Wonder launches at Mass MoCA

Wonder can feel as messy, as daily and as astonishing as sea anemones in a tide pool. Denise Markonish, curator at Mass MoCA in North Adams, wants to translate that feeling into art.

She has put that challenge to a group of 23 international artists, and they have answered her with nuclear fission, fractal origami, optics and installations like Charles Lindsay’s “Field Station,” a space of discovery, and in his work with horse shoe crabs, one of the oldest living organisms on earth. They blink to music, exploring the idea of sentience.

This summer, in “Explode Every Day: An Inquiry into the Phenomena of Wonder,” Markonish wants visitors to experience something wholly new. With the artists, they may stand at the limits of knowledge and feel — excitement, fascination, even fear.

As she created this show out of conversations with Ohio artist Sean Foley, she said, they defined wonder as a moment between knowing and not knowing: “It’s something that stops you in your tracks, so that everything falls away.”

“Wonder is everyday,” she said, “not just extraordinary. … A rainbow isn’t rare, but it catches us off guard every time.”

She has drawn the show’s title from a master of fantasy and horror, Ray Bradbury. When Bradbury was in his 90s, he said in an interview with his biographer, Sam Weller: “… You don’t worry about the future. You don’t worry about the past. You just explode.”

That connection to science fiction comes naturally to Markonish. She has an unabashed love for the meeting point between science and art.

She and Lindsay developed together the artist-in-residence program at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), a national nonprofit with deep ties to NASA. Three artists-in-residence there besides Lindsay have work in “Explode Every Day,” she said — Rachel Sussman, Dario Robleto and Jen Bervin.

Science, art and speculation can fuel each other, in this show and in this century.

“Talk to scientists today, and they are in wonder with what they do all the time,” Markonish said. “Knowing how something works doesn’t have to take wonder away.”

That strong feeling underlies the show. Through SETI she has met Laurance Doyle, the astronomer who discovered the first known planet with two suns and has studied syntax in whale song.

She once asked him what brought him from NASA to SETI, she said, and he told her, “Here I can dream.”

She recalled that conversation as she looked at the brick walls of the museum.

“To think of a scientist as a dreamer — we need to be reminded of that,” she said.

So for this show she asked Sussman to create a walking timeline of the universe, condensing 13.772 Billion years into one hallway, “so you understand it with your body” — walking from the Big Bang past a mass of nothing … then, 4.6 Billion years ago, this solar system … 4.5 Billion years ago, the earth.

Absorbing work like this may ask for a leap in belief or understanding, she said, for visitors as they see it and for the artists as they made it.

When Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel filmed “Leviathan,” their work about the fishing industry, they hung cameras all over a fishing boat and in the fishermen’s helmets. As they edited, they paused the film and saw a “ghost,” a digital afterimage that did not appear in the frame before or after it.

They looked through their footage and found more than 600 film ghosts.

“It was chilling,” Markonish said.

Wonder can mean touching the unknown, and the feelings it brings can range broadly. She has seen shows about curiosity and wonderment as a spectacle, she said. She wanted this show to be more nuanced.

“I want it to hit us in the heart,” she said. “There’s a reluctance in the art world to talk about emotion. … It’s like the longterm art-world battle with beauty.”

Artists and critics seem to feel they cannot put into words or analyze something so personal, so felt, so individual, she said, and what they choose not to think about can influence their work.

“It’s hard to talk about emotion,” she said, “but art is ultimately an emotional field.”

Experiencing a work of art up close can shake someone deeply — like experiencing wonder. She considered work in the show, Dario Robleto’s quest to record the human heartbeat over three centuries.

It started from a moment when, as a small boy, he called the NASA 800 number and heard the Golden Record, the album sent into space in the 1970s on Voyagers 1 and 2, to give a sense of life on this planet to any other life that might find the spacecraft.

He heard a sound like static, and later he learned that it was “Life Signs,” Ann Druyan’s compressed EEG and EKG. She recorded them as she and Carl Sagan were creating the record — soon after they became engaged. They wondered whether in the future someone might be able to take an electronic recording and move back to the thought or feeling behind it. So Druyan recorded her own.

Knowing that has influenced Dario down the years.

“It’s those moments that haunt us,” Markonish said. “It changed his work.”

Voyager 1 has exited the solar bubble into deep space, she said: “What can you give the first woman whose heart and brain waves have left the solar system?”

Robleto in his work, and Markonish in her show, hope to give some part of what Druyan felt that day — that shock of joy.


Sharon Ellis’ ‘New Moon and Palm Trees’ will come to Mass MoCA this summer. Image courtesy of the artist and Christopher Grimes Gallery

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