9 Reflective Facts About Chicago's Cloud Gate


It’s a lucky coincidence that Chicago’s Cloud Gate arrived around the same time as the selfie. In addition to being the kind of recognizable landmark made for Instagram travelogues, the 66-foot-long, 33-foot-tall, 110-ton reflective sculpture invites tourists with its funhouse-like mirrors and curves. Mayor Richard M. Daley dedicated “The Bean,” as it’s been dubbed, on May 15, 2006. Here are nine facts you might not know about this already iconic public sculpture.


In 1998, Daley announced plans to turn railyards and parking space along the city shoreline into what’s now Millennium Park. In addition to a garden, fountain, and performance stage, project design director Ed Uhlir sought a landmark sculpture for the space. A committee invited submissions from artists around the globe who had done major outdoor pieces. They narrowed down the selections to two: Cloud Gate from London-based Anish Kapoor and a giant functional playground slide, made of glass and steel, from New Yorker Jeff Koons. “He wanted an observation platform about 90 feet in the air, with a slide that would carry people down to grade,” recalls Uhlir. Because of both handicapped accessibility concerns and the ostentatiousness of the slide, the committee picked Kapoor’s idea.


In the ’80s and ’90s, the Bombay-born sculptor had several exhibits of large geometric shapes made from materials like stone, aluminum, and resin. Perhaps his most notable prior work was Void Field, a walkable layout of rough sandstone blocks, each topped by an enigmatic black hole, shown at the Venice Biennale annual art competition in Italy. His 1995 stainless steel globe, titled Turning the World Inside Out, is a precursor to Cloud Gate, similarly polished to leave no seam or remnant of construction visible.


“What I wanted to do in Millennium Park is make something that would engage the Chicago skyline,” said Kapoor, “so that one will see the clouds kind of floating in, with those very tall buildings reflected in the work. And then, since it is in the form of a gate, the participant, the viewer, will be able to enter into this very deep chamber that does, in a way, the same thing to one's reflection as the exterior of the piece is doing to the reflection of the city around.”


In Anish Kapoor: Past, Present, Future, Nicholas Baume writes that until Cloud Gate, Kapoor modeled his work by hand. Later, the artist told Baume that planning the construction of seamless sculpture of that size required him to do “a great deal of computer modeling to analyze the form in order to make it well enough.”


Kapoor selected Performance Structures Inc. of Oakland, California, to fabricate Cloud Gate. The process took three years. Originally, PSI planned to assemble the entire object and ship it—via two oceans, the Panama Canal, the St. Lawrence Seaway, and Lake Michigan—to Chicago, but this was deemed unfeasible. So the company created a series of plates up to 7 feet wide, 11 feet long, and as heavy as 1500 pounds for another firm to assemble in Millennium Park. “We used computer technology to measure the plates and to accurately assess their shape and curvature so they would all fit together correctly,” PSI founder Ethan Silva said. The plates shipped in specialty containers, also made by PSI, to prevent them from being altered in transport.


While metalworkers polished Cloud Gate for its unique uninterrupted surface, the piece was hidden beneath a tent in Millennium Park for eight months in 2005.


Every day, Cloud Gate accumulates sweat, grease, fingerprint grime, or shoe dirt from the myriad of visitors who touch it. Its cleaning schedule varies by season, but maintenance crews wipe the lower, touchable parts several times a day and often give it a power wash at night. Twice a year, the city bathes it in 40 gallons of Tide for a deep cleaning.


Last year, the Chinese town of Karamay unveiled a strikingly similar stainless steel statue. Kapoor is threatening to sue and trying to enlist legal help from the city of Chicago. A Karamay tourism official told the Wall Street Journal that the statue is meant to resemble an oil bubble. (Drilling is the town’s main industry.) “While we use similar materials, the shapes and meanings are different,” he added. Also: “Cloud Gate intends to reflect the sky, but ours reflects the ground.”


He once said it was “completely stupid.”

© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Boston's Museum of Fine Arts Hires Puppy to Sniff Out Art-Munching Bugs
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Some dogs are qualified to work at hospitals, fire departments, and airports, but one place you don’t normally see a pooch is in the halls of a fine art museum. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is changing that: As The Boston Globe reports, a young Weimaraner named Riley is the institution’s newest volunteer.

Even without a background in art restoration, Riley will be essential in maintaining the quality of the museum's masterpieces. His job is to sniff out the wood- and canvas-munching pests lurking in the museum’s collection. During the next few months, Riley will be trained to identify the scents of bugs that pose the biggest threat to the museum’s paintings and other artifacts. (Moths, termites, and beetles are some of the worst offenders.)

Some infestations can be spotted with the naked eye, but when that's impossible, the museum staff will rely on Riley to draw attention to the problem after inspecting an object. From there, staff members can examine the piece more closely and pinpoint the source before it spreads.

