Visitors play with art at Mass MoCA

Walking into a room at Mass MoCA, I saw a man. He was short, balding, a little plump and pushing sixty. None of this would have been remarkably odd if it had not been for the fact that he was bouncing up and down on a tiny trampoline. And even that would have been only slightly disconcerting if I had not been in the middle of an art museum. I did not really question this spectacle, though, because after what I had already seen, I had become aware that this place, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA), was not a typical museum.

Mass MoCA is by far the most unusual museum in the Berkshires, and I would hazard over an even larger area than that. Six humongous, renovated factory buildings house the museum’s exhibitions. When I first entered Game Show, the newest exhibit to fill these angular walls, I thought the exhibit would include such well-known phrases as “Come on down!” and “What’s behind door number 3?.” I soon found that this exhibit is not about traditional game shows. Instead, it discusses the games that artists can play with their viewers games that are all about rules, stealth, and eye-catching visual style.

One of the first pieces in the Game Show exhibition is almost aggressive, covering an entire wall on the ground floor. The alphabet runs vertically up the sides, a green graph line and a lower-lying blue line graph corresponding with the letters. It took me a while to see that the lines spelled out words, and it took a pamphlet to let me know that the lower line spelled out musical notes.

I began to feel agitated. Why should I have to work so hard to look at a piece of artwork? Is this math class or a museum? I would soon see that Game Show requires both physical and mental interactions from the viewer.

I next ventured to the room outside the colossal graph. Now, even though I know that the exhibit went up long before the tragedies of the past week, it was still wholly disturbing. Christoph Draeger’s fascination with disaster inspired walls covered with pictures of tragedies ranging from TWA 800 to a tornado in Spencer, South Dakota. Draeger converted the pictures into puzzles and framed them on the wall. He hoped to emphasize the human desire for order and the silliness of the games and puzzles we create to provide ourselves with something to control. The pieces were interesting, but tremendously unsettling.

The artist Chris Finley’s work covered the next room. Finley created a sort of interactive funhouse. Upon entering, one first encounters the oh-so-minimally named One-Eyed Galactic Gutterball Pig Mantra. With this piece, the viewer stands over a gutter and watches a ball slide up and down it, and attempts to make the piece of painting on a pedestal line up with the pieces on the far wall. This room also contains Boing Splat Flat with Yellow Jacket Bat. To play this game, the viewer jumps on the aforementioned trampoline to look over a ledge and try to discover why food in the painting is tossed in the air (hint: the answer has to do with a baseball bat and a dead bug.)

My personal favorite was the area of the museum housing works by Sophie Calle. Her art discusses role-play, and the distinction between private and public worlds. On one wall, above a book inside a glass case, are written the simply stated words, “In June 1983, I found an address book on the street. I decided to ask all the people listed in it to talk to me about its owner. Every day, through them, I will get closer to him.” My first reaction, trepidation, was followed quickly by curiosity.

I found myself intrigued by Calle’s Chromatic Diet. These beautiful pictures of what were apparently real meals are each in one color, from plates to garnish. Monday was red, with tomatoes, steak and pomegranates; Tuesday was white, with flounder, potatoes, rice and milk. I really enjoyed these surprising and unexpected works.

For another piece, Calle worked as a chambermaid in a Venetian Hotel. Each piece’s title was a room number, writing about what she found each day in each room in extreme detail and pictures. Room 46, for example, had negligees, fuzzy high heels, and a purse, which the “chambermaid” did not hesitate to look through, finding passports and theatre tickets. The visitors at the museum struggled with these works, knowing they existed on the verge of the abnormal and still finding themselves unable to break away.

So you are probably saying, “Well, should I go? Is it worth it?” I would respond that the following people should go: (1) Folks who like art that makes you think; (2) Trampoline lovers; (3) People who emjoy discussing what can and cannot be considered “art;” (4) Those who like to make up funny stories about what artwork means because they have no idea; and (5) cheap students (MASS MoCA is free to Williams students). Even though the exhibit can be both confusing and difficult, you should check it out. Because, honestly, where else do you get to see short, balding men on trampolines for free?