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Hyperlinks at the Art Institute of Chicago | Art review

Time Out Chicago's Lauren Weinberg is surprised by how technology dominates the Art Institute's new architecture and design show. Several fascinating installations suggest designers are paying more attention to the rest of the world.

Heijdens, Shade, 2010.

Pigs are good for more than bacon. We can also thank them for beer, insulin, bone china, paintbrushes and almost 185 other products, detailed by Christien Meindertsma in Pig 05049 (2008). “Hyperlinks” includes seven copies of the Dutch designer’s exquisite book, each lying open to a different page. They reveal the surprising extent of our dependence on an unglamorous animal that’s almost vanished from the Netherlands’ natural landscape “even though there are 12 million [pigs] in the country,” Meindertsma observes in the exhibition catalog.

As Pig 05049 marshals design to bring the hidden relationships among resources, manufacturers, products and end-users to light, the book communicates the “Hyperlinks” theme with unusual clarity. Cocurated by Zoë Ryan and Joseph Rosa (who left the Art Institute last summer to become director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art), the exhibition presents design projects that are hyperaware of their links to culture, technology and the environment as well as other disciplines.

At least, that’s the theory: Though most of these 30-plus projects are fascinating, a few seem shoehorned into the show, such as Raw Edges’ Stack (2008). Unconfined by a conventional frame, the colorful drawers in this gorgeous piece open from the front or back and can pile up to dizzying heights. In the “Hyperlinks” catalog, Ryan praises Stack’s additional utility as a room divider. But this bespoke storage solution, however innovative, doesn’t seem exceptionally responsive to its social context or to external influences.

Greg Lynn’s Carbon Net Chair (2010), which the Art Institute commissioned specifically for the show, better illustrates the exchanges of tools and materials transforming design. Lynn, a Los Angeles–based architect, created the hammock-like chair using 3Di aramid tape, which he discovered through sailing, a favorite hobby. The properties that make the 3Di tape ideal for sailcloth yield a lightweight chair that can support up to 800 pounds.

While Ryan and Rosa label each project, depending on its purpose, “hyperhardwired,” “hyperdigital” or up to eight other “hyper-” adjectives, viewers probably will replace these confusing categories with “high-tech” and “holy cow.” In “Hyperlinks,” technology emerges as the most important factor shaping architecture and design, gathering concerns such as sustainability and social responsibility under its flashier umbrella. Lasers allow Evan Gant and Alex Tee’s Lightlane (2009) to leapfrog over conventional bike lanes, which are difficult and expensive to implement. A video demonstrates how Gant and Tee’s elegant device lets cyclists generate their own temporary bike lanes anywhere they ride.

More videos and multimedia works than I’ve ever seen at the Art Institute enhance this show’s gee-whiz atmosphere. Shade (pictured, 2010) sets up an ingenious link between the exhibition gallery and nature. The special commission by London-based designer Simon Heijdens covers the gallery’s internal windows with triangular panels of film. When the wind blows past the Art Institute, outdoor sensors cause the panels to change their levels of opacity, projecting the wind patterns into the gallery.

The impressive Shade ends “Hyperlinks” on a wistful note. Architecture and design obviously benefit from richer networks; Heijdens’s project promises technology will help buildings maintain closer contacts with the environment. But, like Pig 05049, it reminds us end-users we’re still isolated from aspects of our world. Relying on software to know which way the wind blows seems silly—until you recall that you can’t open your office windows.