At exactly noon, the fans start. Children and their adult minders abandon the fountains, information and ticketing booths, shops, and shaded benches of Navy Pier, Chicago's foremost tourist attraction, to gather in giddy anticipation. Housed in industrial yellow casings and mounted atop two enormous stainless steel cylinders that gleam in the midday sun, the fans begin to spill a light froth, as though the crests of waves off Lake Michigan are being fed through their blades. As the foam builds within the cylinders, the crowd's excitement rises.
"Oh, here it goes!" a man shouts, as brilliantly sparkling foam crests the lip of the cylinders. Children drum on the sides, coaxing the foam out, and with one powerful gust of wind from the south, the art installation — A retrospective view of the pathway by British artist Roger Hiorns — does its job, releasing chaotic whimsy in the form of a cloud of foam that falls upon the children to shrieks of joy. They grasp at it and chase the fluffy, sudsy remnants before turning their attention to the next blob, which looks to be even bigger than the first. One girl turns and struts away, proudly holding a large globule on, and in, her arms.
The sculpture looks cheerily industrial, and Hiorns would be heartened to see the reaction to his fun machine. Whether in its original location in France, or installed in Austin, or now Chicago, wherever the foam starts flowing, youngsters (and the young at heart) seem to materialize.
"For me, there's something really kind of positive and interesting, something kind of experimental, but also kind of human [about the response]," Hiorns tells Creators. "The memories of children [are] really flexible and plastic and interesting. And at some point, they're going to be lodged in their memories, this sort of experience. And then perhaps this experience may sort of propose a liberation […] through the activities of joy and play. Somehow a memory might lead into a different type of behavior in the future."
In fact, Hiorns believes his own fascination with foam stems from childhood and early memories of being enveloped in spittlebug froth while playing amongst ferns in his back garden. Hiorns thinks the introduction of some alien, unusual feature into an environment can set people on different paths of thinking, especially regarding how objects exist in the world. He aims to "insult" the objects, jolting them and us into something different. The most dramatic example may be Seizure, wherein the artist coated the walls of a condemned London flat with growths of dazzling blue copper-sulphate crystals.
The clouds spilling out of A retrospective view of the pathway are subject to an array of variables like wind, temperature, humidity, grass, and people that make even tumultuous modern life seem simple by comparison. The inherently fun yet hard-to-control foam is meant to celebrate the joy that can be found in change.
"It's a conceptually challenging piece if you really step back and think about it," Jeff Rhodes, EXPO CHICAGO's Director of Exhibitor Relations says. Rhodes is behind EXPO CHICAGO's IN/SITU Outside program, which worked with Navy Pier to commission the piece. "But it has so many avenues of entry. […] That's part of the beauty of it."
Placed within the Midwest's largest tourist attraction — Navy Pier Inc. says 9.4 million people visited the Chicago landmark in 2016 — Hiorns's work is perfectly situated where as many people as possible can interact with it. The foam sculpture is a more accessible extension of the artist's series of buried airplanes, from which A retrospective view of the pathway derives its name.
"It was about putting humans at the center of the work somehow," Hiorns says of the series. "The work itself is completed by the presence of these fleshy blobs of humanness that we all are."
A retrospective view of the pathway is on view until September 17.