The Origins of Public Art in Chicago: From the Bronze Lions to Skylanding

Article by Franck Mercurio


In recognition of Chicago’s “Year of Public Art,” Chicago Gallery News is featuring a series of articles chronicling milestones of public art in Chicago. The first in the series looks at the unlikely connections between Yoko Ono’s Skylanding and the Art Institute of Chicago’s bronze lions. 

Just south of the Museum of Science and Industry, on Wooded Island in Jackson Park, sits one of Chicago’s newest works of public art. Unveiled this past October, Yoko Ono’s Skylanding (2016) occupies the site of the Japanese Pavilion and Osaka Garden created for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. The pavilion is long gone (destroyed by arsonists in 1946), but a resurrected version of the original garden remains. Here, Ono installed a sculptural composition consisting of 12 large stainless steel “petals” (each 12 feet tall), which suggest a giant lotus flower emerging from the earth. The work is part memorial, part peace gesture, and part ode to Chicago – the city that “blossomed” after the Great Fire, rising up from the marshy shores of Lake Michigan.

Like most works of public sculpture in Chicago, the location of Skylanding is no accident. It is situated where Chicago’s tradition of great public art first got its start more than 120 years ago. In 1893, Jackson Park hosted the World’s Fair and the “White City,” a showcase of late 19th-century art, architecture, and urban planning. Fair officials commissioned dozens of American artists to create sculptures that complemented the fairgrounds’ Beaux-Arts buildings. Perhaps the best remembered is Daniel Chester French’s monumental Statue of the Republic (1891 – 1893), which dominated the fair’s Great Basin. A smaller version – 24 feet tall – stands in Jackson Park today, a testament to the fair’s artistic ambitions.

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