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MASS MoCA at 20 with Annie Lennox and Jon Hamm

Annie Lennox imagined a mound. A large earthen mound revealing pieces of her past she couldn’t let go. People would be invited to view these fragments, to learn about them, and, she hopes, to understand her beyond her musicianship. Perhaps they would find a connection to themselves.

“I knew that I couldn’t just let them go, just throw them away, give them away. I didn’t know how I was ever going to do that, but then I figured it out. It had to be something ritualized. It’s very emotional, because I’m not trying to make a career out it; I’m making an installation. It’s imbued with my life.”

What she has envisioned will become an exhibition, “Now I Let You Go …” to be unveiled May 25 at MASS MoCA. And Lennox will hold a talk and performance to mark the museum’s 20th-anniversary season.

“This is a statement of a lifetime,” says Lennox, who, only a few days earlier, had been in Cape Town. She had just arrived in North Adams and viewed the mound for the first time, planning to work on it over the next ten days.

This exhibition is precisely what makes MASS MoCA uniquely MASS MoCA: Artists of all disciplines have the space and time to achieve focus to create their art. Lennox is known to many as an award-winning Scottish singer-songwriter, political activist and advocate, half of the former Eurythmics. She is also founder of The Circle, an organization working to support and empower women and girls’ lives.

“When people see me, and if they know my music, they might think they know me but they don’t. They connect at a very deep level with the music,” says Lennox. “It’s accompanied people through their love affairs and their losses—their celebrations and their darkest hours. A bond is there.”

Lennox had long wanted to expand her visual art beyond performance, costume, and video. “I never dared because I always thought that crossing into this art world, I may be such an outlier that I might not be welcome. But Joe has been so welcoming of me,” says Lennox of Joseph Thompson, director of MASS MoCA. She first visited the contemporary art museum in North Adams when she received an honorary degree from Williams College in 2013. “I actually wrote him an email years later and describing to him what I wanted to do, and the funny thing is that he understood it immediately. He wrote back and said let’s have a conversation over the phone, and he was asking me questions about it and I thought, he understands what I want to do. He gets it. He doesn’t think I’m crazy, he doesn’t think it’s a hubristic idea. This place allows artists to materialize their dreams, and that just moved me so much.”

When Thompson was dreaming up MASS MoCA, he hadn’t planned it quite like this. The original MASS MoCA model would later become Dia:Beacon—large works, mainly American minimalism, on view in industrial spaces for a very long time. What it is, though, is perhaps best illustrated on one recent night in B6: The Robert W. Wilson Building, when a handful of artists working in various disciplines came together to be photographed: Lennox, actor Jon Hamm, artists Trenton Doyle Hancock and Adriana Corral, choreographer Danielle Agami, and drummer/composer Glenn Kotche of Wilco.

At MASS MOCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, from left – Joseph Thompson, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Adriana Corral, Annie Lennox, Glenn Kotche, Danielle Agami, and Jon Hamm.

In the shadows—not quite, but perhaps figuratively so—was Thompson as he listened in on Hancock about his exhibition and Corral about her work in a group show opening soon; Agami, Kotche, and Hamm, winding down from their daylong rehearsal for their work-in-progress, “Fishing,” to be staged at Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival; and Lennox—all part of the museum’s landmark 20th season.

“Annie represents a crossover of the visual and performing arts, which is what is defining about MASS MoCA,” says Thompson. “Half our financial resources and emotional bandwidth go to performing arts. Such a powerful figure as Annie sends a clear signal of what MASS MoCA is about.”

The signal became strikingly clear when Thompson was raising money for the planned MASS MoCA in 1987-90. He was asked the same question from people in the community: “Who’s going to come twice?” It was then that he began thinking of collaborations, with David Byrne, Tim Burton, Bill T. Jones, Laurie Anderson—individuals unwilling to be pigeonholed. “No institutions were responding to the artists, who were crossing over disciplines—filmmaking, dance, theater, sculpture, photography,” says Thompson. “What evolved was getting rid of the silos of visual and performing arts.”

