Christmas at the MoMA

December 5, 2019
By Wendy Atwel

As children on Christmas Eve, my sister and I thought for sure we heard Santa land on my grandparent’s roof.  We stood behind the closed double doors that led into their living room, waiting. Then we’d hear the bells ringing, and in my mind I saw the runners of Santa’s sleigh somehow landing on the roof. We stood for a few minutes listening, until someone opened the doors and we rushed in to find that presents had magically appeared under the Christmas tree. Even though this was a bit of staged theatrics by the adults, what my sister and I dreamed up in our imaginations felt more real than the bells shaken by my grandfather in the hallway.

Now that I’m grown, I find the real magic, the kind I used to think of as initiated by Santa or toys, in art, like the bells in South Korean artist Haegue Yang’s sculptures on exhibit at the “new” MoMA. But this new presentation and selection of work makes it more clear than ever that we don’t get our magic from the same pieces. This past November, I went to see to the major reconstruction by Diller Scofidio + Renfro as well as the re-hanging and re-curating of the collection.

A sleek, ghostly installation haunts the now double-height foyer. Echo, 2019, by the French artist Philippe Parreno, includes an empty, translucent but beautifully-lit marquis, light fixtures, and a video and sound installation. The light fixtures in the lobby on 53rd street mysteriously lower from the ceiling and then rise up again, as well as flicker, with electronic friction sounds that have the effect of making the museum seem haunted, like in a scary movie. The blank marquis feels eerie in another way, its lit emptiness suggesting the erasure caused by time passing and the resulting oblivion. I wanted to linger, but on Sundays the museum gets very crowded and there was no place to stand out of the way, and with all of the people, I couldn’t find a sign describing the art. Later during the visit I found the perfect perch, on the second floor, just beyond Mark Bradford’s James Brown is Dead, 2007. A small balcony looks out over the lobby and from there I could take in Parreno’s entire installation and watch the lights from a different vantage.  The headline of Brown’s death is the focal point of Bradford’s piece, but it is hidden in plain sight, hard to read, the echoed outline of letters. Only after standing from a distance and looking for some time could I discern the words. Their elusiveness and sense of fleeting formed an uncanny acquiescence with Parreno’s empty marquis.

Whenever I go back to the MOMA I am thinking of what I’ve seen there before. We all have what stands out to us, what we look for and hope to see again…or not. The art I like causes sparks in my mind like the touch of a fairy godmother’s wand. Or it feels like a challenging puzzle, drawing me in. But there’s also the art that falls flat, and feels like a puzzle I can’t understand. Sarah Sze’s Triple Point Pendulum, 2013, is so contrived and elaborate, and though I forced myself to study all of the cultural detritus assembled into Sze’s scheme, the complexity—mixed with banality—made me feel bothered and overwhelmed, like a visual headache, the way my mind feels after being online too long. I was also happy to see that Arthur Young’s Bell 47D1Helicopter had vanished from the mezzanine, one obvious change resulting from the new curation.

The second floor atrium is a pinnacle space, a place of happenings and of central importance. It is where Marina Abramovic sat at a table, looking into the eyes of museum visitors one by one. Another time, the entire floor glowed with brilliant yellow hazelnut pollen, collected by the German artist Wolfgang Laib. Laib referenced modernist painting, enlisting nature to make a giant color block on the floor of the museum. The powerful radiance of the pollen signaled the quiet yet tremendous force of nature, relocated into a gallery space. It was a dislocation—nature versus culture, and the ensuing environmental conflicts this entails—but also a confluence, a reminder of nature as the wellspring, the root and inspiration behind the art held inside the museum.

This time, the installation was by Yang, who is based in Berlin. Handles, five giant rolling sculptures made from thousands of tiny bells, glisten and sparkle with the intriguing texture that is created by all of the tiny bells massed together. Light not only reflects off of them but moves through them. The walls feature the visual equivalent of bells jingling, crazy geometrical patterns of iridescent vinyl. The whole room feels very toy-like, but also more serious than that, with the gravity and mysticism of a secular temple. We missed the “activation” time (4 PM daily) in which performers move the Handles around in a kind of dance, causing the bells to subtly tinkle. This gives them a ritualistic quality. Though Yang’s Handles are weightier and more serious than toys, they are more playful than machines, not utilitarian but objects for object’s sake, the point being to take delight in their aesthetic construction. They are better than anything that ever was at the now-defunct FAO Schwartz, which I don’t really miss, only the thought of it, of hunting inside for some magical toy never to be found.

