Looking at The Bean, seeing ourselves

Today I joined hundreds of tourists, camp groups, families and local residents who were visiting The Bean in Chicago’s Millennium Park.  [British artist Anish Kapoor’s  highly polished, stainless steel creation is officially titled “Cloud Gate,” but after its unveiling in 2006, its shape quickly inspired the more popular, descriptive nickname.]

We walked around it and under it, touched it, and photographed ourselves, our friends, and the skyline reflected in its fun-house-mirror, stainless-steel skin.  I watched as children crawled on the ground  at the scultpure’s base, seeing themselves appear to be climbing up the inside of the sculpture. I stood underneath The Bean and looked up to see myself and others reshaped and repositioned, depending on where we were standing in relation to the varying curvatures of the Bean’s surface.

It’s an amazing work of art. The Bean’s western surface offers a compressed, fish-eye distortion of Chicago’s dramatic skyline.  On the east,  north and south sides, you can snap a self-portrait of a smaller or larger version of who you think you are, in the optically re-proportioned  plaza surrounding you. And underneath it, you might see yourself multiplied, or upside down.

The visual experience is striking. The design itself is reality altering, because despite its 110-ton weight, it appears almost to float over the plaza, like the drop of liquid mercury that inspired Kapoor.

But there’s an intangible effect, too. If one of art’s purposes is to allow us see to our world in new ways, The Bean achieves its goal artfully and subtly—not by clobbering you over the head with a message, but by drawing you in through its beauty and ingeniousness.

I loved watching people –kids and adults—playing with their reflections, waving to locate themselves on the distorting surface, and discovering the visual trickery of the sculpture’s curves.  I don’t know if Kapoor  intended this to happen, but it seems to me that we all were, mostly inadvertently, doing something very simple, but  psychologically powerful and politically important:  discovering and acknowledging that there’s more than one way to see ourselves, others and the world around us.