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MoCA: a place full of place

Last Saturday, I visited the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (familiarly known as Mass MoCA or just MoCA) in North Adams. It was my first time there, and while it’s on the other side of the state, I would say that it’s worth the road trip from Boston. One of the best things about this museum is its space; the buildings were originally a 19th-century fabric printing factory, then a mid-20th century electric company. MoCA doesn’t try to hide the buildings’ original uses – if anything, the museum romanticizes the scrappy, industrial feel. I don’t think the corrugated metal stairs between the galleries are original, for example, but they add to the effect.

All of the exhibits I saw make great use of the space. The rooms are long, tall, and airy, and filled with gigantic divided windows. Light, space, and the contrast between what’s happening in the room and outside are a part of every installation. I use the word installation intentionally, because the exhibits I saw had a very strong feel of being site-specific. The Sol LeWitt wall drawings, which are a semi-permanent exhibit, fill the space well, but the current exhibit “The Cartographer’s Conundrum” by Sanford Biggers does it even better. Star-shaped mirrors of various sizes, some broken, are scattered on the ground, creating shimmery reflections on the walls. Musical instruments are placed around the room – again, some broken – and leading up to the end of the long hall, a series of pews cascade from the ceiling. Those that are suspended in the air are neon pink and green, and as they land they turn to brown wood.

Sanford Biggers the Cartographer's Conundrum at Mass MoCA
Sanford Biggers’ the Cartographer’s Conundrum


Exploring the exhibit, I felt drawn slowly forward. I was so busy examining the pews, which looked like floating pianos at first glance, I didn’t notice the centerpiece at the very front – a cacophony of broken musical instruments exploding from (or diving into?) an organ of the kind you might see at a music club. Giant organ pipes, the kind you’d imagine in a huge church, create a star-burst effect in the chaos. The piece is as bizarre as it sounds, but what was special about it is how much I felt that I was in what was going on.

Another current exhibit, “Invisible Cities,” is also very oriented in place – exploring concepts of what a city is, how we relate to the spaces and materials around us, and what places look like in our imaginations. The exhibit gets its name from the novel by Italo Calvino, which is a fantastical retelling of an encounter between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. I’ve read very little of Calvino’s work, but what I have read is lyrical and enchanting, and now I have to read this book. In my mind, it’s been a successful museum visit when I come away knowing there’s something I have to do next.