That pushed aside the original idea of big visual art installations in a big box (like Dia:Beacon) and led to building The Hunter Center, modeled from a TV and video soundstage, and hiring a performing arts curator, Rachel Chanoff. “The idea transmogrified early on,” says Thompson. And the overlap of music and performing arts and visual arts created greater interest in the exhibits. Many of the thousands who attend FreshGrass and Wilco’s Solid Sound and the High Mud Comedy Festival arrive without knowing what MASS MoCA means except that it’s a performance venue for their favorite artist. Says Thompson, “Then they see the museum. They’re here early or they spend the night, and they find much more.”

Another important aspect of MASS MoCA is that most of the artwork is created in North Adams, at the museum—as are the works in theater and music. Residencies are a big part of what sets MASS MoCA apart from like-minded institutions.

With the performing arts residencies, artists reveal the process to an audience, says Sue Killam, director of performing arts at MASS MoCA. “It’s all about the creative process and allowing the staff to help them when they can—to allow artists to realize the vision that they had over a cocktail napkin or at a studio.” As a member of Wilco, which will hold its next Solid Sound Festival from June 28-30, Kotche was quite familiar with MASS MoCA and all it has to offer. He suggested that Agami reach out and contact the museum for a possible residency to further develop “Fishing.”

“It was my fantasy to have Jon Hamm collaborate with me,” says Agami. “Putting dance near him could be really interesting, and then to have Glenn support and create a backdrop between this meeting of words and dance. It’s essential to concentrate and not have LA or New York around you. Jon’s very busy. Glenn’s very busy. I’m very busy. And here we are, busy with this, and it’s really nice and a privilege to do only this.”

“The support of what we do is so incredible,” notes Hamm, who, with the others, stayed at Porches across the street and was a regular diner at nearby Public Eat + Drink. “It’s a treat to be in a place where we get to do just this one thing. It rarely happens, to focus on the thing that you’re trying to make or do or whatever. In other places, there is so much swirl and so much craziness going on. Here, we are focused on this one thing.”

Courtesy Gillian Jones – The Berkshire Eagle – Jon Hamm and Danielle Agami rehearsing for “Fishing”.

Another performing artist, Laurie Anderson, has a longterm exhibit in Building 6. This summer, she will present “Lou Reed Drones,” a drone-based sonic experience utilizing a number of historic guitars from her late husband’s collection. This installation, curated by Reed’s former guitar technician Stewart Hurwood, places the instruments in an arrangement against a group of amplifiers so that their tuned feedback creates an enveloping drone of harmonics that shifts and changes with the audience. It was presented in March at The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City. Anderson is also at MASS MoCA developing a re-staging of her 1991 work “Habeus Corpus.”

Along with the transitory exhibitions are the permanent ones. The Sol LeWitt exhibition is the heart of MASS MoCA, a significant moment in the museum’s 20-year timeline. “Until LeWitt, it was a three-ring circus, and suddenly there was this monument in our midst. Having LeWitt is such a milestone; it anchors the place,” notes Thompson.

From there, others settled in: Anderson, Anselm Kiefer, James Turrell, Jenny Holzer. Common with all the long-term exhibitions is that these artists’ works are difficult to show in “time-bound urban spaces.” Turrell’s work alone consumes nearly 40,000 square feet. Anderson’s work is as much per­formative as it is visual. Holzer is prolific. These are artists who have achieved a lot and have a lot to say. (Although Building 6 was to be the last of the repurposed 19th-century factory buildings to be open, well, “that’s not true,” says Thompson. Clocking in at 250,000 square feet now being used, “we still have 60,000 square feet still to be developed.”)

Along with the permanent collections, several exhibitions at MASS MoCA change every year: Currently, it’s a solo project by Trenton Doyle Hancock, a mid-career retrospective by Cauleen Smith, and “a rollicking group exhibition,” as Thompson puts it, “Suffering from Realness.”

For the opening of “Suffering From Realness” on April 13, Corral and her partner, Vincent Valdez, led a procession of a six-foot tall, 400-pound bronze bald eagle carried by four pall bearers and laid to rest on the gallery floor. On an exhibition wall at MASS MoCA, Corral carved 243 significant dates (243 is the age of the Republic) given to her by various people. She burned those shavings patted the charred remains on the eagle. She describes the piece as “for the people, by the people.”

“This is like a Phoenix, and we all have to rise together,” she says, adding that being part of a MASS MoCA exhibition is like a dream. “I never envisioned my work here.”

