Liz Glynn at Mass MoCA: A space filled with questions, but no answers

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NORTH ADAMS — When Sprague Electric inhabited the Marshall Street campus it made things, specifically the high-end electrical components used for everything from atom bombs to electric guitars. The company is long gone, replaced by a new kind of art museum that is less about shelf-space for objects than serving as a workshop for ideas.

While Liz Glynn's "The Archaeology of Another Possible Future," now on display through next summer, doesn't formally engage with the history of the site, it is an unusually appropriate fit. The show is a plunge into the same concerns that have shaped the journey from Sprague Electric to Mass MoCA — about the loss of manufacturing, what that has meant for the economy and communities that have had to reinvent themselves, and the fear that comes with having to find a purpose and a direction in a confusing and frightening new world.

It is a sprawling, ambitious and challenging work that fills the museum's signature Building 5 gallery. Through the use of space and structures, it focuses on the details of the body and experience, and leaps to enormous abstract themes. It is a show that, according to curator Susan Cross, considers the cycles and evolution of time.

"Where is it leading us, and is this progress?" she asked.

The show is presented five parts, beginning with "Analog" closest to the entrance with three enormous pyramids made of forklift pallets — about 1,400 of them, supplied over the past year by Girardi Distributors of Pittsfield. Each space creates a cave that explores one of the senses. One with curtains of industrial felt is about touch, another is a listening station with a turntable and a tape recorder that explores sound and voice, and another includes hand-crafted ceramic vases with scents of cedar, bergamot and pine. It is one part that upends the usual dictates about how to carry yourself in a museum — you are encouraged to feel the felt, enjoy the pleasure of dropping the needle into the groove.

From the senses the exhibit jumps deep into ideas in its next part, "The Shape of Progress." These are a series of sculptures that illustrate different conceptions of progress, which can be decoded with the help of the guide that comes with the show. Most of them consider economics — a destroyed workbench that asks about the notion of the "creative destruction" of Joseph Schumpeter, cut oil drums with ice blocks suspended above to discuss the "ripple effect" of John Maynard Keynes, an insect terrarium to consider the butterfly effect of chaos theory.

It is a shift in input, as well as scale, from the large caves to the nuances of argument.

"She's made these abstract ideas physical and human-scale," Cross said. "I compare this to being dropped into a textbook or a PowerPoint presentation, where suddenly they become much more real."

While dense and thoughtful, Glynn's skill as a sculptor is on display. Some are immediate and visceral — a sheet of bright copper twisted to suggest the flowing robes of a Nike of Samothrace, as well as other bold women leading the way from the patriotic painting by Eugene Delacroix or the nationalist fantasy of John Gast.

The work takes another physical shift with the third part, "Speculations," which is spread out over three brightly colored shipping containers. One is a mock-up of a job site office — manned by a local handyman on weekends to answer questions — and another features meticulous drawings of obsolete or failed devices drawn from patent applications. The third plays a moment on our fears, three video monitors that play the non-synched recordings of the same news crawl of a transcript about Y2K fears, while against the back wall video of workers walking quietly into a mist play.

Glynn grew up near Boston, and described seeing the shipyard where her grandfather worked close, and her father moved from a career as an engineer with a single corporation to outsourced consulting work.

Still in her mid-30s, Glynn is the youngest artist to show in Building 5. Cross said Glynn had described coming to Mass MoCA to see a show of sculpture by Mona Hatoum in 2001 as a formative experience. After graduating from Harvard and earning an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, much of her work has combined sculpture and performance to tie the past to the present. This past spring for a work called "Open House," she turned a corner of Central Park in New York City into an open-air, Gilded Age salon with a series of plain, rough concrete furniture recreations. It was designed to highlight the wealth inequalities that once characterized the neighborhood, a moment when wealthy families had expensive, elaborate ballrooms they could afford to use only once a year.

"Historical narratives are constructed: they change shape over time, lose their edges, and develop new curves," Glynn said in an interview with Artnet. "My underlying interest is not in the past, but in what form the future will take, and how the past can serve as an object lesson to consider that question."

With the fourth part of the piece, "The Age of Ephemeralization," it turns its attention to an automated, internet-enabled future. Spread over an aluminum walkway high in the air, three 3D printers rhythmically and autonomously work away, creating objects in a new way (specifically, they are making working clamps, models of elbow joints, and — these again — miniature forklift pallets). It is a disorienting space, with the walkway giving a bit of wobble and bounce to make you wonder about your footing, and microphones and speakers amplifying footfalls, and the interesting vertical use of space in Building 5 (though not that unusual after the elevated "cloudscape" in Nick Cave's Until, which last filled the space).

Spread out beneath is the fifth and final part, "Post-Industrial Vacationland (after Aldous Huxley)," which speculates about a moment explored in Huxley's dystopian novel "Brave New World," when work is no longer necessary and the unexpected consequences of it. The question, as Cross explained, is "will we be relieved to be unburdened from work, or will it make us physically and emotionally ill?"

The space is filled with the frames of hospital gurneys, looking a bit like deck chairs, all notably pointed in different directions. Each is under a warm tanning lamp, with an IV drip by the side (for the record, the orange ones are filled with Vitamin B12 solution, the greenish ones are antifreeze). There are stainless steel tumbleweeds scattered around, and tall metal pillars like the relics of lost temples (they were salvaged from the Building 6 renovation).

As in archaeology, the work and artifacts present are laid out for examination, and encourage exploration. It presents the evidence, but avoids lectures or spelling out a political position too literally.

"She wants to take you somewhere with her questions, but she doesn't want to give you the answers," Cross said.



If you go ...


What: Liz Glynn's "The Archaeology of Another Possible Future"

When: On exhibit now.

Where: Mass MoCA, 1040 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams

Cost: Adults, $20; Seniors/Veterans, $18; Students with ID, $12; Kids (6-16), $8; EBT/WIC cardholder $2

Information: massmoca.org


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