It’s only an hour and half from Amherst by car, but the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art may as well be in another world entirely. Occupying a few of the cavernous buildings that made up the former Sprague Electric Company in North Adams, the museum is a unique entity among art institutions anywhere, in its capacity to show not only innovative but expansively huge works of art. Compared to viewing paintings on the walls of galleries and small local museums, walking through Mass MoCA is a far more immersive experience.
What they’ve accomplished is an effective melding of past and present, using historically industrial structures to house contemporary and experimental art. The buildings aren’t prettied up from their factory days, and in fact the stark, practical architectural details hold their own aesthetically: brick walls, heavy-duty beams, wires and bolts, steel plates. Corrugated metal staircases divide the floors; other sets of stairs lead to balconies or platforms or smaller rooms. You never know what you’ll find around the next corner. It’s all a big adventure.
As many as six or more separate exhibits might be on view at any given time: Video installations on multiple TV sets or projected onto the wall. Huge structures made from foam strips embedded with capacitors. Old cars suspended from the ceiling, spewing fiberoptic cable. Oversized photographs and paintings. Giant sculptural objects.
Some of the art might elicit puzzled head-scratching. Some of it might even make you laugh. Much of it will challenge your idea of what art is. And that’s exactly what makes this place worth the trip.
It’s astounding the kinds of things artists come up with, particularly given nearly unlimited space and opportunity. And it’s refreshing to see works of art that stretch the viewer’s capacity to take it all in. When one multimedia work fills thousands of square feet of space, we don’t stand in front of it for a minute going, “Hmm, that’s interesting,” then move on to the next piece. If a ten-minute film is projected on the wall, we tend to stop and watch. Confronted with a room piled up with painted rope, we might just question the whole art-making enterprise.
Love it or hate it, this is the kind of provocative art that causes shifts in perspective – and it’s only enhanced by the fabulously scenic drive along the Mohawk Trail to get there.
(For a comprehensive look at MassMoCA’s history and future prospects, on the occasion of its 10th anniversary, see this Boston Globe article from 2009.)