Nick Cave “Until” at MASS MoCA

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Nick Cave “Until” is on view at MASS MoCA through August 2017 (massmoca.org/event/nick-cave-until/)

The first time I viewed Nick Cave’s work was at the Denver Art Museum in the fall of 2013. The show, “Sojourn,” featured perhaps Cave’s most well-known work: the Soundsuits. These large creations are built to envelope a person and turn them into something or someone else. They create protection and anonymity, but they are heavy and imposing – made of anything from sticks (as Cave’s first suit was) to stuffed animals or buttons. That show featured the suits on raised platforms so one could marvel at them  walk around them. Then you entered a room where there were videos playing of the Soundsuits in action – people dancing in them, or moving frantically and seemingly without order. If you  put on the accompanying headphones, you were assaulted with the sounds the suits made when they moved.

“Until”at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art was decidedly different. It is immediately apparent in the titles: Sojourn – a temporary stay; Until – also temporary, but suspended, waiting, liminal.

This apparent lack of definition continued in the experience of “Until.” Unlike “Sojourn,” this show was more immersive – truly an experience, not just a viewing. To see the work you had to get inside of it, unlike the Soundsuits at the DAM.

Viewers enter the space through sets of double doors and immediately see the warehouse-sized room that houses the installation. First there is color and light. Then there are questions: What are those things? What does it mean? As you step forward, down the stairs and onto the floor, onto the path between the hanging pieces, you are within the suspension, as though walking in a scene on pause. As you are in the space, you see that the hanging pieces are metal spinners – hundreds of them looking far more impressive than the usual one or two that one may see hanging over a patio. They move and rotate with the movement of air in the room, including the breath of the people that walk between them. Breath that moves the bullets and guns at the center of each spinner – making you a part of Cave’s consideration of violence and race. For a few minutes, as you wander along the path, you are covered and exposed. There is no real protection in there – unlike the full-body Soundsuits – yet from the outside it is difficult to distinguish viewers from the light and color and movement that makes up the rest of the sculpture. Cave puts you in the art, forcing you to see and pay attention, even if only so that you don’t step off the path, drawing attention to what you are able to see, both from between the gaps in the forest of spinners, and in the reflections of the metallic work itself.

Upon exiting the forest you come to the rest of the work: a raised garden that you have to climb a ladder to reach, underneath which hangs sparkling chandeliers; a huge, beaded net draped over half the room; a room with video projections of the Soundsuits layered and mixed so it becomes a kaleidoscope, and again you are inside of it, as the projections cover all the walls and the floor; and upstairs a wall of metallic, fringy, plastic being blown from behind by a fan – inviting you closer and closer.

Everything about this installation pulls you toward it and forces you to exist within it if you want to see the entire show. You become a part of the spinners until you climb up to the garden until you are caught within the net until you are off-balance among the videos until you come face-to-fringe until you look out over the show and witness it. Until you leave. Until it finally gets out of your head. Until a few years from now when Cave’s work will certainly resurface somewhere else for me.

Until then.

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From the Mediterranean to Massachusetts: Empathy and Oplontis at the Smith College Museum of Art

The Pioneer Valley in Northampton, MA is an epicenter of political and artistic activity. In the heart of this vibrant community lies Smith College, and the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA). This college museum has been ranked among the best university museums in the nation, and has a collection of more than 20,000 works raging from ancient sculptures to contemporary video art. It is a great resource for Smithies like myself, as well as the community in NoHo and beyond. As a college museum, the SCMA keeps public engagement at the forefront – through both a range of marketing techniques and public programs such as free art making on the second Friday of every month, public and K-12 tours, and student programs such as the annual Night at Your Museum mini-gala.

For about the past six months I have had the privilege of being a staff member of the education department Smith College Museum of Art. In this job my responsibilities have included planning student events, setting up for public programming such as the aforementioned Second Friday activities, and designing and leading K-12 tours. These tours are perhaps my favorite part of the job, as they are when I get to most fully and dynamically engage with the public, whether through guided conservation, or other activities such as writing or drawing.

In addition to the permanent collection, this semester the museum is also hosting the show “Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis Near Pompeii”, and much of our programming is centered around this special exhibition. The show features pieces from both Villa A and Villa B of Oplontis – a city not far from Pompeii, that would have rested on the coast before the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 BCE (and which now lay about a mile inland due to the resulting change in the coastline of the area). Villa A is the luxury villa – thought to be the summer home of the wife of Emperor Nero. The Villa featured at least 99 rooms, with innumerable fineries from frescoes and sculptures to items such as oil lamps and vases. Villa B is the working “villa”, though it really would have served as more of a place of trade, which made the luxury of Villa A possible through the production and trade of items such as wine, fish sauce, and olive oil. Villa B is also the site of 54 skeletons adorned with their finest – thought to be occupants of the villas or perhaps Oplontis more broadly, who died waiting for a boat that never came to save them.

This is Oplontis. During the run of the show the SCMA hopes to not only share the objects themselves, but also the stories of the artifacts and people from this place. Northampton is the third and final stop of this show, which has previously been installed at the Museum of the Rockies and the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. Many of these pieces have never been on display before, much less having been out of Italy. Due to the magnitude of this exhibition, and the fact that the SCMA is its only east coast location, it has a long run (February 3 to August 13, 2017), and a considerable amount of extra public programming, such as lectures and associated exhibitions at other sites, such as Smith’s own botanic gardens.

