Why Robert Pattinson Became the ‘Mascot’ for a Mysterious New Group Show at Chicago’s Renaissance Society

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A true head scratcher of an exhibition has touched down at Chicago’s Renaissance Society. Curated by artist Shahryar Nashat and critic Bruce Hainley, the show has no title and no press release—just a photo of actor Robert Pattinson in sunglasses and a cap, dining at a restaurant, accompanied by a cryptic explanation.

“We met for lunch to continue our conversation, soon noticing the celebrity, incognito, taking a meeting nearby, and such serendipity prompted a reaction: Use this strange presence as a device to work through the current moment in relation to how bodies, whether living currency or undead, circulate, distort, unalive, and, yet, love,” Hainley wrote on the show’s website.

That lunch was about a year ago, in a restaurant parking lot in Los Angeles, and Hainley and Nashat had met to discuss the possibility of curating an exhibition to coincide with the latter’s upcoming solo show at the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s become something of a tradition for contemporary artists to have simultaneous outings at both museums, but instead of a second solo show, Nashat was interested in collaborating with Hainley.

“We started talking about the idea of a muse or a mascot, and we were like, ‘Maybe we should find this entity or person and see how things come together under that.’ By total coincidence, Robert Pattinson was having lunch at the same restaurant,” Nashat told . “I took a snapshot of him. Bruce and I looked at each other and were like, ‘There you go. He’s here. There has to be a reason.’”

The British actor, who has been both a matinee idol—attracting legions of fans for his roles in the and film series—and an indie sensation, seemed to have the right kind of energy to build a show around. “Robert Pattinson is really a star rather than a celebrity,” Hainley said.

The exhibition features work by contemporary artists Puppies Puppies (Jade Guanaro Kuriki-Olivo), Karen Kilimnik, and Larry Johnson. The curators have also secured a loan from the Art Institute of an oil painting by the French painter Marie Laurencin, who lived from 1883 to 1956. It’s been in the museum’s collection since 1986, but this is the first time it’s ever been displayed.

Marie Laurencin, Head of a Young Woman (1926). Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, bequest of Maribel G. Blum.

Marie Laurencin, (1926). Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, bequest of Maribel G. Blum.

None of the artwork features Pattinson—but the Renaissance Society has exclusively promoted the show with photos of the actor (plus one of fans running their hands through the hair of his wax double at a Madame Tussauds).

That idea of fan consumption of celebrity, even their physical body somehow beyond their control, is something that ties the works in the show together.

But if you want to understand what’s going on in the exhibition, you had best get yourself to Chicago to see it in person.

Installation view of the Robert Pattinson-inspired exhibition at the the Renaissance Society, Chicago, curated by Shahryar Nashat and Bruce Hainley. Photo by Robert Chase Heishman, courtesy of Shahryar Nashat, Bruce Hainley, and the Renaissance Society, Chicago.

Installation view of the Robert Pattinson-inspired exhibition at the the Renaissance Society, Chicago, curated by Shahryar Nashat and Bruce Hainley. Photo by Robert Chase Heishman, courtesy of Shahryar Nashat, Bruce Hainley, and the Renaissance Society, Chicago.

“People are so used to getting a show title, a press release, a list of names, or a description that they probably don’t ever read,” Nashat said. “As soon as you don’t conform to the ways information is usually circulated for reasons that just feel natural, you create mystery, but our intention is not to be mysterious. We want to let the things that matter come first—that’s what’s in the show. You have to be in the space, and then the thinking arranges around it.”

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