Interview: Susan Cross, Curator of Invisible Cities at MASS MoCA

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By Bonnie Barrett Stretch

As Curator of Visual Arts at MASS MoCA since 2006, Susan Cross has organized a string of major exhibitions, beginning with Spencer Finch: What Time Is It on the Sun? (May 2007–Spring 2008); Material World: Sculpture to Environment (April 2010–February 2011), presenting immersive site-specific installations by seven US and European artists; The Workers: Precarity/Invisibility/Mobility (May 2011–April 14, 2012), featuring nearly forty works in multiple media by a broad group of emerging and established international artists whose work addresses contemporary labor issues; and the current Invisible Cities, which opened April 15 and runs through February 4, 2013. During these six and a half years, Cross has commissioned numerous new works for MASS MoCA, and authored essays for exhibition catalogues and books for which she also served as editor.

Prior to MASS MoCA, Cross was a curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, organizing exhibitions for the New York museum, the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, and the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin. She also worked with the museum’s Young Collectors Council, acquiring works for the permanent collection from a wide range of young international contemporary artists.

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Installation view of Invisible Cities.

Bonnie Barrett Stretch: Can you tell me how this exhibition came to be? The title, of course, echoes Italo Calvino’s poetic book constructing imaginary conversations between the young Marco Polo and the aging Kublai Kahn. The historic space of MoCA seems perfect for inspiring works that capture the multifarious visions of memory and imagination, construction and destruction, visions of past and future, power and fragility, etc. Was the book the primary inspiration for this show, or did the concept arise from something else?

Susan Cross: The idea for the show bubbled up from many different sources. First, many of the artists in the exhibition have been on my mind—and on my list of people that I knew I wanted to work with. I was inspired to pull them together in a single show by a rereading of Calvino’s book. I happened to pick it up again and remembered how much I loved it and how rich the imagery is. Polo’s descriptions of the cities he visited in his meetings with the great Khan have been such a muse for artists and writers and architects alike. I love Calvino’s poetic and philosophical—even political—investigations into what we each bring to our views of a place, and they seemed to parallel what many of the artists’ works do. Organizing the exhibition around the book gave me this open platform to bring many diverse artists together—which I like, as each artist approaches the city or architecture from a very different perspective and uses their subject for different means. The artists are allowed to be themselves. They don’t have to fit into a restricting thematic. They are free—and I was free—to wander in all different directions. And still the result is a strong dialogue between the works as well as a dialogue with Calvino. Both remind us that the city is as much a fiction or idea as a physical place that can be defined and understood with a singular certainty.

BBS: So you had that theme in mind to begin with, and you knew artists who could speak to those themes of construction/destruction, memory/imagination, cycles of growth and decay.

SC: Those themes are definitely some of the many that Calvino touches on. And many of the works variously do too, from those that you mention to others as varied as the rise and fall of empires, to beauty, violence, cultural bias, even the fear of mortality. But I really started as much or more with the art as with the idea or ideas. The book becomes another work in the show in a way, Calvino, another artist. I had wanted to work with Diana Al-Hadid, for example, and Carlos Garaicoa and Miha Strukelj. And it dawned on me that, there is a very interesting conversation—or conversations really—that could be had between the works of these artists. As the daughter of an architect, I’m often particularly interested in work that grapples with architecture and urbanism. And with many of these artists I have been following their work for years and had admired it, found it intriguing on both a formal and conceptual level and could also imagine it having an interesting relationship to MASS MoCA’s unique building.

BBS: It must be a challenge for artists to work in a space this expansive and open.

SC: There’s excitement and also risk when MASS MoCA invites artists to work in this massively scaled building. Miha Strukelj, for example—who’s worked with architecture in the past but never on this scale—was a bit nervous at first. But when you look at his huge charcoal wall drawing filling that two-story-high corner site, you just think that, well, he’s done this a hundred times before, it just seemed to come so naturally to him. And unlike his other wall drawings, this one at MASS MoCA is so large that you can really imagine yourself walking into his drawing. The scale allows you to project yourself into his imagined city.

BBS: It’s a wonderful way in which he uses the string or wires to draw you in, and to bring the drawing out into three dimensions.

