In the late afternoon, on the floor of the long room, stripes of light from the windows cross beams as thick as barn rafters. Wooden railroad ties lie in a long, curved line, as though they hold an invisible a track.
Richard Nonas looks out across his sculpture in “The Man in the Empty Space,” newly opened in Building 5 at Mass MoCA in North Adams. People are sitting on stone blocks and pausing by wooden stairs that climb the wall. The brick above them shows the marks of time and wear and paint from long-gone hallways.
“It’s an incredible room,” he says.
It holds history: an industrial space, a part of the force that built the town and kept it going for 200 years and then shut down. The reverberation of people in a place matters to Nonas. He began as an anthropologist and spent 10 years in the field before he turned to art.
“Nothing here comes from that,” he said, “but living in the desert, feeling the way the reality of the desert affected people’s lives.”
He found that mountain people and valley people talked about the world differently.
Living in in the mid-west with a 360-degree view or in the hills with ridge lines in all directions could shape ways of seeing and understanding. Coming up here from New York City, he was struck by the differences from one small town to another and the imprints of the past.
And the room itself is beautiful.
“It’s spectacular architecture,” he said. “Enormous. There’s power in pure architectural forms, in a powerful space and the emotional resonances still in the building. My job, in my mind, is to focus that power, not to illustrate or underline it.”
He works with materials people will find familiar, with little mystery.
“You know wood, stone,” he said. “You know granite can be cold to the touch.”
Here the chair-like stone blocks still show the mark of the drill. He cut them in a quarry in Sweden, he said, and they arrived the day before the opening. When he saw them brought in late at night, they were still near freezing. And they reshaped the room. He knew they were coming and planned for it, and yet when he brought them in he felt his sense of the place revolve, and not in any way he thought it would.
Curator Susan Cross first encountered Richard Nonas’ work in the mid-1990s, when she was curating work from the Panza collection at the Guggenheim, and she has found it powerful to bring him into this space today.
“It’s fascinating to see this place I thought I knew so well change before my eyes,” she said. “The walls move forward. I feel the presence of the line of windows.”
As he planned the work, Nonas spent time in the gallery throughout the day, learning patterns of light that changed every 10 minutes.
“This installation slows the room down,” he said. “You find yourself aware of small changes.”
He looked out over the shapes of wood, metal and stone as people moved from one to another and stopped to touch or to look closely at an element of the room.
“In one of his novels, Beckett wrote ‘the role of objects is to restore silence,’” Nonas said. He thinks about a silence that is lost, that has disappeared, and what arrests him is the notion of “a silence that comes and goes because you’re aware of it.”
He wants to skew the room, to make people pay attention, and he uses the placement of objects — giving them a visceral and physical feeling as they push against each other or pull away or draw the eye on past them. His objects draw force in relationship to each other.
“Almost any line doesn’t end — it points,” he said. “You follow it beyond its own length. That line of stone T’s takes you into the next room, holds your vision to itself and beyond itself.”
Walking through the galleries, he hopes, will feel like navigating a party, talking with one person, then another.
“Each group has a real presence and sense of connection,” he said. “You walk away and someone else comes. Your feelings change as the ground shifts beneath you.”
Cross has felt that energy.
“You experience this room in time that much more, all at once,” she said, “and you experience things as you pass them. You feel the architecture — the envelope of the space. Combinations, pairs, trios of objects are interacting and shifting as you move. They’re not just sharing space — they’re making the place.”
Nonas makes a key distinction between space and place: Space is physical property, and place is imbued with meaning, “not inches and feet but feelings.”
“It’s taking the natural world and making it human,” he said, “… taking that physical non-human or extra-human part of the world and making it part of our lives. The art that interests me from any part of the world does that.”
He has had the same feeling walking into an opening in the forest, or into a cathedral.
“That sense of how much the place in which one is living changes the way you read that place, everything in it, how we deal with each other and the possibility of an experience where even for a moment you feel the world differently and you remember it — maybe five times in my life it has happened to me in front of a piece of art,” he said.
It can happen in other ways, with music, with people, “when you fell in love; when you are unexpectedly moved; when you feel the world.”
Photo at the top: Richard Nonas’ ‘The Man in the Empty Space’ opens at Mass MoCA. Photo by Nooshig Varjabedian, Courtesy of Mass MoCA
If you go …
What: Richard Nonas installation, ‘The Man in the Empty Space’
Where: Mass MoCA, 87 Marshall St., North Adams
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Tuesays
Museum admission: $18 for adults, $16 for seniors and veterans, $12 for students, $8 for children, free for children 5 and under