Denise Markonish: A curator's perspective

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I think about music as much as I think about art.

This started when my two older brothers introduced me (at an inappropriately early age) to The Clash, The Ramones, and the Talking Heads. I also started listening to A Tribe Called Quest, Madonna, and The Smiths (to their chagrin), while exploring art museums around Boston.

And, last year in the exhibition called "Explode Every Day: An Inquiry into the Phenomena of Wonder," I showed Fred Tomaselli's drawing "All the Bands I Can Remember Seeing" (1990), which prompted me to make a list of my own, reaching into the 2000s, from PJ Harvey to Milli Vanilli.

Clearly, my interest in how music and art intertwine has been formative.

The convergence between visual and performing art drew me to Mass MoCA when it opened in 1999 (the Prince song coincidence is not lost on me). I was astounded that a museum, in my home state, was producing cutting-edge contemporary art and staging performances by David Byrne, Patti Smith and Laurie Anderson. Now, 18 years after we opened and 10 years after I became curator here, these three artists have gained particular significance for me.

"Nick Cave: Until" provided me the unique opportunity to collaborate with my performing arts colleagues. It is important to Cave that his exhibition function as a platform for performers, whose responses to Cave's prompt have been incredible.

Bill T. Jones, Helga Davis, and Okwui Okpokwasili have already performed in this immersive environment, while this afternoon at Mass MoCA there will be a "Soundsuit" performance choreographed by Sandra Burton. Throughout the summer, Carl Hancock Rux, Nona Hendryx, and Cave himself also will perform. Additionally, the exhibition catalogue features an insightful essay by David Byrne about gun control. This year of collaboration has been a perfect synthesis of Mass MoCA's mission to create new work around visual and performing arts.

Patti Smith, who first performed here in 2000, has a presence in the museum yet again, via Joe Wardwell's 150-foot Building 6 wall mural "Hello America: 40 Hits from the 50 States." I met Wardwell in 2001 (introduced by current exhibiting artist Tanja Hollander). His early paintings were mash-ups of rococo and rock 'n' roll, and more recently he has explored the intersection of landscape and language.

For "Hello America," Wardwell's work begins with a silhouette of bare trees in the Berkshires, atop of which he placed lyrics from punk band Mission of Burma (written by Roger Clark Miller, a member of Alloy Orchestra, which will perform at Mass MoCA's 2017 Solid Sound Festival). This text is camouflaged by smaller screen-printed texts from thinkers such as Anne Sexton, Jello Biafra, Hunter S. Thompson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Henry Rollins, Maya Angelou, and Patti Smith.

Lastly, I first met Laurie Anderson in 2010 when she was at Mass MoCA working in the performance "Delusion." I gave Anderson, Lou Reed, and their dog, Lolabelle, a tour of the museum (which won me major kid-sister cool points with my brothers), including the unrenovated Building 6. We knew this space would be the next expansion and were interested in involving Anderson.

Back then, Joe Thompson, Mass MoCA's director, asked me: "What would a museum of Laurie Anderson's voice look like?"

I was immediately intrigued.

From that visit to the present, I have worked with Anderson to realize this prompt, creating a space where she can dream big, whether in the galleries or the recording studio we built for her. It has been enlightening to get to know Anderson's visual art better — a rich trove equaling her contributions in music and performance. Since she too was an early visitor of Building 6, it is only fitting that alongside virtual reality installations and binaural listening stations, these galleries feature Lolabelle (who passed away in 2011) in Anderson's large-scale gestural drawings.

Anderson will work with us over time to stage visual and performing arts events, allowing me to collaborate further with my performing arts colleagues.

I am also excited that right next to Anderson in Building 6 are the whimsically handmade instruments of Gunnar Schonbeck (1947-2008), a project curated by Bang on a Can All Star Mark Stewart. Or that one floor below, as part of the exchange with The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Residency, artist and musician Lonnie Holley exhibits a sculpture made of broken instruments, and will perform at the museum in the next year.

Mass MoCA, as promised to me even prior to my working here, continues to be a place to look and listen to art.

Denise Markonish is a curator at Mass MoCA.


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