Globe trotting

Ryan Wenzel

The Museum of Contemporary Art looks like the scene of a car accident. A small white car appears to have taken a nosedive into the ground, colliding with the gray concrete in front of the steps leading to the museum entrance.

But a white camper trailer, emerging from a dirt hole in the ground, follows the car, suggesting that the driver navigated the vehicle through the center of the earth to arrive at the museum.

This is no accident — this is art.

“Short Cut,” by Danish artist Michael Elmgreen and Swedish artist Ingar Dragset, is part of the MCA’s exhibit “Universal Experience: Art, Life, and the Tourist’s Eye,” which opened Feb. 12. The works in the exhibit explore the experience of traveling and living in different cultures and range in medium from large-scale installations and sculptures to photography, video footage and film.

The MCA, 220 E. Chicago Ave., chose to create the exhibit because of the growing cultural relevance of the tourism industry. Nearly 700 million people travel internationally every year, the exhibit points outs, and by 2010 the number is expected to reach one billion.

And according to Francesco Bonami, senior curator of the MCA and head planner of “Universal Experience,” tourism and travel create a very unique type of art.

“The mindset changes when planning for a trip, senses are heightened and passions for new experiences are aroused,” Bonami says. “Travelers are seeking the extraordinary, an escape from daily routines. This exhibition explores the wide range of how and where we go to find these experiences.”

The camper in “Short Cut” might evoke nostalgia in viewers who fondly remember cross-country family vacations, but several pieces in the exhibit explore the unpleasant ironies behind travel. Martin Parr’s photography series “The Last Resort” shows how a family vacation doesn’t always turn out to be the memorable getaway seen in brochures. Parr captures the beaches of Brighton, a popular destination for English working-class families, and bravely reveals waters littered with garbage, children with ice cream smeared on their faces, sunbathers lounging on uncomfortable concrete, unattractive women in swimsuits and annoyed-looking parents.

Other works in “Universal Experience” also aren’t so idealized. A piece by Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn titled “Chalet Lost History” likens the tourist experience to tomb looting — both, according to Hirschhorn, rob an area of its culture. Housed in two large rooms, the dark mixed-media work juxtaposes ancient Egyptian artifacts with war photography, refrigerators, pornographic magazines and a table covered with dildos. To Hirschhorn, these “modern artifacts” are what future generations will use to define us.

“(The work) is trying to provoke questions, and it doesn’t necessarily give answers,” says MCA assistant curator Julia Rodrigues Widholm. “It’s a bombardment of imagery and consumer goods that lets you walk out with your own formulation of what it means to you.”

Some elements of the exhibit also explore a tourist’s experience with classic works of art from other countries. “Double Mona Lisa,” a silkscreen by famed American pop artist Andy Warhol, mocks the widespread reproduction of Da Vinci’s famous portrait, while Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photograph of a wax recreation of “The Last Supper” asks viewers to consider how displacement in time and space adds new dimensions to a tourist icon.

Works of this nature are common in the exhibit. “There are a number of works that deal with displacement, the issue of authentic versus original,” Widholm says. “People can either go to the Louvre or they can see copies. These works ask the question, ‘Does it really matter if you go to Paris to see these things?'”

Widholm says a considerable amount of time and effort went into planning the exhibit. She and other curators had to contact galleries and museums all over the world to secure specific works that conformed to the chosen theme.

“It turned out really well — better than we expected,” Widholm says. “It’s very dynamic and engaging. We’re all really happy with it.”

Ironically, “Universal Experience” itself will travel this October — to London and other unannounced European venues.

“They might perceive the exhibit differently,” Widholm says, citing the issue of displacement. “But London is a great city for art and we’re glad to see it touring.”

“Universal Experience: Art, Life, and the Tourist’s Eye” runs until June 5. Suggested museum admission is $6 for students and $10 for adults. MCA curators will offer free tours of the exhibit at noon on March 1, April 5, and May 3.

Medill sophomore Ryan Wenzel is the PLAY film editor. He can be reached at [email protected].