29Rooms Chicago is filled with bright colors, neon lights, clouds, flowers, and fun, with messages ranging from politics to gender identity.
The theme for the Chicago incarnation of this fun-house style of curated art (the concept of Refinery29) and design is “Turn it into Art.” The installations, housed in a warehouse on West Hubbard Street, range from boats made out of papier-mache to a boxing gym emphasizing the power of women. At one “room,” the words “I stand with Planned Parenthood” is lit up with neon lights; at another, a wall of fans makes a person understand what it means to live in the Windy City. Celebrities have also contributed curated rooms in previous tour stops for 29Rooms, including one from Demi Lovato, which originated at the New York installation.
At the core of 29Rooms is the ability for visitors to “become art” and interact with art much more intimately than one might in a typical gallery. Take for example, “Rest in Power, Rest in Peace” (the title comes from the familiar social media timeline commentary). A set of stairs towers over the other pieces in the room. Its golden railings lead upward a massive throne, flanked by cowry shell-covered walls, overlooking the exhibit. Above the throne, the shells form a rising sun. The dimly-lit and inviting throne affects a sense of contemplation.
“I kind of want it to be ‘anti,’” artist Shani Crowe said, in response to people who might be coming to the 29Rooms for a fun Instagram opportunity. The South Side artist said she designed the piece specifically to create a sense of peace and reflection.
“Because I’m from Chicago, of course, I know the impact of violence has had on me living in the city. I lost people I went to elementary school with to gun violence,” Crowe said. “I’ve lost lifelong friends [who died from] self-inflicted gun violence.”
Beneath the throne is a small room jam-packed with flameless candles, which the room a warm glow. Paper is provided so visitors can write the name of a loved one lost to gun violence. Or just to leave a positive word or two.
“I know this is a fun event and all these spaces are like an adult playground, but I thought there could be room for somber reflection — just to honor the lives that have been lost, while also creating a space for the living,” Crowe said.
She had about a week of 12-hour days to put the throne room together. The cowry shells in Africa have been used as currency, according to Crowe, so she designed the walls to represent the wealth taken by the deceased into the afterlife.
Crowe discussed the hours spent cleaning each of the gritty shells before affixing them to the walls. “In a way [that intensity of the labor spoke to] the difficulty of dealing with loss. You have to really struggle creating this, and making sure all the shells were revealed. [It] was really a challenge. But it was a challenge I welcomed.”