life's work at MassMOCA
Saturday, April 6 2013
location: rural Hurley Township, Ulster County, New York
Marie (aka "the Baby") continues to be alive and to blithely continue her obnoxious habit of shitting on the floor. In the middle of the night last night I heard the wet squirt of her shitting in the bathroom, and, not being able to sleep and wishing to avoid smelling it, I got up to take an ambien and clean up the mess. I got a piece of toilet paper and managed to get up most of the shit in the course of two wipes (the first always makes a repulsive smear). I then poured some water on where the shit had been. The plan then was to use some paper to absorb that water and throw it away. Luckily, there was a piece of wadded up paper towel right there on a nearby cabinet. (Gretchen sometimes recycles paper towels that didn't get sullied by previous uses.) I grabbed it and threw it down into the turd-flavored puddle on the floor, at which point a handful of pink tablets fell out and began dissolving. Just my luck; unbeknownst to me, Gretchen had been using that crumpled piece of paper as a storage solution for medication. Not knowing what else to do, I grabbed up the pills and rinsed them off while repeatedly mumbling, "Who would have thought?" This woke Gretchen up, and for some reason she couldn't understand how I could have possibly made the mistake I had just made. She even tried to make me apologize for it, which made me furious. Seriously, she'd thought her medications could be safely stored in a crumpled piece of unlabeled paper towel above the spot where a cat likes to shit on the floor. The medications, by the way, were a regime of steroidal anti-inflammatories she was in the process of using to treat a pinched nerve in her neck.
In full light of day, Gretchen decided we should go on a run to the Hurley dump, so we spent a good 20 minutes to a half hour going around the house and gathering trash and recycling from all the various places it can end up and then loading it into both our cars (one wasn't enough for this run, especially given that the dogs always get to come). On the way back from the dump, I managed to salvage some firewood from the sides of Dug Hill Road (the highway department periodically cuts trees that are too close to the road).
In the mid-afternoon, Gretchen and I packed up a few things and set off for Williamstown, Massachusetts. We decided to avoid the Mass Turnpike and instead head east from Troy on Route 7. It's definitely a more picturesque drive, though the road over the Taconic highlands is not in great shape, having a irregular surface on several fractal scales caused by the repeated cycles of freezing and thawing. These interacted poorly with our car's crappy suspension (thanks, Mavis Discount Tire!), setting my nerves on edge for most of the drive (Gretchen was in the driver's seat). If the road had been in better shape it wouldn't have been such an unpleasant drive; there were almost no other cars on the highway.
We continued through Williamstown to the Williamstown Motel, a cute cheap place across the street from Wild Oats, the health food supermarket. I tried to take advantage of the WiFi, but my netbook was being crappy, so I forced a power down (I'm too impatient for shutdown). But when I power the netbook up again, it refused to boot because some essential file was missing. Lacking any sort of external boot media, this meant the netbook would be useless for the rest of this particular trip.
We'd been invited to today's opening at MassMOCA featuring our friend Johnny's "life work," so North Adams (two miles away) was our next destination. I was already wearing my fancy clothes, but Gretchen still needed to get dressed.
Our first stop in North Adams was a café called The Local Place to Be. It was huge inside, though there were only three or four customers and a solitary, somewhat unctuous older gentleman (the owner?) running the counter. The coffee wasn't very good, and the bowl of vegetable soup needed something (beans perhaps), but the sun shining through the south-facing front windows felt nice on our faces as we picked through issues of Time magazine. Given that usually these days when I'm looking at a general-interest magazine, it's a New Yorker, these seemed as if they had been written for children.
Over at MassMOCA (a beautiful repurposed factory made of brick), we soon encountered members of Johnny's entourage, many of whom Gretchen knew from Oberlin College and perhaps elsewhere. (I also went to Oberlin, though I never really socialized outside Harkness Co-op, and so I missed a lot.) Johnny had printed graphics from his Pictorial Webster's on tee shirts, jackets, trousers, and dresses, and these were being worn by the people he'd invited (though not by us; I didn't have one, and Gretchen's green long-sleaved shirt didn't really work with the vaguely gothy look she was rocking). We hadn't seen some of these people in years, including Anna H. and Fong (the guy who makes wooden bicycles). Given how the human body ages, it can be a little jarring to see someone after a nine year hiatus at this particular phase of life. Facebook can cushion the blow, but few of these people exist on Facebook, and if they did they probably wouldn't be my Facebook friends.
The gallery hosting Johnny's Life's Work exhibit had been closed to the public and only his invited guests (as well as the invited guests of the other artist whose life work exhibit was also being opened) were permitted in. I had no idea what to expect but it was a massive show. Johnny had printed out large versions of the graphics from the Pictorial Webster's on what appeared to be triangular boat sails. They were mostly the 19th Century engravings he'd "resampled" in his Pictorial Webster's, though these were mixed in with a few of his own hand drawings. He'd also taken liberties with the captions, for example relabeling a line drawing of mitosis "God's Love." In addition to sails, there were framed enlargements (some artistically double or triple-struck), a pair of large wooden-paged books where an illustrated "verb word" could be randomly combined with an illustrated "noun word" Mad-Libs style to produce a two-word command (such as "Experience God's Love"). But I thought the best part of the exhibit was in a darkened room where projectors showed two streams of graphics on transparent tape spooling over each other from two different directions to produce random combinations of graphics and captions (technically, though, this was just a simulation of what I'm describing; evidently something like I am describing had been filmed and that video was what we were actually seeing). All of this was in keeping with Johnny's vision to stimulate the imagination by random (or deliberate) juxtaposition.
Meanwhile (and unexpectedly) an open bar had been set up and from this we were free to order beverages. There was wine, beer, and hard liquor, and all of it had been donated, probably in hopes of generating marketing buzz among a demographic (MassMOCA-opening-attending people) thought to be culturally influential. So none of the booze was famous; it included a bourbon made in the Berkshires and a scotch made in Japan. But all of it was delicious.
I should mention Tim Phillips, the other artist whose "life's work" was being featured. Like Johnny, his art was about remixing the work of others. Phillip's raw material was a book entitled A Human Document. He'd taken pages of this book, blanked out (or illustrated over) all but a few of the words on each page to make them tell an entirely different story. He'd made one version of this resampled book back in the 1960s and was now almost done making an entirely new one (the unfinished pages were shown in today's exhibit as blank rectangles). It seemed gimmicky to Gretchen and me, but evidently the art world considers it an-open-bar-celebration-worthy undertaking (or at least half of one).
Gretchen did lots of chatting with old friends at the opening, but I mostly just wandered around with various drinks in my hand. I eventually watched a video of Johnny hand-making one of his high-end Pictorial Webster's, and that ended up being the highlight of the show for me.
The opening didn't actually last all that long. Suddenly I noticed that the open bar was being packed up. And soon thereafter someone started doing that thing with the lights to urge us out of the building. The others all went off to their non-vegan dinners, while Gretchen and I returned to Williamstown and ate at Spiceroot, the Indian restaurant. The food was delicious, though perhaps not quite as delicious as Gretchen seemed to think.
Back in our room, we tried to watch Batman Returns an old Batman movie from the early 1990s (the one with Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman). But the pacing seemed (as Gretchen put it) "glacial" to our modern sensibilities and we found it unwatchable. Things that should have been handled as a montage (such as when Catwoman started assembling her suit) were shown as long belabored scenes. But of course Gretchen remembered liking Batman Returns very much when it first came out.
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