Alexandra Foradas: A curator's perspective

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When the three curators at Mass MoCA were planning the artwork that would be installed in the museum's new expansion, each of us decided to commission a new wall-based work of art.

We didn't request specific content from the three artists we selected, but offered them the opportunity to make something new, and the space and time to do it. So, it was a surprise when all three of them, independently, chose to make works that use text and typography as a way of examining language and how we use it to communicate.

The questions of who has access to a text's meaning, and of who is able to make their words seen and heard, links many of the installations in the new galleries. After the building opens to the public today, you'll see not only the three wall works (by Janice Kerbel, Mary Lum, and Joe Wardwell) but also works by Jenny Holzer and Laurie Anderson, among others, which deal intimately with language and text.

Language is a tricky tool: It's fundamental to how we communicate with one another, but it also shapes and mediates those interactions. The accidents of rhyming, for example, are the basis of much poetry, leading generations of pining Anglophone poets to compare the voice of their love to the cooing of a dove.

Janice Kerbel's "Slip" is a dryly comedic take on verse, describing death by banana peel: "heel on peel to seal the deal / feet to sky life slips by." In her work's Building 6 space, black hand-painted letters — visible from outside on River Street — slide upward across more than 80 feet of wall space, before tumbling downward in a heap.

"Slip" is not only a poem, but also a visual score for a song. Visual scores — which have been used by composers and musicians from John Cage to Brian Eno — encourage potential performers to interpret the shapes on a page (whether a drawing or letters) rather than notes and rests on staves, making reading music accessible to a larger public. "Slip" invites us to imagine how its song might sound, filling in the gaps of what the text's shape and language are able to convey.

One floor below "Slip," Joe Wardwell's brightly-hued "Hello America: 40 Hits from the 50 States" layers silhouetted Berkshire treetops with lyrics from popular songs.

In three-foot letters, we read "Fame and fortune is a stupid game / Fame and fortune is the game I play."

The work's title, "Hello America," is a reference to J.G. Ballard's postapocalyptic novel of the same name, in which a tyrant (ruling what is left of America from Las Vegas) urges his followers to help him "make America great again." Wardwell was interested in the way that words like these — heard in new contexts, at new moments in time — can take on new meaning.

In his installation, politicians' pronouncements appear alongside writings by poets and musicians (40 silkscreened texts, for the "top 40" music chart). The texts appear anonymously, giving equal space to the words of underground performers and household names, implicitly asking: How does fame impact whether — and how loudly — someone's voice is heard?

The questions of whose words are read — and by whom — can feel particularly complicated in contemporary American culture, where our Twitter feeds combine pithy missives from celebrities, up-to-the-minute news reports, and friends live-tweeting this week's episode of "Homeland."

Mary Lum's "Assembly (Lorem Ipsum)" takes on the jumbled nature of contemporary communication, where the important appears alongside the inconsequential. Selections from "lorem ipsum," a filler text used by graphic designers, are combined with sections from the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of the press. The fragmented letters seem to shiver between legibility and obscurity, making it difficult to follow the thread of a word or phrase.

At the heart of "Assembly (Lorem Ipsum)" is the difficulty of accurately communicating and receiving meaning using language, an issue that Jenny Holzer and Laurie Anderson grapple with in their own installations on the third floor.

Holzer's large-scale installation of silkscreens draws its content from documents released via the Freedom of Information Act. Some documents are so heavily redacted that they resemble abstract drawings, rather than pages of text, seeming — like "Slip" — to invite us to fill in the gaps. Across a lightwell, a small projection by Laurie Anderson — the size and shape of a piece of computer paper — hovers near the edge of the wall. The "page" shimmers at the edge of readability: at any moment, it might resolve itself, and reveal its secrets to the lucky (and patient!) observer.

As these works have been installed over the past six months, the ways that they have begun to speak to one another, and the questions that they ask — about legibility, and access to language and communication — have never felt more timely.

Alexandra Foradas is the associate curator at Mass MoCA.


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