Monday, April 5, 2010

My Visit to MASS MoCA

One of the biggest draws to the North Berkshire area is the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art...fondly called MASS MoCA by the locals, visited by thousands every year, and loved by everyone for their contribution to the community, to the Arts, and their major role in cultural education.

Since this is a difficult and heavy subject matter, I am going to ask my favorite art-world heroine, SISTER WENDY, (British critic, writer and nun!) to explain some of the "artistic" facts, as I journey through the walls and floors of the masterpieces.
Some of you may know Sister Wendy from her PBS specials...she is amazing. There is a 6 DVD set of her talks available in media shops like Borders, Barnes & Noble or FYI.
"Sister's" conversation is of course, entirely fictional, but I know you have a superior imagination and will humor me in this endeavor.
Sister Wendy will explain the real meaning behind some of the artwork in this museum...and I will be the everyday clod who knows nada about art philosophy, commenting on the pieces as I see them... in my ignorant, heathen manner.
Let us begin...
Driving to North Adams from The 1896 House is about a 10-15 minute journey straight down Route 2 East. MASS MoCA sits on the left and is easy to spot along the road. Parking is free.
You are met with a clump of luminous factory buildings and dangerous looking alleyways to trek through. Large yellow "arrows" point the would expect at any moment, a gang will appear and steal your handbag or ipod, or at the very least, a long coated man will try to sell you a watch for $20.

Be is safe. Go ahead down the alley and head into the open center, where you will see your first "art" display...

ME:  Oh look! Wicked cool trees hanging upside down!

SISTER WENDY: In Tree Logic, the art of the piece is not found in its condition at any single point in time, but in the change of the trees over time. Trees are dynamic natural systems, and Tree Logic reveals this dynamism. The familiar, almost iconic shape of the tree in nature is the result of gravitropic and phototropic responses: the tree grows away from the earth and towards the sun.
When inverted, the six trees in this experiment still grow away from earth and towards the sun - so the natural predisposition of trees might well produce the most unnatural shapes over time, raising questions about what the nature of the natural is.
ME: I wonder if birds nest upside down in the branches?

Heading past HUDSONS shop, I glance in the window at the cool vintage and artistic stuff they have for sale. Chewing gum wrapper handbags, records, old posters, jewelry...way neat.

GRAMERCY BISTRO is located in this setting as well...great food and solid rep for consistant quality.

Heading for the MoCA door, you see the entrance to a large old factory. 
MoCA has quite a history.
In the 1800's, the building housed a printworks shop. It later spent time as Sprague Electric and was a major employer in the area. MA MoCA took the property over in 1986 and has since renovated many of the spaces, brought amazing artists and performers to the area, and has become somewhat of a phenomenon in the Berkshires. It costs about $15 to get in.
Kids cost less and there is a lot for them to do and be interested in.
The staff are really friendly and helpful and there are tours given every hour or half wait for one of them. You will be given a great objective tour of the displays and gain insight and education about what the artists are saying. Much better than trying to rough it by yourself.
DO NOT GO BY YOURSELF UNTIL YOU HAVE TAKEN A TOUR. The tours are free, so make sure to join one.
Luckily, there is a great gift shop and cafe to visit while you await the next tour.

My tour began with a walk to the video area... a very awkward and uncomfortable 5 whole minutes watching a film by Guy Ben-Nur showing his family dressed up in swan costumes gathering sticks in the woods. My eyes glazed over. In another room's vid, he is acting out the book MOBY DICK with his young daughter in their kitchen... ME: Oh come on! This is not art!

SISTER WENDY: Kathy, this medium is modern and is indeed "art". Over the past decade Guy Ben-Ner has become known for a series of playful videos which often star the artist and his young children. The humorous, home-made films have an authentic, do-it-yourself appeal, though their deceptive simplicity quickly reveals sophisticated cinematic and literary influences - ranging from the physical comedy of Buster Keaton and the humanist films of Fran├žois Truffaut to literary classics such as Herman Melville's Moby Dick and Daniel Dafoe's Robinson Crusoe. With humor and pathos, Ben-Ner re-tells these iconic stories of the individual's search for meaning and identity in relation to the influence of society's mores and traditions.
Through these timeless tales he sheds light on contemporary philosophical and political issues, while avoiding a didactic approach. Often exhibited with the simple sets and props created for the videos, Ben-Ner's work de-mystifies the creative process, symbolically inviting the viewer to move beyond the space of reception into the realm of production.
ME: Longest 5 minutes of my life!
We proceeded by a bicycle you can pedal to view a video of how the elctricity is generated to power the video. People seemed to enjoy this and there was always someone riding the thing, so I never got a turn.

