Millennium Park and The Bean

Bean with Falling Man, 2004
Bean with Falling Man, 2004

A visit to Chicago's Millennium Park

I visited Millennium Park today with my aunt and uncle, who were passing through Chicago on their way to Green Bay. It was one of those interesting experiences one has, stepping slightly outside of yourself and your everyday to look in on the place where you live, the city that you call home. We drove down Lake Shore Drive, for the millionth time, but this time pointing out some of the sites — the Drake, Navy Pier, the stout buildings overlooking the beaches, which were humming with cyclists, volleyball games, and runners. As we drove in their rented sedan, a portable GPS device chimed with pleasure that we were “on the green path,” and dutifully following its cheerful yet lifeless instructions. As I went on about “my fair city,” my uncle quipped — “I’ve flown all around these buildings… even flown into a few.” He’s always had a knack to confuse me, to deliver a remark that I’m never quite sure how to take. Was he talking about a previous military career I didn’t know about? What did he mean… into? After a beat, I realized, and he added, that he was talking about simulated flight, from the convenience of his desktop in North Carolina. Of course.

So, electronic frontiers and the lakefront casually blended this afternoon, as we turned toward Wacker… 2 miles ahead, bearing right. It was 5:30pm. Parking in Grant Park Garage and emerging onto Michigan Ave., we caught sight of the Pritzker Pavilion and could have easily missed Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (“The Bean”) had we not been looking for it. It blends so easily into its reflection that, over the sparse treetops and other street-side visual obstacles, you are easily fooled into thinking it isn’t there at all. As we crossed Michigan, people hurried by, some smiling, often to whomever was on the other end of their wireless conversations. Opting to first see Gehry’s contribution to the pricey urban renewal effort, we climbed a few stairs ahead, and as we neared the “firecracker gone off in a tin can” (as a friend, MN, recently described it), we gradually heard the distinct strains of operatic voices and music. Was it recorded? Certainly there wasn’t a performance this early in the evening? Curiosity brought us to the edge of the pavilion and, as we leaned over, we saw the bright red chairs (so new!) and a few folks speckled throughout, joined by others lounging on the lawn behind and beneath the webbed metal and wire stretching from the stage below. On stage, a collection of musicians and vocalists were rehearsing their parts for a future performance. They were dressed casually, no evening attire, especially not in the humid August air. It was a classic Chicago scene — unassuming and beautiful at the same time.

This urban reverie didn’t prepare me for The Bean though — a sublime object that is best approached from the west, looking east, with Michigan Avenue’s cornices and smudged windows lined dutifully behind, in stark contrast to Kapoor’s luminous droplet of pure metal. Both personal, like a prized stone taken from a favorite place, and majestic in its sheer scale and simplicity, The Bean née Cloud Gate speaks to the horizon between public and private, between the miniature and gigantic that Susan Stewart explores in On Longing (no doubt my old U of C professors are thrilled with this city’s latest icon). As I walked beneath its welcoming navel, instinctually looking for my reflection amid the many faces and shapes, I spied others as they pointed their cameras at this curious thing — some with loved ones in the foreground, others within inches of the metal, peering so close. A nearby Latina, impatient with her male companion, broke from her pose and chided him with a smile — “Enough with your artistic shots!”

As I write this, a storm teems outside my windows, bringing welcomed relief from the heat. The neighborhood is eerily quiet except for the whir of my window fan and the applause rising from the macadam. The fan sprays me with tiny shards of rain as I peer out onto the street looking for the life that I felt just a few hours ago. It has gone dark.