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MASS MoCA Exhibition Wants You To Do More Than Just Talk About Race And Violence04:09

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Museum-goers during the opening weekend for "Until" at MASS MoCA. (Courtesy Douglas Mason/MASS MoCA)closemore
Museum-goers during the opening weekend for "Until" at MASS MoCA. (Courtesy Douglas Mason/MASS MoCA)

Visual artist Nick Cave, not to be mistaken for the musician of the same name, is best known for his "Soundsuits," wearable fabric sculptures that have been displayed by museums around the world. But for its signature gallery, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (known as MASS MoCA), in North Adams, asked him to envision something completely different.

The resulting exhibition, "Until," is the museum’s most expensive to date; it’s co-sponsored with the Australian performing arts center Carriageworks, where it will travel after about 10 months on view in the Berkshires. “Until” is a huge, politically provocative installation meant to inspire discussions about violence and race in America. But Cave is also using it to convene prominent performers in other fields and inspire them to craft their own responses to the work and the conversations it's meant to instigate.

A detail of "Until" by Nick Cave. (Jeremy D. Goodwin for WBUR)
A detail of "Until" by Nick Cave. (Jeremy D. Goodwin for WBUR)

Approaching the glass-doored entrance to Building 5, your eye is struck by a shiny, sparkling mass of circular objects — aluminum wind-spinners, some 16,000 of them, hung in strands from the ceiling. The effect is instantly mesmerizing.

“When they spin they get this almost holographic effect. As the light comes in they’re bouncing off everything almost as if you’re in a giant disco ball,” says curator Denise Markonish, strolling along the pathway that leads through the gently pulsing display. “As you walk through you notice that some of them are these dazzling starbursts but if you look closer you’ll see there are guns, there are targets, there are teardrops and bullets.”

Also tucked in throughout the sprawling exhibition are 17 black-faced lawn jockeys — the small statues formed in the image of a crude racial caricature, still used in some parts as lawn ornaments. Many are nestled here in a floating cloud of chandeliers, atop which sits a grotesquerie of flea market prizes and dripping strands of crystals.

Cave says the piece is in part a response to the recent spate of black men killed in confrontations with police.

“I was thinking about ways to create space where there may be convenings, safe havens for conversations that may be difficult,” Cave said, standing underneath that floating cloud of chandeliers. “I really wanted to create an installation that, as you’re moving through, you will come to these areas within the installation that are open for gatherings of sorts, and convenings of sorts.”

A detail from Nick Cave's "Until" at MASS MoCA. (Courtesy James Prinz/MASS MoCA)
A detail from Nick Cave's "Until" at MASS MoCA. (Courtesy James Prinz/MASS MoCA)

But he wants people to do more than talk about it. He aims to instigate a series of new performances inspired by and responding to his show — a sort of call-and-response with the artwork. To that end Cave invited a cadre of accomplished performing artists to spend a day with the work, shortly after it opened to the public on Oct. 16. They toured it with the artist, shared many of the raw feelings and thoughts it stirred up and brainstormed their own artistic responses.

Several intend to create new pieces to perform right there, amid the installation.

Among the visiting artists was Bill T. Jones, one of the most-decorated living choreographers and dancers in the world. Seated on the stairs leading to "Until," Jones said that the show stirs troubling emotions but Cave seems to make an argument for reclaiming the joy that violence and racial hatred can threaten to rip away. “Yes, there are images of lawn jockeys — black ones. Yes there are ‘darkies’ dancing. And yes,” Jones said, “they stir a feeling inside, but [Cave] says: Why can’t that feeling be combined with one of celebration, joy, and enchantment?”

Jones described the show’s mixture of moods — and the way it confronts the visitor with those offensive lawn jockeys.

“I could bring my 5-year-old here and have a riotous, fun experience which is just a click of the dial away from Disneyland,” he says, speaking each word with the elegant purpose that seems to ground his every gesture, onstage and off. “And then the little questions bubble up. The 5-year-old says, ‘What are those black men with the big pink lips? Are they monsters? What are they?’ Hrmmm,” Jones adds, pausing several moments to consider. “How will I answer that question about who those men are?”

Nick Cave's "Until" includes 17 lawn jockeys in the image of a crude racial caricature. (Courtesy Douglas Mason/MASS MoCA)
Nick Cave's "Until" includes 17 lawn jockeys in the image of a crude racial caricature. (Courtesy Douglas Mason/MASS MoCA)

Earlier in the day, the invited guests and a handful of museum staff broke into a spontaneous rendition of Sam Cooke's “A Change Is Gonna Come” while Jones danced in the space. He said he’s composing a solo dance he’ll perform there himself, accompanied by careful lighting design. To be scheduled for sometime in 2017, it'll be co-presented by Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, which occasionally produces performances under its own flag at MASS MoCA.

Museums typically plan the live programming associated with a big exhibition well in advance. Cave’s show, developed on MASS MoCA’s side by Markonish, has been more than three years in the making. But aside from a performance at the opening party and a gallery concert by vocalist Helga Davis scheduled for the space on Oct. 28, Cave and the museum waited for “Until” to be completely installed before recruiting artistic collaborators.

“We didn’t want to tell people what it was about and then have them develop something and bring it here. We want people to develop their work out of their gut reaction of being in this space. So I think it’s a very unusual proposition,” Markonish says of the timeline.

This also means the artists are only now at the start of their creative processes, mulling the possibilities. They do have some time to work with — “Until” is on view here through summer 2017.

Musician Solange Knowles reacts to "Until"  as artist Nick Cave looks on. (Courtesy John Tibbets/MASS MoCA)
Musician Solange Knowles reacts to "Until"  as artist Nick Cave looks on. (Courtesy John Tibbets/MASS MoCA)

Solange Knowles, who like her sister Beyoncé performs under just her first name, scored a number one album this month with a collection of songs that frankly address the black experience in America. The musical guest for "Saturday Night Live" on Nov. 5, she is having a moment.

After spending some time with “Until,” she said the exhibition proved an instant inspiration.

“Earlier today there were some musicians and we were just all in here, experimenting, and one thing led to another and we started to sing all together. And it was really a testament to the community orientation of this piece. This piece is all about community,” Knowles said.

After a long day of looking, thinking and feeling, the visiting artists seemed mentally fatigued but creatively energized. They occupied different places on the continuum between inspiration and full-fledged concept.

As she waited for a one-on-one exit interview with Cave, Francesca Harper, a singer, dancer and choreographer, walked back amid the dangling wind spinners alone. Testing out how it felt in different spots within the exhibition, she improvised several fluid, graceful dance moves.

Another new work of art was in the making.

This segment aired on October 27, 2016.

Jeremy D. Goodwin Contributor/Editor, The ARTery
Jeremy D. Goodwin is a contributor and editor for WBUR's The ARTery.

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