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The Biggers They Come

Director of Exhibitions Planning, Dante Birch, reminisces about some of the (crazier) exhibitions past. There’s never a dull moment at MASS MoCA!

I was asked recently to provide a blog entry. Well, I always cringe when this time rolls around because I think “oh my goodness, what am I going to write about?” But it turns out to be a good opportunity to look back. Things are often so busy we spend our time only looking forward.

So this is what we’ve been up to lately.

De-installation of Katharina Grosse:

Installation of Sanford Biggers:

De-installation of Nari Ward:

Well I don’t know about you but I’m starting to see a trend….heavy equipment maybe?

It seems that we can’t do much of anything here at MASS MoCA unless it involves a 10,000 pound booming forklift, a handful of standard forklifts, a crane, and an endless supply of chain falls and staging. Maybe that’s part of the magic of MASS MoCA? We take on these unusual projects of scale. The artist wants to suspend a boat in the gallery? Sure…let’s do it. Compared to what we’ve done before…. What a minute, what have we done?

So, I dug a little deeper into the past and looked through the installation “happy snaps” from the last few years.  How about installing an airplane fuselage in a gallery?……….

Ok, we did that for Huang Yong Ping.

How about shoving an amusement park into a second story room with a crane?

Check! Carsten Höller, 2006.

Didn’t we knit an American flag with some bucket loaders….

Right oh!,….. Dave Cole’s Knitting Machine.

I wonder where we put that Airstream trailer Michael Oatman turned into a space ship? That’s right,  on top of that elevated steam pipe support out back……Sure thing.

And the list goes on….

So in retrospect I guess I work in an unusual place. It seems that with a little of that MASS MoCA “pick yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality, a pinch of “indomitable spirit” and an unbelievable staff, MASS MoCA gets to bring some wild ideas into being.

It’s definably changed the way I see the world. After working here, I think if an artist came to MASS MoCA and wanted to go to the moon, we could do it. Now getting them back, well that’s another matter.

Enough reminiscing, we’ve got a full schedule ahead. There’s the upcoming show Invisible Cities, a high school student show which will be on view from April 13 – 15, and then we’re going to attempt to squeeze what seems to me to be the entirety of the Canadian contemporary art world into the first floor of Building 4. Hmmm. I guess I’ll see you in May.

Cheers,

Dante

Posted March 19, 2012 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Exhibitions
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FREE Day Project: The Workers

What do you do? That was the question that inspired a community wall installation in our Tall Gallery on FREE Day last month. In addition to the many fun activities that took place throughout the day, one of the most interesting was the resulting wall collage of brown paper bag cutouts inspired by Mary Lum’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, on view as part of our exhibit The Workers (below):

Lum spent several years collecting the names printed on the bottoms of paper bags, after initially being surprised to discover that each bag is stamped by an individual person. This easy-to-miss detail underscores the human element of mass-produced items that we don’t often think about or stop to consider. On FREE Day, we asked kids and adults alike to write down what they do on pieces of brown paper bags and stick them on the wall. What began as a simple question evolved into a creative and oftentimes Post Secret-esque endeavor. Check out what some of our visitors had to say about their work and their place in society.

We loved reading all of these at the end of the day. Thank you to everyone who participated!

By Cora Sugarman/Photos by A. Elizabeth Berg

Posted March 5, 2012 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Free Day, The Workers
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Artist Spotlight: Hugo Hopping

Curator Susan Cross writes about one of the artists featured in our current show The Workers.

