Mass MoCA: Taxidermy, Glaciers, and Voyeurism

Material World: Sculpture to Environment - Mass MoCA

Last weekend we took advantage of an overcast winter day to visit Mass MoCA and check out the Material World: Sculpture to Environment exhibit. Didn’t realize we’d be in for a bit of a surprise, too.

But first, this was the end of the Material World exhibit, so you won’t be able to actually go see in person what I show you photos of. Cue the trombone — wah-wahhh. It was a great exhibit, but the good news is it’s being replaced by two that sound equally interesting: Sub Mirage Lignum, some mixed media sculpture with emphasis on the mixed; and Memery: Imitation, Memory, and Internet Culture, which has to be fun. Looking forward to seeing those, but let’s tease you with the Material World stuff.

The leading photo is Re-Projection: Hoosac, by Tobias Putrih, taken from the “wrong” end. From the other direction, a spotlight illuminates these monofilament wires producing dazzling patterns of light points. I took a photo of the “right” end, but it turned out almost identical to Sebastien’ photo from earlier in the exhibit’s run, so I’ll just steer you thataway. I was fascinated by how viewers interacted with this, literally walking into and along the length of it — sure, I did the same thing. It’s great, and I hope I get to experience more installations like it.

Material World: Sculpture to Environment - Mass MoCA

Here’s Big Boss by Orly Genger. Made from miles upon miles of braided rope, it dominated the exhibit, blocking a hallway and literally bursting through a wall and spilling across a huge room. I didn’t want to take the obvious wide shot but I still wanted to express the presence of this installation and its almost physical assault, so you get the above. Did this choice have anything to do with the fact that I was testing out a 55mm f/1.4 lens? I’ll leave that a mystery…

Material World: Sculpture to Environment - Mass MoCA

The Geometry of Light by Alyson Shotz is made of hundreds of plastic lenses suspended on threads. While the presentation is similar to Re-Projection: Hoosac this tighter installation is more intimate and feels more delicate. Where you’re drawn to explore Putrih’s ephemeral display, Shotz pulls you in but keeps you wary of coming too close; seems like if you breathe on it wrong, the entire thing might fall apart, and nobody wants to be that guy. I had an instant reaction to the refractive properties of the lenses and experimented with using them in an image with nothing to show for it, but the shadows they cast were more interesting anyway so I went with those, again trying to take a nontypical approach.

There was more to this exhibit, but I either didn’t like the rest of the photos I took or they’re shots that I just don’t want to talk about on an individual basis. There’s a link to the slideshow at the end if you’re curious.

One Floor Up More Highly - Mass MoCA

One of the newer exhibits is One Floor Up More Highly by Katharina Grosse. It’s primarily made of dirt, which I initially thought was concrete, covered in technicolor spraypaint and punctuated with cut styrofoam obelisks. Grosse claims that the work is nonrepresentational, but it’s hard not to see glaciers in the huge white slabs, and the fact that they’re made of one of the most environmentally toxic man-made materials ever and casually littered with winter coats and other clothes makes it hard not to see an allegory.

One Floor Up More Highly - Mass MoCA

The piece takes up an enormous amount of room, and extends from the main area into two smaller spaces, one of which gives an elevated view of the main installation. It’s impressive, and the scale lets you walk around and really soak it in. The overspray onto the installation space itself is cheeky, and I love it.

Sol Lewitt - Mass MoCA

The highlight of Mass MoCA is the extensive collection of Sol Lewitt wall drawings. It’s worth spending a few minutes to explain these for those who think they’re just halfassed abstractions with the hard work done by some assistants. Lewitt is a pioneer of conceptual art, in the core definition of conceptual as something that is more of an idea than an end product. In fact, when an entity wanted to display a wall drawing, they didn’t actually obtain the drawing itself; instead, they would get instructions to create the piece along with a certificate. This explanation from the Virginia Commonwealth University has more details and examples.

Sol Lewitt - Mass MoCA

Lewitt is really the conceptual artist’s conceptual artist, but that’s not the real lesson here. Art is meant to be seen and Mass MoCA’s Lewitt collection is a great example of art that should be seen. Spanning three floors, the labyrinthine wall drawings not only threaten to disorient you but some of the patterns will physically distort your sense of perception. Well, they did for me anyway, and I swear I didn’t bring a flask.

Sol Lewitt - Mass MoCA Sol Lewitt - Mass MoCA
Sol Lewitt - Mass MoCA Sol Lewitt - Mass MoCA

The Sol Lewitt retrospective is a joint project of Mass MoCA, the Yale University Gallery, Williams College Museum of Art, and the artist (before his death in 2007). The exhibit was completed in 2008 and is scheduled for a 25-year tour, so there’s no rush to go see this one. But you’ll want to visit more than once, so check it out sooner rather than later.

Habit - Mass MoCA

The final surprise was Habit, a play conceived by David Levine, that puts a trio of actors in a small dwelling constructed on-site with doors and windows wide open to view by the audience. The roughly 45-minute domestic drama loops continuously throughout the day, for 7 or 8 hours, so you might wonder when the actors get a chance to break for things like food and basic hygiene. Built into the performance is a degree of freedom, so while the overall plot and script remain the same, if an actor needs to use the facilities, they just… use the facilities, and life goes on. Habit is amazingly engrossing, not only because the characters and subject matter are contemporary, but because you’re a voyeur in this vignette. You can peek through a window right above the couch where characters might be sharing an initiate moment with each other or a gourd. Few things are off limits. There’s a great punchline which I won’t spoil, but I will suggest that you explore the entire exhibit. Admission to Habit is an extra $5 over the $15 general admission, and totally worth it.

Habit - Mass MoCA

We also visited the Clark Institute, less than ten minutes away, to catch the tail end of the Albrecht Dürer exhibit; you want to see this, so hurry as it ends March 13. I didn’t grab a magnifying glass or audio tour handset but I was drawn in by the intricacy, detail, and intrigue of each piece. Even if you don’t make it in time for Dürer, the Clark’s permanent collection is captivating. You know that scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day off at the Art Institute of Chicago? It’s sort of like that. If I haven’t convinced you already, admission is free through the end of May. Go!

Oh, the taxidermy! Through April 3 Mass MoCA has Petah Coyne’s Everything That Rises Must Converge, a series of mixed media installations that feature lots and lots of taxidermied birds and maybe even a cougar? Photography of this exhibit is not allowed (I assume by request of the artist) so I can’t show you, which is kind of lame, but it’s worth seeing.

There you have it, an art filled Saturday, one which you can easily replicate. If you’re cheap like me, I suggest packing a lunch if you’re going to visit both museums and hitting Mass MoCA first, then grabbing a cookie or scone at the Clark’s cafe. There’s a small tourist strip in Williamstown, too, so you can grab an expensive bite near the Clark if you want. I’m sure it would be delicious but I can’t vouch. Make this trip soon, before the weather warms up and demands hikes and other outdoor adventures! As always there’s a Mass MoCA slideshow; I know this is an image heavy post but there’s more you haven’t seen.


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