Encountering Heaven: The Masses in the Gallery

“MASS MoCA.” The museum’s moniker, written in chic letters, marked the boundary between the grey sky and the revitalized mill buildings of an otherwise-sleepy town in Western Massachusetts. I heard country church chimes announce the noon hour as my father and I walked across the vast parking lot toward one of the world’s preeminent centers of contemporary art. People come here from Boston, New York, all over the world, to encounter creative installations of such a grand scale that they needed an abandoned factory to house them. Although the name “MASS MoCA” stands for “Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art,” the sound of the church bells that day alerted me to an unintended pun. By and large, the masses of New England today feel more at home in an art gallery than in a church, attending an exhibition rather than a religious Mass. This epiphany lingered on my mind throughout the visit, leading me to read the experience through spiritual rather than sheerly visual terms. Of the exhibits I encountered that day, one most obviously invoked spirituality: Nick Cave’s Until, created around the question: “Is there racism in heaven?” Cave, most famous for his wearable Soundsuits, here transformed a football-field-sized industrial space into a layered environment in which to contemplate the racially-motivated police brutality and violence that was at the forefront of U.S. national consciousness in late 2016.
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I walked through a sea of circular, metallic whirligigs strung from the ceiling like a teenager’s bedroom curtain. The catch? Some of them bore emblems of handguns. After passing through this and under a dazzling, coral-reef-like chandelier, I walked up a set of stairs to behold a cluttered garden of colorful tchotchkes, set atop a tall tower. Some were glittery, others cringy--black-face lawn jockeys, portly pigs. Finally, I passed through colorful nets marked with rainbows, peace signs, and other symbols, unto an impenetrable wall of beads. Cave’s exhibition left me stunned. The bulk of the materials used to create the exhibition, flashy yet common, created a world that was believable, and yet transcendent. Meanwhile, the inclusion of symbols that drew my attention to injustice--guns, which refer to the contemporary epidemic of violence against young, black men, and the lawn jockeys, part of the consciousness of America’s more explicitly racist past. We have yet to resolve the injustice against African Americans.
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