Hugo Hopping’s practice engages with the legacy of conceptual art while addressing social and political concerns. In his video for The Workers exhibition, A Few Thoughts on Resignation and Loss (2010), Hopping re-stages a 1924 chess match played between the influential artist Marcel Duchamp, who famously retired from his career in art to pursue his love of chess, and the Italian chess master Massimiliano Romi. Duchamp conceded the game in order to avoid an embarrassing checkmate, a move which became of particular interest to Hopping and prompted his subsequent ruminations on the multiple meanings of resignation and loss. In the video Lieutenant Hugo Alejandro Tapia Agustin of the Mexican Armed Forces offers his analysis of the chess match. Chess becomes a metaphor for society where the system of pieces on the board reflects class hierarchies, institutions, and positions of power. The pawns can be understood to represent the foot soldier but also the working class, who, like the pawns have the least power individually, are crucial – especially in their united movements – to the ultimate outcome of the game. Lt. Tapia sees a parallel in this metaphor to the position of the Mexican people in the hope of strengthening a collective national identity and a means to enact change.

Former curatorial assistant Rosalia Romero interviewed the artist about the video:

Rosalia Romero: You met Lieutenant Hugo Alejandro Tapia Agustin, whose letter is narrated in your piece, on an online chess forum.  Did you approach the Lieutenant specifically with this piece in mind? Or did the work grow out of your communication? 

Hugo Hopping: Between October 2009 and March 2010, I was organizing a solo show for Anne Barrault Gallery in Paris, France titled A Sugar Diet for Mystics. I had prepared some artworks that focused on the public life of Marcel Duchamp, specifically on his chess-related activities. I have come to understand that the game of chess is a public mental sport (often practiced in private) that results in public forms of exhibition, from the park to the tournament.

I was fascinated by the fact that Duchamp resigned from making art publicly to pursue the aesthetics of chess and its strategies. I, myself, had obsessively researched and played chess on a daily basis for over a year, so much that I was beginning to approach a fine line between chess and making art and had to decide which one had priority over the other. I could not believe how much I related to Duchamp’s “early retirement”.

Resignation took on a theoretical aspect that I had not really understood up until the making of these art pieces. In many ways the resolution of having made these artworks reveals that I listened to Duchamp’s imaginary advice to Bobby Fischer. (1)

“If Bobby Fischer came to me for advice, I certainly would not discourage him—as if anyone could—but I would try to make it positively clear that he will never have any money from chess, live a monk-like existence and know more rejection than any artist ever has, struggling to be known and accepted.”

Mastering chess is an all-consuming project and having made the world believe Duchamp had given up art for chess for nearly 25 years has to be understood, not as a gimmick but rather as a dynamic for managing public and private artistic activity/production as part of an artistic life strategy, like his final artwork Etant Donnés seems to disclose.

Meanwhile, I was feeding my own chess mania when I happened to meet Lieutenant Hugo Alejandro Tapia Agustin. We were randomly matched by the chess engine’s online program and had a very good game that resulted in a lesson. I found his comments about chess revealing and informative.  I suppose what was more engrossing in receiving advice from him was his background as a career soldier of almost 30 years in the Mexican Armed Forces. I approached him exclusively with the intention of having him analyze Duchamp’s tournament game and offer an analysis similar to what he had been offering in our online exchanges. This intention resulted from having made a series of art works over the years, which involved diverse individuals contributing content for my artworks through a collaborative exchange. This is how A Few Thoughts on Resignation and Loss came together.

RR: You have stated that in this piece you seek to examine the ambiguity of loss both real and theoretical. Is there a specific loss or theoretical loss you are referencing aside from Duchamp’s?

HH: I have for some time been concerned by the breakdown of Mexican society through the rise of narcocrime.  I spent my childhood living in a suburb of Mexico City, a relatively safe environment, and had been hoping to make a project that evidenced the contemporary social deterioration and that, of course, obviated its loss through the narratives of modern and contemporary art.  Duchamp’s game, in this sense, is a mise en abîme for staging ‘the other’.

His resignation as a chess player possesses a historical narrative between public exhibition and private practice. Lieutenant Tapia is currently caught in a similar dynamic: his role as a soldier and voicing an inaccessible narrative and private perception of Mexican society, without referencing directly the narcowar.  I found that in asking Lieutenant Tapia to be part of this piece, I was both allowing Duchamp’s public chess practice to be examined through the game itself and as a comment on a contemporary conflict offered by an unexpected examiner in the Mexican army.

