Mass MoCA finds wonder in the everyday

Ryan and Trevor Oakes put their own spin on 14th-century architect and designer Filippo Brunelleschi’s linear theory in “Have No Narrow Perspectives” (2008–09 — stainless steel, enamel, epoxy), part of “Explode Every Day “ at Mass MoCA beginning Saturday. (Courtesy Ryan and Trevor Oakes — mass moca)

A new show at Mass MoCA takes the notion of wonder and spreads it across the museum galleries to explore its prevalence in daily life, as well as the art world.

“Explode Every Day: An Inquiry Into the Phenomena of Wonder,” which opens on Saturday, is an expansion of a recurring aspect of curator Denise Markonish’s work, one that puts itself in that pure moment of encounter that occurs in nature, in museums, anywhere that humans give themselves perceptually to the universe.

The show began through a series of conversations between Markonish and her co-curator, artist Sean Foley, about the way the art world and art criticism approach the concept of wonder.

The show takes its name from a Ray Bradbury quote that has stuck with Markonish — “To remain invested in your inner child you need to explode every day. You don’t worry about the future, you don’t worry about the past, you just explode” — and it points to one of the central thoughts about the idea of wonder.

“It always gets talked about as a rare thing and I don’t believe that’s true,” Markonish said in an interview. “I loved this idea of how can we cultivate a sense of wonder in the everyday.”

Markonish believes wonder happens all the time — just notice the way people react to rainbows. She equates this with just paying attention to what is around you as a way to harness what she calls “a liminal space between knowing and not knowing, that moment where everything stops and you’re not even trying to figure it out.”

“Wonder is unnameable and ineffable,” said Markonish. “Putting language around it always seems ridiculous, and yet we … do it because we have to. The visual is the real thing.”

Markonish’s task has been to find artists who engage with wonder in their practice, though without presenting a series of works that exhaust the viewer.

“When people hear a show about wonder, they expect it to be a big spectacle …, but I think what is really exciting for me about this show is that it’s also really quiet,” she said. “You don’t want a show that’s constant arresting moments. It just becomes nothing.”

One of the biggest delights of the show for Markonish has been the chance to let her science-freak flag fly. She co-runs an artist-in-residency program at SETI (Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, which has given her a chance to utilize science-minded artists like Charles Lindsay for the show, as well as scientists, like astronomer Jill Tarter, who has written for the show’s catalog.

Lindsay is creating a mad scientist’s room inspired by “The Martian” and featuring a spinning robotic contraption that responds to the moves of viewers.

Laurent Grasso finds wonder at the intersection of nature and man-made construction in “Soleil Double” (2014–16mm film digitized). The work is part of a new exhibit opening this weekend at Mass MoCA — “Explode Every Day: An Inquiry Into the Phenomena of Wonder,” featuring work by 23 artists using a wide variety of media to explore time, space, motion and the very nature of wonder. (courtesy laurent grasso, sean kelly gallery (N.Y.) and galerie perrotin (paris) — mass moca)

Among the 23 contributing artists in the show are the Institute For Figuring, with its fractal origami projects; video work by magician Jonathan Allen; Tristan Duke’s hand-scratched holograms; Rachel Sussman’s huge timeline of the universe that takes us into the future; Fred Thomaselli, a renowned painter whose ’80s sculpture work incorporates accurate maps of the night sky; and Sharon Ellis’ luminous, kaleidoscopic landscape paintings.

One ambitious work is by Dario Robleto, a SETI artist who appeared in Mass MoCA’s “Ahistoric Occasion” show in 2006. The piece is a gift to Ann Druyan — acclaimed science writer, director of the Voyager projects and widow to scientist Carl Sagan — that Robleto has been working on for years. It’s a box set that examines the history of the recorded heartbeat, including Druyan’s own, which was recorded shortly after she and Sagan had professed love for each other. It was included on the famous golden record onboard Voyager.

“Her heart in love is the first sounds of the heart in love to ever exit the solar system,” said Markonish. “Dario thought, ‘what could you give that woman?’”

Other first recordings comprise five LPs that visitors can listen to on headphones.

Also in the show are works by identical twin brothers Ryan and Trevor Oakes, who make their own adjustment to 14th-century architect and designer Filippo Brunelleschi’s discovery of linear perspective.

“They thought, if you think of Brunelleschi’s perspective, it’s on a flat plane and doesn’t take into account the curvature of space and the eye and how light exists,” Markonish said, “so they developed this curved easel which mimics the curvature of the eye.”

That easel is on display along with the curved works, which were rendered by Trevor.

One work that captures Markonish’s wider view of the show — and of wonder in general — is Pierre Huyghe’s work which releases scores of daddy longlegs into the gallery. The action has a theatrical quality worthy of Barnum, but the result is very quiet, even contemplative. Daddy longlegs will exist peacefully amongst the artworks and the patrons.

“I like that wonder is this instant thing but it can lead to this kind of sustained engagement if it hits that emotional spot because it doesn’t leave you,” said Markonish. “That, to me, is more interesting than a spectacle that you walk into and you’re like whoa that’s cool, and then you turn around and move onto the next thing. I think you can have both. I think you can have those pieces that floor you and stay with you, too. I think this show will have that.”

Originally published at on May 26, 2016.

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