Arts & Literature

A Monumental Problem

MASS MoCA, caught up in legal controversy over a stalled installation, still offers plenty of art-viewing pleasures.

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

Not just any artist can fill the considerable spaces of MASS MoCA, but Spencer Finch is an artist whose work commands a presence only containable by the vaulting rooms of such a large museum. His exhibit, What Time Is It On the Sun? begins humbly enough, in an entryway where a strange configuration of lightbulbs hangs in angled splendor, calling to mind those stick-and-ball arrangements depicting molecules. But that low ceiling full of warm glow gives way to open, airy spaces.

Finch's work is conceptual, a word which often dooms the purely visual aspect of art to a secondary role. But it is not merely conceptual—Finch's work is animated by concept, but the visual results are seldom handicapped. Visual intrigue is deepened by knowledge of the concept, not dependent on it. That ever-present dialogue of idea and presentation makes Finch in some ways the consummate modern artist, his work existing at a convergence of representation and concept, more accessible than that of Jackson Pollock, less calculated than that of Sol Lewitt.

There are some clunkers in Finch's exhibit, such as the room full of white or nearly white paintings with titles in the realm of "white cow in snowstorm." These fall quite flat, unredeemed by the off-white complications an up-close viewing offers. It's odd, then, that a group of paintings on a similar if nearly opposite concept work quite well. Finch studied the particular shades of darkness in his studio for many nights, producing renditions of each. These paintings seem somehow revelatory, as if the artist were tapping into a reservoir of hidden knowledge derived from observation of a nearly scientific exactitude.

Similarly successful in its conceptual interest and visual liveliness is an enormous painting called "Abecedary (Nabokov's Theory of A Colored Alphabet Applied to Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle)." In the work, Finch takes the colors Nabokov claimed to see when he heard or spoke some letters and applies them to several pages of the work of physicist Werner Heisenberg. The hues are then applied in droplets onto a nine by 36-foot paper surface. The result is a colorful array of dots, many of which run together. They provide plenty of eye candy, but take on a sheen of greater importance when their origin is figured in, bringing up questions of what exactly the viewer is seeing—is this a sort of translation of a vital piece of modern science, or merely a cleverly conjured, entertaining bunch of dots? It seems clear the answer is both, and that constant dialogue is what makes Finch's work so engaging.

Perhaps the crowning achievement is Finch's "Composition in Red and Green," in some ways more a device than a finished artwork. In fact, the piece will never, on one level, be finished. It consists of a large square piece of fake grass, above which a long trough hangs, full of apples. Every few minutes an automatic gate opens, dropping a red apple onto the green below. The composition is automatic, and renewed whenever a load of apples is done. The large scale of the piece, and its constant air of expectancy, bring up a strange and humorous mix of suspense and intrigue. It's also quite a fragrant work.

*

The second floor at MASS MoCA has been occupied by a force consisting partly of a fair number of amateurish creators who are upstarts only in the sophomoric reaches of their own braincases. It's not a total loss—some intriguing work lurks among the poorly crafted, though it suffers from its proximity to the rest.

The largest offender in The Believers is Jonathan Meese, a German artist who appears to be making up for a lack of rendering skill in any medium by throwing out a smokescreen of conceptual hogwash that is equal parts tedium and poorly-drawn genitals. His portion of the show—three enormous self-portrait-based canvasses, a crudely hewn self-portrait sculpture, and a large-screen video of his performance in which he created some of the art—is enough to make anyone doubt the good graces of whatever belief system they may have possessed upon entering the exhibit.

Meese's largest painting (pictured above) is stuffed with photos of the artist doused with drips in muddy hues alongside giant graffito paint monsters, and the whole creates an impression that the artist has no idea what it might be that he wishes to communicate besides a hollow claim to being controversial. While the best of artworks, unpleasant in appearance or not, seem to assure the viewer that the artist provided at least a guiding hand and a coherent vision, Meese's work seems to assure the viewer that the artist went to art school and can't figure out what he should do next besides imitate Basquiat badly.

The video looming above Meese's work features the artist onstage in New Mexico for a grueling performance in which viewers are exposed to his make-it-up-as-you-go aesthetic. It takes a performer of monumental ego to believe, as Meese appears to, that his every utterance, whether considered or tossed off, is infused with sufficient genius to merit study of its qualities as art. When he takes his mother by the hand and leads her to a rocky outcropping to declare that his performance is dedicated to the past and present chancellor of Germany, "Chauncey Gardiner," it's clear that one is at the mercy of a man who would never get invited back to a dinner party. Here, at least, you can walk away.