If the resignation means the sidestepping of making art publicly and favoring a production strategy for the making art privately, then the loss may be a word of warning (which Duchamp suggests clairvoyantly) of a coming transition from a private practice to market-driven practices, thereby transforming aesthetics in contemporary art production.

In terms of a self-reflexive search for an understanding of loss as a way of overcoming historical disappointment and societal changes, the Mexican soldier seems to be searching for a way to modernize the Mexican mind in spite of his station as a public servant directly involved in the current conflict. Material and political loss in this case is a way of life in Mexico.

In the end, the soldier wonders if there ever was a Mexican hegemony and how it can transcend both its historical and contemporary aberrations.

 RR: The dilution of Latin American culture in the face of American influences is central to Lieutenant Hugo Alejandro’s text. He presents a parallel between the great power that a unified set of pawns possesses in the game and the potential inherent in uniting a country’s people. Building a strong cultural identity is mentioned as a means of accomplishing this unity. Do you share Lieutenant Hugo Alejandro’s sentiment?

HH: Mexican national identity has been displaced by the economic practice in Mexico since the early 1980’s, and it has been fully entrenched into modern Mexican society since the economic circumstances of 1994. In other words, Mexican national identity has also been deregulated.  In the preface to the 3rd edition of Lesley B. Simpson’s book titled Many Mexicos published in 1941, he suggests that the “study of habit gives meaning to history”…for “we cannot know ourselves without knowing the past”.

Lieutenant Tapia is caught in a generational shift in Mexico, where the political scandals, continued disappointments, and failed promises have abandoned the institutionalization of the Mexican Revolution. He still remembers the difference between Mexican and American identities.

I think Lieutenant Tapia is suggesting an advancement of this identity; however, he does not provide nor suggest how to achieve this.  I don’t know where he stands with many of my comments above, although he seems to share similar concerns.

I differ in many ways with Lieutenant Tapia in that I am Mexican and also American, I have a heritage in both nations, and I see myself caught as a subject of an emerging North American subjectivity, one which is increasingly merging into the other, meaning the U.S. and Mexico. However, a cultural identity is indispensable, especially a strong one, ideally, where the virtues of this said culture can absorb difference and heterogeneity and not succumb to xenophobia and racism. I am impressed that Mr. Tapia and I are on different sides of the aisle; no soldier in Mexico is unaware of the brutal violence that is happening at the moment or has not dealt with it, and I can safely say that no Mexican artist is unaware of the same issues or has suffered losses from the violence.

RR: And you mention the increasing presence of military forces in open civil society in Mexico and the then current national crisis as a framework for viewing the piece.

It is important to understand that Lieutenant Hugo’s letter is written in light of a planned build-up in 2010 of more than 45,000 Mexican soldiers, who were being deployed into Mexican society to fight narcocartels. To some, this military intervention into Mexican civil society is regarded as the first major operation since the revolution.

It is important to note that the Mexican Armed Forces is one of the few armies in Latin America that has not staged a coup in the last 75 years and that a blossoming anti-militarization, anti-corruption movement in Mexico is on the rise, led by the Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, who, after the horrific assassination of his son among six others by organized crime earlier this year, has begun to build national support with other fed-up citizens who can no longer bear the societal deterioration.  This social movement, called Red Por La Paz y La Justicia, believes that society should seek new forms of coexistence and order without the imposition of an army and as such it is demanding a social revolution to gain back Mexican civil society. Here are Sicilia’s own words from a document written in the aftermath of his son’s assassination.

“We have had it up to here with you, politicians –and when I say politicians I am not referring to any one in particular, but to a whole lot of you…because in the midst of this corruption that shows the failure of the State, every citizen of this country has been reduced to what the philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls, with using the Greek word, zoe: an unprotected life, the life of an animal, of a being who can be raped, kidnapped, molested and murdered with impunity, we have had it up to here because you have only imagination for violence, weapons, for insult, and therefore, a deep contempt for education, culture and opportunities for good honest work, which is what makes nations prosperous.”— An Open Letter to Politicians and Criminals, Javier Sicilia, April 3, 2011. (2)

 

Javier Sicilia has resigned from ever writing poetry again.

