NORTH ADAMS, Massachusetts — To look back at the news from last October, when Liz Glynn’s show opened at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, is to be stunned by how much has come at us and how quickly. During that first week of October 2017, a concert in Las Vegas became the site of the worst mass shooting in US history. Revelations about Harvey Weinstein kicked the #MeToo reckoning to another level. And the president dedicated a golf trophy to hurricane victims, many of whom, to this day, do not have clean water or electricity.
In the eleven months since, the constant barrage of terrible and stupid news has only continued, with each new crisis demanding some kind of response. We were already well into this new normal when I first walked through Glynn’s five-part exhibition, titled The Archaeology of Another Possible Future, spread out in the museum’s 30,000-square-foot former factory space. Through its tactile, interactive installations — including cave-like wooden pyramids, shipping containers, elevated metal walkways, and 3D printers — the show is a trip through big ideas about how, through our senses and our work, we engage with an increasingly automatized and digitized reality. But at first, I admit, I also found it almost too cool and bloodless for the moment.
The show begins with three pyramid-like structures built from reclaimed forklift pallets. Each is dedicated to a different sensory experience. The first cave, called “TOUCH,” features hanging stalactites and piles of industrial felt you can touch. The second, “SMELL”, is filled with handmade ceramic vases with aromatics you can smell. The third, “SOUND”, features turntables and tape recorders where you can listen to people telling their stories. These interactive sculptures are designed to get you to reacquaint yourself with the material world — to think with your body in a disembodied society.
From there, the show abruptly shifts gear into the cerebral with a series of abstract sculptures intended to visualize various economic theories of progress. Here you may be lost if you aren’t holding the booklet of small type that explains what the sculptures are about: according to the text, for example, a pile of scrap metal is an illustration of Joseph Schumpeter’s idea of creative destruction.
The next step is a series of three shipping containers — those enormous, room-sized metal boxes that get stacked on ships and are the essential vessels of the global economy. Each tells a story. Inside one container — if you come at the right time — Tony Pisano, a local handyman who once worked as a machinist in a local factory, will talk with you about different projects he’s interested in, like repairing a microwave. Another is papered with Glynn’s careful drawings of various failed and obsolete inventions from abandoned patent applications. The third is a dark space featuring a video of ghostly figures of factory workers vanishing into the fog, while another video plays a news crawl about the Y2K panic, when everyone feared the world’s computers might die but they didn’t. It implies that these real and imagined fears have an actual reality, even if lost in the urgency of now.
The show takes a turn up in the last segment, titled “The Age of Ephemeralization”. A dystopian vision of the fully-automated factory of the future, the installation features a network of three scaffolding towers, each of which hosts a 3D printer that all day slowly churns out models of building supplies and miniature artificial body parts, like knees and elbows. The towers are connected by a system of elevated walkways, suspended 18 feet above the gallery floor, and are designed to disorient: the walkway is rigged to have a certain bounce and flimsiness, with the sound of your steps clattered, distorted, and amplified by hidden microphones and speakers.
Spread out on the floor beneath you are hospital stretchers-cum-lounge chairs under UV tanning lights — a wry vision called “Post-Industrial Vacationland (after Aldous Huxley)”, inspired in part by Huxley’s prediction that humans would become bored and depressed after machines took their jobs.
On her website, Glynn writes that the show is about “what happens to stuff, and the people who make stuff, in an age of increasingly ephemeral value and ever accelerating technological change.” It is about how to identify what is valuable in the here and now, and uniquely suited to a museum repurposed out of an old factory.
The first few times I saw the exhibit, I thought it didn’t capture the right tone for 2017 and 2018, having been conceived three years earlier, in the late Obama years. It is a quiet show that takes some thinking to access, and it doesn’t seem to take a stand about the themes it explores. It felt like a luxury to spend time on these existential meditations when there are so many immediate crises demanding attention every day. And surely part of my response may have to do with the work that filled the Building 5 space before. Nick Cave’s Until was preternaturally of the moment, an eye-popping commentary on gun violence and the endurance of racism, with a room full of hanging wind-catchers and an intricately designed cloud-scape you had to climb steps to see. It was a work that was almost perfectly timed for when it was needed most, and it was designed to get you to whip out your phone and post about it.
Glynn’s work does the opposite — it encourages you to turn off your phone and shut out the stream of the outside world. All the awful news will still be there and keep coming — about thousands of children torn from their parents, about the ideological balance of the Supreme Court, about the inevitable next mass shooting in America. Any possible future would likely be an improvement, and there is real value in taking a moment to reset before carrying on.
Liz Glynn’s The Archeology of Another Possible Future will be on display at Mass MoCA (1040 MASS MoCA WAY, North Adams, MA) through December 2018.