We next entered an exhibit called THESE DAYS: ELEGIES FOR MODERN TIMES... which is a collection of paintings and videos about hope and despair. I enjoyed one of a cello player, passionately playing a Bach prelude. You get sound and vision here...but the cool part is that artist Sam Taylor-Wood (female) has digitally REMOVED the cello, so it appears the guy is playing nothing at all. Some folks thought he was acting, pretending to play.  
ME: I'm way impressed with the clean digital removal of that cello...being an avid photoshop user taking wrinkles out of my facebook photos, I can appreciate that skillset.
SISTER WENDY: As the lone cellist mournfully plays his music, the cello has been erased, evoking a stark sense of loss, yet he still plays with passion and life. Vitality and mortality battle one another without a clear victor. There is a sense of hope in the saddest of conditions.

This theme prevails throughout Sam's exhibit's, including her other works of note, such as Ghosts VI and Escape Artist. I'm quite taken by her Little Death video. 

ME: Eeeoowww! Sister, that Little Death vid gave me the creeps. A dead rabbit hangs by a foot and the camera captures it rotting over a period of time, being eaten by maggots while the body fluids soak up into the wall...everything except the fluffy tail is gone by the end. So glad I didn't get an ice cream cone before this tour.

SISTER WENDY: But Kathy, the fruit in the video remained fresh throughout the hare's decay process. In Europe, fruit represented new life, hope and vitality in art.
The video

One of the other artists displayed in this group was ROBERT TAPLIN. He created 9 scenes with resin figurines depicting a DANTE Inferno like world. Seriously engaging and interesting peeking into little caverns and boxes to see the eery scenes.
Another video was shown in a 360' room. It was called BELOW SEA LEVEL, by Pawel Wojtasik.
ME: I got a little queasy sitting in that room with all the New Orleans wetlands water rising and falling around me. There were scenes of musicians and Mardi Gras players in a post Katrina environment...kinda funky this one.

SISTER WENDY: This film engages viewers in the contemplation of elements, natural and man-made, that make New Orleans such an essential site.
The connections are palpable from the eerily quiet waters surrounding the city, to the life that goes on within it.

OK, on to another room...this one with huge wall paintings of words over words. This exhibit is called THIS IS KILLING ME.
ME: I kind of enjoyed looking at all the layered words on the wall...especially seeing the thought process of going to eat, feeling sad and stuff, but many of the words were mis-spelled and that drives me nuts. (Did I just miss spell mis-spelled?).

Present in much of the work are deep feelings of inadequacy-the artist plagued by the idea that she or he is not good enough, hard-working enough, or famous enough (and never will be). Some of the work unveils the sources — or lack thereof — of the artist's inspiration — laying bare the unending pressure to develop meaningful and original ideas. Other work gives shape and form to the creative process, pointing to the labor, the hand of the artist, and accompanying procrastination entailed in making art. Ultimately, many of the pieces derive content from an engagement with psychoanalysis and a mining of one's own unconscious and psyche. The works presented, far from becoming cathartic votives, are embodied monuments to the complexities of artistic practice.
There was also a case purposely left with a film of dust on it, housing mannequin heads that look like the artist. Interesting grouping this was.

Into a really large room, we came upon a HUGE slab of curved concrete. My lawyer friend said "this is a lawsuit waiting to happen!" when we got close enough to notice protruding rusty coils. The tour guide explained that this was loaned by a collector who could no longer "display" it in his yard, as neighbors complained about the eyesore. Really? Imagine

ME: Isn't this from the BIG DIG? How the heck did they hoist this up to the 2nd floor?! More importantly...WHY?

SISTER WENDY: True, they are wavy planes of concrete as thick as 10 inches bristling with rusty, bent lengths of rebar form a long pile that looks ready to be carted away. Because we’re in an art museum we know we’re looking at a work of art. So we read the pile not as junk but as sculpture, a formally impressive arrangement of undulating ribbons punctuated by the busy staccato of the rebar pieces. Splayed sheets of lead lying over one section, like pages of a newspaper or an oversize book, add a poetic grace note.
ME: Let's take a drive on the pike and go see the mothership in Boston.

