Anish Kapoor named his colossal sculpture Cloud Gate, but everyone in Chicago calls it the Bean. One hundred and ten tons of polished stainless steel, it seems to float above its cement plinth like a visitor from a distant and exciting future. In the five years since it was installed atop the AT&T Plaza in Millennium Park, it has become a Chicago icon. It receives more visitors than any destination besides Navy Pier, while voters in a Chicago Reader poll ranked it as the city’s best attraction—ahead of Wrigley field and Lake Michigan. Endlessly photographed, featured in movies and advertisements, lauded by critics and embraced by the public, Cloud Gate has become the city’s chosen mirror and the face it puts forward to the world. It might be the most popular work of contemporary art in America, the one work of abstract post-minimalist sculpture you would take your mom to see. The success of Cloud Gate is especially surprising given the fate of other major works of public art in recent decades, such as Rachel Whiteread’s House and Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc, both of which had to be torn down in the face of public opposition. So what is it about the Bean that makes it so different, so appealing?
As in the best tradition of Renaissance sub-contracting, Kapoor has found a way to please his audience while exalting the interests of his patrons, and the efficacy of his visual rhetoric stems from the elegance of his solution. As an object, Cloud Gate is undeniably seductive, at once monumental and inviting. It is also willfully opaque. From a distance it looks like a droplet of mercury, blown up to immense size. Up close, it becomes clear that the droplet is arched, creating a passageway on an east-west axis, joining the city to Millennium Park and the lake further on. The space above this passageway has been hollowed out, creating a central cavity, which Kapoor describes as an omphalos or navel. From outside, Cloud Gate retains some Pop resonances—balloon, blood cell, mushroom, donut, UFO—while never succumbing to any one of them. Within the central cavity, though, it becomes a total environment, enveloping visitors in a silvery canopy, and at the same time breaching the boundary between sculpture and architecture.
Curved at every point on its surface, Cloud Gate has the appearance of an impossible object, too smooth to be man-made and too eccentric to come from nature. It barely touches the ground, creating an illusion of uncanny lightness. The mismatch between its exterior and interior—the curving outer surface seemingly sustained by surface tension; the inside, apparently collapsing into a void—also creates a paradoxical effect, pitting internal cohesion against a vacuum. But Cloud Gate’s most spectacular effect has more to do with its skin than its form. Before it was unveiled, all of Cloud Gate’s rivets and sutures were painstakingly sanded away according to Kapoor’s instructions to “remove all traces of the hand.” As a result, the entire surface, polished to a silvery sheen, functions as one unbroken fun-house mirror, reflecting both passersby and the Chicago skyline in similar degrees of distortion while bringing them into a shared visual plane. It’s a surprisingly intimate illusion, causing sky, city and citizenry to meet in the same impossible space.
In the right weather conditions the sculpture seems to vanish in the camouflage of its reflected surroundings. At moments like this, Cloud Gate becomes most fully itself: a dematerialized, disembodied object without mass or substance. It is part Pop symbol and part ineffable, desirable thing, the very image of what Zygmunt Bauman calls “liquid modernity.”
Cloud Gate’s mirrored surface works in two ways: it makes the sculpture seem weightless while transforming its skin into a screen. Although its shape has a genetic connection to Constantin Brancusi’s elegant form-making, this emphasis on skin over volume has more in common with trends in contemporary architecture and product design. In some ways, Cloud Gate seems like a compilation of the hallmark gestures of today’s most prominent architects, the leaders in what the critic Hal Foster has termed the “global style” in architecture. Its silver skin quotes Frank Gehry’s trademark titanium cladding, and its central void recalls his buildings’ neo-Baroque swirls. Its swooping silhouette also brings to mind Norman Foster’s penchant for big, basic shapes—the translucent domes, shimmering pyramids and shiny gherkins his firm has erected everywhere from Boston to Kazakhstan. Finally, its use of mirrors and concealed supports echoes Renzo Piano’s concern with light construction and Foster’s preoccupation with transparency. Such associations are all the more insistent given Cloud Gate’s position in Millennium Park between Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion and Piano’s Modern Wing of the Art institute.
But however much it shares in the reigning idiom of neo-modern architecture, Cloud Gatealso draws on the language of industrial design. Not that the two are opposed—both disciplines rely on the same values of lightness, sleekness and transparency to imbue their works with the gleam of the now. No company has been able to make better use of this look than Apple. Apple’s flagship stores, with their translucent walls and staircases, promise a dream of boundless access and unmediated vision, while its products are designed to enclose a maximum of computing power in a minimum fold of material.1 Their curved surfaces and invisible seams obscure the human work that went into their production (Kapoor’s “traces of the hand”), making them seem as if they emerged fully-formed out of a technological nursery. At their best, Apple products seem weightless; they become pure gateways, offering access without boundaries and memory without mass. For the moment they remain unsurpassed as material embodiments of the idea of the digital commodity. And isn’t Cloud Gate something similar, writ large? It translates the language of connectivity and distributed computing—present in its very name—into a visual rhetoric of techno-futurity and civic self-confidence, the perfect monument for the age of the iPod.
