Brazilian sculptor at play in the MCA’s plaza

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The plaza of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art can be a rather gray and forbidding space — the entryway to the austere if elegant building designed by Josef Paul Kleihues, the late German architect.

Since the museum opened in 1996, a variety of attempts have been made to warm up the plaza and make the museum more welcoming. The place is at its lively best each summer, when a farmer’s market sets up shop each Tuesday. Redmoon Theater’s 2010 production of “The Astronaut’s Birthday,” which turned the museum’s facade into a projection screen and filled the plaza with bleacher seating, was an ideally dramatic use of the space. And over the years, the MCA’s Plaza Project has brought grand-scale sculptural pieces into the space with the stated goal of “extending art into the community and enlivening Chicago’s landscape with contemporary art beyond the museum’s walls.”

The latest of these Plaza Projects featuresthe work of Brazilian-bred, London-based artist Alexandre da Cunha, 46, who is known for finding creative ways to re-purpose found objects.

Three of his interactive pieces are on view in the plaza andwill remain as part of the landscape through next July. And da Cunha has devised ways to make these sculptural pieces accessible for passersby, enabling them to step inside one, peer inside another and glimpse the shadows one casts as sunlight filters through it.

Sculptor Alexandre da Cunha.

Sculptor Alexandre da Cunha.

The outdoor sculptures arecomplemented by a temporary indoor installation devised by da Chunha for the museum’s atrium. It takes the form of floor-to-ceiling “wallpaper” — poster-size landscape photos, in color, of sunsets and surf taken along the West Coast. Da Cunha has flipped them from a horizontal to a vertical orientation so that they suggest abstracted versions of national flags.

“I wanted to suggest the misunderstandings that can arise about different cultures, and the whole notion of tourism,” said da Cunha, the fifth artist to be selected for the Plaza Project.

Although he grew up in Rio de Janeiro, da Cunha and his family moved often, living in various parts of Brazil and several other countries.

“People imagine me as this kid who went out picking things up on the streets,” said the artist, chuckling. “But it wasn’t really like that. I’ve just always been fascinated by what was around me, and I’ve collected things I found interesting.

“Public sculpture is a big responsibility. You want to please people, and also make a mark. The MCA plaza, which I visited a couple of times, is not an easy space. It is in front of a very strong and imposing building. I wanted to do something that would establish a conversation with the museum — something that would respect the building and all the great Chicago architecture around it, but also would be independent enough, and add something to the space.”

Da Cunha found the cement mixer of “Mix (Americana)” in upstate New York (he also searches for objects on eBay and other Internet sites), and it was part of a New York installation in 2013.

“I removed the interior blades but left some cement inside to give it the feeling of a cave. I treated the surface and put two holes in its top so that it could catch natural light. I also placed it on a beautiful plinth, as if it were a fine vessel.”

Asewer pipe he found in Chicago, titled “The Figurehead,” is big — almost 33 feet tall — and will stand in the center of the plaza “like a modern building, and you can enter it.”

“Biscuit” is a smaller piece, a concrete disc (from the same supplier as the pipe) that is punctured with holes designed to reduce water flow. Da Cunha has stood it on its side, revealing “an everyday object’s inherent form, beauty, and mystery.”

Confessing that he “lives with a lot of stuff,” da Cunha said he mostly likes “taking simple things and changing them merely by rearranging them in some way. For example, at home I just positioned two hammers upside down and created bookends.”

A draft sketch for Alexandre da Cunha’s Plaza Project for Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

A draft sketch for Alexandre da Cunha’s Plaza Project for Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

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