The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is completely out of place: international contemporary art set in a remote postindustrial mill town among the Western Massachusetts’ foothills. Of the 26 separate buildings, which used to constitute the Sprague Electric Factory, is MASS MoCA’s Building 5, a single 300-foot long gallery reminiscent of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Recent exhibitions there have featured Jenny Holzer projections, a Cai Guo Qiang car crash sequence, and an eerie Carsten Höller amusement park.
Currently occupying this massive space are two pieces by the comparably unspectacular Simon Starling. In the first, ‘The Nanjing Particles (After Henry Ward, View of C.T. Sampson’s Shoe Manufactory, with the Chinese Shoemakers in Working Costume, ca. 1875)’, 2008, Starling began with two, late 19th century, albumen prints of Chinese workers posing outside of the Sampson Shoe Company, a factory located on what is now the museum. Bringing these pictures to New York, he used an electron microscope to generate 3D images of two of the trillions of silver particles suspended in the egg whites.
He then contracted a fabricator in Nanjing (hometown of the workers photographed) to make scale models of the amorphous particles in shimmering stainless steel à la Anish Kapoor/Jeff Koons, which are now displayed in the gallery. The original photograph is also blown-up, plastered onto a freestanding wall in front of the sculptures, with holes cut out to view the sculptures through. Starling himself notably features less prominently here than in earlier works, acting more as off-stage director pulling the strings, than an engaged participant. As a result of this distance, the presentation comes across as slightly unenthused and stark, with the emphasis more on sleekly produced objects than on the journey taken in their conceptual development.
The other half of this two-part affair was the ongoing ‘Strip Canoe (African Walnut)’, 2007/08, in which Starling made a Native American canoe (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) out of African hardwood, an homage to a journey made in 1909 by American scientist and photographer Herbert Lang, famous for his photograph of the elusive okapi. The colouration and stripes of the canoe’s exterior mimic the mysterious African beast atop the four legs of two impeccably outfitted mannequins frozen mid-portage. Starling intends to paddle the boat down the Hoosic River, which runs next to the museum and provided power for the old factory, and make a video of the trip that will be shown in the space for the duration of the exhibition. This piece is more typical Starling, with three-and-four-timesover interdependent relationships working succinctly, the meandering narratives playfully light.
Overlooking Starling’s work in an adjacent, free-standing building is a new installation of 105 wall drawings by Sol LeWitt, set to run until 2033. The drawings span his entire career and are displayed chronologically over three floors. Walking through the exhibition is a truly extraordinary and exhausting experience with optical illusions at every turn. There are few places in the country, or the world for that matter, that could pull together this scale of production, but MASS MoCA, with its never ending square footage, is thankfully one.
Alex Jacobson is an artist and curator based in Boston