Further into the room, we see artist Keifers work...actually really nice post war wall art scenery pieces in a 3 dimensional medium.
ME: Ok, I like this one. These are my colors.

Oh wait...
On the other side of the room sits what appears to be a large broom made of mud and little clumps around it. Our tour guide explains this is on loan from Pennsylvania by the infamous Joseph Beuys.
ME: Oh great...a humungous muddy broom and some dinosaur dung. Save a huge corner in the museum for THAT.  

Beuys' dramatic "Lightning with Stag in its Glare", (Blitzschlag mit Lichtschein auf Hirsch),1958-85, is the only environment that the artist cast in bronze. This monumental work is encrusted with layers of meaning. At its core, it enacts a dramatic moment in nature: A bolt of lightning (the large, suspended sculpture) strikes the ground, illuminating a stag (cast in highly reflective aluminum). Other animals are present, but are not so well illuminated. There is a goat (a metal cart with a pick resting on it) and worm-like primordial animals (the dark bronze forms scattered on the floor). The final element present, the Boothia Felix, is a metal tripod with a roughly rectangular mass on top of it and a small compass resting on top of that. This element is named for a strip of land in northern Canada that was the first established location of the north magnetic pole.
ME: UH-HUH...Right...
Entering another room, we come upon an upside down glass house. Entitled GRAVITY IS A FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH, artist Manglano-Ovalle depicts upheaval and the dualistic definition of gravity.
ME: I liked the spilled coffee on the ceiling.

SISTER WENDY: Science and emotion are simultaneously inverted and logic is therefore challenged. The artist emphasizes a shift in perception which transforms the world in twhich we know it, making it transparent. There is a phone ringing inside....did you notice that Kathy? One caller leaves the message"gravity is a force to be reckoned with and you won't win".
The star player in this museum has got to be the Sol Lewitt exhibit. Housed on 3 floors, each representing a phase of his artistic career, it is a dazzling series of colorful and intricate works. Slotted to remain for 25 years, then possibly painted over, Sol's belief that art is not precious will be honored.
ME: I loved this stuff. They built the walls in this exhibit just to house his art! Cool standing in front of the color panels too. Where IS my camera?! Is this the inspiration for the Partridge family bus?
Sol LeWitt (September 9, 1928 - April 8, 2007) was an American artist linked to various movements, including Conceptual art and Minimalism. LeWitt rose to fame in the late 1960s with his wall drawings and "structures" (a term he preferred instead of "sculptures") but was prolific in a wide range of media including drawing, printmaking, and painting. He has been the subject of hundreds of solo exhibitions in museums and galleries around the world since 1965. His prolific two and three-dimensional work ranges from wall drawings (over 1200 of which have been executed) to hundreds of works on paper extending to structures in the form of towers, pyramids, geometric forms, and progressions. These works range in size from gallery-sized installations to monumental outdoor pieces. Sol LeWitt was one of the main figures of his time; he transformed the idea and practice of drawing and changed the relationship between an idea and the art it produces. LeWitt’s art is not about the singular hand of the artist; it is the ideas behind the works that surpass each work itself.

There are many more pieces and exhibits at the museum, including pornographic cartoons, an exhibit called Invisible Art (too funny for me to even critique), and sculptures, photography and audio pieces.
This museum is chock full of surprizes and well worth a visit. I came here twice and plan to go again. They have some permanent and some revolving displays. Check their website for events and new exhibits: MA MoCA

North Adams is abundant with art studios, and the local liberal arts college feeds the town with many creative and talented artists. Venues dot the streets and there are often art fairs on weekends.

MASS MoCA has live entertainment, rock bands, avant guart artists, puppet shows, music workshops, and theater during the week. It is an amazing place. Stop in if you visit the area!

SISTER WENDY: Ta-ta for now Kathy. I'll pray for you!
ME: Thanks for your help Sister!
MASS MoCA is closed TUESDAYS. Open 11-5. Later on Saturdays and event days.
Take advantage of our MoCA Special at The 1896 House
Love & Peace,

Friday, April 2, 2010

Back from Vacation!

Just back from vacation and working feverishly on the next blog posting. Didn't want to leave the sleigh ride post up here in 70' weather! lol

Look for the newest post in a few days!
Happy holiday weekend to everyone!