Mass MoCA: all utopias fell and Phoenix

all utopias fell, 2010
Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art
Through October 27, 2013

Humanity's last gasp?

The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) is often a challenging place. Housed in a sprawling repurposed factory complex in North Adams that from was headquarters to Sprague Electric 1942 to 1985 and a paycheck for some 4,100 workers, Mass MoCA presents the kind of art a lot of people don’t “get” and provides open space for installations that are too large for traditional art museums to touch.

One of the best ways to enjoy Mass MoCA is to follow filmmaker Jonathan Demme’s advice: stop making sense. It’s a place in which the visual is often its own reward. Suspend your narrative dreams. Give up the need for the representational. Don’t ask, “What is it?” Just enjoy what it is. Go ahead and read the artists’ statements if you must, but don’t be surprised if you’re no more enlightened than if you hadn’t bothered. Two current exhibits that demonstrate the fascination possible if you don’t insist on objective reality are Michael Oatman’s all utopias fell, 2010 and Xu Bing’s Phoenix. Hit Mass MoCA before the end of October to catch each exhibit–Oatman’s fantasy is in the courtyard and closes for the season sometime around Halloween; Xu Bing’s assemblage comes down after October 27.

Oatman’s project began with a fascination for the ruins of the Sprague buildings and the pragmatic and artistic possibilities a postindustrial canvass provides. You enter all utopias fell, 2010 through the remnants of the Sprague boiler room. (See “Sprague in Black and White” in the photo albums section of my Facebook site.) It’s like walking through a geometric graveyard constructed from iron and rust, and is the perfect welcome mat to part one of Oatman’s construction, The Shining. Oatman imagines a post apocalyptic world in which humankind has been conquered by an unseen alien force. He takes an old Airstream trailer and rigs it to look like a makeshift spacecraft that force landed by the Mass MoCA boiler room. Taking his cue from everything from the work of Giotto to Buck Rogers and Jules Verne, Oatman leaves resolution to the eye of the beholder. Are we seeing humanity’s final outpost, or the possible seeds of a new society?

What's going on in here?
The inside of the “ship” won’t enlighten you. It’s called The Library of the Sun and it’s a cross between living quarters, an ongoing chronicle, and an improvised laboratory. We don’t know where its occupant might be–hidden, taken by aliens, long dead…. There are cryptic references to the sun and other symbols that defy logic. Equally baffling is the stained glass window in the back of the trailer. Salvaged materials? A nostalgic attempt at simulating banal domesticity? 
A touch of home, or something else?

And from the trailer we also see part three, Codex Solis, an array of solar panels that is visually interesting and quite practical–they work and generate about 3% of Mass MoCA’s power needs. So maybe a slice of utopia after all?

In the belly of the beast
If this isn’t enough eye candy for you, check out Xu Bing’s Phoenix in about the only building that could house such gigantisms. Xu Bing is Chinese, but lived in the United States for two decades. He returned to Beijing in 2007 and, as anyone who has been there knows, he returned to a city obsessed with obliterating the past and building anew. For an artist working with found materials, it’s a trove akin to living inside a junkyard. Xu Bing’s vision was to marry the past with the future, which he has done by fashioning two massive dragons from materials salvaged from demolition and construction sites. Each of his two “dragons”–wires, machine parts, LED lights, steel rods, and broken tools–is nearly one hundred feet long. They are, at once, familiar looking and so alien that we might imagine them as Oatman’s bringers of the apocalypse. And like Oatman’s assemblage, Phoenix is so breathtaking that it’s best if you merely experience it, not try to comprehend it. 

Scales of the Dragon

Mass MoCA road trip? You bet! And while you’re there, check out what Tom Phillips and Johnny Carrera did with the written word (Life’s Work) and Mark Dion’s eccentric musing on preservation shelters (The Octagon Room). Rob Weir

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