Monday, October 03, 2016

MASS MoCA - Museum For The Ages

MASS MoCA, a museum for the ages — as in all ages, all backgrounds, all art, all the time. I cannot do justice to the archaic splendor, the immensity, the strange and wonderful humor and imaginative bizarro nature of this former 19th-century mill and factory complex, now a brick fortress full of sounds and sights that are too big and too playful to happen anywhere else. And where is this place? In North Adams, Massachusetts, I'm glad you asked.

Keith grew up in a little house up the street from North Adams, in the tiny town of Clarksburg, population 1,500 at the time. Meanwhile, throughout the 1970s, North Adams' diminutive but historic downtown disintegrated as factories closed and jobs disappeared. Half a block of older buildings were razed for "urban renewal" and the remaining dirt lot was used for the annual carnival for a number of years before finally becoming a Kmart, which has since gone under. This lack of long-term city planning sucker-punched the remaining smaller retailers. It was bleak.

As usual art saved the day. Well, in my dreams it does. I'm leaving out the 13 years it took from conception to completion of the museum to finally open in the former Sprague Electric Company quarters (half-a-million square feet in use at the moment and still expanding), and then to save the day. Which it's doing, slowly, but it's a struggle with our non-manufacturing economy to contend with, outside of art.

Anyway, MASS MoCA opened in 1999 and because we usually traveled twice a year to Western Massachusetts to visit family, we got to see a lot of it. This area is located in the northern region of The Berkshires and if you're looking for a beautiful cultural hot-spot, The Berkshires is where you should direct your attention—also, I hope you like foliage, because there's that in abundance. After Keith's mom moved to the coast several years ago, we weren't able to visit MASS MoCA much until this summer and it's just as enjoyable and mind-boggling as ever.

The buildings are still crumbly, layered with historical textures. More dark corridors are in use, full of curated sounds as you walk through. And there's some lovely settings to eat and drink, with a brewery (which includes home-brewed root beer and that is a treat), cafe, and restaurant on site. The gift store sits in the lobby and doesn't whack you over the head with consumerism, selling useful art supplies and imaginative book selections. It's tops, I tell you, tops!


I'm a total art weirdo, but you don't have to be to enjoy this place. MASS MoCA hosts outdoor concerts of the underground-radio of the 80s and 90s variety every year. Wilco, Magnetic Fields and Dinosaur Jr. are just a few of many bands who have played here. We once saw Fritz Lang's Metropolis on the big screen while the Alloy Orchestra banged and dinged and screeched away in fine form. There's educational programs for kids, modern dance, video installations and memorably peculiar films throughout the gallery. And massive head-tripping weirdness, but no pretentiousness. If anything, it's a surreal alternative universe within a factory complex that's retained its original form.

Some photos and thoughts in no special order from our visit in August this year.

Some video and images from "Explode Every Day: An Inquiry Into the Phenomena of Wonder," This exhibit was curated by Denise Markonish and features 23 artists who brought their "A" game.

Charles Lindsay's "Field Station" installation confounds and amuses with its joined-together space junk, lab equipment, natural sounds, shiny gold sculpture thingies, glowing light and humor.

Tom Friedman - The Wall. It's a big wall, full of embedded-looking stuff.

To the left (not pictured) is a tiny mounted lint-ball, for contrast I suppose

Chris Taylor's basketball, cups, pencils and elastic bands are all made of glass.

No one wants a flat basketball, except maybe if it's made of glass

Yes, this is made of glass

They're glass, I tell you!

Alex Da Corte's mind-expanding "Free Roses" is a labyrinth of mesmerizing neon wonderment and perplexing camp moments with so many daily artifacts of modern life, especially if you're a child of the 70s or 80s. It's a freaky-deaky world we live in, Da Corte's just constructing a dark personal parallel universe with it.

This is a submarine sandwich (or "grinder") made of vinyl materials, or some-such

Elements of Wizard of Oz, artificial flowers, toaster waffles and so much more

Many objects in this room were based on remembered objects from the house Da Corte grew up in

Why so ominous, huge box of tissues?

This group of visitors showed up with their dog, which immediately wanted to check out the mechanical Akita haunting its endless perimeter, like Nicole Simpson's poor beast. This (live) dog is an art observer of the first order.
Intense dog-to-"dog" scrutiny

The massive three-floor Sol Lewitt retrospective is a playhouse of his long career as conceptual artist with a populist approach. These walls, divided from early, mid- and late-periods of Lewitt's obsessive quest for big walls of line, color and form, were carried out by a team of some 60 artists and interns, following his instructions. As a composer to an orchestra, Lewitt drew up the plans, and a team of artisans carried it out. If you miss it this year, don't worry, it's up for the next 24 years, so you can put it in your calendar.

Federico Uribe's "Here Comes The Sun" is the natural world recreated with our cast-off materials.

Suitcase donkey with bullet-casing bunny passenger

Leather horsey (my title)

Bullet casings lion's head

Richard Nonas' "The Man in the Empty Space" is a minimalist work featuring railroad ties and hulking metal sculptures within the museum's largest gallery. We usually run around in there no matter what the exhibit (it's basically a football-field of art), but during a record-breaking heat wave, this was the most painfully sweltering gallery space, so we just took it in from a mezzanine viewpoint.

Note: the incredible artist Nick Cave will have a no doubt astounding beaded/object-oriented installation in this massive space, starting NEXT WEEK. Somehow, I have to get back to see that.

This is a hallway with a two-story model of the Empire State Building to show some scale of the next potential phase of North Adams awesomeness: Extreme Model Railroad (and Contemporary Architecture Museum). This is a proposal to bring one of those phenomenal model railroads that take up vast amounts of space and contain worlds within worlds of railroad diorama wonder. There's a fantastic model of the railroad museum (still in fundraising and planning modes) at the foot of this large-scale building model. If art alone can't save a town, then it's up to model railroads to finish what art started.

There's so much more. Just go.

Man, that's a lot of art

Note: I did not resize or alter these images in Photoshop (except for that close-up of the doggie). What you see is what my camera saw.

Shh! We're listening to art (Julianne Swartz' "Bone Scores") which has a buzzy humming quality

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