The Chicago Bean, and Some Thoughts on Geographical Icons

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When I first started seeing pictures of the Chicago Bean, and started seeing it described as a Chicago icon, I was irritated. “How can that be an icon?” I thought. “I don’t remember it! It wasn’t there when I was growing up! It just went up in 2006! That’s not a Chicago icon — not like the Sears Tower, or the Picasso sculpture, or…”

Oh. Right.

The Sears Tower and the Picasso sculpture were new when I was a kid. The Picasso sculpture was dedicated in 1967; the Sears Tower was completed in 1973. They both became Chicago icons almost immediately — they quickly started showing up in postcards, in travel brochures, on book covers about Chicago, in vacation photographs of visitors from around the world. And to me, that seemed totally reasonable. Of course they were icons! I’d seen them dozens of times, hundreds of times, I’d been seeing them for most of my conscious life — it made perfect sense that they were icons.

Chicago Sears Tower by Tony the Tiger
Chicago PIcasso by Jeremy Atherton

But to people who had been living in Chicago for decades, or who had born in Chicago decades ago, the appearance of these brand-new civic icons must have been jarring. “How can that be an icon?” they may have thought. “I don’t remember it! It wasn’t there when I was growing up! That’s not a Chicago icon — not like the Tribune Tower, or Wrigley Field, or…!”

The more I think about it, the more I might argue that one of the signs of a vibrant, relevant city is that it keeps creating new icons.

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The Chicago Bean (no, not its real name — its real name is Cloud Gate, and in fact the artist hates that everyone calls it the Bean, but I would argue that part of what makes something a geographical icon is that the creator loses some of their ownership of it, and it begins to belong to the citizens… wait a minute, where was I?)

The Chicago Bean completely deserves to be a Chicago icon. This visit was the first time I’d seen it in person and up close — and in person and up close, it is magnificent. Seeing photos didn’t prepare me for the scale of it, or for the deep weirdness.

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It seems so simple, and it is so simple — a smooth, simple shape like a dented egg, with a highly polished reflective surface — but that simplicity is belied, or maybe just made more compelling, by its unsettling eeriness. There’s the distorted, funhouse-mirror quality of the reflection.

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There’s the disorientation of seeing the sky above the Bean — and at the same time, seeing the different stretch of sky reflected in it. (I’ve seen photos of it taken at night, and it looks like someone cut a hole out of the sky.)

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And I was entirely unprepared for the hallucinatory effect of being underneath it. Looking up at it from underneath is like being inside a kaleidoscope, but with soft folds instead of sharp angles. (Or, depending on your mood, it’s like a bad 1960s depiction of an LSD trip.) It’s remarkable how something that simple can have so many layers, so many ways to view it, so much depth.

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I think this quality — the simplicity that makes it instantly recognizable even on a postcard or a travel brochure, combined with the depth that invites lengthy viewing, contemplative viewing, viewings from different angles, multiple viewings — is a huge part of what makes the Chicago Bean truly great public art.

And the Chicago Bean is truly great public art, in that it invites participation. It reflects the city back onto itself, and you can’t look at it without seeing yourself reflected in it, and without seeing your place in the city.

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It completely deserves to be a Chicago icon. I just need to get over myself.

(Sears Tower picture by Tony the Tiger. Chicago Picasso picture by Jeremy Atherton. Both via Wikimedia Commons.)

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The Chicago Bean, and Some Thoughts on Geographical Icons
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5 thoughts on “The Chicago Bean, and Some Thoughts on Geographical Icons

  1. 2

    @Marcus Ranum #1: In this day and age? They probably subcontract to a private firm that exploits (possibly illegally – people working minimum wage jobs – and especially those whose legal residency status depends upon employment – aren’t generally in a position to effectively protest wage theft by their employers) cheap immigrant labor, even if the firm’s owner(s) is (are) skimming so much in profit that it’s not actually any cheaper than hiring someone directly to polish the thing. If you mean the physical process, I’d throw someone with a power buffer in an articulating boom lift.

  2. 3

    http://www.wbez.org/series/curious-city/question-answered-how-do-they-clean-%E2%80%98-bean%E2%80%99-103357

    and

    http://www.mychicagotoday.com/keeping-the-bean-clean/

    Not quite as bad as you thought, John. It seems to be city workers who do it, not subcontractors.

    And it’s ‘twice a day by hand’ for wiping down the lower half of the structure, and twice a year for the whole thing.

    Greta: Come back sometime after a good snowfall. The way the snow breaks up and slides down the structure makes it look almost like a bas-relief globe of some alien water-and-ice planet.

  3. 4

    in fact the artist hates that everyone calls it the Bean

    If the artist didn’t want it called the Bean then they should have made it unbean-shaped.

  4. 5

    Wow, some of those shots of the bean are disorienting.

    Greta, when you say:

    The more I think about it, the more I might argue that one of the signs of a vibrant, relevant city is that it keeps creating new icons.

    What do you mean by ‘relevant’?

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