Under the Sea makes waves at MoCA

The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williams College Museum of Art and MASS MoCA collaborate on an exhibition every year entitled Kidspace, where the younger art connoisseurs both appreciate contemporary art geared towards them and also create art of their own. 

Kidspace’s new exhibit, Under the Sea opened on Saturday at MASS MoCA to a flood of children and parents eager to experience life under water. As described on Kidspace’s online blog, “Under the Sea features six internationally acclaimed artists who explore the ocean as habitat, myth and a necessary element of life on earth.” The exhibit also explores the waste that is accumulated in oceans and how harmful human pollution is to our largest natural resource.

Kidspace is located in a room on the second floor of MASS MoCA and is free of charge. The space is just large enough to encompass a variety of different types of art while also small enough for viewers to feel as if they are actually under the sea.  Four tables are set up at one end of the room where children can sit and create whales and fish with pipe cleaners and paper plates. The energy in the room was positive and rife with excitement about all the new art.

Kidspace collaborates with North Adams public schools to help bring educational value and art together.

Laura Thompson, director of exhibitions and education, talked to me about how the idea behind the exhibit came about when she realized that many of the kids in this area never get to see the ocean. “We decided to bring the ocean to them,” she said. Under the Sea was also chosen in light of all of the recent disasters, including oil spills and tsunamis, which have affected both oceans and land. Thompson discussed artist Aurora Robson’s work in the exhibit, explaining that all of the materials are “found plastic washed up in Hawaii,” including pieces of plastic all the way from Korea and Russia. “It’s amazing how the tides converge all of this garbage from all over the world,” Thompson said.

Ginger Ertz’s work is also abstract, yet based in reality. Using primarily chenille stems and plastic beads, Ertz creates representations of things in nature. Her piece “Splash” looks like the ocean when a wave is cresting, with several shades of blue and purple and the illusion of motion. Another one of her pieces represents an oil spill, with many of the same qualities as moving water, but made entirely with black shiny material.

Robson and Ertz’s abstract pieces are contrasted by more realistic oceanic art by Deborah Wing-Sproul and Dirk Westphal. Wing-Sproul’s work “Tidal Culture: Part III” includes a curtained-off dark room where viewers can simply stand and watch a continuous film of a tide washing in and out in Greenland.  Her other work includes a pair of slippers and seven spoons made entirely of seaweed. Both works suggest the fragility of life in comparison to the vastness and strength of the ocean. Dirk Westphal’s work includes detailed photographs of a school of damselfish.

James Grashaw’s work hangs from the ceiling of the room, leading all the way to the back of the venue.  Made up of only cardboard and paint, Grashaw’s sculptures are realistic depictions of fish, sharks and even a mermaid that all seem to swim above you as you walk through the room. While the fish are larger than life, the detail in their faces and fins makes it hard to believe they are made of only cardboard. Johnston Foster’s work also uses unconventional materials. Fascinated by people’s obsession with sharks, Foster created sharks entirely made up of materials found on the roadside and in Dumpsters. The sharks are cartoon looking but also realistic with their rows and rows of teeth. I for one was glad that they weren’t life-sized.

Overall, the Under the Sea is very successful in showing what the ocean is like as well as how discarded materials and waste are harmful to it.  I really enjoyed the variation in types of media shown in the exhibit which exposes kids to the different ways that art can be used to express certain content.

Megan Bantle/arts editor One of Johnston Foster’s plastic sharks bares its teeth at MASS MoCA’s Under the Sea exhibit.