The Massachusetts Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art
October 9, 2006

On a sparkling autumn day, Karen and I drove to the picturesque town of North Adams, MA, to visit the Massachusetts Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. It was also a chance to drive through the beautiful Berkshires, the mountainous region whose annual display of fall colors is a magnet for tourists. There were still some colors remaining, but our trip came about a week past the peak foliage season. We were surprised at how many trees were already bare. We traveled quiet backroads to reach our destination, passing through small farming communities still frozen in time except for the occasional new housing development. One of the most stunning scenes we passed was in Charlemont, where rows of ancient knarled bare trees guarded each side of the road, a perfect harbinger to Halloween.

Mass MoCA was built in 1999 out of a series of converted factory buildings on the banks of the Hoosic River. There were many separate buildings, some with performance spaces and some with cafes. We walked toward the building at the back of the complex, where the art galleries were. Some of you might be wondering why an art exhibit is being written up as an amusement park trip. Well, the exhibit that got our attention was by the sculptor Carten Höller titled "Amusement Park." The write-up by Mass MoCA promised, "a vast landscape of altered carnival midway rides, Carsten Höller explores human perception, sensory experience, pacing, balance, and time with his large-scale installation. Amusement park rides familiar from childhood -- the dizzying Gravitron, bumper bars, Twister and others -- are installed in MASS MoCA's massive Building 5 space but with light and movement dramatically slowed. Höller tampers with the velocity of the rides and the pattern of the lights to unsettle the viewer's mind, just as conventional amusement parks unsettle the body through radical changes in gravity, direction, and bodily orientation." That sounded pretty inviting!

We paid our $10 entry fee (quite reasonable) and were left to our own devices. Karen suggested I ask one of the guards what the heck we were supposed to do. In short order we entered the first gallery. To the right was a large wall covered with all sorts of firearms arranged in various geometric forms like pinwheels. It was like a frozen Busby Berkeley musical number with guns instead of dancers. In front of us was the entrance to a large, tall gallery. Some opera costumes were on display there. At the far left hanging high in the air was a large space capsule with two astronauts floating nearby, tethered to it. The astronauts spacesuits appeared to be made out of quilts.

We walked back into the main hallway, where there was a series of photographs of Roswell, New Mexico. Another room off to the side held an exhibit titled, "Ahistoric Occasion." It was a series of photographs of nine Abraham Lincoln impersonators. Some of the impersonators looked uncannily like Lincoln's original photographs. Others looked like what I'd expect bad Elvis impersonators would look like: obviously fake hair attachments and absolutely no physical resemblance beyond the costume. But each man certainly looked earnest.

A sign for the Amusement Park exhibit pointed to some stairs leading up. So we climbed to another series of galleries. We first encountered "House of Oracles," a retrospective of installations by Huang Yong Ping. This Chinese artist had an extensive and varied series of displays. We first spotted two iron cages, as if for circus animals. Each had a lighted yellow sign above it. One read, "EC Nationals" and the second read, "Others." Another room had giant wooden disks suspended like roulette wheels with writing on them in chinese. Another room had a large wooden chariot with wheels similar to the roulette wheels. Brass tacks formed chinese characters around the perimeter of the wheels. A small anti-room to the side house what looked like a large birdcage wrapped in tight brass screening. A lamp inside the cage case eerie shadows throughout the space. Inside the center of the cage was a taratula. I don't know whether it was live or dead, but it stayed quite still. Below that was a writing table with some papers on it. The shadow of the spider loomed large on the papers.

Another huge room was fascinating and somewhat distubing. Titled "Theater of the World," the bulk of the room was taken up by a gigantic snake skeleton made out of formed wooden pieces. It was suspended about ten feet in the air, extending perhaps 60 feet end-to-end, with its head and gaping mouth resting on the floor. A thick black cord ran straight down from the center of the skeleton and ended at a light which was attached to a large domed table shaped like a turtle's shell. The dome was made of thick screening. The table surface was dirt. On the table was a lizard basking in the lamp's glow, along with an assortment of real snakes, scorpions, cockroaches and toads. The brochure for the piece stated that the table was an arena, where the creatures were to battle in a Darwinian fight for survival. The lizard looked to be the winner so far.

Following the snake's tail brought us to another room. In the center was a bizarre creature. It was a scupture of a wolf -- or at least the head of the wolf, complete with realistic fur. Its neck blended into the body of an alligator which then changed into the tail of a fish. The head was craned up, mouth agape, tongue hanging out and teeth visible. Through its lower jaw was speared a giant fish hook. I followed the fish hook upward with my eyes. Fishing line was stretched up toward the ceiling. Strung along it at regular intervals were small wooden Buddahs. They resembled beads on a rosary. Near the ceiling the fishing line was attached to the end of a fishpole, which was being held by another Buddah who was sitting on a chair floating in space.

