Monday, December 26 2005
setting: rural Hawley, Franklin County, Massachusetts
Gretchen, Mary, and I took a walk around "the block" early this afternoon. The block was so large that getting around it took us about an hour. Not long into the walk I saw a house with 72 square feet of hot water solar panels on its roof, but strangely they were facing due East. Even more puzzling was black plastic plumbing system that was strung between the trees about four feet above the ground. Was this carrying water from a spring? Later I found what it was carrying: maple sap. At the top of the hill it consolidated the output of dozens of taps on individual Sugar Maple trees. Somewhere at the bottom all of that sap was ending up (or had once ended up) in a big pot, automating the collection process in a simple way I never would have imagined possible.
Not long into the walk I felt a little like a third wheel as Gretchen and Mary talked at length about movies and actors and things I never think about. Normally when Gretchen sees Mary, I usually have other things I can do while they talk among themselves. But here in the Berkshires there was no real escape.
After a lunch of leftover Thanksgivingesque food from last night's Christmas feast, the three of us drove east in a convoy to North Adams, the little factory city in northwesternmost Massachusetts. We drove three different cars because Gretchen and I were still transporting our newly-purchased Honda Civic home and Mary would only be going as far as North Adams and then, once we were done visiting the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMoCHA), she'd be driving back to her parents' place.
On State Route 2, there's a high mountain region just to the east of North Adams, and on this day it was cloaked by an opague fog. Mary was leading our convoy (and a long string of cars stretched out behind us) and at the much-precautioned "hairpin turn" she pulled over into a parking lot and refused to be in the lead any longer. We continued with Gretchen in the lead, but by now the string of cars was ahead of us and we were heading downhill, out of the bank of fog, and it was clear sailing into North Adams.
North Adams is a beautiful city, with a Victorian skyline of church spires and classic 19th Century factory architecture, including endless sawtooth roofs. None of those textile mills are in operation any longer, but the buildings are still sound and the town has become a hothouse of artistic expression, full of lofts, galleries, and studio spaces. MassMoCHA is located inside one of the old mills and features the largest single indoor gallery space in the United States, where artists can create installations that won't fit anywhere else. (The installation being installed currently is a full fair midway, featuring slowly-turning rides and a sounds similar to the ones you hear before someone is murdered in a horror flick.)
The biggest, most interesting exhibit today was one entitled "Becoming Animal," exploring the line between human and non-human and even allowing the non-human to comment on our works. I'm not a big fan of "conceptual art," but these works actually were thought provoking and entertaining. I think the dividing line between good conceptual art and the boring kind is that the former leaves you feeling just a little creeped-out. MassMoCHA is full of that creepy vibe, and it was wonderful. My favorite work in "Becoming Animal" was "Rompers" by the Japanese artist Motohiko Odani. It was a short movie (or, perhaps, music video) of a little girl sitting on a tree branch in a brilliantly-lit fantasy garden while toads with human ears hopped about and swarms of flies flew in a formation the shape of an infinity symbol. All the while the little girl rocked back and forth, smiling creepily and even, on one occasion, flicking out a forked tongued to catch a passing insect. Her eyebrows and fingertips had been distorted with facial putty to make her look slightly beastlike. I saw a woman struggling to prevent a small child from watching, hoping to forestall years of nightmares. Another display featured live laboratory rats in a three-dimensional maze. There was something creepy about those rats which wasn't explained until I learned that they'd been bio-engineered to produce human proteins. In still another installation, a bolted-together tree served as home for a flock of real live Zebra Finches allowed to "comment" upon biology and ornithology texts (at least one of them Creationist) piled and shelved beneath them.
The drive back to Hurley was mostly uneventful, though getting out of Massachusetts took at least twice as much time as we expected. I also discovered (when Gretchen deccelerated rapidly in front of me) that our new Civic doesn't have anti-lock brakes. It's a total bare-bones model with wind-up windows and non-power steering. But it does have air conditioning and a good JVC stereo.
View on our walk "around the block" today.
Gretchen (left) and Mary on our walk today.
The Zebra Finch tree at MassMoCHA today.
A creepy critter sculpture at MassMoCHA today.
Another creepy critter sculpture at MassMoCHA today.
Electro-magnetic control system for a huge horn designed to mimic the way a certain species of frog makes its mating call.
A drawing of a fabulous grasshopper-dozer.
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