time gone: Bas Jan Ader’s In Search of the Miraculous.
By Meisha Rosenberg
Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams, Mass., through Spring
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
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
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
peripheral vision this week-