Saturday, September 10, 2011

Sometimes, The Best Thing About Art Museums Ain't the Art

My Vermont excursion was really a tri-state adventure - J. is lucky to live in the southwestern region of Vermont close to the New York and Massachusetts borders - she crosses state lines the way I cross county lines in North Carolina. And each state has gifts to give her and fortunate guests like me. The day before we went to the races in Saratoga disguised as railbirds of the classiest sort, we journeyed to a small town in the Berkshires by the name of North Adams to visit the extraordinary Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art - MASSMoCa.

MASS stands for massive in my opinion, as this 120,000 square foot museum is housed in a former factory complex that dates back to the 1700s. In more recent times it was the headquarters for Sprague Electric Company, the manufacturer of a wide array of products ranging from components for weapons, including the atomic bomb, in World War II, to launch systems for Gemini Moon Missions. The galleries are vast, maze-like, and filled with natural light that pours into windows you could drive a truck through. The industrial setting is practically all you need, but then you fill it with amazing art and well, you've got yourself a party.

J. and I covered the whole place in one afternoon and while that might sound overwhelming, as though we didn't take our time to take in everything put before us, the opposite is true. We spent the majority of our time with the Sol LeWitt collection - his life's work found a permanent home with MASSMoCA because Yale just didn't have 30,000 square feet just lying around in New Haven to offer him. His geometrical masterpieces delight you in their numerousness and scale. I believe there's a Sol LeWitt at the NC Museum of Art, and it never really did anything for me - I think you have to be immersed in his drawings and really, MASSMoCa's LeWitt galleries kidnap you and beat you into submission to his genius. It really got me to thinking about how wonderful it would be if other major artists had their life's work housed in such a way . . . I pictured 30,000 square feet of Jackson Pollock or Picasso, can you imagine how much it would teach you? You can't walk away from something like that without being effected by it.

And then I stood at the mouth of Nari Ward's Nu Collosus - a huge sculpture made of split wood resembling a cornucopia filled with flotsam and jetsam. Ward hales from the Caribbean and his work spoke to me because of my expat years in Bermuda. Nu Collosus reminded me of living in the middle of the ocean for so many reasons, just the size of it alone overwhelmed me like the feeling of being on a tiny island surrounded by miles and miles of water. But it also seemed as though it had washed ashore, a tangle of sea garbage, held together by sailing line and seaweed. I swear I could hear the waves crashing in my ears when I stood a certain distance from the great entrance to Nu Collosus and for that reason alone I was hesitant to walk away from it.

There was nothing delicate about the works in MASSMoCA and such was the case of a series of photographs by Italian photographer Santiago Sierra. Burial of Ten Workers, Calambrone, Italy drove home the message of The Workers, an long term exhibit lasting through March of 2012. So powerful was this exhibit that I considered joining a union upon exit, if not the Communist Party. I spent a considerable amount of time with Sierra's time lapsed series - in which the the seascape changes little, a freighter changes position in the distance, a fishing boat appears and disappears, and the ten laborers go from standing firmly on the shore to being buried alive in the sand. It messes with your head and your ideas of labor, class, and human rights.

But I haven't told you the best thing I saw at MASSMoCa - the thing that wasn't installed in a gallery, the thing that wasn't hanging on a wall. It ran through the gigantic second floor open gallery home to Katharina Grosse's installation One Floor Up More Highly - it did not walk slowly to gaze upon Grosse's outrageous styrofoam glaciers half immersed in gaudy mounds of spray-painted dirt. The best thing came in the form of a messy little blond girl, perhaps eight or nine, wearing the most stupendous LED sneakers ever manufactured. These sneakers didn't coyly blink at the back of the heel like a weak turn signal, no, these sneakers were a one-girl Studio 54 on Saturday night with every star in attendance, including Andy Warhol, Halston, Mick Jagger and Bianca Jagger too. I watched her approach from the far end of the gallery from a third floor balcony overlooking the great hall - she was simply catching up to her mother who stood below me, small pink backpack in hand, and a disgruntled brother in tow. The LEDs flashed pink and green and blue and really they stole Grosse's thunder - if that gallery only featured Miss LED Sneaker Queen running to and fro every day, that alone would be worth the price of admission.

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