North Adams, Massachusetts
“The Archaeology of Another Possible Future,” the title of Liz Glynn’s monumental show, is enigmatic only until you see the reality, which lays out her view of a pressing question: “What happens to stuff, and the people who make stuff, in the age of an increasingly virtual, dematerialized economy?” A lot of “stuff” has ended up in MASS MoCA’s football-field-size gallery, including a purpose-built suspension bridge, which wiggles somewhat alarmingly as you walk over it in a physical expression of the uneasiness in the world today. Looking down on the separate installations in the space below, they, too, seem uneasy, defining a now based on physical things and hinting at a future that perhaps won’t be.
The Boston-born Glynn, now in her late 30s and the youngest artist ever to have the museum’s signature space, was educated at Harvard and the California Institute of the Arts. Fascinated by the interaction of past and present, she’s done works exploring the Medici and their banking system, Egyptian attitudes about death, and Gilded Age decadence. Labor, and its possible obsolescence, is an important theme for her. In this show, she addresses it from a variety of angles, including the butterfly effect, as defined by Edward Lorenz, the father of chaos theory. Glynn’s visual translation includes real butterflies, a rare inclusion of the natural world in this version of the future.
Her massive display begins with a group of towering ziggurats made from hundreds of reclaimed forklift pallets. These structures form distinct caves, each appealing to the senses. One offers lengths of industrial felt to the touch. In another, an old-fashioned record player spins vinyl records that sound like wailing. There are recorded interviews with the young and old, including a 69-year-old talking about what MASS MoCA has done for the former manufacturing hub of North Adams, a subject that dovetails with Glynn’s idea of archaeology and change. This man isn’t interested in new technologies, as opposed to another, 15-year-old interviewee. The final cave is devoted to scents, some more pleasant than others. The smells are encased in artist-cast ceramic forms. Viewers are encouraged to handle them and feel the imprint of her hands—a personal touch that seems close to outdated in an era of mass-produced, machine-made goods.
A two-dimensional graph gone three-dimensional addresses the economy. A wide base narrows to a pinpoint top, the message being that it takes the masses to support the wealthy one percent. There’s a clue to Glynn’s politics in a work that references President Trump’s campaign complaints about the U.S. being “crushed” by tariffs imposed by other countries. The sculpture is made of three crushed oil barrels in red, white, and blue (Glynn found them like that) surmounted by a white flag that may or may not denote surrender.
Three shipping containers each hold distinct installations. One features drawings from patent applications, many never built and some simply absurd and superfluous. A chandelier crashed onto the floor offers a reminder of wealth gone sour. You imagine a ballroom filled with dancers who don’t realize that this dance will be their last—the roaring ’20s just before the Great Depression. Another container is an out-of-date “jobsite office” filled with relics like a manual typewriter. It’s sometimes staffed by a man who explains how things used to be made and how they worked. Always there’s the specter of workers made superfluous in the information age. The final container is glutted with consumer goods—soccer balls, toy guns, fans, vacuum cleaners—piled up in a disgusting heap of useless, miscellaneous stuff. It would be nearly impossible to get rid of it all.
Three towers hold 3D printers—the new face of manufacturing—which are used to produce objects in the gallery, including a pallet like those forming the ziggurats, though far less labor-intensive to make. Another turns out usable hardware, while a third produces prosthetic devices, a scary reminder of the possible obsolescence of the human body and its skills.
For anyone old enough to enjoy holding a newspaper rather than reading it on-line, Glynn’s installation made from stacks of newsprint posters is particularly poignant. Viewers are invited to take a copy of these repurposed bits of ephemera, which, unlike the permanent newspaper repository on-line, are nothing more than tomorrow’s trash. One side of the poster is printed with a photo of an industrial landscape that has seen better days. The message on the other side looks hand-written, another anachronism in today’s world.
In a final vision of post-industrial life, Glynn nods to Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, who suggested that boredom and depression would result when humans were replaced by machines. She responds with a series of beds—part hospital stretcher, part lounge chair—all under tanning lamps. The prospect of endless vacation—really forced retirement—is anything but cheery. We can only hope to face it with something like Glynn’s immense creativity and imagination.—