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Work and play at MASSMoCA. And a boat.

Posted by Joel Brown  January 5, 2012 04:11 PM

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1-12 moca5Made one of my regular visits to MASSMoCA in North Adams last weekend and found that the current exhibits - at least the ones I could hit in a couple of hours - are as usual a mix of the sublime and the ridiculous. At the sublime end of the spectrum of course is Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective, which has its own building and its own web site and is expected to stick around through 2033. I've been through it perhaps half a dozen times since it opened in 2008, and the work still feels like genius.

The Workers: Precarity/Invisibility/Mobility, on display through April 14, does something different for a MoCA show, tackling its subject head-on, almost polemically at times. The idea is to show how far labor has fallen from the days of Rosie the Riveter in our era of economic despair, outsourcing, migrancy and exploitation. A series of photos shows workers increasingly buried on a beach, in sight of distant factories, until there's nothing left of them. A nearby installation combines a workers' break room and a gallows, like a New Yorker cartoon that needs no caption.

Paci 11Most compelling is Adrian Paci's tragicomic "Centro di permanenza temporanea," a large-screen video that shows solemn-faced minority workers lining up to climb one of those wheeled airport staircases - but instead of boarding a plane, they are left standing stoically on the staircase in the middle of the airport, while the shiny jets of commerce taxi and take off all around them. (Image courtesy MASSMoCA.) The video is specifically intended to comment on the plight of undocumented workers, but the sense of abandonment seems to apply to pretty much everyone these days. This five-minute film was a kick in the head.

1-12 moca1Upstairs in Building 4 is the exhibit Nari Ward: Sub Mirage Lignum, running through February. This is one of those shows where the scale of the works is designed to take advantage of the huge spaces at MASSMoCA, which usually make an impact even if the curatorial explanations don't always convince. The centerpiece of Ward's show is "Nu Colossus," which features a fishing boat cut in sections and a giant, conical basket-woven fish trap of a kind used in Ward's native Jamaica. One's immediate impression is that the hunter has become the hunted. But of course such obvious interpretation is never correct here at MoCA, and the accompanying text informs us, "This duality of seduction and entrapment is key to Ward's idea of mirage, which as an image both distorts reality and points to a sense of need."

1-12 moca3I sometimes feel as though I am insulting the artist when I talk about what's most affecting in these giant installations, as it's often different for me than the stated intent of the work. Does my sense of wonder at their immediate visceral impact trump the Moebius-strip curator-speak of the cerebral explanations? Disbelieving some of the airy conceptual constructions does not make one a Philistine, does it?

By itself, bringing a boat into the gallery no longer floats mine. But a look into the gaping maw of the fish trap - filled with broken furniture (more on that in a sec) and lit in sinister chiarscuro by the gaps in the basket weave - was a stunner. All I could see was an upsettingly intense still-life of a tornado's unholy inner chaos, looking up into the funnel as it sucked away me, Dorothy and Toto. My crappy cellphone pic can't do it justice, but perhaps it doesn't matter, as this interpretation is apparently an unintended consequence of the artist's craft and vision, and nowhere mentioned in the text. Thanks to eavesdropping, though, I know I'm not the only one who saw it immediately.

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The furniture, as well as the foam rubber, resistors and capacitors making up Ward's giant "Mango Tourists" in an adjacent gallery, were sourced around the museum, which occupies the former Sprague Electric factory complex. A large installation in the Workers exhibit re-creates and comments on an "artwork" of disposable cups stuck in a chain link fence at the Sprague plant during a 1970 strike. To use a couple of verbs much favored by curators nowadays, it 2011-12-31_14-12-53_197would be interesting to "unpack" the ways that these works "interrogate" the site's history. There are places in the museum where the workers' passages (in both senses of the word) remain vividly present.

Finally I wandered into the football-field sized Building 5 gallery, the site of MASSMoCA's most mind-blowing triumphs and its most hilarious misfires. The sheer size of the joint brings out artistic ambitions that raise the stakes so high even the misfires are must-sees. That, alas, was not the case with Katharina Grosse's one floor up more highly, an exhibit which ended, fortunately or unfortunately, on New Year's Day.

The main portion of the exhibit consists of truckloads of dirt heaped on the gallery floor, spray-painted in various colors and stuck with large, styrofoam rods that look like the icy wastes of Superman's home planet. It called to mind the el cheapo alien landscapes on the original "Star Trek." The exhibit text says that Grosse's work "opens up a new path for painting while rearranging conventions, hierarchy and our very habits of seeing." Also: "the anarchic work embraces a state of ambiguity that allows for alternative ways of processing what is seen." To which I can only say, uh huh.

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Joel Brown is a regular contributor to The Boston Globe and writes the blog. Catch his tweets between posts at More »

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