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Arts & Culture February-March 2020


Crossing barriers through art

MoCA show explores ways to forge links across cultures, media



A detail view of Jimena Sarno’s “taracata trabaja” (2018), shows an image of the hornero, the national bird of Argentina, on ceramic plates. The sound installation, with music by Axel Krygier based on the bird’s song, will be included in “Kissing through a Curtain,” which opens March 21 at Mass MoCA. Photo courtesy of Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art


Contributing writer


In a studio in the Nevada desert, Justin Favela is transforming the paintings of Jose Maria Velasco.

Velasco was a Mexican artist more than a hundred years ago who became internationally famous for his landscape paintings.

Favela works with the paper strips used to make pinatas, and in his hands a landscape can change dramatically. A mountain slope of reddish sandstone and scrub becomes bright and playful.

For many people, Velasco’s work came to be symbolic of all of Mexico, explained Mass MoCA curator Alexandra Foradas. And in Favela’s abstracted take on it, she sees him pushing back at the identity Velasco was painting in romantic hills.

Mass MoCA is reaching across boundaries this season.

Puerto Rican artist Gamaliel Rodriguez has newly opened a wide landscape of mills and mountains, half real and half dreamlike, in ink and a glint of gold. And Argentine artist Ad Minoliti has filled a gallery with bright abstract painting

As winter turns to spring, Foradas will curate “Kissing through a Curtain,” a new group show of 10 artists including Favela. The exhibit, which opens March 21, explores the idea of translation.
It is an idea that has surfaced over and over in studio visits over the last several years, Foradas explained in a conversation in January, before the show began to take shape in the galleries. She often travels to visit artists at home and see their work. In these visits, she said, ideas of translation and communication have kept coming up, and artists talk with her about breakdowns of communication.

Foradas sees a translator as someone straddling a border. They stand at a boundary, trying to reach someone on the other side. Their ideas may not always get across, but it is vital to try.
She likes to base group shows organically on ideas that artists bring up with her, and as she began to follow this pulse, the new show took shape.


Art of translation
The show’s name comes from an essay by the writer, editor, actor and poet Kwame Dawes, born in Ghana and now a professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

In the essay, Dawes described a presentation to a group of poets and translators by a woman who often translates between Belarusian and English. In Russian poetry, she said, meter and rhyme are contemporary. But translated into English, they can sound stilted and old-fashioned, while English poetry translated into Russian can feel like prose.

“She asks the group, ‘How you would feel if you were always kissing through a curtain?’” Foradas said. “And someone answers, ‘Better than not kissing at all.’ ”

“Translation is a generous attempt to connect, and it is important even if it fails,” she explained.
It is always a creative process. Consider, Foradas said, the task of translating a poem.

A poem speaks not only in the words on the page, but in suggestions. Some elements a reader understands simply from living in the same world. Some of the poem’s meaning comes from context and association and allusion, she said. A translator has to find the right words to conjure associations in a reader’s mind. This requires knowing not just language, but culture. And it requires a sense of sound and rhythm and momentum.

“The music of the language can be so much of the meaning,” Foradas said.


A poem in shifting sand
Nasser Alzayani will shape his work here around a poem. He is a Bahraini-American artist working on his master’s degree in fine arts at the Rhode Island School of Design, and he is re-imagining an earlier work in this show, Foradas said.

He will bring a series of tablets made out of sand. The tablets bear a poem in Arabic, a song about the Adhari spring. It was a natural pool, well known for hundreds of years, and within the last 10 years it has dried up.

Alzayani will include sound -- an oral history from interviews -- as many people share memories of a place that has gone, gathering history like grains of sand before they slip through their fingers.

Alzayani has researched the spring and its vanishing. The spring dried up, Foradas said, because the water was used to irrigate distant farms at the expense of local people and wildlife.
He has a series of works about it, named for a phrase she finds beautiful -- “watering the distant, deserting the near” – that describes someone who abandons their responsibilities and leaves their family in need.

Alzayani will write the poem on the surface of the sand, in raised letters made of sand. He uses a laser-cut stencil like a screen print, Foradas said, sifting and packing the sand to create the script.

Even when the work is new, the lines will be only partly readable, she said, and over time they will wear away. They are held together loosely, like a sand castle, and as people walk nearby the vibrations of the floor will slowly loosen the grains, and the tablets will fall apart.


Finding meaning in coded words
Something can be lost in translation, Foradas says, recalling one of Salman Rushdie’s essays in the collection “Imaginary Homelands.” But he writes, and she agrees, “I cling obstinately to the notion that something can be gained.”

Rushdie points out that translation means to carry across, she said. An idea or a story or a person moves through a border. People who migrate are in translation. And she is interested in the ideas translated and what happens to them in motion.

Artist Asli Cavusoglu has an eye for the ways people talk between the lines. She lives and works in Istanbul and on an island outside the city, and she will bring a mix of new commissions and recent work to Mass MoCA, Foradas said.

