The sweet scent of nostalgia wafts through the rambling corridors of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), perfuming staircases, drifting across gargantuan galleries and penetrating the darkest alcoves. The museum is perennially crammed with disparate shows (all nominally temporary but some semi-permanent) that align, cross trajectories and spin apart. Themes materialise by happenstance or through collisions of sensibilities. Two of the artists now on view have filled halls in this castle-like compound with their private toy collections. A third has constructed a monumental ode to childhood, replete with Barbie dolls, teddy bears and an Edwardian rocking horse.
Jarvis Rockwell has spent a lifetime collecting action figures. Here he marshals them into a parade spanning an enormous stairwell. Aliens, superheroes and beasts march, two by two, across glass platforms suspended from the ceiling towards some sort of apotheosis. Rockwell intends “Us” (2002) to offer up avatars by the dozen, alter-egos who embody our culture’s deepest desires and beliefs. As Rockwell puts it, possibly ironically, but maybe not, the toys “are going on to glory”.
Rockwell, 87, is the eldest son of the artist Norman Rockwell, and his famous father’s influence is inescapable. In a 2013 interview, he remarked: “It’s funny that his art was called realism; people called it realism because that is what they saw. But it was a constructed reality, a fantasy . . . My work with toys comes off of that. The toys have to do with us, just as my father’s work had to do with us. I think I’m just taking a different turn on who we are.”
Trenton Doyle Hancock might agree. Another artist haunted by his past, Hancock believes that toys tell a truer story than we realise. In Mind of the Mound: Critical Mass, he turns a football field-sized gallery space into an epic game board, a sort of Candy Land for grown-ups — though the installation might also make actual kids giddy with the sense of having been understood. Follow the rainbow squares into Hancock’s boyhood, his existential fears and dawning political awareness, and you traverse a landscape of wistfulness and whimsy.
At the age of 10 he invented a secret identity, Torpedo Boy, and he’s been constructing the character’s vivid universe ever since. Hancock starts by giving us his own back-story, starting with a diorama recreation of his grandmother’s house. A squad of life-sized trick-or-treaters in ghoulish masks slink from the threshold of a suburban house. They are no doubt scared off by a disembodied arm that punches through the closed door, clutching a big cross. The message is clear: little devils not welcome here.
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Circle around to the back and you can see the inside of a 1970s living room decked out in floral wallpaper with orange and brown linoleum tiles. Hancock’s grandmother evidently received and passed on mixed messages from pop culture. She read Jet, the magazine marketed at African-American readers, and also “Tortured for Christ”, a booklet about Christians under communism. She listened to LPs of black gospel singers (Mahalia Jackson) and white televangelists (Richard and Patti Roberts). On a vintage TV set, two talk-show preachers earnestly analyse the demonic presence lurking in toys such as He-Man and Skeletor. Near the door sits a collection of Masters of the Universe action figures that have been sentenced to the pyre. Someone (grandma, presumably) has written “BURN THESE” on the side of the box.
The rest of the exhibition shows us how Hancock’s imaginative universe has expanded into an epic personal mythography. At its heart lies the Mound, an agglomeration of plant and human qualities that cleans the environment and encourages people to live more colourful lives. Mounds enjoy the protection of Torpedo Boy, who defends them against the dread Vegans. Their battles, though, are just an excuse to display Hancock’s collections of memorabilia, which he has arranged on supermarket-style shelves and inside tents, making even a venerable adult feel like a kid in a toy emporium. (I recognised many board games from my girlhood.) Hancock’s desperately adorable fantasy oozes charm, which, like other people’s offspring, it eventually loses. After a while, I yearned for something less cute.
The pop star Annie Lennox also has a hard time putting away childish things — though she confronts them with morbid melancholy. And Now I Let You Go . . . is another room-sized mound, this one made up of a lifetime’s possessions half-buried in soil. Lennox doesn’t trust us to decode the objects: she supplements the installation with a “field guide”, listing 187 items that hum with private resonance: a toy nurse’s kit, a stuffed guinea pig, her mother’s sewing machine and glasses, her father’s fob watch and beer stein.
“We cling unconsciously to ‘things’ that are endowed with emotional significance — keeping memories alive, while the uncomfortable awareness of the inevitable moment of departure is held at bay,” she writes. And Now I Let You Go . . . is a sort of funeral offering, objects scattered on a hillock of earth.
Lennox bids goodbye to her belongings, yet the installation is a paradox, enshrining ephemera as if to preserve them in perpetuity after all. Her stuff has resurrected itself for another act, demanding visitors’ attention — after all, attention is the pop singer’s currency. In case anyone should forget that Lennox has a claim on immortality (and so her possessions do), she accompanies her mound with a mirrored chamber, crammed with gold and platinum records. “Trophy Room” contradicts the elegiac tone of the rest of the piece, blazing with self-congratulation.
I don’t know if Mass MoCA consciously organised a suite of shows around the theme of dirt piles, but there certainly are a lot of them, breeding memory and desire. The tumulus’s most powerful appearance comes in Cauleen Smith’s “Remote Viewing”, part of a meaty one-woman show, We Already Have What We Need. In the 14-minute video, a black woman and her child look on as an earthmover scoops out a building-sized grave and then pushes a steepled one-room schoolhouse into it.
It’s both exciting and upsetting to watch the building meet its fate, and though the scene seems surreal, so is the legacy of slavery. Smith says the film was inspired by an account of a town so determined to expunge its history that whites actually buried a black kids’ school. She unearths old traumas, then reinters them, going to Hollywood-style trouble and expense of building a piece of a village in order to destroy it. Various artists at Mass MoCA treat nostalgia as a fearsome force; Smith reminds us that memory must do constant battle with the equally potent craving to forget.
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