‘Annie Lennox’ underwhelms

Gavin McGough

Annie Lennox: ‘Now I Let You Go…’  features objects from the Grammy-winning performer’s personal life.  (Photo courtesy of MASS MoCA.)

Solo exhibitions often bear the title of their artist, and this convention, from Rafa Esparza to Cauleen Smith, holds true at MASS MoCA this season. But no exhibition bears its maker’s name quite the way Annie Lennox: ‘Now I Let You Go…’ does. Perhaps it is her presumed celebrity, perhaps the nature of the exhibit, but upon entering the dark gallery on the third floor of Building Four, it is clear that Lennox, and Lennox alone, is the point and purpose of this work.

In comparison to other galleries in MASS MoCA, the third floor is a small space, made smaller by the absence of light: All that illuminates the exhibition are a few, tight spotlights mounted on the ceiling and a projection on the far wall showing footage from Lennox’s career as a performer. Sprawling across the floor and up towards the ceiling is a pile of dirt, a mound (this season at Mass MoCA offers plenty), tucked full of memorabilia and tchotchkes from Lennox’s life. A companion exhibition manual, whose thin gray font is nearly impossible to read in the dark room, maps out the nearly 200 objects which are clustered in the dirt, and offers, in the case of a few objects, reflections on their content and meaning. 

When I first entered the space, a docent offered to explain some of the objects to me, and as I could not read the exhibition guide, I happily agreed. He began with Lennox’s piano which stood atop the mound in a globe of light: glossy, proud, and towering over the secondary objects. 

The docent pointed out a shirt with a Nelson Mandela graphic. He explained that Lennox had supported efforts to free the South African leader from prison. He next showed me some cloth dolls from Uganda, where Lennox has long been an activist for those living with HIV and AIDS. Later, in the pamphlet, I read that the dolls, a mother and daughter, reminded Lennox of the importance of protecting vulnerable women from the disease. 

To complete this celebration of self, this mountain of vanity, a velvet rope runs around the edge of the dirt mound, ensuring that, as always, the audience is separated from the performer. Silver glitter is intermittently thrown across the dirt. I had been out the night before and had worn glitter for the occasion – in fact, I still had some stubborn silver clinging to my eyelashes. I felt connected to Lennox; I knew her. 

During my time in the exhibition, I did not get the sense I was examining art, or even a work of imagination. I was watching a performance of self by way of physical objects. Lennox is a legendary performer, and perhaps I should have been able to absorb some of the more pointedly vain aspects of the exhibition. MASS MoCA does not necessarily peddle in traditional “art,” and contemporary exhibitions can (and should) take many forms. Unconventionality is one of the joys of this particular museum. Furthermore, diaristic exploration of self can make good art.

‘Now I Let You Go…’ often presents personal objects as a mark of accomplishment, and reads as a resumé of the positive aspects of Lennox’s Wikipedia page. When I was presented with an object of intense emotional content, such as the glasses of Lennox’s mother, I found myself struggling to see what lay beneath. 

I looked up the glasses, object 78, in the guide. “These glasses are incredibly personal,” the write-up read, “These were my mother’s glasses. These were the glasses she wore everyday.” I appreciated them, but found it difficult to move past a distant respect. How did Lennox feel about her mother? What sort of relationship was it? 

Lennox’s confidence extends to matters of life and death, temporary and permanent. There is, in the piles of plastic toys and old shoes which Lennox presents towards us as art, an exhibition, a realization of human ephemerality. Lennox knows that her possessions, her memories and eventually herself, are all mortal — destined for the dirt. 

I might have left it there, but I realized the exhibition has a side room, which, unlike the mound, is brightly lit, devoid of dirt and sparkling clean. Centered in the room is a large cubby that stretches floor to ceiling, and is called in the exhibition paperwork the “Trophy Room.” The walls, a rich blonde color, are thickly covered in gold and platinum records, awards, plaques and other paraphernalia of grandeur. As I peered into the cubby, I saw that the floor and ceiling both are mirrors, so when one looks in, the trophy room is infinite. Lennox has saved her prizes from the pile: her work and her lavishly decorated legacy. These, most surely, will stretch on forever.  

Annie Lennox: ‘Now I Let You Go…’ is on view at MASS MoCA through Jan. 2020.