 

——

1. Brady, Frank: Bobby Fischer: profile of a prodigy, Courier Dover Publications, 1989; p. 207.

2. Carta abierta a políticos y criminals. Javier Sicilia

 

Posted March 1, 2012 by MASS MoCA
Filed under Artist Spotlight, BLOG, The Workers
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Catching Up with Joe

Museum director Joe Thompson blogs about the latest goings-on at MASS MoCA.

I love mud season because it kicks off MASS MoCA’s most intense season of making art. It’s our sugaring season. Our performing arts stages are booked solid with residencies, and the galleries are abuzz with visiting artists.

I caught Gisele Amantea in the act of converting our Hunter foyer into what may end up feeling a little bit like a Canadian bordello (which is to say polite, and rather chic), riffing wildly on a Louis Sullivan decorative motif from the tomb of the wife of one of the architect’s greatest Chicago patrons, Ellis Wainwright.

But Gisele (seen here in the middle, with black shirt) is also riffing on the “MASS” in MASS MoCA — her finger poking gently in our ribs for our penchant for large-scale work — by elaborating the delicate fleur-de-lis designs into man-eating dimension: every part of the design that is now white will soon be flocked into light-sucking blackness, and extended for the full 90’ length of the space.

This is the powerful first contribution by a Canadian artist to our upcoming Oh, Canada show, opening this Memorial Day.

On a more precipitous timeline is Making Room, the Space Between Two and Three Dimensions, which just opened Saturday.

 

Claire Harvey was in town this past week for Making Room, doing an extraordinary series of tiny paintings on small pieces of glass and acetate, which are then projected on the walls and other provisional surfaces using old-fashioned overhead projectors, like your teacher used to do in fifth grade.  It’s startling how much modeling and complex space she can generate in renderings that in some cases are only ¾” high, but which gain extraordinary presence when projected and enlarged to a height of 5’ tall.

Continuing the theme of utilizing obsolete techniques with new media technology and inventive presentation,  Chloë Østmo was also in North Adams this past week, fastidiously suspending over 200 photographs on a grid of cotton thread. The amazing effect is that of a single image. Here is a shot showing Chloë’s process midway through installation.

This is going to be a sleeper of an exhibition, full of engaging art, rich narratives, and interesting cross-references: a true show. It is superbly selected by Caitlin Condell and Ali Nemerov, both now students in the Williams College-Clark Art Graduate Program in the History of Art, and MASS MoCA graduate interns. The eleventh in our series of exhibitions organized by up-and-coming curators, and realized with the support of the Clark (and, in this case, the helpful guidance of MASS MoCA curator Susan Cross), the exhibition is a fascinating bookend to the previous iteration of this series, Memery, which celebrated the internet’s capacity to propel strange bits of otherwise forgettable popular culture deep into our collective memories through sheer repetition and the power of web-buzz.  Making Room, on the other hand, focuses on work that celebrates and rewards careful looking through creation of complex visual spaces and thoughtful forms that feel, at times with a wisp of nostalgia, like an antidote to online frenzy.

Posted February 27, 2012 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Exhibitions, Making Room: The Space Between Two & Three Dimensions, Making Room: The Space Between Two & Three Dimensions, Oh Canada, Work-in-progress
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Flash Mob for FREE Day

Emily, our superstar performing arts intern, and Tim, whose 100-watt smile you see at Hardware everyday, talk about how they teamed up to bring a day full of dance to FREE Day, which took place on February 11, 2012.

REHEARSAL

We spent a few days during the weeks leading up to FREE Day using the rehearsal hall space, listening to 80s music and coming up with an arsenal of funky dance moves to put together in a sequence that would be both visually appealing and easy to pick up. We had a lot of fun goofing around in the studio and perfecting classic dance steps like the cabbage patch, the running man, and the Molly Ringwald. Check out our rehearsal video here.

