Exploring art and industry

I’m sitting in a courtyard at Mass MoCA on a sunny, breezy afternoon. I’ve come today just to wander through the old mill buildings — a rare day. I usually come here as a journalist, to talk with a curator or for a press tour with Clifford Ross and Francesco Clemente. Last time I came through here Richard Thompson was on stage at the Solid Sound Festival, joyful and defiant over drums and bass guitar.

Coming back now I can look at a shelf of books and remember talking with Jonathan Gitelson, the man who collected them. He scoured second-hand bookstores for writing in the margins, and he found people talking to what they read, sometimes calling for help, sometimes shouting discoveries — like a young man wanting to sing gospel and reach out to other gay men struggling with faith and loneliness.

Walking among the patterned tents in Francesco Clemente’s ‘Encampment,’ I remember researching that story. In Salman Rushdie’s essay about  self portraits; he quotes an Italo Calvino story about a man on the moon looking back at the earth. Here a man with a dark sky behind him looks sadly out of a printed frame on a tent wall. A strawlike, tealike scent scent comes from the woven mats on the floor. And I think of all the questions I wanted to ask Clemente when I first learned about this show — how did he first travel from Italy to India? Who are the artists and artisans he worked with there to make these printed fabric tents? What do they talk about — do they sit together over ceramic cups of tea or work together in studios, and what do their studios and work spaces look like? I want to ask who all these figures are, the musicians, the man made of oak leaves, the aquamarine serpent.

I cross the hot courtyard looking for a work new to me, though it’s been here two years. Inside the Anselm Kiefer exhibit the outer room looks bare, white, corrugated with scrap metal and concrete, and I walk quickly into the central metal-sided room — and stop. The walls are lined with slabs like stone, like the metamorphic sedimentary layered rock on the coast of Maine, and he has turned them into expanses of ocean. Out of flotsam and metal and mesh he has made boats. Submarines, bolted metal shells with radio beacons, rusted and barnacled and sometimes capsized — they look isolated and vulnerable.

Hundreds of miles from the sea, they feel linked to this place. How much alike are a welded metal ship and a welded metal catwalk above the dying vats, or mill workers and fishermen and soldiers all moved by numbers?

I sit in the courtyard, absorbing what I’ve seen, and then I walk into the boiler room to climb past the metal shapes of pipes and gears. As geometry, as a series of shapes, they are beautiful. As a place where people worked long hours with heavy machinery and chemicals they are troubling. In all this installation, “All These Vanished Engines,” I can’t find any clear view of the sky.

Maybe that’s why I like Michael Oatman’s “All Utopias Fell” at the top. The silver VW space bus crash-landed on the roof seems to promise skies. And it tells stories. He has set up a living space — a combination of hippie and sci-fi — a starship stocked with home-canned tomato sauce, godseyes, a Medieval book of hours and articles about astronaut John Glenn. In chalk on the ceiling someone has written “I went to the skies because I wished to live deliberately,” echoing Thoreau at Walden Pond. Someone could write a whole collection of tales about the being who lived here.

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