Chicago’s Dan Peterman: Ecology, Activism and the Public Space

Peterman's "Running Table"

This article accompanies our piece about Peterman at Manilow Sculpture Park.

Whether environmentalism has been your life-long path, or whether you’ve come to the issue more recently amongst the “going green” fads of recent years, the topic is certainly fertile ground for the practices of artists all over the world.  In a past article on Chicago Art Magazine, “Environmental Artists: The Color Green,” Yolanda Green highlighted several local artists working with the notions of sustainability, ecology and recycling through their art. Included in the list are Andy Holck, Lisa Korpan, JAM, Matt Wizinski, Sabrina Raaf and Nancy Klehm.

The other local artist included in that list is internationally recognized, Dan Peterman. Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the artist lives and works in Chicago, and is also Assistant Professor of Studio Arts at the University of Illinois- Chicago School of Art and Design.  Peterman’s practice is vast and complex, with notions of environmentalism, activism, sociology, and community employed in his works among many others.

Though he’s shown in museums and galleries around the world, perhaps one of Peterman’s best-known works is the public installation, Running Table. This piece, originally installed in Chicago’s Grant park in 1997, consisted of a 100-foot picnic table made of recycled plastic and was designed for the public to interact with. The piece was re-installed during the summer of 2009, this time in Millennium Park. Laurie Palmer of Frieze Magazine described the experience of Peterman’s table:

“Something both intimate and institutional is involved when sitting down here. Depending on one’s frame of reference, the experience evokes school lunches, church suppers, prison mess halls, or the generosity of the Seder table, at which there is always room for one more. Situated within the contradictions that damn and glorify public space, Peterman’s work takes on a class-crossing potential, in addition to its material ironies, that it could not achieve in a more circumscribed art space. “

The Luna Negra Dance Theater interacting with Peterman's "Villa Deponie" at the MCA

In 2004, Peterman had his major museum survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. For the exhibition, entitled “Plastic Economies,” the artist created four works “including a greenhouse that serves as a ‘carbon bank,’ and Recent Recipes, an arrangement of tables and shelves that present various foodstuffs, including packaged products for the wholesale market. “ Also included was a piece installed on the MCA plaza, called Standard Kiosk (Chicago), another instance of Peterman’s inclinations towards an interactive art experience with the public.

Recently, Peterman’s work was included once again in the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, as part of the exhibition, “Without You I’m Nothing: Art and Its Audience,” which explored the phenomena of fine art which can be engaged physically by its viewers. Along with such notable names as Liam Gillick, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Olafur Eliasson and Magdalena Abakanowicz, Peterman’s additions to the show (Ground Cover and Villa Deponie) proved to be an excellent example of the interactions between people and their environments.

The Experimental Station's initiative, the 61st Street Farmers Market

Peterman is also one of the founders of The Experimental Station, a not-for-profit “incubator of innovative cultural, educational, and environmental projects and small-scale enterprises.” Peterman founded the incubator in 2002 with Connie Spreen, and the project “draws upon the ecological principle of diversity, recognizing the dynamic treasure of resources that a diverse and complex environment brings,” and supports a wide range of other projects such as: “independent publishing, contemporary art, experimental music, visiting writers, organic gardening, bulk food purchasing, ecological initiatives, a bicycle shop/youth education program.”