Commercial exploitation is a holiday tradition, and Santa Claus might be its most conspicuous agent — each year children embellish their good behavior, encouraging their parents’ aggressive spending.
But in Chicago, there is a visitor from the North Pole that’s bereft of mass-market incentives: a towering polar bear with movable arms, kind eyes, and a large black nose. The creature has popped up at small galleries across Chicago and Milwaukee during a weekend in December for the last nine years, and this Saturday, you can visit 4th Ward Project Space in Hyde Park and get your picture taken on the polar bear’s lap in celebration of its tenth anniversary.
The polar bear is, in fact, a costume, conceived and constructed by New York City–based artist Diego Leclery in 2011, when he was an administrator and faculty member at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It was inspired by Coca-Cola’s holiday commercials that depicted a family of polar bears engaged in various snow-filled shenanigans, all while consuming the sugary beverage. Leclery’s untitled concept aims to break the animal free from the brand and emerge as a winter tradition without ties to religion or corporations.
Although Leclery is the person behind the polar bear’s furry face, you don’t see his name attached to the event. Leclery wants the experience to be based on joy rather than intellect.
“The bear is a holiday tradition, that’s how it’s meant to function,” Lecleary says. “The minute it becomes an artwork, something about it stops functioning. So that’s part of the reason I’m insistent on limiting the number of things that can designate it as an artwork — my authorship, a given title, a date, a medium, a press release.”
The secular polar bear doesn’t demand anything, or even talk. It sits as a plaintive friend. Sometimes it grunts, or air will escape out of its giant black nose, but there’s no need for vocalization.
“I just fall into it,” says Patrick Quilao, an artist and SAIC administrator who has visited the polar bear for eight years. “My hands reach to the skies and the polar bear reciprocates joy. And true to tune, there is the polar bear call. It sounds a bit like a muffled Swedish chef.”
Visitors describe sitting with a man in a polar bear costume as both comforting and awkward, yet this unusual feeling is what gives the experience a certain magic. But that magic is entirely one-sided.
“I certainly could never hire someone to do it for me,” Leclery says. “It would constitute abuse. I have a lot of anxiety the day of the event, so I can’t eat much. I come out of the bear dry heaving sometimes, shaking from temperature shock.”
The bear started as a one-day event at the Suburban, Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam’s Oak Park home and gallery. Kirk Faber has been the photographer and polar bear handler since 2013, excluding two years when the bear travelled to the Suburban’s Milwaukee location in 2015 and 2016. He preserves the memories of visitors who have made the pilgrimage to visit the bear, whether at the Suburban or subsequent locations like Goldfinch in East Garfield Park or 4th Ward. Faber has seen the same kids come back year after year to get their picture taken.
“I think that this event is successful because Diego has thoughtfully constructed something larger than himself,” Faber says. “It’s an experience that transcends critical and political context and has been able to keep a sense of positivity, inspiration, and wonder alive, whether you see through the facade or not.”
No matter who you are, each person gets the unfiltered polar bear experience. There is nothing to read or look into — just a lap to sit on.
“I want a child and an MFA grad to have the same experience, at the same register,” Leclery says. “The MFA grad knows there’s a person in a suit, of course. But the piece is meant to be responded to, not thought about. The important thing is what happens when you’re with it. It’s important that everyone loses their shit.”