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Tuesday, November 22, 2011 / 9:00 AM

Review: OUT OF THE BOX: Artists Play Chess at the World Chess Hall of Fame

Review: OUT OF THE BOX: Artists Play Chess at the World Chess Hall of Fame

OUT OF THE BOX: Artists Play Chess. Photos courtesy of World Chess Hall of Fame.


In September of this year, the World Chess Hall of Fame opened across the street from the Chess Club and Scholastic Center in the Central West End, helping to solidify St. Louis’ growing reputation as an American chess capital. While the third floor of the organization boasts the expected memorabilia of chess greats, the first floor gallery offers a surprising exhibition of seven contemporary artists working in diverse media. Curated by Bradley Bailey, Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art at Saint Louis University, OUT OF THE BOX: Artists Play Chess features established artists (Yoko Ono, Tom Friedman, Barbara Kruger, and Diana Thater) alongside artists of a younger generation (Gavin Turk, Guido van der Werve, and Liliya Lifánova). To some, the marriage of chess and art may seem an unlikely combination. While chess requires precise calculation and seemingly unyielding rules, art has traditionally thrown such dictates to the wind. When working in tandem, however, chess and art demonstrate the creative possibilities that can arise within limitations.

Upon entering the first floor gallery, an incessant stomping and clanging quickly awakens visitors from reveries of chess as a leisurely, meditative pastime. Produced by Liliya Lifánova (American, born Kyrgyzstan, 1983), the video Anatomy is Destiny (2009) documents a life-size chess match between thirty-two participants, each clad in a restrictive linen and cotton garment designed by the artist. Anatomy is Destiny references Sigmund Freud’s theory that personality directly derives from one’s gender. Tension builds in the match as male and female chess pieces use emotional and physical intimidation, such as seduction and aggression, to master the chessboard. Alongside the video, the original garments hover above a life-size chessboard, tempting visitors to imagine themselves as players within the match. Throughout Lifánova’s installation, the erratic, animalistic motions of the performers—which at times are unexpectedly graceful—expose the base competitive spirit rooted within all of us.

OUT OF THE BOX: Artists Play Chess exhibition. Photos courtesy of World Chess Hall of Fame

While Lifánova views chess as a lens through which to examine the Freudian subconscious, Guido van der Werve’s (Dutch, born 1977) work quietly reflects upon the world beyond. OUT OF THE BOX: Artists Play Chess features van der Werve’s intricate walnut, ebony, and maple “chess piano,” a musical chessboard that sounds a note each time a chess piece is played. In September, van der Werve activated the chess piano during a match against chess master and pianist Matthew Bengtson. The performance was accompanied by members of the St. Louis Symphony and co-organized by the Saint Louis Art Museum, which is concurrently exhibiting a related film by van der Werve as part of their New Media Series. In addition to the chess piano, the exhibition includes a number of striking photographs, extracted from the film, depicting van der Werve as a small figure in the vast landscape of Mount St. Helens and the San Andreas Fault. As the artist meditates upon seemingly incalculable figures—the number of chess games it is possible to play and how to count the number of stars in the sky—he connects the innumerable arrangements within chess, music, and art with the overwhelming nature of our universe.

Best known for his involvement with the Young British Artists (YBA) during the 1990s, Gavin Turk (British, born 1967) further investigates how both chess and contemporary art encourage performativity. In his video piece, The Mechanical Turk (2008), Turk playfully creates a double entendre between his last name and the 18th century phenomenon of a motorized chess player called the Mechanical Turk. Said to outwit others by his sheer ability, the Mechanical Turk quickly gained international fame, only to be proven a scam in 1820 when it was discovered that someone was controlling the robot from within. In the video, the artist wears a turban and robe, collapsing his personal identity with that of the Mechanical Turk in order to self-reflexively question the celebrity-status and authority that we bestow upon notable artists and chess players.

OUT OF THE BOX: Artists Play Chess exhibition. Photos courtesy of World Chess Hall of Fame

Where Lifánova, van der Werve and Turk explore the time-based properties of chess, the other half of the gallery—featuring chess sets by renowned artists Yoko Ono, Tom Friedman, and Barbara Kruger—examines its more sculptural qualities. The works of Tom Friedman (American, born 1965) and Yoko Ono (Japanese, born 1933) could not be more different in their use of materials; however, they both demonstrate that chaos ensues without the correct balance of uniformity. Recognized for using found objects in his work, St. Louis native Friedman substitutes traditional chess pieces with everyday materials, such as a packing peanut, glue cap, and Busch beer can in Untitled (2005). Friedman’s playful set lacks the structure that enables chess to function—no two pieces are alike—testing the humor and patience of players.

Tom Friedman, Untitled, 2005. Pieces: mixed media; table and board: maple and American black walnut; wall mounts: maple, American black walnut and Perspex. Edition 6 of 7. Collection of Jeanne and Rex Sinquefield.

On the flipside, Play it by Trust (Roskilde Version) (2002), Yoko Ono’s elegant all-white chess set, denies participants the ability to play a competitive game, communicating the artist’s longstanding anti-war stance. Like Ono’s chess set, Untitled (Do you feel comfortable losing?) (2006) by Barbara Kruger (American, born 1945) plays off of the adversarial nature of chess in order to further a political message. Known for creating text-based works that expose power structures, Kruger wired her chess pieces with audio devices that randomly select pre-programmed statements, initiating a conversation between the pieces as they are played. By placing the game atop a woman’s face, twisted in a silent scream, Kruger presents chess as a metaphor for the imbalance between the powerful and powerless in contemporary society.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Do you feel comfortable losing?), 2006. Pieces: black and red Corian, miniature speakers, electronic and computer components; board and box: sublimated image in Corian, electronics, and customized metal and carbon fiber flight case with printed exterior and foam interior. From an edition of 7 and 3 artist's proofs. Luhring Augustine, New York.

Though Kruger’s work is firmly rooted in the here-and-now, Diana Thater (American, born 1962) uses contemporary techniques to reexamine the past. In her four-channel video installation titled Georges Koltanowski vs. Marcel Duchamp in Paris, 1929 (Played by Ellen Simon and Cybelle Tondu) (2010), two actresses reenact the historical match in which avant-garde artist and chess aficionado Marcel Duchamp beat Belgian chess champion Georges Koltanowski. Best known for placing a urinal in an exhibition and calling it art, Duchamp helped to establish the “readymade” as an accepted art form. In recreating Duchamp’s famous chess match, Thater also questions originality in art, asking whether innovation can arise within established frameworks, such as chess.

OUT OF THE BOX: Artists Play Chess brings together an impressive lineup of artworks by major figures in contemporary art, demonstrating that even a form as highly systematized as chess can encourage creativity. But perhaps it is the lesser-known artists—Liliya Lifánova and Guido van der Werve, in particular—who most effectively breathe life into the age-old game, probing not only its sculptural properties, but also its performative and psychological nature. As the inaugural exhibition at the World Chess Hall of Fame, OUT OF THE BOX: Artists Play Chess offers hope that the organization, like the artists in exhibition, will continue to find creative inspiration in the game of chess, further establishing St. Louis as a destination for chess and art enthusiasts alike.

OUT OF THE BOX: Artists Play Chess runs through February 12, 2012. The World Chess Hall of Fame is located at 4652 Maryland Avenue; admission is free with a suggested donation, and museum hours are 10am-5pm Wednesday and Saturday; 10am-8pm Thursday and Friday, and 12pm-5pm on Sunday. For more information, go to or call 314-367-9243.

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