Growing up on the East Coast, day trips to MASS MoCA, a contemporary art museum in North Adams, Massachusetts, became a kind of annual pilgrimage—a leisurely road trip through the Berkshire Mountains, a milkshake stop at Joe’s Diner, and finally the quaint, steeple-studded town of North Adams with the museum in its heart.
MASS MoCA, like North Adams itself, is made up old factory buildings, dating back to the beginning of the industrial revolution. 26 buildings on 16 sprawling acres, the museum is “an elaborate system of interlocking courtyards and passageways rich with historical association.” As the museum’s site puts it, “Bridges, viaducts, elevated walkways, and red brick facades lend a distinct architectural ambiance to the complex.”
Some of the gallery spaces are immense–large enough to house installations like the one below by Cari Guo-Oiang below, which involves several identical cars suspended from the ceiling, each rotated at a different angle. Illuminated in quick succession, they gave the impression of being one single car, spiraling through the air, like a life-size, three-dimensional flip book.
For me, the buildings themselves are just as compelling at the art that populates them. Wandering through those impressive, labyrinth-like spaces, peering out the window at the old water mill, and imagining what it must have been like when these halls were filled with workers and machinery rather than bizarre sculptures and videos.
On one visit, I found myself struggling to connect with the exhibition but intensely drawn to the walls of the museum itself. The brick had been painted so many times over, layer upon layer of repair and decay, paint drips and chips, revealing and concealing stages of the building’s history. The art on display took a backseat as my perception shifted. What was once background, ‘empty’ space that my eyes skipped over, became all that I could see. The walls were filled with the most incredible abstract compositions.
I spent the rest of the afternoon taking photographs of the bricks, enamored with art that was not art, or art that was art but only by accident—incidental, unintended, and yet undeniable.
As I did so, I felt something in my mind shift along with my sight. My mind became quiet, expansive, receptive. Though nothing external had changed, the ordinary had become extraordinary. I had entered a different kind of exhibition, one without a brochure or informational placards. It was like a self-guided treasure hunt.
On the ride home, I scrolled through my photographs and wondered about what made art art. Did it have to be created by a person? Did that person have to know that they were making art? What does it mean that the universe, apart from any human intention, is encoded with these visual patterns and tendencies? Paint chips, walls crack, bricks crumble, and somehow the result is, at least to me, often beautiful. Maybe all abstract art was simply mimicking the shapes and colors and textures that exist in the world already, all on their own, all around us, all the time. Maybe all we needed to do was pay attention.
This is an idea that I have returned to again and again over the years. It has informed the way I see the world, the way I think about art making, about abstraction, nature, the unconscious. These invisible guiding principles that create our physical universe, the laws of nature, of erosion, of emergence and self-similarity, are infinitely diverse and, at the same time, predictable, like spiraling seashells, giraffe spots, branching rivers and our own vascular systems. There’s a fine line between art and non-art, and finding ways to bridge that gap makes the world a lot more interesting.