A large animal settles itself into the corner of the main gallery. Assembled partially out of cast-off materials, it could be confused for a landscaped hill or a pyre, and begs further inspection. Both a large-scale sculpture and a small-scale building, The Beast by John Preus welcomes exploration and is intended to raise questions rather than provide answers. Preus has been creating art in the social practice realm for the past decade, culminating in this ambitious new architectural intervention and accompanying program of events intended to address questions regarding the purpose, value and governance of public space.
The concept for The Beast evolved from Preus’ years of research and exploration into how communities form. He found that in many archaic societies, the ritual of sacrifice was a ubiquitous and common strategy for social unification—albeit at a violent cost. Ritualized violence directed random and widespread animosity onto a single victim or group. Better that one should die than for all to suffer. Sacrifice was often a desperate human measure to gain control over uncontrollable, inhuman situations.
Philosopher Simon Critchley, whose writings Preus turned to many times, observes that there is a “motivational deficit in neoliberal democracy,” a condition that often leads to active or passive nihilism and withdrawal. He goes so far as to call yoga and Western Buddhism forms of passive nihilism, a cultivation of something innocuous, as a way to avoid the disappointment of unreachable ethical and social longings. Combining these notions of sacrifice and socio-political disappointment, Preus conceived of The Beast as an exploration of “progressive pessimism.” “Maybe you can be a pessimist without being a nihilist,” Preus muses. “Maybe you can think utopian thoughts without becoming utterly bewitched by the prospect of a utopian world, the bringing into being of which always involves violence. Maybe you can speculate about other possibilities without insisting on an enemy.”
The Beast is both a platform for activities and an art installation, and presents a forum to share and express collective grief by transforming physical space into a site charged with lively conversation promoting civic engagement. Cultural narratives throughout history from the Old Testament to Walt Disney describe the proverbial belly of a beast as a dark isolation chamber where one discovers selflessness and renewed purpose. As a two-story inhabitable sculpture, The Beast recalls these narratives of ethical pursuit through a contradictory platform: public space.
Defined as areas that are open and accessible to all members of society, public space is an invaluable vehicle for unifying people to work toward creating something better. The large interior cavity of The Beast functions as a combination of various social spaces: rec room, dining hall, home movie theater, yoga studio, meeting house, classroom, living room, church, community center, and auditorium. A dynamic public program reflects these functions and is organized in collaboration with artists, journalists, composers, architects, and philosophers. Each week different partners plan the multi-generational events and activities inside the structure and invite multiple voices to be heard regarding how to constructively galvanize public space. The goal: to explore new ideas that contest age-old assumptions and received narratives about what is best for society and what entails progress.
The harvested materials used to make the artwork allude to foundational American values and contemporary views on their “loss” or “sacrifice” to newly constructed values. For example, classic values like that of standardized public education are reflected in the use of furniture from the now closed Chicago Public Schools; the land’s wealth of natural resources appear in the lumber and materials used to build The Beast; the desirability of a sustainable economy is depicted in the artwork’s shape, which alludes to the bull market; and the need for a national moral compass or the importance of religion in daily life appear in its cathedral-like arches, which also recollect an animal’s rib cage. Through the installation the artist addresses the psychological and social impacts of trauma and loss, as manifested in architectural form. The Beast leads us to ask: Can this material, which is literally discarded and devalued, figuratively provide new value in a second life? In so doing, might it channel attention and energies toward the creation of a public space for renewed agency and a more engaged human experience?
Over the course of roughly ten days, Preus and several assistants built The Beast in the gallery using an intuitive method of leveraging and triangulation. A nest of lumber nailed together at multiple angles (revealed only from the inside) equally distributes the structure’s weight and allows the form to be sculpted by adding more angles. Drawings, architectural sketches, AutoCAD digital renderings, and a structural model made while the artist was in residence at the Hyde Park Art Center—along with Preus’ knowledge of the building trade and its materials—all informed the final installation composed in situ.
Like the vernacular architecture of a wigwam, thick blankets of salvaged under-carpet felt are draped and molded atop the wood frame to create a semi-domed open space within. Felt hangs informally over the floor of the Jackman Goldwasser Catwalk Gallery, signifying the transitional quality of all material to become something else through adaptive reuse. On a material level, the discarded furniture, carpeting and wood become a shelter. On a conceptual level, the mystical beast is a physical embodiment of the discussions in philosophy, religion, architecture, literature, cultural theory, and history scheduled to take place inside the sculpture. The exterior is intentionally monotonous, lumpy and abstract to conjure thoughts of transformation.
The beauty of The Beast by John Preus is that it presents multiple perspectives and swears off any fixed notion of public space or civic responsibility so that we, the people, can make those decisions. The previous life of the found materials used to build the space charges The Beast with their visceral, textured qualities, which echo the multiple voices and perspectives needed to address systemic issues. Depending on which gallery entrance one uses to approach the exhibition—north gallery door, south gallery door, or sidewalk—a different understanding is achieved. Only the perspective from the Jackman Goldwasser Catwalk Gallery provides the complete picture of a steer with a public programming space inside of its body that opens out directly into the street, inviting engagement from the public. The visual distinction between the interior and exterior of the sculpture as seen from the various vistas links to the different levels of consciousness gained through life experiences. According to Preus, “Life is a series of mostly modest revelations, punctuated by moments of extreme undigestible ones. The questions are always ‘how far away from something do you need to be to see what it is?’ And then, ‘when have you withdrawn so far as to be irrelevant?’”
Allison Peters Quinn