DANCE CLASS

On FREE Day, we taught lots of different people—toddlers, college students, grandmas, ballerinas, and football players alike—the dance we created. We taught about 20 people in each of our classes throughout the day. We danced Michael Jackson’s P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing), because it was upbeat, light-hearted, and makes you want to move! We also asked the people who took our dance class to dance with us later in the afternoon, as part of a surprise flash mob in the galleries. Check out our dance class video here.

FLASH MOB

Our dancers milled about through The Workers: Precarity, Invisibility, Mobility exhibit, blending in with unsuspecting, art-viewing patrons. Suddenly, Michael Jackson music started playing through the galleries, and spontaneous dancing broke out! We definitely surprised a bunch of patrons who got caught in the middle of the flash mob. There was a lot of talent, but the best movers were by far were the 2 little nuggets (they must have only been 3 or 4 years old) decked out in pastels and mermaid gear from Kidspace who got their groove on right in the middle of the flash mob! Check out our flash mob video here.

PRE-SHOW DANCE INSTRUCTION                          

To end the night, we taught a dance class on the Hunter Center stage, immediately before Gordon Voidwell and his band played some rockin’ music for a psychedelic 80′s synth funk dance party. We wore headset microphones (affectionately called the Madonna mics in the performing arts department – check out the photo below, taken backstage!) to broadcast our voices to the crowd on the dance floor. Since we faced the crowd in the Hunter Center, dance instruction was trickier because we had to reverse all of our instructions so that the audience could mirror our movements.

FREE Day 2012 was so much fun—music, dance, theatre, art-making activities, a mermaid parade, face painting, a hilarious photobooth, and great deals at Hardware! We were psyched to get to collaborate with the community and with each other. We can’t wait for you to come back to hang out next year and dance with the two of us at FREE Day 2013! - Emily and Tim

Posted February 17, 2012 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Dance, Dance Parties, Free Day, Hardware, Interns, The Workers, Uncategorized
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Getting to Know Sanford Biggers

It’s always exciting to see new art moving into the galleries here at MASS MoCA. The latest comes from Sanford Biggers, a New York-based artist whose exhibition “The Cartographer’s Conundrum” opened Saturday, February 4th in our football field-sized Building 5 gallery. This multidisciplinary new show takes inspiration from Sanford’s late cousin John Biggers, a Houston, TX based painter and muralist, as well as themes of Afrofuturism, which re-imagines the African diaspora through the lens of cosmology and technology. We had a chance to sit down and chat with Sanford about the new exhibit and his work in general.

 

Sanford Biggers, center, with Curator Denise Markonish and Director Joe Thompson at the opening on Saturday.

 

How would you define Afrofuturism for people who aren’t familiar with the concept?

I’m still trying to figure out the concept myself (laughs), but it’s been this ongoing dialogue for, I’d probably say the last 15 years, at least on a scholarly level. As an aesthetic dialogue I’d say it’s been going on 40 or 50 years. But one aspect of it is the notion of looking at the very complicated past of people in the African diaspora and understanding that in relation to where we are today—technologically, socially, culturally, economically, so on and so forth. When I say ‘we’ I mean the world. Everyone. And looking forward as well, sort of trying to figure out a way to re-investigate and re-claim the past through the use of science fiction. You know, if you think about Sun-Ra or Earth Wind and Fire or John Coltrane—a lot of their work was really dealing with very spritual and transcendent themes borrowed from science fiction and Eastern religions and African religions. And as they did that they sort of went through Western structures and a myriad of historical references to the U.S. to get to that place where we’re sort of looking past and looking beyond it. But also—this is a new thing I’m thinking—at least the way I’m using it, there’s almost a reference to comic books and comic book sci-fi, and the old album covers from P. Funk or Santana, and the kind of vision that was expressed in those album covers—High graphic, high illustration elements.

