Midwestern charm within its several locations across Chicago and the suburbs.
The biennial’s focus on Oak Park is a unique one, as many of Chicago’s creative elite have settled outside of the city’s borders and within this inviting suburb, participating in the biennial as hosts, curators, or both. Artists were invited to create weather-resistant installations on the exterior of artists, professors, and curators’ homes instead of the art institutions where the biennial hosts work, adding a level of intimacy to the temporary structures and interventions. For a city so dedicated to its apartment gallery spaces, this is both a typical and unique twist, shifting one’s gaze to the outside of a home instead of its bedrooms, sunrooms, kitchens, and living rooms, reserved for view by appointment only.
The drive-by viewing at the month-long biennial relates all too closely to the traditions of holiday light tours and stop-and-go hunts for the perfect garage sale. In this sense, my favorite works were those that forced the viewer to look twice at the manicured lawns. Susan Giles’s “Mickus Songbird House” is a 3D-printed model attached onto a readymade cedar bird house. The model is a representation of the house in which lawn the work sits, exploring the homeowner’s contemporary renovations to a traditionally designed home. Pamela Fraser also altered a common lawn accessory, placing several signs made of foam core in the front of artists Tony Tasset and Judy Ledgerwood’s home. The signs are filled with bright pink thought bubbles rather than political propaganda or support for local sport teams. Finally, EJ Hill built a yellow lemonade stand that transforms the enterprising childhood activity into a kind of performance, as he hands out lemonade during the biennial.
Other favorites completely transformed the home itself, turning one’s eye to the structure as both art piece and part of the environment. Kate McQuillen covered the entire facade of curator Claudine Ise’s home with a printed image of the night sky that is illuminated by lamplight when the sun sets. Lisa Boumstein-Smalley, Geoff Smalley, and Kevin Carney’s piece “Conspicuous Invisibility” also added a transformative shimmer to a home located on 1157 South Taylor Ave by using a traditional camouflage technique with mirrored Mylar film weave to draw attention to the home, while simultaneously hiding it from the view of passersby.
Some installations were barely visible from a streetside view, forcing viewers to crane their necks and creep into side yards to find the installations marked on printed-out maps. Pieces like Allison Wade’s mobile hung hidden behind trees on a second-story porch in artist Leslie Baum’s Chicago home acted as rewards to a scavenger hunt rather than causing annoyance. Fereshteh Toosi’s work also hid from the street: hanging from a trellis-like sidegate in Oak Park are 16mm strips of film that will be screened after the closing of the biennial — revealing how the environment and weather deteriorated the film.
One neighbor not included in the biennial felt inspired to show her own work, propping up paintings against shrubbery in her front yard and adding to the already sprawling mass of installations. This rebel inclusion was one of many examples that made the suburban location that much more engaging as the gesture also invited one to examine which yard displays might be mistaken for purposeful biennial inclusions, forcing one to continually distinguish between “lawn art” and “fine lawn art.”
The Terrain Biennial continues in Oak Park, River Forest, Riverside, Chicago, and Morris, IL; Milwaukee, Memphis, Knoxville, Sioux Falls, Asheville, Dallas, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Reseda, Oakland, Waterloo, ON, Viborg, Denmark, and Phnom Penh, Cambodia through September 30.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.