Mass MoCA, North Adams, MA

Yesterday Chris and I drove down to North Adams, MA to meet Chris’s brother, sister-in-law, and niece at Mass MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Chris and I had been to Mass MoCA several months ago, but we hadn’t been back for the latest round of exhibits…nor had we ever been there with an inquisitive four-year-old. (Yes, that’s our darling niece traipsing after Daddy in the above photo: a rare occasion when I was able to photograph the photographer.)

Mass MoCA, North Adams, MA

I’m not going to pretend to know much about contemporary art: I’m not one of those folks who glides through galleries haughtily pontificating on the “meaning” of various pieces. I tend to browse museums like, well, an inquisitive four-year-old, walking right up to things I like, circling around things I don’t quite “get,” and basically letting a sense of wonder, not an obligatory urge to “understand,” guide my wandering feet. Once at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, for example, I happened upon John Singleton Copley’s life-size painting of Watson and the Shark. At the time, the bench that is normally stationed in front of this huge painting had been moved, so I did what seemed natural: I plopped down on the floor in front of the painting so I could comfortably spent some time admiring it. Given the raised eyebrows of Museum guards and other visitors alike, however, it’s apparently not proper to sit on polished Museum floors…at least if you’re a grown up. For during a later visit I walked by the same painting only to see a Museum docent talking to a group of elementary-aged children, all of whom were sitting cross-legged on the floor, drawing their own copies of the painting with crayons. How come only youngsters get to have all the fun?

Mass MoCA, North Adams, MA

Although I didn’t see anyone sitting on the floor with crayons yesterday, I do love the way that Mass MoCA brings out the “inner child” in nearly all its visitors. Because the Museum is housed in a renovated old mill, it hosts many large installation pieces: exhibits that you literally have to walk through. The highlight of yesterday’s visit, for example, was Ann Hamilton’s corpus, a multi-gallery installation piece housed in Mass MoCA’s football field-sized Building 5 Gallery. Whereas the previous exhibit had featured a block-long installation of houses, each of which offered “window-peekers” a creepy diorama with accompanying piped-in sounds, the centerpiece of corpus was that huge football field-sized gallery lit by pink-shrouded windows, sonically backdropped by a series of loudspeakers that raised and lowered themselves in unison, and showered by countless sheets of paper, special machines having been installed in the rafters to release a random cascade of single leaves.

Mass MoCA, North Adams, MA

On the one hand, the sane response to a roomful of wastepaper (according to Museum literature, over a million sheets of onionskin will fall from ceiling to floor over the course of the exhibit) is “How is that art?!?” (In fact, Chris’s initial response upon seeing a room covered in wastepaper was, “Hey! This looks like my old college dorm room!”) Although it’s true that any teenager, for instance, could quite skillfully replicate the messy chaos of corpus, what I enjoyed about this exhibit wasn’t the “art” itself but everyone’s reactions to that art. Instead of standing around trying to “understand” what message Ann Hamilton was trying to communicate, folks responded the same way they’d respond to falling leaves: they shuffled their feet, ran and tried to catch falling sheets, and grabbed armfuls of paper and tossed them in the air. One woman–a grown woman, mind you–even buried herself in a pile of papers while grinning ecstatically for her photo-snapping husband: “Look at me!” While actual youngsters ran around the room chasing one another and gathering up fistfuls of paper, their parents didn’t shush or chasten. Instead, everyone got into the spirit of an autumnal stroll, enjoying the pink-tinted light, wondering what in the heck those synchronized speakers were saying, and otherwise just enjoying the scenery.

Mass MoCA, North Adams, MA

What fascinates me about installation pieces, even esoteric ones, is the way they tend to morph into performance art, their open spaces begging viewers to walk in and become part of the exhibit. A room of castoff paper is pretty boring, but a room of wandering adults and children strolling and running and playing with nary a guard in sight is pretty interesting. If nothing else, it’s fun to see how even grown ups like to play if they have the excuse of “art” to cover their actions. And it’s interesting to see, again, that people’s true nature will be revealed by a particularly provocative piece, for both photographers and photographers of photographers can never resist a prime shot.