What’s it been like working at MASS MoCA? Has the size of the space influenced or changed your preconceived ideas for the exhibit?

Yeah, to answer the second question first, definitely. Coming here on a daily basis and having to deal with different issues of space or light or volume or presence—but I knew it was going to be a challenge like that. I mean, it’s not the kind of place where you can just bring something already made and plop in the middle and leave. You’ve got to work with the space and see what kinds of challenges arise.

Are you happy with how it’s turned out?

I am. The thing about it is, the way this is set up, different things happen during different weather conditions, so you’ll never see the same show twice. You know, the reflections, the shadows, the light, the pacing of all of that changes daily.

You said in an interview with Harvard that some of your ideas for your piece “Constellation (Stranger Fruit)” appeared to you in a dream. How much a part, if any, does your subconscious mind play in your work?

I don’t know, I think doing art is like its own form of therapy, so everybody’s got a little bit of their own personal stuff inside the work, even if it’s the most stark, minimal, conceptual work possible. Even that, somehow I think, has a unique relationship to that person. So I mean, the subconscious definitely steps into the work, but more so as visual cues. You know how you might have a song that you wake up with in the morning and it’s stuck in your head for a day or so? It’s a lot like that. I’ll have a dream that’s not really related to art at all, and I might turn a corner and see something, and that’s the one thing I remember when I wake up, or some version of it. But the more you think about it, the more it changes and morphs, but at least it’s a starting point.

Did any parts of this show come to you spontaneously?

The Plexiglas definitely, and I think the stage lights sort of happened because of doing performances, doing lectures, and having those lights looking back at you half the time.

Can you talk about your interest in sacred geometry and how that ties into what you do?

Yeah, I think I probably was first exposed to that subconsciously from the work of John Biggers, but more consciously when I went to college and we started to look at a lot of ideas that came from North African and Egyptian societies. And the notion of sacred geometry was really interesting to me—I remember hearing about how in certain cultures, it’s actually looked down upon to look at an image, a photographic image, or to try to depict a deity or god, or Allah. And the way you can actually sort of acknowledge that presence is through geometry and perfection of line and numbers. And the idea of the “Vitruvian Man”—of course that goes into Europe and is translated into all these different meanings over generations. So, that’s interesting to me, and also its implications in terms of the societies that upheld those  sacred geometries. This was something that [John] Biggers was  interested in, and he worked with a mathematician where he was teaching at Texas Southern University, and they both would just sit and have these long sessions about different things they’d learned about sacred geometry and how to apply that to his visual strategies.

Speaking of Leonardo’s “Vitruvian Man,” I read that you spent some time living in Florence, Italy. How long were you there and did that affect your aesthetic at all?

I was there for a year, studying. I lived there before I moved to Japan for three years. So, that was my first time living abroad and I studied Italian, photography, sculpture and painting while I was there.

Can you talk about your time in Japan a little bit?

Yeah, when I was living in Japan I became really interested in Buddhism. There was a temple a few blocks away from where I was living, and I would walk by it and then I gradually started to walk through it. First I was just intrigued by the sculptures and the statues, and then I got a little bit more into the ritual and learning more about where it came from, and then I started to go through different readings about Buddhism and so on. And seeing it in a living culture was also very influential. So some of the ideas definitely come into my work—that’s where the initial dance floor started from, because they were fashioned after mandalas. And I still apply a lot of those ideas: Wabi-sabi and the perfection of the imperfect, and using found objects because they have their inherent history, and their beauty is in their rusticity and used patina. So I mean in this installation, you can definitely see that with the pipe organs and different instruments.

How do you hope people will feel when they walk through this space?

I just hope they can take the time and see many different things unfold. There’s not one thing I want people to get from it. I actually would like them to have multiple discoveries.

 

By Cora Sugarman

Posted February 6, 2012 by MASS MoCA
Filed under BLOG, Exhibitions
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