As both a Smith student and a museum staff member, I have been able to get a complete view of this exhibition: from watching the process of installation, through engagement with middle schoolers on tours, to both planning and attending Night at Your Museum and listening to the reactions that Smithies share with each other outside of the walls of the museum.

The Oplontis exhibition is installed on the first floor, in a gallery with glass doors and a large central window. This arrangement made it easy to peek in and see how installation was progressing as I headed into the education office through the two-week installation period at the end of January. Day by day the exhibition came together. Slowly the cubiculum of luxury Villa A appeared, as a life size recreation was installed in the corner of the gallery-turned-Villa. Behind it, a fresco wall developed like a jigsaw puzzle, with fragments that had been blown off in the explosion hung over a full-wall reconstruction of what the wall would have looked like. The edges of the fragments, like puzzle pieces, filled in the image of what once was.

Before the exhibition had even officially opened people were streaming in for member previews. Ever since the gallery has consistently had visitors. There seems to be a constant occupancy, if not by an official group then by museum members or other community members. This exhibition seems proof of human fascination with the past.

This fascination was demonstrated clearly to me in a recent seventh grade tour. The team of student educators divided up the fifty-plus students into our groups and off we went into the galleries, with the main event being the Oplontis exhibition. My group explored the second and third floors first – looking for images of deities, posing like sculptures, discussing Roman daily life and portrayals of it. From here we finished in Villa A and in B.

In Villa A we thought like the sculptures – giving them a voice by imagining what they saw as they looked out over lush gardens and the picturesque reflecting pool. We imagined standing by, watching the richest Romans visiting the villa, and seeing the enslaved people that attended them, their lives so controlled that they could only walk down marked hallways, whose zebra-striping was intended to hustle them along. Everyone then wrote speech bubbles for the sculptures. The seventh graders were – of course – most taken with the goddess Nike, whom they were all familiar with.

In Villa B we talked about the people. Instead of telling the stories of the objects, we talked about the lives of these ancient people. We talked about skeleton 27 – pregnant, found with precious jewelry. We talked about the Strongbox – an ancient safe/ status symbol that would have been positioned right at the doorway of Villa B. We thought about how big it is and what could be inside. We wondered why perfume and simple jewelry was found in this case with the elaborate locking mechanism, rather than its contents being the kind of riches found with the skeletons. We talked about sentimental value. We talked about modern values. Then, having thought about deities and about people and about objects and how to connect them all, the kids drew what they would keep in their own strongboxes.

In short, through these objects and their stories we tried to find empathy.

Museum education is about inquiry and empathy. It is about taking what we know and what we don’t and asking people to get in between those things and explore. It is about asking questions that we don’t have answers to, and answering questions in every way you possibly can. Education is about making connections. Inquiry: What do you notice? What do you think is going on? What in the work makes you say that? Empathy: the big question. The “aha” moment. The realization that the heirlooms found in the Strongbox are not so different from the things we want keep safe today. Those basic questions in the toolkit – the “what” moments – are just the start. They must be supplemented with conversation and patience and sometimes colored pencils in order to get to the big thoughts – the “why” moments, the “aha”.  Then you hope that those whats lead to more whys which lead to ahas, and that this process continues on and on – inside the museum and beyond.

 

This post has been written for a contest hosted by Museum Hack, whose mission is to engage museum goers through “Renegade Tours.” So, engage with this post – like, comment, and share! For more information on the contest, visit: https://museumhack.com/writing-contest/. For more information on Museum Hack, visit: https://museumhack.com/.

Window World

The way my lights reflect in the window make it look like the trees are draped with a luminous shawl. Little yellow specks, glowing, are tucking between the branches. Birds perch among them – next to, beside, under. Though they can’t see the shine of the lights, illuminated only in the glass of my window, they fit perfectly among the illusion.

As the natural light changes throughout the day – the sky suiting itself for morning, dusk, darkness – the lights become my secret constellation. Hung delicately for no one, accidentally stuck between wall and bricks and glass and air. They stretch from one tree to another, hanging down between two more. The strand doesn’t know that while on the wall it covers a few feet, in the window world it morphs into more.

The little bulbs make a trail – appearing to have a beginning and an end, but with no tangible place to set your foot and begin.

If only you were able to climb light up the side of a building, as though it were ivy, and tiptoe across the glittering high wire, between the silhouettes of birds and branches.

Magnets

People are each one of billions of little magnets – slowly attracting and repelling.

Over time we collide. Crash. Collapse onto and into and over one another. We are constantly buzzing. Thrumming. Always vibrating closer and further – trying to stabilize ourselves among those around us.

We make little networks: excited areas of immediate and remote. Pulling and holding until some stronger or simply other force comes along and tugs, alters. We adjust.

We are full of things that draw people in.

Each of our hearts has its own tiny electromagnetic field. Among those other humming heart-magnets we settle in. We get caught. We get lost. We find love.

Among those beautiful attractions we come home.