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Long time gone: Bas Jan Ader’s In Search of the Miraculous.

Reality Is Relative


By Meisha Rosenberg

The Believers

Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams, Mass., through Spring 2008

Throughout human history, art has expressed deeply held beliefs. The Paleolithic Venus of Willendorf, Buddhist statues, Renaissance Madonnas, and the surrealists’ embrace of the subconscious—all reflect belief in gods, in human dignity, or in creativity itself.

In The Believers, curated by Liz Thomas and Nato Thompson at North Adams’ Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, a group of 13 contemporary artists—some outsiders and others acclaimed, some recent work and some decades old—explore the outer limits of belief. The result is provocative, if erratic. Belief survives, but it’s in tatters and was last seen hitchhiking on a freeway in California.

Case in point are Bas Jan Ader’s photographs, in which the lone artist wanders nighttime noir streetscapes. The first works one encounters in the exhibition, the photos are from his larger project In Search of the Miraculous. In 1975, while engaged on this project, Ader left to cross the Atlantic on a 13-foot sailboat and disappeared forever.

Which brings up a question: Are all the artists in this exhibition stark raving mad? The explanatory text states, “The Believers isn’t about ‘belief’ per se, but rather about the believers themselves, whose deeply held personal truths fly in the face of skepticism, irony, and often, reason.” In other words: mad as hatters.

But as co-curator Liz Thomas explained, “While we may not go as far in our thinking as they will, there is something endlessly fascinating to me, and I think others, about individuals’ capacities to make the leap from the known to the unknown in any realm.” At their best, these artists, who are split personalities and channelers of divine energies, make us realize that “normal” is an extremely relative term. Who, for example, is crazier: the artist who made beautifully intricate “healing machines” (Emery Blagdon, a former hobo whose wonderful Rocket Ship and Untitled #23 are on display), or the bureaucrats who have made an ugly mess of health care in this country?

If it’s crazy to admire Theo Jansen for using PVC conduit, plastic bottles, and technology to make flying machines that wriggle and flap to life like giant dragons, then you can count me in. One of his magnificent Strandbeest (or beach animals), about 30 feet long, sits on its own stretch of sand at MASS MoCA. A video documents other delightful Strandbeest and a flying saucer he released over the town of Delft.

While some artists test beliefs through technology, others express their beliefs with color and typography. Sister Mary Corita (whose work was done in the ’60s and ’70s) created pop-art style serigraphs that express humanitarian ideals. Others use the body as the testing ground of belief: In a room bearing a warning for adult material, viewers witness the plastic surgery of Breyer P-Orridge, two individuals becoming one. Photographic prints on Plexiglas document the resulting bruising and cuts as flesh merges. Taxidermied coyote heads on black columns and small framed icons invoke a darkly (if kitschy) spiritual space for these painful transformations. The part of the pair named Genesis (formerly Neil Andrew Megson) was one of the prime movers of industrial music, having cofounded art/music group COUM Transmissions in England in the late 1960s.

One of the most compelling proponents of the idea that identity is a subjective construct is CarianaCarianne, an artist visually and legally invested in the reality of being two people sharing one body. In preparation for her (their) poetically lucid video Oaths of Signature (2005), the artists became notary publics so they could witness each other’s signatures. CarianaCarianne pledges, “I will not use my hand to authorize any laws contrary to the laws of humanity.” Sharing a body turns out to be excellent practice for nonviolence. CarianaCarianne’s art has much to say about political boundaries: Diagrams on Mylar in Drawing and Being Drawn (2004-07) look as though they’ve been ripped out of the pages of an engineering manual but show “apparatus for dismantling domination” and “reinserting REM sleep footage into future dreams.”

The exhibition suffers when artists’ preoccupations become solipsism, or when works aren’t contextualized enough, as with those by the Icelandic Love Corporation. They promise to “break down the barriers between artist and spectator,” but a random grouping of photos and installations fails to enlighten. The Finnish Erkki Kurenniemi, an inventor at the forefront of the electronic-music movement, is represented by a couple of obscure videos and ephemera (some of which supposedly relates to his most recent project: becoming immortal through digital virtuality). It doesn’t help that many of the rooms are dark and that there is little explanatory wall text (be sure to grab an exhibition guide).

Also, it seems surprising that the curators didn’t find any artist who confronts religious fundamentalism—a topic so near and dear (unfortunately) these days. Plan B: Geodesic Den and Dymaxion Projections, by Fritz Haeg and Yoshua Okón, comes close to examining such social issues. Taking up half of a huge room, the project collects historical utopian and dystopian visions in a den where visitors can create their own. But visitors have to sift through too much information on video and in binders inside a dark tent.

Nonetheless, The Believers has many high points. If it’s true that belief determines reality, as many of these artists hope (or fear), we have a lot to learn from their daring.


-no peripheral vision this week-


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