Anna Kunz’s recent exhibition, Color Cast, at the Hyde Park Art Center surrounded visitors in a field of color that made one feel as if they were walking between the painted gestures of a large-scale painting. Draped across the space were large swaths of material painted in yellows, pinks, and reds that swayed with the subtle breeze that entered through cracked windows and doors. Ghostly copies of several of the hanging works were presented on the walls—“after images” Kunz made by pressing paint through a gauze-like theatrical fabric called scrim. These repetitive patterns created satisfying compositions as one walked through the space, an immersive installation that took nearly three years to plan, organize, and create.
To put together the show, Kunz first worked in miniature, producing three-dimensional plans inside a small diorama built to scale. The pieces inside were not stand-ins for the work, but actual artworks she planned on making large. “With the architectural model, I could get down and look at the sight lines and understand each 360 degree experience, and with just about every angle was a new composition,” said Kunz. “I made real work, I didn’t make a maquette or a draft of a show. I made real pieces for that model and then I made the same work, but at a much larger scale.”
The completed exhibition inside the Hyde Park Art Center’s massive two-story gallery completely wrapped the viewer in colors presented on the walls, hanging works, and floor. To avoid overwhelming her audience, Kunz utilized lightweight textiles such as silk and scrim, and painted the floors white to give viewers the sense that they were floating, much like the overhead works. To add to this elevated feeling, Kunz installed a platform at the center of the gallery on which she painted large bands of canary yellow, cherry red, and seafoam green. Hidden inside the platform were transducers that played a randomized cello score by Beth Bradfish and deeply vibrated when a guest stood on top, allowing visitors to experience the space viscerally.
“I knew I was going to include some sort of platform which would function as a stage,” said Kunz. “I wanted the viewer to really feel as if they were placed in the exhibition. Even if they are taking just one step up, it allows them to be more aware. I wanted them to slow down and understand that they were in an experience.”
The massive scale of Kunz’s installation was key component of MASS MoCA’s 2010 exhibition Material World: Painting and Sculpture as Environment, curated by Susan Cross, and supported by the Emily Hall Tremaine Exhibition Award. The size of the institution called for large-scale works to fill its giant galleries, and the exhibition invited seven artists to produce installations that did just that. Like Kunz’s use of scrim, each artist transformed humble industrial materials into extraordinary installations. Included artists used trash bags, lobster rope, paper, and other materials to create large-scale installations that would immerse visitors in temporarily built environments.
“I thought the works were a beautiful contrast to our building, which is very solid with lots of brick, steel, and wood columns,” said Cross. “The artists engaged with the building while also showing its lighter side. There was a really nice tension between the building and the very humble materials the artists were working in.”
Because the space is so large, and the shows are up for so long, MASS MoCA has to often follow the same public safety codes for the work as they would for the building. “It is a real challenge for us to try and make sure it meets those public safety codes without completely compromising the artist’s vision,” said Cross. “We’ve gotten good at it, but it is always an interesting challenge.”
Dan Steinhilber’s “Breathing Room,” was one such work, an installation that used plastic sheeting, fans, and twine to create a room that inflated and deflated like a human lung. MASS MoCA had to poke holes through the top of the installation to make sure sprinklers could enter the space, and a hole was placed in one of the outer walls to pull in air from outside of the institution. Like Kunz’s vibrating platform, “Breathing Room” had a soft audio component that infused the work with a more dynamic presence in the massive space. The soft crinkling of plastic could be heard as the walls inflated or deflated. Although not a directly intentional addition to the piece like Kunz’s audio, this aspect informed its immersive quality, making visitors feel as if they were really a part of the artwork, rather than just wandering through it.
“It was so beautiful, and in a way it emphasized a characteristic that I think MASS MoCA has which is the building definitely feels alive, said Cross. “You feel a presence, you feel its history, which I think people really respond to. It has the patina of this industry and this life and I think ‘Breathing Room’ exaggerated that and emphasized the idea that the building itself has some sort of life to it.”
This deepening of the viewers’ experiences through audio engagement was further highlighted in both exhibitions by in situ music performances. Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival, a yearly performance and professional development program for young composers and performers, occurred at MASS MoCA during Material World’s run, and Mwata Bowden, Director of Jazz Ensembles at the University of Chicago, with an ensemble of jazz students, created a gallery activation that reacted to Kunz’s installation.
Bowden’s performance was in one sense restorative, much like the 2003 exhibition Pulse: Art, Healing, and Transformation at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, curated by Jessica Morgan, and recipient of the Emily Hall Tremaine Exhibition Award. The exhibition invited artists whose practice considered ideas of healing such as Joseph Beuys, Ernesto Neto, Tania Bruguera, and Cai Guo-Qiang. In another sense Bowden’s performance referenced academic and color theory, inviting his students to perform inside of Kunz’s installation to more deeply explore the connections between improvisational painting and music. This aspect calls to mind the programming associated with another recipient of the Exhibition Award, Hotel Theory, which was hosted at REDCAT at the California Institute of Arts in Los Angeles and curated by Sohrab Mohebbi and Ruth Estevez. The exhibition invited over twenty artist to use the Gallery at REDCAT as a space for performances, concerts, conversations and other events that explored the possibilities of theory as art form.
Both Material World and Color Cast transformed the institution they were installed in, using minimal materials to make a maximal impact on the buildings’ architecture and visitor experience. By using small interventions like platforms, musical performances, and outside air, the installations were able to breath a fresh life into institution’s historical buildings, making one feel as if they were an integral part of the exhibited work.
Header image: Anna Kunz. “Color Cast” installation view. Photo by Tom Van Eynde.