New video-forward Smart Museum exhibition is a psychedelic, utopian fantasia

A commemorative stamp from the Century of Progress World’s Fair. (Photo by Aaron Gettinger)

Staff writer

The exhibition “Silver Moon or Golden Star, Which Will You Buy of Me?” continues the Smart Museum of Art’s run of fantastically entertaining solo shows; this one by Hong Kong-based filmmaker and sound artist Samson Young, his first in the United States. It is an immersive, hallucinogenic pastiche whirling out from a novel starting point: Chicago’s Century of Progress World’s Fair in 1933 – 34.

As it was held four years into the Great Depression, nations could not afford to erect the pavilions for which previous expositions were known. Organizers drew upon corporations to fill the void, and visitors were presented an idealistic future manifested in prototype automobiles, robots and model homes, done in sleek Style Moderne. Consumer products like Miracle Whip made their debut.

Young used a residency last year at the Neubauer Collegium, 5701 S. Woodlawn Ave., to investigate the world’s fair. Three of his films — which he compared to a sound cycle — are on display alongside world’s fair artifacts, 3D-printed sculptures and sound art.

Elements of the car culture — long seen as an expression of personal freedom — are transmuted in the exhibition. In the show’s opening gallery, models run on set tracks, recalling that they can only take you where roads go. (Mysteriously, lemons are strewn about the room, too.)

The exhibition’s title comes from a little-known 1904 song called “The Dream-seller.”

“I think the title helps narrow down the really broad idea of utopia to a smaller and more manageable set of operatives, that is, the ‘selling’ of it, and how or whether it’s bought,” Young said in an interview published in the exhibition catalog. “I am interested in the transmission of such visions, how they mutate in crossing cultural and national boundaries and also in drawing analogies between the slogans of a national ethos at the 1933 world’s fair in Chicago and what’s going on in China today.”

Indeed, much is made in “Silver Moon or Golden Star” from extrapolating themes across the East and West and from the 20th century to today. Heavy utilization of 3D animation provides a sense of the future that could never have been presented in 1933. It is a demanding exhibition but one that is open to many interpretations.

Curator Orianna Cacchione, who also is a lecturer on Asian art at the University of Chicago, called the exhibition “a show that rewards long and frequent watching.”

“You’ll start to see the videos build upon each other. You’ll start to connect aspect from one video into the next into the next,” she said.

In the third video, “Houses of Tomorrow” — named for and filmed in the 1933 prototype houses now standing at the Indiana Dunes National Park lakefront — Young connects the three. The world’s fair artifacts and sculptures are included in it. So are traffic gates, benches and fences currently being employed as barriers in the Hong Kong protests.

“I don’t want to overly read too much of the political into Samson’s work, but his work has always been political,” Cacchione said, recalling the first time she encountered his work, as he recreated the sound of night bombing with a drum set. “He’s always been interested in the relationship between sound, power and weaponization.”

“Silver Moon or Golden Star” is a “maximalist, excited, candy-coated kind of dreamworld,” Cacchione summarized. “There’s this constant humor and playfulness that comes through in the videos, an almost-joyousness. While he’s very critical, what’s always been the most important thing for him.”

She recalled something he said to her as they were beginning to plan for the show: “Optimism requires maintenance.” In the end, the works become a call to action: “He’s saying, in order to strive for this ideal place, we need to keep working. Every day, we have to maintain. It’s like a house: if you let it sit, all of the sudden it starts to fall apart.”

“Silver Moon or Golden Star” is on at the Smart, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave., through Dec. 29.