EXPO CHICAGO - A River Ran Through It

Sometimes you need a new perspective on things to see them clearly, as if for the first time. Take the Chicago River. Many of us interact with the waterway on a daily basis, but in a passive manner. And, yet when we do pay attention, we don’t think of the River as a resource. We’re not fazed by the bottles and debris floating downstream.

But, imagine a topographical map of the Chicago River that was made entirely of silver pins…that lets us see the River anew.

Take 2,000 pounds of garbage that was polluting the River and transform it into a sculpture…that commands attention.

This is the power of visual art – it refocuses our attention on issues we might otherwise ignore, and helps us to understand an issue in a completely different way. And, this is why I’m thrilled that NRDC is a part of EXPO CHICAGO, Chicago’s new contemporary art fair set to take place at Navy Pier this September 20-23. The examples of a pin river and a garbage wall are real installations that NRDC is proud to present in our exhibition space at EXPO – installations that we hope will inspire the public look at the Chicago River, and other fresh water resources, in a new light.

NRDC’s honorary Trustee, Maya Lin will have several of her pieces on display with us, including Reversing the Flow, the aforementioned pin-map of the Chicago River, and a sound/video installation from What is Missing?, a project about endangered species and ecosystems. Lin’s work in sculpture and landscape art elegantly depicts the current environmental issues we’re facing, underscoring the importance of science, and the need for community participation.

Maya Lin’s vision stems from a rich tradition of architecture and design that realigns the practice with the realities of everyday life for people and their communities – transforming architecture from abstraction, disembodied expression, and dueling aesthetics, into a collaborative tool that engages with the urgent issues of real life, and mobilizes citizen awareness.

Gordon Matta-Clark pioneered this approach as an architect and as an artist. His work creatively transformed the built environment, addressing urban issues that remain relevant today – sustainable living, principles of recycling, social equity, food production, and clean air.

For this reason, it is particularly meaningful to be able to display his landmark piece – Garbage Wall – next to Maya Lin’s work.

Garbage Wall is the latest incarnation of a piece Matta-Clark built in 1970 to commemorate the first Earth Day. At the time, Garbage Wall was notable for its use of recycled materials and its uncompromising assessment of pollution problems in New York City. Continuing in that tradition of environmental activism, this version of the Wall uses only materials sourced directly from the Chicago, Mississippi, Illinois, and Ohio Rivers – drawing attention to water pollution and waste management practices plaguing the Midwest.

There is a serendipitous component of EXPO worth noting. Navy Pier, the location for the fair, sits directly next to the man-made Chicago Lock – the exact point where the Chicago River connects the Great Lakes and Mississippi River system. This site specificity underscores the interconnected nature of our water resources, demonstrating why NRDC’s efforts to create a healthy and safe Chicago River matter not just for the city of Chicago, but also for the health of Illinois beaches, the Great Lakes ecosystem and the Gulf of Mexico, where Chicago’s waste ends up as a major contribution to the growing “Dead Zone.”

Throughout our forty-two year history, NRDC has strived to bolster our environmental laws, science, and advocacy with a variety of interdisciplinary partnerships that engage artists, architects, and designers. Reversing the Flow and Garbage Wall continue this practice, reinforcing the responsibility we all have as citizens to be good stewards for our fresh water resources.

My thanks to Chicago gallerist Rhona Hoffman and EXPO CHICAGO President Tony Karman for championing NRDC’s participation in this important art event.

Come for the art, but expect to leave thinking about the Chicago River!


Navy Pier | Festival Hall | Booth 112

600 East Grand Avenue

Chicago, IL 60611

Fair Dates | Times

Thursday, Sept. 20th: 11am - 7pm

Friday, Sept. 21st: 11am - 7pm

Saturday, Sept. 22nd: 11am - 7pm

Sunday, Sept. 23rd: 12pm - 6pm

Tickets available for purchase here.

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