In neighboring Building 5, Trenton Doyle Hancock is found on the sidelines of his football field-sized exhibition “Mind of the Mound: Critical Mass,” his largest solo exhibition to date. He locates an outlet by a bench to charge his smartphone, then sits back and watches as people mill around. He has just finished a workshop with children and has a lecture coming up. Some visitors take notice of this artist; others are consumed by his art. This is a dream come true for him, too, he says.

“My concerns have always been tying ‘low’ ideas and high-minded ideas, and creating that bridge. Toys and comics next to Sol LeWitt makes perfect sense. I’ve always thought of characters like him. And Louise Bourgeois. They’re artistic family members of mine. I feel a real closeness to them, so being in a museum that celebrates the totality of what art can be is the kind of place I want to show.”

When Hancock first met with curator Denise Markonish, she told him that MASS MoCA is an institution that makes artists’ dreams come true. “She wasn’t lying,” says Hancock. “I thought it was hyperbole. But, really, they ask you what you want, and they make it happen. It’s that simple.”

The work of Trenton Doyle Hancock. Photo by Tony Luong.

And so that’s what he did. Born in Paris, Texas, to a family of evangelical Baptist ministers, Hancock supplemented his religious upbringing with comic books and Greek mythology. His artistic output consists of paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints, videos, popular toys, and excerpts from his graphic novel. In this exhibition, Hancock mined his own museum of stuff and loaded it into a truck destined for MASS MoCA. “Everything has been itemized so cleanly with a lot of hard work on my part and a lot of hard work on the curatorial staff. It let me know at the end of the day that if we start with a clear idea, it can be milled down and clarified, in terms of brainstorming with the team and building something substantive.”

Still, what surprised him was the clarity and the vision that emerged. “This is a cumulative type of show. This is six years worth of special projects. Getting them here together completes the puzzle.”

Upstairs from Hancock’s monumental exhibition is Lennox’s earthen mound. The room where it is located doesn’t seem so big, compared to the mammoth scale of other exhibitions such as LeWitt and Hancock. Still, the massive mound consumes the space. Peeking in as it was being created felt like this writer was looking into something very personal, very intimate.

“You know her through her affect—her music videos and her songs—but she’s very private,” says Thompson. “What drives her is a bit of a black box.”

As a child, Lennox haunted the art gallery in Aberdeen, Scotland, and spent countless hours looking at the paintings. In the last year of school, she took up art as a subject, studied it intensely, did well, and wanted to keep painting and drawing. But she could only do one thing, and she chose music. Then in the late-1990s, Lennox visited an exhibition at the Royal Academy called “Sensation,” the collection of contemporary art owned by Charles Saatchi, including many works by Young British Artists. “After I went through the show, I felt—I’m like them. I felt connected to how they were expressing things, but I’m a singer songwriter. Oh, but you can’t be in their art world. So I had to let it go. I didn’t think I could pursue it.”

But she is. This ceremonial earthen mound will contain her daughters’ baby toys and shoes, her mother’s reading glasses, instruments, an old family photo of her maternal grandmother’s family—more than 150 objects, partially revealed. Visitors will receive an archeological field guide, her writings, and a map.

Also in this mound are articles of her travel in Africa, an important piece of Lennox’s life, a link to her global feminism. “I’ve lived a life through a lens of being a young girl, and being an adult woman, and being a mother, and an older woman. I’ve lived through these stages being a woman, and I’ve traveled and seen women’s lives and have understood and thought a great deal of what it is to be a woman and a woman’s place is in this world and what the possibilities can be and what the values are.”

Was it a challenge to select the items to be in the mound? “Yes and no. Yes and no. It’s funny, a lot of answers are like that. Yes and no. In a way, it was obvious what needed to go. It was very obvious. And then on the other hand, not so much. I came up here a few weeks ago, and we had photographs of everything. What simplified it was having photocopies of all the items, and I laid everything out and it was an intuitive selection, and I thought: This is it. And I numbered every single item, and kind of grouped them 1 to 10.

“There was a sort of chaos in this, and that was so hard for me to deal with. I like order. I think many of us do. Chaos is so hard. Life is so chaotic, and so we find that we kind of need to put some kind of order into chaos. And that’s what creativity is all about. It’s about selecting things that you are intrigued with and almost representing them with your own slant, your own interpretation.”

And then, letting them go.


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