Annie Lennox's dreamscape finds a home at Mass MoCA
NORTH ADAMS — Inside a glass case resting on a large earthen mound, a folded piece of paper bears the opening lines to Eurythmics' most famous song.
"Sweet dreams are made of this," the handwritten note begins.
The scrawled chorus is easy to miss, and not just because it is one of the hundreds of artifacts positioned within Annie Lennox's new art installation at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. A pig figurine sits in front of the lyrics to "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," partially obscuring them and embodying the interplay between real and unreal in the Building 4 show.
"One day I was over there, on the earth, and I went, 'Oh my God, I know what I'm doing now.' It's a dreamscape," Lennox told The Eagle during an interview in the exhibition space. "It's 'sweet dreams are made of this,' but it's in another form."
For four-plus decades, Lennox's music and activism have been her defining pursuits, but the installation "Now I Let You Go ... " represents the Eurythmics member's interest in visual art, a passion she began developing during her youth in Scotland. In the exhibit, she conveys her life's influences and experiences, as well as the surreal, through personal objects that she dug into a mound and its trail. A room with Lennox's most successful records and a video with hours of footage from her career bookend the work. On Friday, one day before she was to perform in Mass MoCA's Hunter Center and open her art show, Lennox also released a new EP of instrumental piano tracks to accompany her installation.
"It sets a tone which is very introspective and tranquil and contemplative," she said of "Lepidoptera." "It allows the people that come into this room to feel quite different. It's not stimulating in any way. It's just really soothing."
The songs were initially tied to "The House of Annie Lennox," an exhibition of Lennox's costumes, photos and videos, among other items, that debuted in 2011 at London's Victoria and Albert Museum. She didn't record the album's tracks, however, until years later. Lennox used to call the suite "Butterfly Music"; she opted for the more formal reference this time to inspire curiosity.
"It's ambient music, so it's here and then it's gone. I'm playing these notes, and it's like, 'What am I going to do next? I don't even know.' It's a pause, like a butterfly would pause," she said, later adding that the tracks are the "antithesis of anything I've ever done."
In the late 1970s, Lennox rose to prominence as a singer for The Tourists. Her stature further climbed when she and fellow Tourists member David A. Stewart formed Grammy Award-winning Eurythmics in 1980. Three years later, "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, propelling the duo to the fore of new wave and British pop. After producing several more hits throughout the 1980s, Eurythmics took a break, leading Lennox to drop her first solo record, "Diva," in 1992. The album featured "Walking on Broken Glass" and went platinum. Her next two did, too. A three-walled "trophy room" in the show is filled with her gold and platinum records.
"I've kept all of these discs, but they've just been in boxes. What do you do with these things?" Lennox said.
The 64-year-old stressed that the glittering room isn't a means to boast about her life's accomplishments. Instead, it's a mechanism for contrast. The side of the mound closest to Lennox's accolades is bare. On a wall between them, an exhibition description includes the quotation, "Naked I came into this world, and naked I shall leave."
"We are impermanent," Lennox said.
Conversely, we also leave things behind. The artist's work is a testament to this paradox. For example, a piano balances on top of the mound.
"That was the starting point of all my musical training," Lennox said.
Born in Aberdeen, Scotland, Lennox studied at London's Royal Academy of Music. She came from a working-class family.
"I had this notion of a huge mountain to climb, and I didn't know if I would ever even make the first step towards whatever I was aspiring to achieve. Money was never my motivation. It was never the motivator. Music was the motivator," Lennox said.
Downhill from the piano, a sound board and discs are tucked into the earth. Cables surround the base, calling a studio to mind.
"They're like tree roots in a funny sort of way," Lennox said.
Next to the mound's musical section, some items from Lennox's travels will grab museumgoers' attention, including a skull and a Mexican mask. A less eye-popping but more poignant piece is a Nelson Mandela T-shirt. It evokes Lennox's participation in "46664" benefit concerts in South Africa and her work with The SING Campaign, which she founded in 2007 to help combat HIV and AIDS. Lennox has continued to use her platform over the years to promote humanitarian causes. Global feminism is a focus for her.
"I've witnessed for myself how girls and women are extremely disempowered throughout the world. Gender-based violence is played out everywhere — in New York, in Nairobi. It is endemic at a global level," Lennox told Keely Weiss of Harper's Bazaar recently.
Lennox has two daughters, Lola and Tali, whose items were some of the most difficult to give to the exhibit, according to Lennox. For instance, their shoes, many of which are tiny, form a trail down the back end of the mound, approaching a video of their mother that is projected on a wall and slowed to one-quarter speed.
"One day, when they were old enough, I mean just on the cusp of becoming young teenagers, I kind of quietly went into a room in the house and laid every pair down from the smallest gradation up to the biggest ones that they had," Lennox recalled. "And, I said to them, 'Come downstairs and have a look at this.' And they were like, 'What the heck? What is this? What is this?' ... And I said, 'It's your shoes! It's all your shoes! I've kept them.'"
They asked her why.
"I said, 'You'll see! You'll see!' This is really interesting because there's a reason why I've kept these. I cannot let them go. I cannot let them go. And here, it makes total sense," she said.
Lennox first visited Mass MoCA after receiving an honorary degree from Williams College in 2013. Her brother-in-law connected her to Mass MoCA Director Joe Thompson, who walked her around the museum.
"I was blown away by this place. It's just one of the most remarkable places I've ever been to," Lennox said.
Thompson supported her installation concept. On Wednesday, Lennox was taking in the finished product that will be on view well into the first half of 2020. (The exact closing date is still being finalized.)
"Nobody's really seen it yet," she said.
She doesn't know where her personal items will go from North Adams. For now, she just hopes that her work sparks some measure of reflection from its viewers.
"I think that's important to me," she said. "I don't want to prescribe what it is, but I do want people to come away from this feeling that they've been moved and shifted in some way and that, also, I've created a space where you can become retrospective and introspective."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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