Photo Essays

Meandering Through MASS MoCA’s Vast Expansion

On May 28, Building 6, a three-story structure that was renovated by architecture firm Bruner/Cott, opened on the museum’s industrial campus and doubled its gallery footprint.

Aerial view of Building 6 at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) (image courtesy MASS MoCA)

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — If you’ve been meaning to take a trip to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), now’s a better time than ever. On May 28, Building 6, a three-story, claw-shaped structure that was renovated and designed by American architecture firm Bruner/Cott, opened on its industrial campus and doubled the museum’s gallery footprint — rounding out at 250,000 square feet — and adding a significant chunk for outdoor installation. With the new building come long-term installations and collaborations with Laurie Anderson, Louise Bourgeois, Jenny Holzer, Mary Lum, Gunnar Schonbeck, James Turrell, and more, as well as rotating exhibitions with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation collection and Artist-in-Residence program. Since it opened in 1999, MASS MoCA has focused on putting the work of well-known and emerging international artists from different disciplines in conversation, and Building 6 continues this trend.

Entrance to Building 6 from Building 5, where Nick Cave’s “Until” is currently on view (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

While MASS MoCA is now even larger — among the largest contemporary art museums in the country, no less — it’s not “big” like the Metropolitan Museum of Art is big, where the encyclopedic timeline and clustered gallery spaces can feel overwhelming. It’s also fairly different from the sacred, silence-inducing Dia:Beacon that it’s often compared to. This is not at all to criticize those museums — they provide equally important yet different contexts for viewing art. But MASS MoCA’s Building 6 has only enhanced the museum’s generally open and non-constricting design, and feels conducive to its mission to realize new, collaborative, and often experimental projects with visual and performing artists.

View of columns along the outer perimeter of the interior of Building 6

The art is given space to breathe in large rooms of exposed brick, punctuated by original wooden columns, and with hundreds of windows that let natural light stream in. An energy emanates off the pieces, as if they were just finished and completed by the artist in the studio. You want to look into the next gallery — even if you get lost, it’s okay; it’s part of the fun, perhaps.

Louise Bourgeois, “Untitled” (1991-2000), 15 tons, US debut at MASS MoCA

Announced in November 2014, the opening of Building 6 marks the second time MASS MoCA has expanded into the buildings of the former factory campus, the first being when the museum opened its expansive Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective in the 27,000-square-foot Building 7 in 2008. This most recent phase of MASS MoCA’s development totaled $65 million, and will include a bike path that transects the museum’s campus and connects the art to the surrounding town and area’s nature.

Sol LeWitt, “Negative Pyramid” (1997)
View from Building 6 prow of Jenny Holzer benches in garden, where the two branches of the Hoosic River meet

The inaugural exhibition of Rauschenberg Residency artists, Thumbs Up for the Mothership, features work by Dawn DeDeaux and Lonnie Holley. Holley’s sculptures piece together rebar, broken-down instruments, old lamps, typewriters, and other detritus, showing objects decayed and stripped down to their textures. “The rebar is the truth exposed,” said Holley who was wandering the galleries on opening day. “There is something in something until we don’t want it any longer. I want to leave enough in objects to make sure there’s some sort of time perceived.” Holley’s work might seem to consist of what people see as garbage or junk, but he thinks of it all as material. It’s the same ideology Rauschenberg had — examples of which can be seen the next gallery over.

Installation view of Thumbs Up for the Mothership: Dawn DeDeaux & Lonnie Holley
Shadow cast by work in Lonnie Holley’s exhibition
Robert Rauschenberg, “A Quake in Paradise (Labyrinth)” (1994)

At MASS MoCA there are also moments to slow down, engage with the sublime, so to speak. Turrell’s “Pink Mist” disorients by leading viewers through a pitch-black corridor, before they meet a sheet of pink light that appears fuzzy and out of focus. The rectangle of light appears to float some 30 feet away, as static scurries through it. As your eyes adjust, space collapses, and the pink mist is right in front of you.

The art in Building 6 seems to collect around a theme of not seeing details immediately, and having them materialize with an epiphany. Mary Lum’s painted wall installation “Assembly (Lorem Ipsum)” does this subtly, and to great effect. Inspired by the filler text used in publication design, “Assembly” presents words and letters chopped up, shifted a few inches and jumbled. It might be what one of William Burroughs’s cut-up poems looked like in his mind. It’s a work that invites viewers to take their time, but not in an overly demanding way. As we make out the words, mirrors placed every couple of feet apart reflect our bodies as we look, but also the street and green mountains surrounding the museum.

Mary Lum, “Assembly (Lorem Ipsum)” (2017)

Outside, every day from dusk to 11:00pm, from now until the end of MASS MoCA’s biennial music festival Solid Sound in late June, is Jenny Holzer’s “For North Adams” projections across the length of Building 6. Formally, they’re beautiful: big block letters shimmer and shine through building’s windows, floating in the air. Projections break on power lines and fences, words move slowly as viewers read them, and what strikes the viewer is how difficult, graphic, and unrelenting the words are:

DURING THE DAY I BRING THEM BEDPANS, WASH THEM CLEAN OF FECES.

THE CHILD IS TWO MONTHS OLD. THE DOCTOR SAYS: WITHOUT MILK, THE CHILD WILL DIE.

Holzer selected poems by Anna Świrszczyńska (translated by Piotr Florczyk) and other poets, as well as accounts of refugees during wartime given to Save the Children and Human Rights Watch. The words shine brightly and are gorgeous, but move us to awe, then fear, and at times disgust.

Jenny Holzer, “For North Adams” (2017)

These are just some highlights from the sprawling installations at MASS MoCA’s Building 6, which range from big-name artists and recognizable works to more unexpected ones, like the exhibition Gunnar Schonbeck: No Experience Required, which houses the former Bennington College professor’s collection of handmade instruments, which anyone is invited to use. It seems that MASS MoCA’s Building 6, which happens to be the shape and size of a very large freighter, will only help the museum to surge forward with its goals of play and experimentation.

Installation view of Gunnar Schonbeck: No Experience Required
Nick Cave’s “Soundsuit” performance, choreographed by Sandra Burton
Nick Cave’s “Soundsuit” performance, choreographed by Sandra Burton
Visitors engaging with Laurie Anderson’s “The Handphone Table” (1978), which uses bone conduction to have sound and songs travel through visitors’ arms and into their cupped ears.

Building 6 at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) (1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams, Massachusetts) opened May 28. Visit the museum’s website for more info. 

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