North Adams, Massachusetts
With the ascension of high speed internet the low-rent cultural outskirts – where hermetic, criminal, religious, sexual, paranormal, utopian & alt.tech eidolon once came together – a region heretofore known principally to initiates and ‘fanboys’ – are now (due to info-geek triumph) high traffic real estate. In “Fantastic” this increasingly exoteric district of human experience is presented as freshly exhumed arcana.
Nato Thompson, the organizer of “Fantastic,” is a relatively new Assistant Curator at MASS MoCA. Thompson is a young radical/activist/curator from Chicago with well-established street-cred. His credentials include arrest while protesting MTV’s Real World, and germination of an admirably quixotic project to “-reclaim all visual, spatial and intellectual culture of Chicago and return it to those who work for it,”. The exhibition “Fantastic” is accompanied by a tabloid style catalog with a cerebrum-twisting (ala Tim Leary) essay by “Underground-anarcho-Sufi” essayist and cult radio personality Peter Lamborn Wilson.
It’s interesting to see how Thompson adapts his radical/tactical sensibility to institutional setting and mission. In “Fantastic” the curator literally puts himself out-front with Threshold of Wonder, an exhibition foyer collection he put together of ephemera connected to American utopian experiments of the 1900’s – many of which took place in New England – MASS MoCA’s home region. This sort of historicist/justificatory practice is a back-up strategy employed regularly by ‘public’ artists courting community support.
Since I’m writing here for Sculpture I’ll limit my comments to the exhibition’s 3-D works. However, I will note the background and mood-altering ambience of the ubiquitous Gregory Crewdson’s (David) Lynchian photo-tableaus.
Miguel Calderon is a Mexican artist who has become something of an international phenom. Working in video, still photography, installation, and painting the young polymath’s work is typically provocative– such as in his infamous Evolution of Man photo series terminating with the handgun-armed Afro wigged artist in home-boy drag.
For “Fantastic” Calderon created an installation which literally sends-up another subculture – via a sleeping troop of hippies. The somnolently floating flower children are physically evidenced by varicolored hair-locks twining downward from the head-end of buoyant sleeping-bags tethered with sinuous gray tubing to safety-red gas cylinders below. Close inspection reveals the piece’s crude stage-magic. The slithery gas tubing is actually rigid pipe which holds the loosely stuffed sleep-sacks and their non-existent occupants deceptively aloft. Once the jig is up a queasy internal argument transpires between what one knows and the evidence of one’s eyes. An adjacent glass fronted freezer holds uniform ranks of Cherry Garcia ice cream pints. Commodified countercultural sugarplums dancing collectively out of the snoozing Dead-Head’s dreams?
In an adjoining room Calderon screens grainy footage of Satan-possessed actors who had responded to a classified ad he posted. Much like the actors in Calderon’s film which follows – car surfing bad-boys in the Mexican desert – the players in the possession episodes are aware of the camera, and though foaming at the mouth and physically restrained by attendants, seem to be having a devil of a good time.
Nils Norman and Alicia Framis are both, for all intents and purposes, theoretical architects. Norman, like Mark Dion, makes art which purports to educate about environmental issues, by fielding models such as Geocruiser Mothercoach – a mobile greenhouse/library – and prototypes such as The Gerrard Winstanely Radical Gardening Space Reclamation Mobile Field Center and Weather Station – a bicycle mounted work station for the propagation of ideas about “radical gardening” in urban settings. Alicia Framis’ repeated tack is to humorously conjoin unlikely public spaces and services –i.e., clinic/cinema, metro/cemetery/fashion boutique, and autobahn/public memorial. Unfortunately both artists’ presentations are visually arid (vinyl inkjet murals, train model props, etc.) and overtly didactic.
Temporary Services (a Chicago based art collective) collaborates here with anonymous prison inmate “Angelo” to recreate compelling evidence of a (out-of-sight-out-of-mind) lifestyle common to 2.1 million Americans. The installation includes a claustrophobia inducing concrete and stainless steel cell, and glass display cases filled with ingenious inmate inventions. Prisoner artfulness with limited resources creates, among other things, chess sets made of toilet paper-mache, plastic bag prophylactics, a “muff bag” = the crude inmate equivalent of an inflatable ‘love doll’, and an impressive variety of utility devices for cell-cooking and cigarette lighting. The installation generates a sordid police museum atmosphere that intellectually attracts and viscerally repels. Temporary Services and Angelo’s work of art consummately embodies the appellation “Fantastic” in that it offers hidden (hence esoteric) and extreme truths without resort to moral, ethical, or political mediation. Further evidence of the installation’s power to unsettle was MASS MoCA’s reported discomfort with Angelo’s anonymity and, in particular, the unknown nature of his crime. The institution’s unpublicized uneasiness, and I would suspect fear of political consequences, highly recommends the work and best rewards the anarchic ambitions of the exhibition’s curator.