When I visited the ICA a few weeks ago, I saw a work that, as you approach it, resembles two smooth wooden cubes. It’s not particularly spectacular from afar: the wooden pieces are neatly, even artistically, placed together, but they could be anything: a bench, an empty display base. As you come closer, you see lights coming from within. By the time you’re standing directly above one of the cubes, you find yourself looking into a mirror and lamp-lined interior that creates an endless downward tunnel. It’s beautiful and hypnotic. And on me, it had an effect quite different from what the creator of “11 Upside Down” (2007), Ivan Navarro, described as expressive of his “psychological anxieties.”

When I was growing up with my mother in Moscow, I’d spy on her and her friends in the evening as they turned off the lights in the living room, lit candles on the mirrored table against the wall, stood another mirror in front of it and peered endlessly into the tunnel that, at its depths, promised to show their destiny. (My mother swore she saw a bearded man, clearly not Russian, who many years later became my step-father in reality.)

I learned only later that the cubes’ tunnel effect is meant to replicate a frightening endless abyss – replicating the vertigo effect of the collapsing twin towers.

These encounters with the unexpected is, I think, what makes great contemporary art great. The work elicits a reaction, you connect (or at least respond) emotionally, and then discover a totally unpredictable direction that connects you intellectually. And my first visit to the ICA today was filled with a number of these experiencing, making me wonder exactly what happened when a Boston Magazine‘s Rachel Levitt Slade visited and so unabashedly critiqued the place in her “ICA: Exhibitionists?” (For what it’s worth, a disclaimer re: my late ICA blooming: I lived in Europe from 2005 until 2009, and then in New York, or I would never have let 5 years lapse without visiting.)

Minimalist ICA landscaping.

True, the museum, when approached from “behind” (that is, anywhere that’s not the water) is not unlike the two wooden cubes: plain and, to be frank, unimpressive. I was nervous as I walked up. I wondered why no one had invested in trees and a walkway, some signage, some ads on the posts as you drive up from I-93 to let you know that you’re approaching something worth noticing. I wanted to write that if there was a way to close your eyes until you’re 15 feet from the entrance, you should. But then that would kill the surprise that awaited me when I entered the architectural tour de force that, like many modern buildings I’ve been in, is far more impressive from within.

The view from within makes it all worthwhile.

While touring the galleries, I was in for another surprise: the staff. They’re not security guards. They don’t look tired and don’t avoid eye contact. On the contrary: they’re young, full of energy, and, true to their bright “Ask me” pins, really want to talk to you. After I’d spoken with the third one, I had to ask what was going on. “Most of us have an art background” she said, and explained that she’s a University of Chicago Art History grad. “The museum was hiring people with a certain background and realized this was something different, and then they had education programs for us, we got to meet with the artists and the curators.” She proceeded to give me a  brief private tour of the works in her designated room, answered every question, provided unexpected details, sited what the artists themselves said when they visited. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like it in a museum or a gallery – or learned so much in such a brief period of time. It brough the work to life in a way no curatorial note can.

A few other highlights:

Gabriel Kuri’s show, “Nobody needs to know the price of your SAAB”. Unusual, playful, at once subtle (is it social criticism or simply commentary?) – the exhibit has stuck with me for its unexpected juxtapositions (decomposing avocados, signifying the ephemeral, wrapped in newspapers announcing the first moon landing – an event permanently etched in history). Kuri’s commentary on consumerism – a sort of diary made up of a huge collection of grocery store receipts – makes you feel oddly familiar with the artist and then leads to the question of how much others could tell about us by following our consumer patterns. A very interesting artist.

Shephard Fairey’s posters. I’d never seen the Obama “Hope” poster, which Fairey designed, as anything but advertising. But the exhibit of Fairey’s work introduced a heavy dose of irony: Fairey has also mocked and parodied Soviet propaganda and juxtaposed it with American advertising. So was the “Hope” poster intended as pure promotion or could it be part of his propagandesque series? You can read the artist’s statement here.

Christian Janlowski’s “The Hunt” video. The film follows a man who enters a supermarket with bow and arrow and shoots targets like paper towels and food staples.

Mona Hatoum’s “Dormeuse.” An elegantly shaped chaise lounge you’d never want to lounge on (it’s constructed of industrial platform-type metal). The piece reminded me of a high school art class assignment that asked us to make an unusable piece of furniture. Form is everything, function is nearly forgotten – yet the incongruence of it all makes it impossible to dissociate the design from the original purpose of a chaise (the ultimate comfort piece!)

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