Sunday, November 27, 2011

Returned, Filled

We stayed with D & T near Woodstock from Wednesday to Saturday. For Thanksgiving, T cooked and fed a company of nine people. I met Jan Harrison, a painter and sculptor, and her architect husband Allan. Carol-Ann, a feminist performance artist, came with her new boyfriend, an Australian documentary filmmaker called George, who covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is now covering Occupy Wall Street. Burroughs also made documentaries, but of jazz musicians. GH was the other architect, and I was the representative poet. As for our hosts, D worked with videos and T had worked for MoMA. So much art present at the table, but reality, in the form of George's wars, dominated the talk.

The day after, we drove two hours to the town of North Adams to visit MASS MoCA. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is housed in former factory buildings with beautiful hand-cut stone, covered bridges and exposed brick walls. The buildings were put up in the late 1800's, by Arnold Print Works, a textile company. When it moved out in 1942, it was replaced by Sprague Electric, which moved out, in its turn, in 1985. Walking in the factory yard, along the canal that ran between the buildings, I could smell the nose-wrinkling smell of paint, a pungent mixture of old and new. The white on the peeling birches seemed painted on.

I did not care much for the art on display. In the main gallery, the size of a football field, Katharina Grosse's installation of spray-painted gravel, sand and styrofoam, One Floor Up More Highly, looked arbitrary, inert and cheap. The retrospective on Sol LeWitt's wall drawings was mind-numbing in its iterations. I liked the wall drawings very much more at Dia Beacon where they formed a chapel-like space. Here, the walls stood in rows on their own in the middle of the galleries. The geometrical exhibition walls were much less interesting than the exposed brick of the building, interrupted at precise yet human intervals of windows.

The most intriguing work on display was Nari Ward's Sub Mirage Lignum. The last word refers to Lignum Vitae (the wood of life), a tree whose bloom is the national flower of Jamaica, where Ward was born and left as a teenager to live in the USA. The monumental centerpiece of this multi-room installation borrowed its form from a small conical basket-woven fish trap used by Jamaican fishermen. In Ward's Nu Colossus, broken bits of weathered furniture seemed both caught in the trap and woven in as part of the trap. Facing this gigantic basket of memories was a 30-foot long wooden boat held up by three large sheets of glass. The boat seemed to float in the air. It also reminded me of tourist souvenirs, of which ships in a bottle are only one variation. Ward's boat, however, leaned alarmingly on one side, creating a palpable sense of distress. The other parts of the work were less compelling. The sound and sculptural installation called Stall was too easy. Mango Tourists was as quickly exhausted as a double entendre. The two films Sweater and Jaunt were unoriginal.

We were all tired after the drive back home. T had the great idea of watching the film of Andy Goldworthy, the British land art sculptor. He practices, to my mind, an art of recuperation. Subtitled "Working with Time," the film showed the artist doing just that, creating temporary forms that appear and disappear with time. Having seen the spider-web made of twigs and thorns at the Hesse Collection, and the Storm King Wall, I was happy to follow their making in the film. Most astonishing was the urn-shaped structure made from balancing stones. It was built as an offering to the sea, which the sea accepted by washing over it, and when the tide receded, the sea returned the urn offering, only this time filled, not empty.

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