CHICAGO — The Sidney R. Yates gallery in the Chicago Cultural Center is a large space on the top floor of a neoclassical-style building on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. Its opulent interior, with pilasters of black and wine-red marble rising up the walls to intersect with a coffered ceiling, is no accident of interior design: it was modeled on a hall in the Doge’s Palace in Venice. Completed in 1897, the Chicago room is part of a building that was originally the city’s main public library — an engine of learning, employing machines known as books, supplying a history that provides a way into the strange things that artist Paul Catanese has done to this room during a two-month residency in the gallery.
The entry hallway to the gallery has a small monitor showing grainy black-and-white footage shot from a camera suspended from a small rocket that Catanese fired into the sky over the Amargosa Desert in Nevada. This was one of his first attempts to answer the question: How big would a drawing have to be in order to be visible from space?
When visitors enter Visible From Space, they are greeted by a 12-foot long helium-filled blimp, moored to a pole; a giant video screen showing more bewildering black and white images; a floor covered in reflective mylar, littered with a set of objects also painted in black and white, surrounded by a floor-to-ceiling safety net; and a desk from which the artist periodically manages the flight of the blimp, as it sails through the room within the netted enclosure, recording what it sees on the floor via cameras suspended from its belly.
Speaking to Hyperallergic, Catanese explained that the objects on the floor are all versions of things used in cartography for measuring, delineating, and mapping land, such as flags, stakes, markers, and so on. He constantly rearranges this visual field, adding to it or subtracting from it, so that the blimp records something different during every flight. The footage that results is then edited and projected in an ever-lengthening loop on the giant screen at the western end of the gallery.
Because of the silvery mylar below it, the blimp also records a reflected image of itself. The resulting films are mesmerizing sequences of movement and stasis, the floating blimp appearing to flicker in the center of the screen, while the arrangement of shapes below it moves in geometric swirls across the film-frame. Stare at these images for long enough, and it becomes difficult to see whether we are looking down at something or up; whether we are looking at something as solid as land or as ungraspable as sky or water.
An airship of any size is not what one expects to see inside a building that’s on the National Register of Historic Places, an incongruity which the artist is undoubtedly aware of. A century ago, when the walls of this gallery space were lined with bookshelves, people visited to study, learn, and find answers to questions. Catanese’s hybrid instruments seem to be engaged in a similar quest to discover things, specifically in the field of how we compile a visual record, but the point of his investigation seems to be to raise more questions than it answers. The blimp and its cameras bring to mind the satellites that orbit the earth, taking pictures of every square-inch of the planet’s surface, or the roaming Google Map cameras that are engaged in the process of photographing every street in the world. Are these efforts a benign process of expanding our knowledge of the spaces we inhabit, or are they just refining the targets for military systems? What exactly is visible from space anyway, who is doing the recording, and why? Catanese’s blimp seems to be engaged in a playful and even absurd game inside this elegant space, but the artistic project of which it is a part has a more serious purpose: to call into question the reliability of our machines, and to make us not blindly trust such things as “photographic” or “filmed evidence.”
Paul Catanese’s Visible From Space continues at the Chicago Cultural Center (78 East Washington Street, Chicago) through September 27.