Riley is just one additional resource for the MFA’s existing pest control program. As far as the museum knows, it's rare for institutions facing similar problems to hire canine help. If the experiment is successful, bug-sniffing dogs may become a common sight in art museums around the world.

[h/t The Boston Globe]

Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.
Mütter Museum Showcases the Victorian Custom of Making Crafts From Human Hair
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

During the Victorian era, hair wasn’t simply for heads. People wove clipped locks into elaborate accessories, encased them in frames and lockets, and used them to make wreaths, paintings, and other items. "Woven Strands," a new exhibition at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, explores this historical practice by featuring dozens of intricate works culled from five private collections.

According to Emily Snedden Yates, special projects manager at the Mütter Museum, hair work—as it’s called today—was common in England and America between the 17th and early 20th centuries. The popularity of the practice peaked in the 19th century, thanks in part to Queen Victoria’s prolonged public mourning after her husband Prince Albert’s death in 1861. People in both the UK and U.S. responded to her grief, with the latter country also facing staggering death tolls from the Civil War.

With loss of life at the forefront of public consciousness, elaborate mourning customs developed in both nations, and hair work became part of the culture of bereavement. "[The 19th century was] such a sentimental age, and hair is about sentiment," exhibition co-curator Evan Michelson tells Mental Floss. That sentimental quality made hair work fit for both mourning practices as well as for romantic or familiar displays of fondness.

Palette work culled from the collection of Evan Michelson and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Palette work from the collection of Evan Michelson
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Most hair artworks were made by women, and created solely for the domestic sphere or as wearable trinkets. Women relied on multiple techniques to create these objects, fashioning wreaths with hair-wrapped bendable wires—a process called gimp work—and dissolving ground hair into pigments used to paint images of weeping willows, urns, and grave sites. Watch fobs, necklaces, and bracelets were woven using an approach called table work, which involved anchoring hair filaments with lead weights onto a table and using tools to twist them into intricate patterns through a hole in the furniture’s surface. Yet another technique, palette work, involved stenciled sheets of hair that were cut into various shapes and patterns.

Hair work remained popular until World War I, according to Michelson, who co-owns New York City's quirky Obscura Antiques and Oddities shop and organized "Woven Strands" along with 19th century decorative arts expert John Whitenight.

“Women hit the workforce, and death occurred on such a huge scale that it really swept away the old way of mourning and the old way of doing things,” Michelson says. By the early 20th century, tastes and aesthetics had also changed, with hair work beginning to be viewed “as something grandma had,” she explains.

The Mütter’s exhibition aside, people typically won’t see hair work in major museums. Being a craft primarily performed by women at home, hair works were usually passed down in families and often viewed as worthless from a financial and artistic perspective.

“A lot of hair work was discarded,” Michelson says. Many owners repurposed the shadowbox frames often used to display hair work by removing and tossing the artworks within. Works stored in basements and attics also frequently succumbed to water damage and insects. Antique dealers today typically only see hair jewelry, which often featured semi-precious materials or was encased in a protective layer.

Sepia dissolved hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Sepia dissolved hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Yet examples of hair wreaths, palette work, and other delicate heirlooms do occasionally surface. They’re prized by a small group of avid collectors, even though other connoisseurs can be grossed out by them.

“People have this visceral reaction to it,” Michelson says. “They either gasp and adore it—like ‘I can’t get over how amazing it is’—or they just back away. There are very few other things where people are repulsed like this … In the 19th century no one batted an eyelash.”

“It’s a personal textile,” Snedden Yates explains. “It’s kind of like bone in that it doesn’t really decompose at the same rate as the rest of our bodies do. It’s not made of tissue, so if you keep it in the right environment it can be maintained indefinitely.”

Table work culled from the collection of Eden Daniels and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Table work from the collection of Eden Daniels
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

“Woven Strands” features examples of gimp work, palette work, table work, and dissolved hair work. It’s often hard to trace these types of artworks back to their original creators—they typically don’t bear signatures—but the curators “really wanted to find hair that you could connect to an actual human being,” Michelson says. “We chose pieces that have provenance. We know where they came from or when it was made, or who actually donated the hair in some cases, or what the family name was. We also picked out things that are unusual, that you don’t see often—oddities, if you will.”

Woven hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Woven hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Displayed in the Mütter Museum’s Thomson Gallery, “Woven Strands” opens on January 19, 2018, and runs through July 12, 2018. On April 7, 2018, master jeweler and art historian Karen Bachmann will lead a 19th century hair art workshop, followed by a day-long historical symposium on the art on Sunday, April 8.

Michelson hopes that “Woven Strands” will teach future generations about hair art, and open their minds to a craft they might have otherwise dismissed as parochial or, well, weird. “We hope that people see it and fall in love with it,” she says.


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