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Installation view, “Amanda Ross-Ho: THE CHARACTER AND SHAPE OF ILLUMINATED THINGS,” MCA Chicago Plaza, 2013 (photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago)

CHICAGO — Amanda Ross-Ho’s giant gray mannequin head is a neosurrealist’s dream come true. Resting comfortably in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, it looks as if caught in preparation for use in a Man Ray photogram. Ross-Ho’s site-specific installation THE CHARACTER AND SHAPE OF ILLUMINATED THINGS calls upon the history of photography while also looking to the future of an internet world where anyone, anywhere, can snap a picture with their smartphone camera and show it to the universe. In fact, she encourages visitors to stand by the female mannequin head, take a photo, and upload it to social media sites. On a recent pleasant summer afternoon, I watched a young woman pose with the sculpture while her mother took a photo, which she would no doubt load to Facebook or Tumblr later. Surrealism enters the world of social-networked identities.

Photographic lighting technique illustration, source material for Amanda Ross-Ho’s 2013 Plaza Project at the MCA Chicago (courtesy and © David Brooks)

For the installation, Ross-Ho began with a standard photography 101 set-up from the 1980 handbook How to Control and Use Photographic Lighting, in which the author illustrates the way different lighting affects three still-life objects: a cube, a sphere, and a female mannequin’s head. Ross-Ho stays true to the original image, painting all of the objects a dark, muted gray tone. The mannequin head, however, is 25 feet tall, and in front of it, we see a color calibration card that guides photographers in adjusting color scales. The installation implicates the visitor: If they take a photo of themselves in front of the head, they will also become an object, too. If they upload the photo of themselves to social media site, whose eyes will see them?

Recently I encountered Ross-Ho making a similarly sized move in her solo exhibition Cradle of Filth at Shane Campbell Gallery. The centerpiece is a teen-girl’s backpack blown up 400% and transformed into a giant sculpture. Both the backpack and the mannequin head are playfully but thoughtfully larger-than-life, a nod to gigantic Claes Oldenburg sculptures such as “Giant Three-Way Plug (1970), the artist’s first commissioned public sculpture, which I walked by nearly everyday on my way to the Oberlin College Art Library, and the clothespin and shuttlecock in front of the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City.

Amanda Ross-Ho, “THE CHARACTER AND SHAPE OF ILLUMINATED THINGS” (2013) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

Like Oldenburg’s pieces, this new work by Ross-Ho moves from the interior of a pristine white gallery to a very public, outdoor space, tweaked with a Surrealist edge rather than further abstracting consumer culture objects. The female mannequin head is suggestive of Man Ray’s portrait of Lee Miller — except with Ross-Ho, the mannequin’s subjectivity is never identified — as well as Ray’s photographs of mannequins themselves. Consider his 1938 piece “Lot 80,” in which a mannequin head adorned with curls and painted-on eyelashes and teardrops is positioned, lifeless, on a table.

With Ray’s work, we are passive viewers of a photograph staged by the artist; with Ross-Ho’s, participants who take a moment to stop and photograph themselves become participants in an oversize aesthetic of neosurrealism. As social networking and photographic stagings collide, viewers become implicated, a comment on the colossal way we consume and experience museums and art now. We, too, become the objects that are gazed at and upon, the art that is disseminated across the world wide web.

Amanda Ross-Ho’s THE CHARACTER AND SHAPE OF ILLUMINATED THINGS is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s Plaza (220 East Chicago Avenue, Magnificent Mile, Chicago) through November 2013.

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Alicia Eler

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...