Redefining the arts experience


Friday, Dec. 11


The house comes into view at a distance -- a white cube, columned and pristine -- its glass walls revealing a modernistic interior.

No one is at home, but on approach, something looks amiss. The interior is upside down: The floor is the ceiling; the ceiling the floor on which the furniture rests upended. A coffee cup, dropped, lies broken on the ceiling,

Inside, we hear voices, video phone messages, increasingly urgent. But they offer no clue as to what's happened. We have arrived too late, or maybe too early, but not in time to know.

That is the situation viewers confront in Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle's sculpture/video installation "Gravity is a Force to be Reckoned With," opening at Mass MoCA this weekend.

It's about ambiguity in cause and effect, about endings that are not really endings, and about a sense of powerlessness in the face of global events over which we seem to have no control.

"We're in a moment when we cannot necessarily grasp a way to respond to events that seem to be out of our hands, even though we might be the true cause of those events," Manglano-Ovalle said, during a break from installing the piece last week.

He was drawing a parallel with situations like the response to 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, global warming and the economic crisis.

"We have a direct role in each of these events," he said. "We can make real connections to them, but they seem beyond us -- not to remedy, but to just really respond to. And so we just hover in this state. That is something this piece addresses."

Based on a 1951 design for mass housing by the architect Ludwig Mies van de Rohe (1886-1969), a founder of the modernist movement, the glass house at MoCA is a scaled down version of the Mies prototype, that, in fact, was never built.

Manglano-Ovalle, whose other installations have included:

n A bull ring near the Mexican border converted into a radio telescope designed to seek out aliens (or illegal immigrants).

n "Phantom Truck," a vehicle meant to carry weapons of mass destruction.

n A bank of digital video projections created by weather data.

said he originally intended the glass house to be placed in the plaza of the Seagram Building in New York, an iconic Mies landmark, but "the funder reneged."

He got a second chance when MoCA curator Denise Markonish heard him speak at his alma mater Williams College two years ago and invited him make a proposal.

"I've known his work for about 10 years," she said, "and when I came to MoCA I had it in my head that he was someone I wanted to work with."

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They talked about the glass house.

"He's wanted to do it for a long time," she said, "and we were the ones who could make it happen.

Manglano-Ovalle studied architectural theory and criticism at Williams, from which he graduated in 1983, and at the Art Institute of Chicago. He worked with engineers from the architectural firm Skidmore Owens Merrill to develop the Mies glass house plan. But he makes it clear that despite his background in architecture and his recourse to engineering, he is a sculptor, not an architect. And he expects viewers to see his work as art, not as shelter.

Gravity, as it's used in the title, can mean both a physical force and a solemn emotion or state of being, says Markonish. Both are at play in the MoCA piece.

Also at play are a number of "back stories," as Manglano-Ovalle and Markonish call them. But viewers needn't understand or even be aware of them to respond the piece, both said.

They will be outlined in texts available at the museum and referenced in Manglano-Ovalle's 2006 video "Always After (The Glass House)" that will be screened in a nearby gallery.

The video was shot in Mies' 1950 Crown Hall on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus in Chicago.

The building was renovated in 2005 and a lottery was held to determine who would get to break the old windows with a gilded sledgehammer. Mies's grandson won the honor.

In the video, Manglano-Ovalle shows a broom endlessly sweeping glass debris. As with the inverted glass house, the viewer is left not knowing what happened or how the situation will end.

Other back stories link Mies, Russian author Yevgeny Zamya-tin (1884-1937), and Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948).

Mies, who later became known for his glass-walled buildings, came up with a concept for a glass skyscraper in 1921, the same year Zamyatin wrote a science-fiction novel called "We," about a futuristic society inhabiting a Utopian glass environment that leaves its citizens always on view.

The novel's protagonist lives his life numbed by constant surveillance until he meets a revolutionary, who convinces him that he can tear the walls down. He does and the unleashing of his imagination turns his world (physically and emotionally) upside down, Markonish said, just as the glass house at MoCA is turned upside down.

The book was banned in Russia.

Eisenstein, who is believed to have read "We" and seen Mies's 1921 skyscraper drawing, sketch-ed out a concept for a film in Hollywood in 1930 called "The Glass House." Seen as a cultural satire of the United States, it was to have been set in a house made of glass.

It never got made.

Markonish said over the next months Manglano-Ovalle will create his own video, based on Eisenstein's film concept, using the inverted glass house at MoCA as its setting.

In that sense, she said, the glass house project doesn't end at MoCA but goes on in another form -- video.

Through all this, Markonish says Manglano-Ovalle is looking at ideas of failed Utopias and esthetic movements like modernism and asking how we can know when or if they are ever complete, or if one revolution simply anticipates the next.

To reach Charles Bonenti: (413) 496 6211


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