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In the galleries Building 4 Through Spring 2004

In the fantastic, things could go either way. Poised between the possible and impossible, the fantastic is a destabilizing pause in the plausible, a moment for our utopian dreams and dystopian fears to acquire form.

Fantastic features two major bodies of work by Gregory Crewdson, Twilight and Hover, and new works by Miguel Calderón, Nils Norman, Alicia Framis, and Temporary Services and Angelo. This imagery, populated by alien lights, levitating hippies, and utopian schemes, teeter in the fantastic moment, beguiling us to linger there with them on the precipitous cusp of possibility. Philosopher Walter Benjamin believed that meaningful social transformation required these disorienting moments just beyond the real: In his view, the fantastic is a powerful tool for preconceiving – and reordering – our world.

Since the early 19th century, MASS MoCA’s region – from Maine to New York – has sheltered utopian experiments with fantastic overtones. Fantastic thus begins with the Threshold of Wonder, a small cabinet of curiosities culled from this local history that offers a preamble to the exhibition itself. Whether escaping from reality or creating a new one, the enterprising visionaries, utopians, and philosophers at the heart of this region’s utopian experiments – from Brook Farm to the Shakers – prove Benjamin’s point: the fantastic, in art and life, is the springboard to utopia.

Fantastic is supported in part by grants from: the Artists’ Resource Trust, a fund of the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation; Mondriaan Foundation, Amsterdam, and the Netherlands Culture Fund of the Dutch Ministries for Foreign Affairs and Education, Culture and Science; Holly Angell Hardman; and the British Council.

Miguel Calderón

Born 1971 in Mexico, lives in Mexico City.

Quantum Physics (2003)

Six sleeping bags float magically in a makeshift mid-air campsite. Ponytails and dreadlocks dangle from the bags: there are hippies in those floating cocoons! The floating hippies are attached like so many balloons by a winding black tube from what seem to be tanks full of helium (or perhaps nitrous oxide.) Levitating above the ground, these snoozing figures embody the timeless desire to escape Earth’s gravity.

In Quantum Physics (2003) [image left, top], commissioned by MASS MoCA for Fantastic, Mexican artist Miguel Calderón rereads a chapter of utopian history. Hovering in front of a large freezer full of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream – as if ratty-haired children in Willy Wonka’s playhouse – the drowsing hippies might be dreaming of an endless supply of a very special ice cream – an ice cream dedicated to their recently deceased hippy hero Jerry Garcia. Yet a twisted commercial irony casts a spell over this haze of happiness, as blissful hippie revery is reduced to an ice cream flavor. As the irony takes hold, the hovering mystery of the sleeping bags once again captivates our imagination. Quantum Physics conveys a sense of levity and boyish humor even as it sticks its finger in the ribs of a consumer culture powerful enough to subsume communal ideals.

In the adjacent gallery, Calderón’s video Inverted Star (1999) [image left, bottom] moves from the cloud-filled skies of utopia to the fire and brimstone of hell itself. In 1999, Calderón placed a classified ad in a Mexico City newspaper seeking people who believed they were possessed by the devil. “Are you possessed?” the ad read. It did not take long for Calderón to find the “stars” of his project. He went to their homes and documented the strange behavior of the self-professed possessed. The title Inverted Star refers to the upside-down pentagram often associated with Satanism, but as in all of Calderón’s work, there is a more complex narrative beneath the prankish humor. In Calderón’s irreverent oeuvre, fact is always stranger than fiction. It is not the possession that is so striking about Inverted Star, but possibly the lengths to which people will go to become “stars” or to make a dollar. Beneath the sensationalism of the video is clear-eyed commentary on society’s rampant commercialism and sensationalist media.



Gregory Crewdson

Born in Brooklyn, lives in New York City.

Hover (1996-97) and Twilight (1998- )

Gregory Crewdson’s elaborately staged photographs capture the transitional moment between domestic order and natural disorder, the real and the surreal, the attractive and the repulsive. Through meticulous articulation of a wealth of mundane details, Crewdson imparts a mysterious pregnancy to his images of prosaic New England neighborhoods.

In the Hover series – shot in Lee, Massachusetts, between 1996 and 1997 – Crewdson experimented with black and white photographs shot outdoors from a high vantage point, giving them a strangely voyeuristic quality. (These photographs are installed between the Threshold of Wonder and the Tall Gallery.) In one photograph, a bear has wandered into the suburban landscape and overturned a garbage can. The authorities are on the scene, uncertain how to apprehend the bear, while neighbors marvel at the intrusion from the comfortable distance of their manicured lawns. Like the awestruck onlookers, we puzzle at this unresolved narrative.

