Museum Multipass Part II: Space Oddities

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Pitch-black rooms occupied only by gnome statues and great glowing crystals. Abandoned rooms just waiting for a curious intruder. Landscape tapestries big enough to cover an entire hallway.

Mass MOCA, my beloved contemporary art hotspot in North Adams, always reminds me that art can make you think and invite you to play at the same time. Some people are rather insistent that conceptual art or installations are ridiculous–not like the real art you might find in a collection of the Old Masters–and all I want to do is take them on an outing to Mass MOCA and even buy them a lemonade afterwards to prove that I don’t blame them for being totally wrong. Art that breaks down the boundaries between object and viewer and gallery may surprise, terrify, or delight you, but that’s what makes it fun!

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One of my favorite contemporary artists–and, in fact, the first to make me even realize that I had a favorite contemporary artist–is Mark Dion, whose Trichechus manatus caught my eye the moment it was installed at the Johnson Museum of Art (my old home!) in 2014. Dion is an incredible conceptual artist, and his interests in cabinets of curiosities, the sciences, environmental conservation, and interactive installations matches up perfectly with all of my favorite subjects.

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Dion’s The Octagon Room, naturally, is my absolute favorite part of Mass MOCA’s exhibitions. A structure that looks like a wartime shelter from the outside hides a room full of ephemera, knickknacks, curios, and little bits of natural history. As though an eccentric academic had abandoned her study and left it open for the public to interpret, this installation piece is fully interactive. Every drawer can be opened, every specimen jar unscrewed, and every pile of mail read through and sorted.

It’s probably no surprise that I could literally spend hours in here, reading every faded paperback book and field journal or cataloguing the contents of each repurposed tea tin…

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This was my third visit to The Octagon Room, and, as usual, I spotted something new: a uniform from the Tate hanging beside other “exploration gear” like a wetsuit and a waterproof rainjacket!

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Speaking of unexpected discoveries, I left Dion’s installation, took a weird turn somewhere, and ended up climbing a set of stairs I’d never seen before. Instead of finding myself in another of the museum’s myriad galleries, though, I was perched on a little overlook: a vantage point from which I could see something very strange parked on the roof.

An enigmatic wall label hinted that this mysterious air-dwelling van–actually part of a project by Michael Oatman called all utopias fell–was a “1970s satellite that had crash-landed at Mass MOCA.”

I knew one thing in an instant: I had to get up there.

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The wall text suggested that brave souls might risk a climb through “the boiler room” in order to explore the satellite, so to the historical factory building I went. I followed a very old staircase rather far up into the air while marvelling at this beautiful, industrial place: it reminded me a bit of my trip to Lowell!

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As it turned out, the mobile home was designed to give off the impression that it had been inhabited by a roving UFO researcher. The walls were lined with hastily-clipped newspaper photos and scientific illustrations of the sun and the planets, while a variety of mysterious machines glowed and beeped to each other. Eat your heart out, Mulder!

Of course, my camera battery would die the second I entered this mysterious conspiracy camper van: aliens, no doubt, are to blame.

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This is the second part of my tripartite series of posts detailing my adventures in Berkshires-area museums: read the (very different!) first installation here! In next time’s stunning conclusion, we’ll take a look at some of the more radically colored works Mass MOCA has to offer. 

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