Benjamin Patterson’s When Elephants Fight, It Is the Frogs That Suffer—A Sonic Graffiti, an immersive 24-channel sound installation, transforms the Art Institute of Chicago’s McKinlock Court into an acoustic frog pond with a symphony of croaks from eight frog species. These croaks, emanating from the bushes and fountain, are echoed by human imitations in English, German, and Greek—each language having its own onomatopoeia for the amphibian’s call. The playful animal chatter intermingles with human choruses intoning proverbs and political messages, including excerpts from texts by Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and former president Barack Obama, and passages from the Brothers Grimm fairytale The Frog King (1812) and Aristophanes’s ancient Greek comedy The Frogs (405 BC).
Patterson was a founder, and the sole African-American member, of Fluxus, an international collective formed in the 1960s that sought to blur the boundaries between art and life, artist and audience, and the visual and performing arts. This installation references Patterson’s signature 1962 performance piece Pond. In both works the artist expressed his admiration for frogs, which he found an apt stand-in for marginalized groups in society. The title of the work is derived from a Greek proverb of African origin that suggests that, in times of financial and political instability, it is the small creatures that are most affected.
When Elephants Fight, It Is the Frogs That Suffer—A Sonic Graffiti was originally commissioned for the exhibition documenta 14 (2017; Athens and Kassel) and was acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago in 2018. Prior to his death in 2016, Patterson provided a participatory score for the work, and in the spirit of Fluxus, institutions are prompted to become coproducers of the installation as they adapt the work to specific environmental contexts. Its exhibition in the museum’s McKinlock Court marks the first time the work has been realized in the United States.
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