SC: It worked really well. He’s used the string before but not to the extent he was able to do it here. And then also the use of the platforms to bring the wall out into the three dimensional space. That was new also. It was exciting to see how his work developed and expanded within our space.

I also see these strategies as an interesting inversion of what Kim Faler is doing with her installation in the next gallery, where she knocked down the museum walls and created a view from inside the building to the city outside, while Miha was bringing the city into the building—making the connection in both directions.

For me, these relationships between the different artists pop up in so many different ways. That’s what’s nice about using Calvino’s book as a loose thematic. There are so many ideas in that book, many which also come up in the work of the artists. Some of the work was made specifically for the exhibition. So they were thinking about the book while they were making their work—but not in a literal way. No one was trying to imitate Calvino. The dialogue happens serendipitously, and the book is just a helpful guide or mirror. While very few of the artists were responding to the book specifically, many of them have discussed how the book has been important to them or to their practice. I think it’s one of those pieces of writing that so many people identify with and love. Over the years, I’ve realized that a lot of artists were either fans or influenced or inspired by it. It taps into the imagination, and also is quite radical and difficult to categorize. It is not exactly a novel—there is no plot. It is much more like philosophy. Though there is a story of some kind.

BBS: So this is a source of imagination for many artists?

SC: I think so. Carlos Garaicoa has talked specifically about the influence Calvino had on him. Liz Glynn said this to me as well. And when I visited Diana Al-Hadid’s studio to first talk with her about the show, someone had just given her the book, and she was about to start reading it. Like Calvino’s book, I think the artists’ works tell us as much about our relationship to cities and their place in—or reflection of—our own psyches as any literal representation could.

Lum Untitled 5
Mary Lum, Untitled 5

BBS: You refer in your gallery guide to the way in which the book “nods to current shifts in power not unlike those experienced by Khan and Marco Polo, and that they apply equally to the US and Western Europe today.”

SC: Well, Khan was looking at the end of the empire that he had pulled together and saw it was now unraveling. And at the same time through an explorer like Marco Polo, Europe was getting a first taste of Asia. Right now we hear so much talk about the decline of the US and Western Europe—lots of people disagree with that, but it’s interesting to look at once-great cities like Detroit that are now struggling, and these home foreclosures because of the real estate bubble. Even newer horizontal cities in places like Florida are becoming like ruins within our own lifetime. Meanwhile, in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, some of the most exciting architecture is happening, and these cities are growing at such an interesting pace. The relationship between Eastern and Western powers are changing now as they were at the time of the book’s imagined conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan.

BBS: And you brought together artists from all over the world in this show. They are men and they are women—there’s no dominant gender here. They are artists from all parts of the globe—Asia, Africa, Middle East, Western Europe, the United States. They all seem to be speaking to one another, while working on their own different ideas and expressions.

SC: Right. For me, the show touches on the idea that our sense of place is a very important human idea. But with rather different places and cultures represented, the show also speaks to difference, but also to the homogenization of global cities. A glimpse at cities from different parts of the world shed light on how we as people respond to place, and how cities and civilizations rise and collapse at different times. But again, on a universal level, we are all always rethinking what makes a city, and how we can make it better. And I think a lot of these artists are imagining fantastically what a city could be—opening our imagination. It’s at once looking at the decline of cities and also looking forward to what they could be and can be.

BBS: Tell me a little bit how you worked with the artists on this. Did you bring them in all together? Or did you bring them in separately and say, “Here’s the space, what do you want to do with it?”

SC: Not all of the artists made new work or visited the museum before the exhibition, but for those that did I brought them in separately. I told them what other artists were in the show so they could get a feel for whom they were sharing a space with. I had a specific space in mind for Miha Strukelj. It just made sense: we have these plaster walls in one big corner of this brick gallery, and the space seemed to invite a wall drawing like his. And the works by Diana Al-Hadid and Sopheap Pich were both of a scale that they needed a large open space. When Francesco Simeti came to see the space, the big wall at the far end of the gallery was just begging for him to design a wallpaper for it. So it worked out by plan and also organically. Kim Faler had specifically wanted that corner in the second gallery so she could knock down those walls, resurrect those blocked windows and connect the building to the city of North Adams. And then Lee Bul’s suspended sculptures needed height and space, so it made sense to put them in a section that offered room for that. I also liked the way Lee’s geometric constructions are complemented by Mary Lum’s colorful new paintings layering an amalgam of architectural details from her multiple strolls through Paris. I liked the dialogue between their very abstract visions.

