What’s Going on Here, Anyway?

I have just returned from a cross country jaunt to western Massachusetts for a weekend of wonder with my friend Erica. We saw nature bursting from its winter hibernation at the insistence of an early heat wave, gangs of students, from the many colleges that populate the landscape, shaking off their winter blahs, dancers performing spring rites, and art everywhere. It was also a weekend of thought. Here’s why.


The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) in North Adams Massachusetts is the strangest of museums. It holds court in a darkened red brick factory complex hailing from the 1800s in a town that has had its heart ripped out of it more than once. The first time was in the 1940s when the textile finishing business moved out and then again in the 1980s when Sprague Electric abandoned fabricating electronic capacitors here. Fortuitously, in the late 1980s Williams College located in gentile Williamstown, North Adams’s next door neighbor, sought a space to exhibit large scale art and settled on the mill bringing life back to the town’s center when the museum finally opened in 1999.


And, the town’s people? What happened to them? I saw them reflected in the patchwork of old mill houses that make up the town. Some were marked figuratively with a “P” for poverty; others literally with a “red X” for uninhabitable; still others were alive, neat and earnest. The orderly main street hosted a few renovated shops and restaurants for Mass MoCA visitors. There was even a fancy hotel cobbled together from a row of the old houses. Nature surrounded but did not invade the town center; it was all brick, concrete, and rust. It felt empty. The townspeople have directed their energy elsewhere to the road between North Adams and Williamstown, for example, where they conduct most of their commerce in big box stores. The town is, at once, happy and sad. But, for me more sad than happy.


Inside the museum, the voluminous galleries provide temporary not permanent shelter for art. The museum’s mission is to continuously bring the newest, the freshest expressions of contemporary art to the public. Some art is site specific, some is electronically generated, some is drawn or painted on the walls and floors, and most is enormous in scale. Sometimes, to appreciate the art, time is needed. This is the case of Jennifer Steinkamp’s swaying tree. Projected onto the gallery wall, its meaning comes through only by patiently waiting and watching as the gyrating tree cycles through the seasons.


Other times, the back story, or the kernel idea, or the process is necessary, these elements being as important as the works themselves. Take, for example, Simon Starling’s The Nanjing Particles. As we entered the cavernous space where it resides, there before us were two immense and identical reproductions of an 1875 photograph of a local shoe factory and its workers. At first, from a distance, we didn’t realize what we were seeing. As we closed in we saw that the workers were all Chinese. I asked myself, what were Chinese doing here in the northwest corner of Massachusetts in the 1870s? Now, I was very glad that I had tagged along with a docent. She explained that they were strike breakers, replacing the workers at the factory who had struck for better wages. I thought of the labels on my clothes: Made in China. Low cost trumps humankind, I thought.


The story continued. Each of the identical blown-up photos had a large round cut-out, but not in the same place. Behind the holes, in the distance, were two huge amorphous three-dimensional objects. They were similar; yet distinctly different. It was not obvious what, if anything, they had to do with the photograph. The docent enlightened us. These were renderings of blown-up silver grains extracted from the original photograph. The holes mark the spots from which they have been taken.  She then delved into the process by which they came about. First using a powerful microscope, technologists in Berlin Germany extracted two grains of silver from the photograph. Then in Nanjing, China, foundry workers forged and polished the stainless steel forms. Finally, the transformed grains of silver returned to the United States for exhibition. The story demanded me to think hard about the meaning of the global economy; in the 1800s, now, and in the future. This is art?


It is. The gleaming stainless steel surfaces of the particles reflected the massive beams in the high ceilings, the light streaming in through the rows of tall windows, and the visitors leaning in closer and then moving away, making marvelous ever changing patterns. It was beautiful and required no words, only sensing and feeling.


On our way, the docent took us through, but didn’t stop to discuss, a new installation, called These Days: Elegies for Modern Times. But, a sculpture, entitled Get Back! The River Styx, by Robert Taplin stopped me. One of nine sculptures from his Everything Real Is Imagined (After Dante) series, it depicts a boat crossing the River Styx. At the bow of the boat, a man in a business suit pushes away with an oar a naked man frantically trying to board. Behind him sits another man, the only one in color; he looks like a worker in pants and shirt, and in the stern is another smaller man, perhaps a refugee, sitting on his haunches. What I saw wasn’t exactly what Dante’s story in which he and Virgil are in Phlegyas’s small boat when a shade comes out of the dirty water. Virgil pushes him away from the boat with his oar shouting, “Get back with the other dogs.” And, it may be far from what the docent would have told us were she to have stopped here, but what I saw and understood was a businessman, symbolic of greed, pushing away the naked man symbolizing virtue and dominating the less fortunate ( the other two in the boat) who suffer poverty and do the honest work. With honest work being the only virtue being worthy of color.


There was so much more to see and understand, but after more than an hour, I was exhausted. My brain hurt. This museum needs more time than I could give it in one day. And this town needs more time; more big ideas than this museum can give it.  So much in this former mill town for thought. So much art for thought in this museum.


All original content copyright 2009 Mary E. Slocum



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