We walked back into the main gallery. Karen spotted a set of smoked glass doors at one end. Through them could dimly be seen twinkling colored lights. She opened a door and we walked onto a raised platform in a huge darkened room. We walked down the stairs. Directly in front of us appeared to be an old Herschell helicopter ride that had the propeller assembly and the tail removed. The cabs were painted in dark colors to resemble billiard balls, with giant numbers painted on them. The ride was revolving, but at such a slow pace that movement was nearly imperceptible. Strips of white lights on the center column were sequenced so that they switched from one set to another about once every minute.

Just beyond that was a pretty abused looking Gravitron (which basically looks like a giant flying saucer). As with the helicopters, the lights sequenced about once per minute. It was a lot more colorful, but since only a few strips of lights were on at any given time the ride looked bleak. It too was revolving almost imperceptibly. Karen noticed a series of old inspection stickers that were affixed to it, probably from its years on the fair circuit.

Beside the Gravitron was an old portable bumper car building. The cars inside were sort of randomly placed in the corners of the building, leaving the center wide open and empty. Nothing moved. It looked really dark. And like everything else, the lights sequenced really really slowly.

Just past the bumper cars and to the left was a tiny auto car ride, one of those carousel-like kiddie amusements (with a fire truck, motorcycle, etc.). This one was so small it almost looked like a coin-operated version. It didn't move. And next to that was a Tilt-A-Whirl (with an unlit sign labeling it Twister). The clamshell back on one of the cabs was missing. The ride platform moved perhaps an inch every ten seconds. Karen and I stood there hoping to see something more happen. Eventually, some of the cabs would have to roll as the platform tilted in a different direction. But after about three minutes of waiting we gave up.

We followed an open doorway out of the hall and found ourselved in a smaller darkened room. There were three spots of light on the floor and three large screens to the left. As we entered the light, our video images were projected in black and white on the three screens. But the projection was slightly delayed. That was intreguing and slightly disorienting. It was like a fun house mirror that took a while to react. From there stairs led up to a brightly-lit room. In the center was a collection of mirror panels affixed like the revolving doors you'd see at a bank. The mirrors even had push bars attached to each side. There were about a half-dozen sets arranged in close proximity, like a maze. That really looked interesting. Unfortunately, even though all of the "doors" were interconnected to a metal structure so they could revolve, none of them did. And the entire display was roped off so that we couldn't interact with it. At one end of the room was a sort of overlook. Through it we could gaze out from above over the entire darkened amusement park exhibit. There was a brief whooshing sound as one of the Tilt-a-Whirl cars rocked ever so slightly.

About the exhibit, Mass MoCA's director said, "The amusement park -- already a site of physiological and psychological disorientation, unease, and ineffable strangeness -- gets further refracted and warped in Carsten's hands. Though this work is experienced through the eyes and the ears, our staff has been surprised how physical the effect can be. Your body enters a space of warped time, and your mind follows with dizzying speed. Though foreboding for some -- amusement parks have a dark underbelly, which this work embraces -- the experience is otherwordly, pleasantly disorienting and theatrical."

I'm not sure if we were looking at the same exhibit. The one we saw was an exercise in boredom. Unless something technically went wrong between the exhibit's opening and when we saw it, there was absolutely nothing disorienting about it. If the rides randomly sped up then slowed down, the effect would have been much more disturbing. Why not have some of the bumper cars locked into the go position with the wheels cranked so that the cars spun in place? As far as theatricality, it looked like Höller simply got some junked amusement rides and plopped them down into the room. There was no particular environment for each ride. Nothing was done to the walls or floors. The rides didn't appear to have been dressed in any particular way. (Perhaps even the billiard ball helicopters were purchased in that condition.) If there were mirrors placed everywhere around the exhibit -- on the walls and judiciously standing up in various positions along the floor -- and the rides spun slightly faster, that would have been disorienting. What about some sinister clown faces staring down from above? The ceiling was extremely high and all that space could have been more effectively used.

Karen spotted another stairway leading up. It was another brightly lit room. But the exhibit there was actually part of the Huang Yong Ping show. To the left was the cockpit of an old military aircraft. The fuselage was made from a series of thick bamboo poles, like giant hula hoops, covered by a tube of multicolored sheer cloth. There was a short staircase to climb up inside the fuselage. But something wasn't quite right... I told Karen not to look up. Hanging from the ceiling over the entire length of the fuselage, and packed into the cockpit were dozens and dozens of real bats -- dead ones, but real nonetheless, in all sizes. There were crude countertops running along either side of the fuselage with technical drawings and other articles scattered about. But it was difficult to pay attention to that.

We walked back down through the amusement park exhibit, hoping to see the rides do something else. But no, the boredom continued. So we left the exhibits and walked through the museum's small gift shop area. There was a spare black helicopter car available for purchase. It was painted to resemble an eight ball. The asking price was $1200. I assume that price did not include delivery.

Overall, Mass MoCA was an impressive facility. I thought Huang Yong Ping's displays alone were worth the price of admission. They were thought-provoking and visually arresting. We were brought there under false pretenses, though. The write up about Höller's exhibit far exceeded the experience of it. But I'm glad we went, and we'll probably return if another exhibit catches our attention. Even if there are no exhibits worth remembering, the Berkshires in the fall is a stunning work of art all its own.

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