Cloud Gate is product as advertisement, and its message is the same as the one conveyed by the rest of Millennium Park, which in essence is this: we are not Detroit. Both proclaim that Chicago is not a dying Rust Belt city, but a nexus in the circulation of global capital. Naturally this involves a bit of obfuscation and bluster. Millennium Park enacts this effacement quite literally: it is built over the old Illinois Central Rail yard, which it conceals under acres of expensively engineered garden. Every available inch is given over to corporate sponsorship. You can take a stroll from the Boeing Gallery to the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink, past the AT&T Plaza, through the Chase Bank Promenade and on through the Exelon Pavilions to the McDonald’s Cycle Center and the British Petroleum Bridge. The buildings in the park create a strange impression. They range from the superb (Piano’s Museum extension) to the self-derivative (Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion) to the hopeless (Gehry’s BP Bridge), but as an ensemble they seem out of proportion to each other and to the rest of the city, as if a collection of architectural bonsai has been arranged in the world’s largest sculpture garden.
Here a comparison with Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc might be in order. A curving wall made out of a single piece of raw steel, 12 feet high and 120 feet long, it was installed in the middle of New York’s Federal Plaza in 1981. Slightly tilted, the wall bisected the plaza, forcing workers in the surrounding office buildings to navigate around it. From the outset, Tilted Arc became a magnet for free-floating social anxiety. Its critics accused it of attracting graffiti and rats, and imagined that it might be used as a shelter for terrorists intent on attacking the New York County Clerk’s office. (Objections were also raised about its cost, though at $175,000, it seems quaint compared to the $24 million spent on Cloud Gate). After years of litigation, it was finally removed in 1989.
Even with the passage of time, the depth of this hostility remains puzzling. After all, Tilted Arc was no more abstract or monumental than Cloud Gate. But the message or effect of Serra’s work is almost the antithesis of Kapoor’s. Kapoor’s work privileges virtual experience, while Serra’s insists on sensual immediacy. You photograph yourself in the reflection of the surface Kapoor creates; you plunge bodily into Serra’s tunnels.2 Cloud Gate is about lightness and futurity; Tilted Arc was about gravity and weight, the way the steel wall met the ground and the way it served as its own support. One work seems to have touched down in Chicago out of the sky, while the other burrowed into a particular site. Cloud Gate, designed to obscure the process that went into its manufacture, looks impossibly new. Fashioned out of COR-TEN steel, Tilted Arc looked like it came straight out of the blast furnace and quickly developed a patina of orange rust. Whereas Cloud Gate’s skin conceals its structure (a hidden armature of giant rings supports the steel surface), Tilted Arc insists on structure as form. In short: Tilted Arc adopts the procedures of industry, while Cloud Gate speaks the language of the post-industrial economy.
Let me suggest, then, that this is the underlying reason for the opposition to Tilted Arc. Kapoor’s work, in its lightness and smoothness and breezy populism, figures the frictionless movement of money and ideas which is the promise of the digital economy. Serra’s work, with its hard tectonics and insistence on place, remains rooted in the world of things made by people in physical space. The real anxieties surrounding Tilted Arc had very little to do with vermin and urban blight, and everything to do with the unease engendered by what is perceived as an outmoded socio-economic order. Tilted Arc revealed what Cloud Gate and Millennium Park were built to efface, and that is why it had to be torn down.3
Kapoor doesn’t privilege the site or demystify structure. he doesn’t do any of the things post-minimalist sculpture was supposed to do in the days when it seemed to be playing an endgame with history. So what? Cloud Gate is a hit. People love it. It’s glamorous and strange and silly. It manages to stay aloof while entertaining a crowd. But what does this brilliant bauble mean in the center of a bankrupt city? And isn’t there something unseemly about being asked, so insistently, to enjoy?
One of the things Cloud Gate’s brilliant surface makes it easy to forget is that it isn’t just a mirror or a void or a gate. It’s also a triumphal arch, and like the rest of Millennium Park, the triumph it celebrates is the triumph of Daleyism—that particular blend of hereditary democracy, crony capitalism and corporate welfare that is Chicago’s gift to the world. It’s the voice of a hollowed-out liberalism, reduced to a nub of empty rhetoric, that celebrates community even as it forces the privatization of public goods, embraces education while shutting down schools, and exalts the middle class as it undermines unions. To the world, Cloud Gate says that Chicago is a city of the future. Under its breath, it whispers who that future is really for.
And this, finally, is the truth Cloud Gate’s quicksilver skin was engineered to deny: that they took our city from us, perverted our ideals, and in return, asked us to wish on a magic bean.