In the Twilight series, begun in 1998, Crewdson shifts to moody color and eerie, beautiful lighting effects recalling Hollywood sci-fi films. As the title implies, these images vibrate in an evocative space between photographic precision and narrative obscurity. Ophelia [image left, top], for example, was created at MASS MoCA over a period of several days in the summer of 2001. The interior of an otherwise normal living room has become flooded with water. The protagonist of the picture, Ophelia, lies partially submerged, floating on her back and gazing outward, her attention (and body) adrift. This is no accident scene: her shoes remain on the stairs, a sign of strange premeditation. In Untitled (Pregnant woman/pool) (1999) [image left, bottom], a pregnant woman stands on her lawn in a kiddie pool while a beam of otherworldly light shines down on her from outside the frame. Alien intrusion pierces the scene of suburban alienation, a reference to the fantastic in an otherwise normal moment. Situated in humble settings filled with beat-up station wagons, overweight men, and children’s toys, Crewdson’s Twilight photographs evoke longing and wonder, with more than a little despair.

Crewdson’s intricate compositions require up to four weeks of planning on the part of the artist and many hours of set design and lighting with the help of more than 35 stagehands, electricians, gaffers, and actors. These elaborate techniques, coupled with powerfully suggestive scenes, have garnered Crewdson recognition as one of the major forces in narrative photography.



Nils Norman

Born 1967 in Kent, England, lives in London.

Kmart Model & Kmart Mural (2003), Geocruiser Mother Coach (2001)

What if the abandoned Kmart in North Adams were redesigned as a self-sustainable public info park to facilitate the exchange of new ideas? What if a motor coach, powered by vegetable oil and solar energy, featured a greenhouse and a library to promote discussions about alternative energy and experimental city design?

British-born artist Nils Norman asks such questions through his work, encouraging us to think about public spaces in new ways. Through computer-generated graphics and models often made of recycled materials, Norman expresses his far-reaching vision for more earth-friendly and community-oriented urban environments. During a recent visit to MASS MoCA, Norman saw the now-abandoned shell of Kmart as a perfect site to rethink urban design and economies. In his Kmart Model (2003) and Kmart Mural (2003) [image left, bottom], Norman replaced the roof with photovoltaic cells that transform solar power into hydrogen, which in turn meets the energy needs of the building and garden.

Inside the old Kmart shell, a town archive and community information center are now available to research and discuss local and global issues. Instead of Kmart’s vast asphalt parking lot, Norman envisions an edible permaculture park replete with community gardens, composting stations, and natural water filtration units. The plan both criticizes an economic model that promotes wasteful growth, and presents an alternative vision that advocates community interaction and the productive use of sustainable resources. Here is a contemporary urban restatement of many of the ideas inherent in the intentional communities of the 19th century.

The Geocruiser Mother Coach (2001) [image left, top] is a proposal for a mobile greenhouse with a library of utopian literature and a solar-powered Xerox machine that runs on biodiesel. The large bus would drive to different community gardens, art spaces and town meetings providing resources for communities to reshape their world. Emphasizing mobility, radical literature, sustainable energy, and civil liberties, Norman presents imaginative tools for the public to use.



Threshold of Wonder

The objects displayed in the introductory gallery document utopian experiments of the mid-19th century in the northeastern United States, including related subjects such as spiritualism, sexual reform, and even ballooning. More than just historic curiosities, these objects provide insight into the important – and sometimes bizarre – role the fantastic has played in American history. Taken together, the objects provide a sort of historic and geographic preamble to the imagery and ideas put forth by the contemporary artists in Fantastic.

Ballooning in North Adams, Massachusetts [image left, bottom]
On August 29, 1907, North Adams stole the title of “Ballooning Center of the East” from nearby Pittsfield when Leo Stevens and W.F. Whitehouse ascended in one balloon and Alan R. Hawley took flight simultaneously in another. Ballooning was often associated with flights of fantasy, embodying the human urge to break free from Earth itself. For example, in Edgar Allan Poe’s early science fiction classic Hans Phaall (1835), the protagonist escapes his earthly debt by traveling to the moon in a balloon. Though fixed-wing flight was still rarified technology, ballooning was within reach of a wider public, and cities such as North Adams competed to become leading centers of flight.

Brook Farm, West Roxbury, Massachusetts (1841–1846)
This cooperative community founded by George Ripley in 1841 was a shining, if short-lived, example of an alternative, equitable way of life, appealing to transcendentalists such as Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Amos Bronson Alcott. In 1843, Albert Brisbane convinced the community to apply the theories of French social philosopher Charles Fourier to Brook Farm. As a result, the community became known as the Brook Farm Phalanx, a Fourierist term used to describe his complex system for socioeconomic community harmony. In 1846, the central building of the community burned, ultimately leading to Brook Farm’s dissolution.

Fruitlands, Harvard, Massachusetts (1843–1844)
Inspired by Brook Farm, Bronson Alcott (1799-1888), Charles Lane (1800-1870), and twelve others founded Fruitlands as a place to live a perfected transcendentalist life. Fruitlands embraced the values of communitarianism, utopianism, vegetarianism, abstinence, and individualism. Before joining Fruitlands, Joseph Palmer – a radical individualist – was imprisoned, for example, for refusing to shave his beard. His prison notebooks are on display here.

In part because of its refusal to exploit animal labor, Fruitlands lasted only seven months. Alcott’s daughter, Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), went on to write Transcendental Wild Oats (1873), which depicted her life at Fruitlands, and the famous Little Women in 1868.

