My crazy drive from the Kripalu Yoga Center to Boston on Friday was a little crazier than I let on--or rather, crazy by choice. When I had arrived in the Berkshires on Wednesday, I'd experienced an incredible rush of nostalgia for my days at the Millay Colony in upstate New York--the September 2006 residency where I wrote many of the poems that would appear in Theories of Falling. Though I remembered daytripping to Great Barrington during my stay in Austerlitz, I hadn't put 2 + 2 together that Lenox, Lee, and all the other little Massachusetts towns are just minutes down the road.
I miss those days of blind energy. I wasn't on book tour, back then; I didn't have a book to tour with. I was just a girl getting lost in the mountains by day, writing poems by night, not sure where it was all going. So I decided to drive out to see MASS MoCA, one trip I'd never made in my Millay days (though some of the other artists had gone and loved it). And I promised myself that if I saw anywhere I wanted to stop along the way, I would.
Random lake surrounded by fire-crowned trees? Yep.
Random roadside truck full of fall produce? Yep.
I talked with this guy for a bit; he happily elaborated on which gourds were for decoration, which for eating. I thought back to the pumpkins I've had over the years, from fat generic guys we'd pick out as a family--I'd hunt for perfect symmetry--to an albino "ghost" pumpkin I carved on the floor of my Brown College dorm (which smelled of pumpkin guts for the rest of the fall), to the mini guys my mother gave me when I had my first DC apartment and no doorstep to set a pumpkin out upon. One bright orange kind I would have gotten had he not told me it was actually a squash. He'd heard people who kept that particular variety on display for three, four weeks, then went ahead and cooked them. That sounded weird to him.
The one thing he doesn't do, he told me, is travel.
While the pumpkin farmer may not travel, his pumpkin got to ride with me all the way over to Boston, then back to DC. I'll be on the road on October 31 proper this year: making my back from Mississippi in time for a visit to the FDA on November 1, then hopping on a train to speak at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia on November 2. So when I saw my sister last night (she got us front & center tickets to hear David Sedaris read! he was funny! she is awesome!) I entrusted this guy to her care and safekeeping.
When I got to MASS MoCa I discovered it was a quirky complex of 19th-century mill buildings. It opened in 1986 after having operated for 40 years as the home of the Sprague Electric Company, which did everything from design some of the early at-home music players to contribute technology to building the atom bomb in World War II. They've has done a nice job juxtaposing the original materials--exposed brick and iron--with surreal contemporary pieces such as this black-blob structure by Federico Diaz that crawls along the exterior. This is "Geometric Death Frequency-141."
I suspect the changing exhibitions are chosen in part for their ability to occupy the museum's vast spaces. This installation by German artist Katharina Grosse, "One Floor Up More Highly," fills a room the length of a football stadium. Since the piece comes down at the end of the month, I was lucky to catch it--it has been widely celebrated, and holds the distinction of having been pictured on the cover of both ArtForum and Sculpture Magazine. The porcelain surface glow of the carved styrofoam was great--as if icebergs, or a scene from the set of Superman. I thought the mixing in of cloth swathes among the rubble was intriguing. I'd be lying if I said I had an emotional response to the work. Still, I appreciated the spectacle.
In contrast, I loved a series by Nari Ward exhibited as "Sub Mirage Lignum." "Sub," as in both "underneath" and "in substitution for"; "mirage," as in false or fleeting images produced by desire, refraction, a trick of the light; "lignum," which MASS MoCA pointed out is a shorthand for Lignum Vitae, "a tree whose bloom is the national flower of Jamaica." To put it another way: Ward is an alchemist of discarded objects.
Approached from the mouth, "Nu Collossus"--which takes its form from a traditional woven fishtrap--is a gaping maw, swallowing up bits of weathered furniture and farm equipment. It feels like a mid-turn tornado, laid upon its side. But from the other end you can appreciate the grace and even delicacy of the shape; in this way I found myself thinking of Martin Puryear, one of my favorite sculptors to work with wood.
The other piece I connected with was in the "Memery" exhibit on "Imitation, Memory, and Internet Culture," which was housed in a space often given to up-and-coming artists. Penelope Umbrico, a Brooklyn artist, first assembled a matrix of photographs she calls "Suns From Flickr (2006-2007)." The piece quickly spawned a secondary phenomenon: people taking snapshots with the wall of irresistible sunsets, then posting those images on the web. So here you have it: "People with Suns From Flickr."
And, since the inspiring piece (I was going to write "original piece" but that isn't quite right) was on the adjacent wall, here is my contribution.
It wasn't until I was leaving that I registered that the blaze of orange leaves I'd taken for granted on my way in were not growing up from the ground but rather, suspended from the air. This is called "Tree Logic" by Natalie Jeremijenko.
I got back on the road and discovered Route 2, which I needed to connect to Boston, was closed. I'd have to go back the way I came. It started to rain. It started to rain harder. It had gotten late enough in the day that the mountain roads began to be crowded with school buses, which then stopped every 100 feet. That's the thing about sidetrips: you can turn the handle on the jack-in-the-box but you never know just how high he's gonna leap when the lid comes off. You just have to go with it. And I did.