‘Unnatural Science’ headlines a strong showing at Mass MoCA

So here I find myself: a senior art major at Williams, living a mere ten-minute drive from one of the newest, largest, most highly-anticipated museums in the world, and I’ve never even been there. My girlfriend’s been there twice, and usually I’m the one having to drag her into museums. Heck, when my parents came to visit, they went, and I stayed home and took a nap. So, in an attempt to redeem myself and show some support for the art world that I consider myself a part of, I decided to check out this whole Mass MoCA thing for myself and discover all that I’ve been missing out on.

The museum itself is an incredible work of art, more than worthy on its own of demanding the viewer’s attention, with its incredible amount of space and its beautiful, simplistic approach to housing and displaying an amazingly varied collection of art. Yet the buildings do not take away from the art, as is often the case in this day and age, where the modern museum is viewed in many respects as being the pinnacle of architectural achievement. One needs only to look toward mammoth projects such as the Guggenheim in Bilbao, or the Experience Music Museum in Seattle to realize that museums are becoming less about the art inside the building than about the hoopla surrounding the actual structure. Although the space in the Mass MoCA complex is indeed impressive and immense, it becomes unobtrusive as you enter, giving the artwork itself ample room in which to be properly experienced and enjoyed.

Mass MoCA has recently opened its second major exhibit, titled “Unnatural Science,” and it is one of the most interesting, original shows that I have seen in recent memory. The idea of the show is that artists employ the techniques, ideas and discoveries of science in some manner toward the purpose of making an artistic statement. Although acknowledging the amazing results of scientific advancement, the artists involved in the show succeed in making science subservient to art in one way or another. Instead of treating science as it is regarded conventionally – that is, as something purely objective, unalterable and unquestionable – the artists transform science into something that can be subjective and, more importantly, can be questioned.

Perhaps the most interesting and striking example of exposing the moral dilemmas involved with modern science and the dreadful things that it can lead to is the piece by Michael Oatman, titled Long Shadows: Henry Perkins and the Eugenics Survey of Vermont (Vermont Pure). This installation deals with a dark chapter in American science, one that has only recently begun to rise in the public’s awareness. The Eugenics Survey of Vermont sought to eliminate mental and moral “degeneracy” from the gene pool through the identification and sterilization of individuals in the Vermont population who exhibited traits deemed by the members of the survey to be “deficient.”

Oatman focuses his installation on the subjective nature of the survey, as it seems to claim scientific validity through early genetic studies and statistic methods, targeting individuals with such traits as alcoholism, mental retardation, physical deformity, criminality and women prone to sexual promiscuity, as well as using such labels as “feebleminded,” “subnormal,” “immoral” and “gypsies.” If this sounds sick and twisted, it is, and if it sounds like something else you’ve heard about, you’re right. In fact, Henry Perkins’ work in the 1930s (along with other similar projects across the country) was somewhat of an inspiration for policies of sterilization and purification employed in Germany shortly thereafter. Oatman does an incredible job with his research and display, doing a great service by bringing attention to this matter and displaying it in a manner that captures the spirit of the Survey like no text or article ever could.

The most explicitly socially conscious piece in the show, Long Shadows certainly had the most serious impact on me, but it my no means overshadowed the other displays. Housed in the “Tall Gallery” is Catherine Chalmers’ series of photographs, titled Food Chain. In 28 color photographs, each five feet wide, she presents in sequential order a group of caterpillars devouring a tomato followed (quite graphically) by the demise of one of the caterpillars at the hands of a praying mantis, which, in turn, finds itself consumed in one giant gulp by a frog. Chalmers blurs the line between art and science, presenting what may at first seem to be simply an observation of a natural event, but which, upon closer inspection, can be seen as a beautifully orchestrated, aesthetically satisfying dance with the nature and beauty of death. Placing predator and prey upon a neutral white space, she lets nature take its course, leaving you with a result that is both fascinating and gruesome to look at.

What makes Mass MoCA so special is its willingness and capacity to display works of art that cannot exist without the museum and its immense spaces. It actually contains the largest single gallery space in the United States, and thus becomes one of the only places in the world capable of displaying Tim Hawkinson’s unbelievable Uberorgan. Commissioned specifically for the museum’s largest space, Uberorgan is simply an enormous, self-playing reed organ, constructed of cheap, disposable materials.

The various pieces are suspended from the ceiling like several irregular whales in a science museum, each with its own set of tubes branching off of it, each tooting and groaning at different pitches, controlled by a central mechanism that runs itself and continually plays a repeating pattern. Finding oneself in this enormous, football field-sized gallery, amongst these giant, irregular, suspended bladders, each belching out its own foggy notes, is a truly unique, if not quite ridiculous, experience. Hawkinson goes over the limit with this piece, inviting the observer to be amazed and amused at the same time; amazed at its complexity, and yet amused by the sight and sound that is produced by it all.

Since I can’t really explain everything in the museum, I’ll finish with one final piece: incidentally, the one I found to be the most amusing and time consuming. Tucked away behind Oatman’s installation is a smallish movie room with two rows of chairs and a screen, repeatedly showing the 30-minute film The Way Things Go (Der Lauf der Dinge), by Peter Fischli and David Weiss. Their film is really one giant chain reaction, in the style of Rube Goldberg, but seemingly with no definite end or purpose, except to propose the notion of its endlessness. Relying upon simple physical principles like gravity and inertia, combined with the simplest of mechanisms, as well as chemical reactions, they create a relentless march of tires rolling, cans dumping lighter fluid, candles burning, catapults firing and ladders falling down, in defiance of the notion of entropy and its inevitability.

According to the artists, their goal was to “create a system that works but nearly doesn’t work,” and indeed their success in reaching that goal provides a great deal of excitement and suspense for the viewer. You find yourself on the edge of your seat, in excruciating expectation, wondering whether or not the tire will be able to knock over the next can, or if those mere soap bubbles will be enough to shift a piece of wood far enough to tip over a bottle which will fill up a glass, in turn tipping a scale, which raises a candle, and so on. Incredibly, the suspense is indeed there, and the payoff is brilliant, relieving us all with proof that scientific phenomena indeed still proceed as they always should. In a way, the entire show was a confirmation for the less scientifically oriented among us that art can be found, or made to be found, even in the places where we rarely think to look.