Modern Times, Suffolk County, New York (1843–1844)
Founded by America’s first anarchists, Stephen Pearl Andrews (1812-1886) and Josiah Warren (1798-1874), Modern Times experimented with radical individualism and an economy dependent solely on barter. Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president (in 1872), spent considerable time in this unique intentional community.

Oneida Community, Oneida, New York (1841–1881)
The philosophy underlying the Oneida community was known as perfectionism, developed by its founder John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886) who professed that God had returned to earth in 70 AD, and thus one should live as close to perfection as possible in the here and now. As part of this personal reform, in 1846 the community adopted the tenets of “Mutual Criticism,” “Complex Marriage,” and “Male Continence.” Their dedication to complex marriage – in which every man and woman was married to each other – caused an unsurprising stir among their religious neighbors and detractors. Oneida upheld an equality of the sexes, and the large female membership developed a reputation for their steel products (including silverware and animal traps) as well as their innovative “reform dress” (illustrated here) which preceded the more well-known bloomer dress by two years.

Shakers
The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming, more commonly known as Shakers, was first recorded in 1744 in Great Britain. The tenets of Shaker life were introduced to the United States in 1750 by Ann Lee, who became known as Mother Ann by her followers. Shakers practiced celibacy and a simple – if highly regimented – lifestyle, which included communal ownership of assets and intricately scheduled labor practices. The term “shakers” derives from their trembling or shaking from religious enthusiasm at their meetings. In the early 19th century, the Shaker way of life flourished – fueled in part by their finely crafted products and ingenious inventions – and by 1826 eighteen communities existed. The first was established in 1776 in Watervliet, New York. Other important Shaker communities were located in Pittsfield, Massachusetts (Hancock Shaker Village); Harvard, Massachusetts; Sabbathday Lake, Maine; and Canterbury, New Hampshire.

Spiritualism
In 1848, Margaret (1836–93) and Catherine Fox (1841–90) shocked the nation when they claimed to communicate with the dead through a series of rappings in their Arcadia, New York, home. Droves of curious visitors came to witness these spiritual transmissions, and soon the Fox sisters took their show on the road. So began America’s spiritualist movement, which by 1854 had claimed over one million followers. Prominent intellectuals and staunch utopians such as Victoria Woodhull, Robert Owens, Horace Greely, and Sojourner Truth publicly defended the spiritualist movement, and PT Barnum was so enamored of the Fox sisters’ drawing power that he brought them aboard his traveling road show.

Support for the Threshold of Wonder comes from the Bennington Museum, Fruitlands, Massachusetts Historical Society, North Adams Historical Society, Oneida Community Historical Site, Hancock Shaker Village, Suffolk County Historical Society, and the Williams College Museum of Art.



Alicia Framis

Born 1967 in Barcelona, lives and works in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Remix Buildings series (1999-2000), Anti Dog (2000)

Spanish-born artist Alicia Framis works the creative zones between isolation and connection, public display and private interaction, the extraordinary and the commonplace. Her Remix Buildings series (1999–2000) presents utopian alternatives to normal urban living patterns that encourage the viewer to consider new modes of social interaction. In Cemetery in Metro Station, Paris, Framis asks commuters to stop and reflect on the names of the dead in a stylishly lit wall full of funerary urns, fashionable shoes and advertisements. Cinema with a Hospital, Los Angeles (1999) combines a movie theater with a medical clinic, mixing popular entertainment with public health. The juxtaposition of human activities which are generally unrelated questions fundamental conventions of urban living while presenting somewhat startling alternatives.

Framis is acutely attuned to the experience of modern living. As a dark-skinned woman living in Berlin, she was warned not to walk alone in neighborhoods where right-wing skinheads and their fierce dogs patrol the streets. In response, she produced Anti Dog (2000) [image left], a line of dresses made of dog-proof, bulletproof, and fireproof material. The fashionable armor provides women with freedom and protection while spotlighting the basic desire to feel confident and secure against a background of public danger.



Temporary Services and Angelo

American artist collective formed 1998, Chicago.

Prisoners' Inventions (2003)

Temporary Services collaborates with diverse artists and employs multiple formats to present projects that combine public participation with innovative social messages. Temporary Services is a dynamic organization that ignores standard art world notions – such as selling art! – in favor of social interaction and process.

The collective has enjoyed a long-standing relationship with Angelo, an artist and inmate in a California prison who initially contacted one of the collective’s members in response to an article circulated in an underground publication. An active correspondence ensued over ten years, unhampered by the history of Angelo’s criminal record, which remains unknown to Temporary Services.

Prisoners’ Inventions (2003) is a collaborative project illustrating the innovative ways inmates make their lives more comfortable and convenient. From the confines of a small cell such as the one on display, Angelo’s detailed drawings and descriptions of inventions (some of which were specially fabricated) bear witness to human creativity under adverse conditions and the will to create a better existence, despite extremely restrictive circumstances. Here, the realm of the fantastic unfolds in tiny nooks and crannies. An immersion heater made from toothbrushes, an oven made from toilet paper rolls, and salt and pepper shakers made from disposable lighters are examples of inventions that transform the dreary prison experience into a more humane existence.