The rest of The Believers, even at its worst, skates above Meese's mediocrity. The high points of the exhibit come with the work of Icelandic Love Corporation, who tap into a droll Scandinavian weirdness (that, Bjork considered, must be more common than one might think in the frozen north), and in the photographic work of Jack Cassidy. Cassidy is a believer in the occult system of Aleister Crowley, but his work is not, beyond its basis in ritual, necessarily indicative of that. Some of his photos appear at a distance to be abstract designs, perhaps painted. But up close, it's clear that the elements of his work are actually present in front of his lens. The photos, set in dramatically lit black backgrounds, contain wood, plants, cloth, even nails, arranged with ceremonial importance.

The Believers is an uneven, partly disappointing exhibit, but it does possess strength through numbers. From the giant insect-like creation that greets you upon entering the largest room to small siderooms devoted to small-scale paintings, there is plenty to choose from, and some of it is likely to snare your interest.

*

MASS MoCA is renowned for, among many other, qualitative measures, its sheer size. That size allows for the stuffing in of many works by many artists, and poking around mysterious corners and into whatever room you come across is often rewarding. There are plenty more works on view besides What Time Is It On The Sun? and The Believers, even a movie theater-like video installation high up on the third floor.

Despite the museum's formidable floor space, there is an elephant in the room. The largest exhibit space at MASS MoCA is currently tied up by an installation that stands primarily as a monument to the difficulties of making and presenting art. Swiss artist Christoph Büchel and MASS MoCA are currently engaged in a dispute in federal court in Springfield. MASS MoCA offered Büchel the chance to use its space and its financial backing to install a sprawling work called Training Ground for Democracy, involving, among many, many other elements, an entire house, trucks, lots of shipping containers and even a carnival ride.

At the heart of the dispute lies money. MASS MoCA spent a large amount to stage Büchel's work, and problems arose when MASS MoCA pulled the financial plug after the project had already exceeded the expected cost of $160,000—20 percent of the museum's annual budget for visual arts, including employee salaries—and received almost that much again. Büchel was unsatisfied, and MASS MoCA was (and is) stuck with an enormous unfinished work. When the museum decided to let viewers into the installation space anyway, Büchel soon issued a long list of demands in response to a Boston Globe story, demands he said were prerequisites for his installation being ready for viewers.

Büchel claims there was no budgeting agreement, and that he should be allowed to finish his work on his terms, no matter its cost to the museum. The cost would likely be extreme—one of Büchel's plans was the installation of a bomb-damaged airliner fuselage. The museum has so far not been interested in spending the unknown sum required to meet Büchel's uncompromising demands. Neither side seems likely to come out of the unpleasantness unscathed, but a court decision should be forthcoming this September.

The museum's compromise position is an interesting one in theory, although the resulting viewing experience is far from scintillating—Büchel's exhibit has been tarped, though some of it, thanks to its size, is still in view. Viewers walk through a maze of tarps, and now and then can peer through a crack to see the bewildering array of elements beyond, most of which appears to be a blend of trailer park and military surplus dumping ground.

To accompany that strange state of affairs, MASS MoCA staged a very interesting small exhibit, Made at MASS MoCA, that offers context and a glimpse of the world of museum-artist interaction that produces the museum's large-scale exhibits, including the budgetary issues that artists often deal with. It may, on some level, be a bit of a trying of Büchel's case on museum-friendly turf, but it is, no matter its intended purpose, an intriguing look behind the curtain of the art world, and offers some great photos and models of some of the museum's most innovative—and largest—works.

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I am completely dismayed by Mr. Buchel. He has no understanding for what MassMoCA is. I am dissappointed that he bungled his relationship with a wonderful up-and-coming art institution. I am embarrassed that my family was unable to see an exhibit in MassMoCA's large gallery because Mr. Buchel is an arrogant and incompetent artist. Now that I've discovered the joy of MassMoCA, I make the trip at least annually with my young son. What is usually the highlight of the trip became a huge, sad dissappointment. Shame on you, Mr. Buchel.
Posted by Morriss Partee on 9.3.07 at 21:20
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