The resolve that comes from finding what you seek, that sense of fulfillment is obtainable in—I can’t believe I’m saying this—Yoko Ono’s PEACE is POWER, 2019. The walls are painted sky blue with phrases like “SPREAD PEACE” and “IMAGINE PEACE” and there were benches and chairs that face the long windows looking out over the sculpture garden where people were sitting and probably not imagining peace as they checked their iPhones. The space made me think of my yoga teacher, Mary Frances Weathersby, who held winter solstice celebrations and loved the song “War is Over (if you want it),” another reference to Christmas as the song gets played during the holidays. But if I just stopped (I didn’t), I’d understand Ono’s room as an opportunity to be contemplative and engage my thoughts in the ever renewable resource of my imagination.

I did need a place to rest from the insanely jarring, disturbing and noisy art. One darkened room contained the terrible Killing Machine, 2007, by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. This is actually a fantastic piece of art, but also horrifying in its evocations of sanctioned torture, especially after I’ve just seen The Report with Adam Driver, which covers the corruption and the torture practiced at Abu Ghraib.

Chen Zhen’s Un Village sans Frontieres, 2000, is a small pocket of intimacy amidst the chaos. Finding these miniature houses, assembled from colored candles on children’s chairs, felt like the refuge they’re meant to symbolize, and how I’d imagine it would be to enter into one of the small rooms inside. They are the opposite of dollhouses–the tiny furniture that is normally inside a doll’s house is actually the wooden base that holds the house, so there is an element of warmth and domesticity. They reminded me of the spirit houses that I’ve seen in Thailand, which are empty and spare, because they are framed for the spirit, transcending the domestic. Spirit houses belong in the realm of no so much religion as existentialism and philosophy. They are not the creche of Jesus’ birth, but they do have that magical feeling of Christmas Eve, the starry night where Mary brought the divine  into the world, a merging of the divine with the human,  imagining human needs for the intangible: a shelter for the soul.

This is my adult version of magic.

Dara Birnbaum’s Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, 1978-79 is a video loop of Linda Evans doing her transformative spin, from woman to Wonder Woman, and of her using her super power implements—the golden lasso and the cuffs. As a girl I worshipped Wonder Woman for her power, which seemed to magically reside inside of her, available to be whipped up whenever there was conflict: she could call her power forth in the face of danger.

In another gallery I found an entire room filled with pedestals, each with a small object on top, accompanied with the notes of architect Sou Fujimoto.  A pine cone, or a Pringle, or a crumpled up piece of foil or hair bands—each of these were like a  tiny moquette for some architectural design. Fujimoto’s ability to see a design within these commonplace objects made me want to read each and every one of his notes. Though the objects in Architecture is Everywhere, 2015, are many and quotidian, they didn’t give me a headache at all but instead expanded my vision because each idea suggested potential.

If I could pick one foundational piece from the modern art canon, one piece of art that illustrates the new way of seeing that occurred when art veered off the path of traditional representation into the enchanting territory of the conceptual, it would be Pablo Picasso’s Guitar and Wine Glass, 1912, at the McNay. This collage has a background of wallpaper and the image of a guitar is made from newspaper and other scraps of paper and sketching, a classic example of synthetic cubism, in which the artist took disparate elements to combine them into something new. Even a century later, the collage continues to offer this sense of newness and transformation, the fairy godmother spark. Polish artist Zofia Kulik’s The Splendor of Myself II, 1997, a self portrait of the artist, sets her in the portrait style of Queen Elizabeth I, also similar to the image seen on cards as the queen of hearts, or a tarot card. Yet Kulik uses completely different objects to create the image. Leaves, flowers and the male body stand in for lace and the creation of her costume and the artist’s face replaces that of the queen’s. Kulik’s image is an act of trickery and deception, or perhaps transformation, causing a wrinkle in our perception.

The art reminds me of everything Christmas—the shopping, hunting for that just right gift or toy; and also the magic, the potential for transformation; and solemnity, and a chance for contemplation, a seed to grow inside, or a trail to wander down. The sound of bells ringing marks the passage of this sacred act.