1979:1—2012:21: Jan Tichy Works with the MoCP Collection

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Still of Jan Tichy, Changing Chicago, 2012, video installation. Courtesy the artist and Richard Gray GalleryStill of Jan Tichy, Changing Chicago, 2012, video installation. Courtesy the artist and Richard Gray Gallery

It is the special paradox of an artwork-on-paper public collection that its holdings must sit in storage, out of view and mostly inaccessible, for safekeeping. Light is the generative material of photography, but light exposure is a photographic print’s slow death. At 33 years old, the Museum of Contemporary Photography is asking a lot of introspective questions. Specifically, how can it transform its identity, which is rooted in the dust bin of conventional museum practices, into a relevant, engaging public persona? In answer, the MoCP commissioned multimedia artist Jan Tichy to pry through the museum’s 11,000 collected works, its print study room, its programming, its staff’s biases, its legacy, and its future.

Institutions wishing to analyze the efficacy of their public access typically commission expensive consultant groups, who often return generic recommendations.

To its credit, the MoCP entrusted Tichy to find the cracks, strengths, and redundancies in its galleries, collection, and Website. His creative solutions were critical rather than practical. To provide access to the museum’s 11,000 photographs in storage, Tichy produced a video that’s a 7.5-minute scream (Collection, 2012) through all 11,000 artworks, organized from lightest to darkest tones. The eye cannot keep up, nor can the video monitor, so that images blur and layer like shape-shifting ghosts.

A particularly successful intervention by Tichy took place in the

museum’s educational print study room, where he has covered the walls with

prints from the historic Changing Chicago series, a 1987 initiative in which 33 photographers documented Chicago life and society. On any given day in the study center, lessons were framed by more than 200 images of vernacular city scenes by classic Chicago photographers. Tichy added his own works, too: seven video portraits of contemporary Chicago street life that celebrate the pleasures of people watching.

The commissioning of Tichy for this museum-wide overhaul seems, at first, curious. Tichy, a Czech artist formerly of Tel Aviv, has lived and worked in Chicago for only five years; what should we learn about our own history from an outsider? But it turns out he was the ideal interloper, for Chicago’s photo scene has been built by many non-natives. Aaron Siskind – whose iconic work Tichy manipulated in the show – moved from NYC to Chicago in 1951 and revolutionized the city’s camera presence. Indeed, Chicago is an immigrant city and a diverse cultural hub – and, as Tichy showed us, its museums are open for everyone.