In a broad exhibit, “Just the Push of a Voice,” Cavusoglu will gather new commissions including “Annex,” an installation based on graffiti she has seen over the last 10 years in Istanbul.
Street artists will write revolutionary messages on the walls, Foradas said, and within a day people of opposing views will render the letters into abstract forms. Cavusoglu has been creating a new alphabet from these abstractions.

“Annex” follows an earlier work, “A Few Hours after the Revolution,” in which the artist created a neon installation based on the word “Devrim,” Turkish for revolution, that is often scrawled by leftist graffiti artists and then quickly altered by rightists.

People sometimes can tell a great deal from symbols or a few words. In “Not Equal To,” Cavusoglu sets out 19 pairs of words drawn in cuttlefish ink on restored paper. They seem to mean the same thing, though they can mean widely different things. In Turkish, Foradas said, the way you say something as seemingly simple as “good morning” can show your political affiliation or your faith.

Here Cavusoglu will build pairs of words in English that work the same way, with similar meanings that can suggest very varied points of view, like Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays -- or undocumented and illegal.

“The way we speak is so often coded,” Foradas said, “and filled with information about our beliefs in ways not always talked about openly.”

Cavusoglu also considers words people try to erase. She has created a song from 191 words the Turkish government once banned from the airwaves. In January 1985, Cavusoglu explains in her website, the General Directorate of the Turkish Radio and Television Corp. banned 205 words on television and radio broadcasts -- words like “memory, remember, recollection, experimental, motion, revolution, nature, dream, theory, possibility, history, freedom, example, conversation, whole, life.”


Linking music and visual arts
The meeting of music and art intrigues Foradas and several artists in this show, including Osman Khan, an artist who directs the master of fine arts program in the School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan.

Khan is working on a new commission for Mass MoCA, an installation with sound. Popular music in the United States usually follows Western, European structures -- the octave, the 12-note chromatic scale, 3/4 or 4/4 time, and so on.

“He is interested in what would happen if dance music was written from an Indian tradition,” Foradas said.

For Mass MoCA, Khan imagines a kind of three-dimensional stage set inspired by Mughal miniature paintings, especially of thrones -- an emperor sitting on a carved chair under a canopy.
Khan draws his sounds from Indian classical music, from the complex melodies and structures and improvisations of ragas.

A raga, Foradas explained, is a language of sound. Indian classical music has many, many ragas. In each one the tone and length and order of the notes holds a feeling, a stage of mind. Some are meant to be played at a time of day or a time of year, such as at sunrise in the first days spring.

Khan is creating new music influenced by an algorithm he is creating and an electronic tabla, a drum played with the hands and fingers in a rhythm that can rise and fall like a speaking voice.
Jimena Sarno, an artist in Argentina and the United States, also is creating new music in her work. This spring she will release a vinyl record of “taracata trabaja,” a sound installation she composed and designed with Argentine musician Axel Krygier.

The music is based on an Argentine folk song, “Malambo del Hornerito,” warmly honoring the hornero, the national bird of Argentina.

Horneros are small birds, red-brown and white, “monogamous and hard working,” Sarno says in a description of the work on her website. They are also called red ovenbirds, because they build nests out of mud and straw: a red-brown dome a foot tall with a rounded door in the front.
The folk song plays with two onomatopoeias, she writes: “taracata, the sound of hard work (i.e., fields being plowed and nails being hammered) and chapalea, a verb evolving from the sound of squelching in mud.” She intends the music, she writes, to give a sense of “the complexities of making a home, and of labor and its imbued ideas of meritocracy … pleasure, well-being and dignity.”

The installation’s music accompanies sculpture, as Sarno glazes the notes and images of the birds on hand-thrown ceramic plates. At Mass MoCA, four singers will perform the score for four voices at the show’s opening on March 21.

Brazilian artist Clarissa Tossin has called on music and dance to translate a house across 4,000 miles, along the Pacific coast to the cities where its design has its roots. She will bring “Ch’u Mayaa” to Mass MoCA as a film linked to an installation in 2018 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.

Tossin describes it as honoring and reviving “the overlooked influence of Mayan architecture on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House.”

Hollyhock House is now a UNESCO World Heritage site in Los Angeles. It has sunlit dun walls like blocks of stone set at a steep slant. Patterns of linked squares repeat on the moldings and in the windows. Rectangular lights shine through slats of wood, and stone steps lead into a courtyard garden lined with square pillars.

Tossin imagines the house as a temple. In her work, a woman dances there with gestures and postures found in ancient Mayan pottery and murals. She reunites the house with the Mesoamerican tradition and architecture it belongs to, linking it through centuries. The title means “Maya Blue,” Tossin explains, an azure pigment in Mayan pottery and murals, known for lasting through weather and time.


“Kissing Through a Curtain” opens March 21 at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. Visit massmoca.org for more information.