BBS: So how does it work? It might be interesting for people who work in more conventional museum spaces to know how a curator at MASS MoCA works with this huge raw space, how you think about the art and artists and how to use the space most effectively. How do you encourage an artist to work in a space that large. Can you tell me about your role as the curator?

SC: Well, I come from a background that gave me a head start on how to deal with a building that has so much presence itself, because I worked at the Guggenheim before I came here, with Frank Lloyd Wright’s incredible building.

BBS: But which presented very different challenges.

SC: Definitely a different scale, but when you think of that gorgeous void in the Wright rotunda which everyone is drawn to, and where everything is on a slant, you definitely have to deal with the building as well as the art. Also the same with the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Frank Gehry’s amazing building. There the scale is more like MASS MoCA but more sculptural and more dramatic. So when I came here, it was a similar challenge, though very different—those spaces, even though they are very unusual, are still the white space of a typical museum. But here we have old brick and steel and wood columns—very powerful material elements that can often compete with or overwhelm the work, though they also give the museum a certain realness and warmth. And of course the big scale of the building can be both a challenge and an opportunity. Many artists come here and they are so excited to work on a different scale, a new scale, and challenge themselves. I think of Diana Al-Hadid’s piece—she had already started it when I visited her studio. It already had a big footprint, but I think it definitely morphed over the year and a half she was working on it, once she had MASS MoCA in mind. And Miha Strukelj—as I said, this was a new opportunity for him to work on a scale that was a natural progression for him, because he has worked with architecture before. On the other hand, Sopheap Pich’s piece is one of the works in the show that already existed. It’s modular, and I had first seen it as it was arranged for the Singapore Biennial. It was a very tall tower, so I already knew that it was on a scale that would work well with our building. But because it is modular, Sopheap completely changed it when he got here, and it was very exciting to see him do that. Part of me was sad because I loved it the way I knew it already, but he made something even more spectacular—and again used the height and volume of the space.

What was nice, too, about the location for this exhibition is the diversity of the spaces. The main gallery has a two-story height, but then the gallery where Garaicoa’s work is, the ceilings are lower and his piece—which is seated low to the ground, reminiscent of an architectural model—needed that intimacy. So I could have both. Throughout the show, there are all these wonderful shifts in scale that happen between the works. Sometimes, as with Garaicoa’s No Way Out, we are looking at a whole city from outside of it, as it were, and we feel like giants. And in the next piece, Kim Faler’s installation Untitled (99 44/100%) places us right in the middle of the city and we shrink back to a human scale again.

And in fact, you have that same kind of relation to an actual city—you have moments when you feel small and then moments when you feel like you fill the space. For example, in New York City’s Greenwich Village, it’s very intimate and small and tight, and then you walk around midtown surrounded by skyscrapers and you become so small again.

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Sopheap Pich, Compound, 2011

BBS: In addition to scale, the different materials the artists used are one of the stunning sensual facts of this show.

SC: Yes. Even with just ten artists, I was thinking about the mediums and materials, and how that variety reflected for me all the multiple possibilities of how you can represent a city or make it live in your imagination. So there’s a lot of sculpture; there’s also painting; there’s sound from Emeka Ogboh’s continuing series Lagos Soundscapes which captures the mix of the city’s dichotomies; and there’s scent from the fragrant soap that Kim Faler carved to form ephemeral wall studs for her installation. So hopefully the show evokes something of the different senses that come into play when we think about or remember a place. For me it was also an interesting exercise in seeing how differently each work can represent a city. There are works that are completely ephemeral or completely abstract, not just a representation of the city. Yet you still get this very powerful impression of a place. Even though you might not see a building, these different materials evoke the experience and memories of a city, each in a different way. If you read the Calvino book, for example, every description is so different, yet there are so many repetitions and connections.

BBS: And contradictions.

SC: Yes, especially contradictions. At some point you think, is this the same city being described in all these different ways? So I hope the show conjures up that sensation, too, while leaving us with an expanded notion of our relationship to the contemporary metropolis.

Invisible Cities is on view at MASS MoCA through February, 2013.


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