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Collaborate and Create: Jenny Lam’s Exquisite Corpse

Most curators of contemporary art learn early in their careers that the general public cares a helluva lot less about the artwork they display than they do. But Jenny Lam is not like most curators, and Chicagoans flocked to the opening and closing receptions of her most recent show, Exquisite Corpse, like seagulls to a sandwich left unattended at the beach.

A recent graduate of Columbia University—think New York, not Illinois—Lam moved to Chicago in February. Since then, she has established herself as an artists’ agent, journalist and curator, and Exquisite Corpse is only the last in a long list of her accomplishments.

The show, which opened on September 2nd, drew crowds to rival those of the North Shore Music Festival, which took place the same weekend, and show’s closing reception on September 17th was equally well attended.

Lam attributes some of her success to the spirit of collaboration and spontaneity that is the essence of the old, surrealist stand-by for which the show was given its name, the “exquisite corpse.”

If you’ve taken a twentieth century art history class or have more than a passing interest in surrealism, you probably already know what an exquisite corpse is. But we’ll give you a rundown of its history and its structure anyway…

The French artist and writer Andre Breton coined the term exquisite corpse  in 1925 to describe a parlor game he played with some of his arty pals, including Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miro, and Man Ray.

To play the game, two—or more—people take turns drawing on the same sheet of paper, concealing their drawings from each other. The end result is a surrealist collaboration that reflects both artists but is not entirely representative of either one of them.

Or, as Lam puts it, an “exquisite corpse is a method by which a collage of words or images is collectively assembled. Each collaborator adds to a composition in a sequence, either by following a rule or by being allowed to see the end of what the previous person contributed.”

The artists who participated in Exquisite Corpse were asked to team up with others to create one of these surrealist collaborations.

Some of the artists, like Janet Mamon, Sandi Chaplin and Sioban Lombardi, who teamed up to create Chicago—a straightforward rendering of an exquisite corpse—chose to interpret the theme of the show literally. They took turns working on a canvas they had divided into three sections of equal sizes, and they hid their creations from each other until each section was completely finished. The end result was a fresh, modern take on a surrealist classic.

Other artists, like Brittany Majka, Carrie McGath, and Jennifer Cartolano Moore were interested in interpreting the idea of an exquisite corpse a little more loosely. Their piece, It’s For the Birds was every bit as collaborative as Chicago but somewhat less traditional. Majka, McGath, and Moore chose to plan out the piece ahead of time and they didn’t attempt to conceal their work from one another.

And a few artists, like Cassie Hamrick (who created I’m afraid of horse. I’m afraid of being bitten. hip hop hippo.) and Veronica Stein, who made (The Beguiling Taste of her Salty Bitter Scent) chose to allow the idea of an exquisite corpse inform their work without literally interpreting it.

Ultimately, Lam managed to curate a show that was simultaneously well attended and thought provoking  And in the process she proved that the art world isn’t always elitist and inaccessible.


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