‘Explode Every Day’ underscores the fun, the inexplicable in art

Explode Every Day: An Inquiry into the Phenomena of Wonder at Mass MoCA thoughtfully asks what wonder looks like in art. Photo courtesy of Mass MoCA.
Explode Every Day: An Inquiry into the Phenomena of Wonder at Mass MoCA thoughtfully asks what wonder looks like in art. Photo courtesy of Mass MoCA.

By all accounts, art museums expand your mind. They invite you to look, to make connections, to admire, to scoff, to agree or disagree. To do a double — no, triple — take, to laugh, to tense up, to leave confused, to be in awe and to feel unsettled? Not usually, but such is the case in Explode Every Day: An Inquiry into the Phenomena of Wonder, curated by Mass MoCA’s Denise Markonish and Ohio-based artist Sean Foley, and on view at the Museum through April 3, 2017.

With over 20 artists exhibiting, it’s a big show — the title comes from author Ray Bradbury: “You remain invested in your inner child by exploding every day. You don’t worry about the future, you don’t worry about the past — you just explode.” But explosions are hard to contain, and “wonder” is ambiguous. Thankfully, Markonish and Foley know that — instead of laying down hard lines, they allow the works to spill over and allow viewers to make their own categories.

Positioned somewhere in between those categories is Laurent Grasso’s video “Soleil Double,” which slowly pans over a deserted city center, the sky a burnt orange and the air thick and muggy. The video’s been stripped of context; abandoned office buildings look like Roman aqueduct ruins and dust floats in the air, trapped by light. Grasso brings you under and behind towering, marble Roman statues — you’re in their shadows, and feel strangely compelled to watch on bended knee. The sun moves, its light cutting across the alcove you’re in, finding you.

The work is digitized 16mm film, projected on a wall at Mass MoCA, so it must be modern. But the film is strangely anachronistic, uninflected, suspended between film and animation. “Soleil Double” refers to the hypothetical second sun, Nemesis, first postulated in 1984 and believed to be highly destructive. Here, Grasso has you wonder at the sublime, at what was, or what could be. There’s some fear mixed in, conferred by the threatening second sun and somber loneliness of the film’s desertion.

The title of Grasso’s “79, Pompeii Eruption, head of the God Harpocrate combed by the crown, Ptolemaic period, Egypt,” describes exactly what the work is. Three items seem to hover in a beautifully finished, walnut cabinet — a small, oil-on-wood painting of the eruption in an Early Netherlandish style; a miniature bust of Harpocrates, the Greek god of silence, and the year “79” rendered in glaring white neon. Grasso crafts and stages this anachronism and has you think about the past and present at once. The items are remnants, kept in a box and hinting at some end. This tension between old and new is particularly fitting for Mass MoCA, essentially an old box for new art with pasts as a print factory and electric company before it was converted into a large Kunsthalle, a space mounting only temporary exhibitions.

If Grasso is thoughtful and revelatory, Tom Friedman seems to be the antithesis of that, opting in his work for childlike humor that skews toward the simple and absurd. “Flashlight on Wall (UFO)” is a projected beam of blue light that bounces around as our eyes dart around to trace it. We imagine someone signaling from the building over, or someplace else, sending a message. It’s silly, bordering on nonsense, but I think that’s what Friedman wants: for you to be incredulous at first — and then laugh it off.

Friedman’s “Wall” is over 20 feet tall and built from individual plaster panels, with various objects and trinkets embedded in its surface and others cast and removed. A toy soldier with a broken leg, mouthwash, a gun, an ice cube tray, a dog treat, a picture frame broken over two panels — Friedman shows you real things stuck in time and place, unable to be retrieved.

The effect is strangely a bit sad, but also extremely clever at times — a duck seems to glide past with a trail of water shaped into the plaster, and little indents and scratched graffiti (“I WONDER,” upside down) indicate a mischievous human presence. Friedman makes you think about his process, his decisions behind such seemingly random work — but never too hard.

The thing about wonder is that it really has no scale to measure it by; you walk into each gallery at Mass MoCA and are challenged, confronted by something new, something that targets another facet of wonder, be it quietly thoughtful or loud and bold.

Hope Ginsberg’s “Breath Portrait I-VII” are close up shots of bubbles on the surface of the Bay of Fundy. There are no faces, no immediate human attributes in these portraits, but they still show a swirl of water, a flicker, a gurgle of life from divers below the surface. The photographs are accompanied by “Land Dive Team: Bay of Fundy,” a video that shows the divers meditatively sitting with their legs crossed, their chests rising and falling with even breaths. Water and algae gradually wash over them and soon the only thing appearing on the surface are their gentle bubbles as steady signs of life. Do they need help?

Julianne Swartz echoes this fragility with her sculptures using paper, wire and porcelain to create something organic and weirdly alive out of inanimate objects. The results are eerie and simple in their forms and shapes, tense as they rustle and murmur with various sounds.

“Bone Score (Long Tail)” looks a bit prenatal — a porcelain organ with a wire coated in paper trailing behind it like a tail or umbilical cord. The sculpture seems like it’s barely held together, and yet the tail vibrates so gently and quickly it blurs. Put your ear to the piece and there’s a hum, like being in the nave of a cathedral; at other times, the sculpture rattles like a radiator. Is it alive? You almost quiver with the work.

“Bone Score (Drum)” is grotesque — a boney piece of porcelain covered in what seems like exposed tendons and misplaced flesh. Gently, the thing taps and rumbles on a paper drum, casting shadows and dancing around, creating fragile, gentle associations. Swartz lists the different sounds as everything from an MRI to rain on a metal roof; spend time and listen closely. How do we relate the sound to how the pieces look? How are they made; what really are they? Will they hold together? Why do we want them to? I only wish the sculptures weren’t all in the same room. I want to listen to each one separately, carefully.

Pierre Huyghe and Demetrius Oliver both seem to mine the discomfort we sometimes feel in museums, and create a sense of tense urgency with their work. Huyghe’s “C.C. Spider” consists of real, live daddy longlegs let loose in Mass MoCA, and Oliver’s “Untitled” is a twice-daily performance that has a Museum guard blow a whistle, unannounced, as hard as he or she can. The spiders are alive and we don’t know where they are; the whistle suggests imminent danger. Both artists keep you on edge, Huyghe reminding you of the creatures we live alongside and Oliver maybe of our cynicism, of how we judge and distrust the strangers around us.

Perhaps what makes Explode such a good show is its perfect fit at Mass MoCA. When you spend time in Fred Tomaselli’s “CUBIC SKY,” an installation of floating celestial cubes that light up with constellations, you can hear the floorboards above creak, as people upstairs walk in the galleries.

What does it mean to have this show at Mass MoCA, an old factory? The works are in a place with its own history and mystery — we notice the bridges, the steel stairs and the exposed brick walls. There’s a sense of discovering something new, of awe in turning a space you wouldn’t expect for art into a place of revelation. Museums started as cabinets of curiosities, boxes of collected stuff — by contrast, Mass MoCA has no permanent collection. It’s a model for wonder; a box, exploded.

Explode is big; I haven’t even covered a quarter of it. There’s almost too much in the show, but perhaps the nature of a show about “wonder” is that it must be slightly overwhelming, that you can’t quite wrap your head around it. Markonish is most successful in leaving you with open-ended questions that make you wonder about wonder, about what shocks and surprises you.

Maybe you’ll disagree with what piqued my interest, but the point is that, by looking at art, you let your mind explode a bit. Don’t worry about carefully re-ordering the shrapnel, about immediately understanding what you see.

Because, if you got it all, where would the wonder, the fun be?

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