Even on the outside, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is unconventional. It’s a sprawling red brick factory complex in North Adams—originally a garment dying mill, then a manufacturing plant. But, its historic buildings belie the fact that inside you’ll find some of the most unparalleled new works of art in the world.
MASS MoCA deputy director Larry Smallwood told Greater Boston's Jared Bowen that the museum structures its buildings and exhibit spaces around artists' work.
"The artists are singular," Smallwood said. "The visions are very specific. Things that can be executed, you know, we work in kind of a very scrappy here. We build a lot of what happens here."
Including a way to exhibit what’s now on view in Building 5—MASS MoCA’s giant football-sized gallery. It’s where you find "Phoenix", contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing’s monumental work of two phoenixes in flight. They are massive—100 feet and 95-feet in length. For the artist who’d spent nearly 20 years living in the United States, they are his symbol of the new China said curator Susan Cross.
"He was shocked by the development and the glistening skyscrapers that had risen in his absence and all the building," Cross said of Bing's work. "But he was also a bit shocked by the disparity between the wealth that was manifested in those buildings and the conditions of the workers who are erecting them. And these birds are made from the debris of many of those construction sites in Beijing.”
Xu Bing spent more than two years creating the works—employing many of the same workers who built the skyscrapers that startled him.
"They’re a beautiful manifestation of that relationship between really the working classes and the new middle class in China and almost a yin and yang relationship between labor and capital and even culture,” Cross said.
"Phoenix" has a fierceness to it, Cross said, referring to their heads made out of industrial jackhammers, and their claws are made out of tools.
"I think of depictions of the phoenix where they’re often shown with a snake in their talons and their fierceness is shown as well as their beauty," she said.
The Xu Bing show continues in Building 5 with "1st Class", a tiger-skin rug that again considers industry—this time the tobacco trade. "1st Class" is made of some 500,000 cigarettes.
“The tiger rug is a symbol of colonialism really and power relationships in the same way he looked at the tobacco industry," Cross said. "But it’s also just beautiful, it’s like a hologram when you walk past it. It shifts colors and it’s an aesthetic awe that is so stunning.”
Cross also curated a mid-career show of New York artist Jason Middlebrook—who frequently uses his work to examine the tension between man and nature, especially in his towering timber.
“Picture in the plank—it’s a mill plank—the intersection of man and nature, industry, truly, that is actually typical of the Berkshires and the Hudson Valley. And then his painting is really very intuitive and it starts with the grain, moves with the grain, but it also obliterates it in some way.”
His "Falling Water", where styrofoam suggests concrete giving way to a waterfall, imagines nature’s fury. Cross said it's about the power of nature and the power of water, which is remnant of Hurricane Irene along with Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina.
"He’s showing us that power. And then also there’s just the awe of bringing the spectacle of a waterfall indoors,” she said.
A destination for artists whose work can only be shown in select spaces the world over, MASS MoCA was the place artist Sol LeWitt chose for a full career survey before his death just shy of the show’s opening. Initially planned for one floor, LeWitt ultimately installed the show over three floors, over 27,000 square feet in a building renovated specifically for him.
“He actually never creates what is on the wall. What he does is actually just writes down the instructions of how to. So he gives you the idea, writes it down, and then we had just around 65 people creating these for six months,” said Rachel Heisler, an educational coordinator for MASS MoCA.
Featuring 105 drawings from the from the 1960's to 2008, the show is on view for 25 years. Enough time, LeWitt believed, for a whole new generation to review his work.
“The building tells the story," Heisler said. "It takes you from his first wall drawings, And then going into pieces like art behind me that go kind of out of it. So you kind of think, what was happening in his life at this time that he wanted these kind of bold, long curvy lines with multiple colors? “
At MASS MoCA, you can ponder that by literally immersing yourself in LeWitt’s life’s work. Just as you can appreciate nature coming indoors and otherwise unfathomable flights overhead.
Greater Boston takes you inside MASS MoCA.