Artists Unite Issue

August 9, 2008

Review: Mass MoCA

Filed under: Articles — Peter Ferko @ 2:43 pm

The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is the kind of institution that exists in my dreams and happily, in reality: a gorgeous industrial building complex, beautifully repurposed into an art space with exciting visual arts, mainstream and avant garde performance and good food to boot.

A recent Saturday was the finale of the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival, a full day of new music performed by a group of musicians who spent a three-week residency with members of Bang on a Can Allstars and other top new music performers. The featured artist was Terry Riley, who reportedly taught the residents Indian ragas every morning. There were a few pieces on the program with a visual or multimedia component. They were not so interesting from my perspective, as the relationships between components seemed weak. But overall, I have no complaints about a full-day program of New Music that is almost never performed in a venue that hosts artists like Beth Orton other nights of the week.

The gallery spaces house two hands full of shows this month. I was able to fit in several between visits to the Festival performances. The first is sculpture and paintings by Anselm Kiefer, including a 50-meter long ribbon of concrete and some spectacular paintings whose surfaces now look like a dry cracking desert. The show includes about 6 paintings plus the sculpture.

On the huge ground floor, an exhibit that explores new landscape art was varied and interesting. 

I admit to rushing through, but was taken by two works in my survey. The first was Jennifer Steinkamp’s animation in which a tree, possibly inspired by the upside-down tree installation by Natalie Jeremijenko in the MoCA entranceway, moves from one position to another and back, tracing a huge reordering of branches along the way. The second was a set of terrariums by Vaughn Bell (Personal Biospheres) in which the viewer is invited to join the microenvironments by putting his/her head through a hole in the bottom. While the photo op this creates is irresistible, I tried to focus on my own experience of being in the miniature world when I put my own head into one.

On the top two floors, a group show surveys the artistic impressions of numerous Western artists visiting China. Some of the work is really good, such as a pair of photographs by Wolf that show the dense architecture of Hong Kong, but most of the work states the obvious: China is crowded and busy. The one piece that tackled the idea of scale metaphorically was a video installation by Catherine Yass entitled Lock in which we experience the view fore and aft from an industrial river barge as it changes levels in a gargantuan lock. I couldn’t help feeling like I was watching a TV show (and waiting for the host’s commentary, “Here we are fifteen minutes later—notice the water beginning to flow through the gates…”) but the idea was clever.

The highlight of the day for me, though was Jennie Holzer’s installation in a darkened room the size of a football field. From both ends of the room, cinema projectors send rolling credits across the floor walls and ceiling as the viewers walk through or lounge on the 8-person bean bag chairs mushrooming around the room. The text was a work of fiction of no particular relevance or politics. The piece appeared to be more of a formal experiment in using some medium-tech sleight of hand to put you in a state of wonder.

Getting to Mass MoCA takes you through some beautiful country from any approach, and these shows are continuing through Spring ‘09.

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