Local color: MOCA celebrates a five-year milestone with three all-new exhibitions

Five years ago this fall, a building resembling a cross between an alien vessel and an igneous rock opened its doors in University Circle. Since then, the new home of Cleveland’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) has continued its nearly 50-year tradition of bringing groundbreaking art to Northeast Ohio—with a daring design that signals the equally provocative exhibitions waiting inside.

To fete the fifth anniversary of its Farshid Moussavi-designed building, MOCA hosted a free community day last weekend with artist Q&A panels, live music from Studio-A-Rama, and an after-party at Happy Dog at the Euclid Tavern. The event also marked the opening of three new exhibitions probing the complex nature of abstraction and reality, all chosen specifically to coincide with MOCA's five-year milestone.

What's trending

The first-floor Gund Commons—a space often used for screening video art—is currently displaying Chicago-based artist Jason Salavon’s digital animation Rainbow Aggregator. It projects words, phrases, and names trending on Google and Twitter in a constantly shifting, real-time display. What separates it from other digital aggregators viewers may encounter is, well...this one does it in rainbow colors.

Heritage Studies #29 by artist Iman Issa While the constant influx of terms may prove overwhelming or irritating to some, senior curator Andria Hickey doesn’t see it that way. “It does definitely evoke the ubiquity of information and how it’s constantly changing,” she says, “but not in a disturbing way.” She believes the rainbow patterns help create a viewing effect that lends a nearly meditative quality to the data stream: “It takes something that’s abstract and puts it into something concrete.”

This is the opposite goal of A Poethical Wager, the first major exhibition Hickey has organized at MOCA. Inspired by the same-named book by American poet Joan Retallack, the exhibit spans a wide range of mediums—from sculpture to film to paintings—collected from an array of international artists.

Hickey describes the featured pieces as “taking something from the real world and reflecting its abstraction back to you.” Case in point: Doug Ashford’s “Next Day,” which superimposes abstract patterns over the front pages of the September 12, 2001 issue of the New York Times.

Hickey’s contention is that the abstraction of lives viewed increasingly through screens breeds alienation. The refracted mirrors of A Poethical Wager are meant to turn viewers’ gaze, eventually, back to the concrete. The pieces in this exhibit require a lot of unpacking. Pro tip: be sure to keep an eye out for Tariku Shiferaw’s “Sky Might Fall (Kid Cudi),” an homage to Cleveland’s favorite hometown rapper.

Home is where the heart is

The likely star of MOCA’s fall season is the Phil Collins exhibit. (No, not that Phil Collins—although this interactive display does involve British musicians.)

The exhibit—titled my heart's in my hand, and my hand is pierced, and my hand's in the bag, and the bag is shut, and my heart is caught—takes the form of a series of glass-door listening booths. The booths are big enough to comfortably seat one person (or intimately seat two).

Once inside, viewers can listen to a variety of 7" vinyl records, all of which feature original songs by Manchester-based musicians such as Scritti Politti and David Sylvian. The songs are inspired by recorded conversations (obtained with consent) from a free phone booth Collins set up in a homeless shelter in Cologne.

Collins, whose work is being featured stateside for the first time, is an artist with a strong social conscience. His work’s connection to homelessness may not be immediately apparent to viewers in his booths. However, there’s something powerfully intimate—and frankly, just straight-up cool—about sitting alone in a private, soundproof setting in a public space, picking out records to play.

Homelessness in Germany may look and sound different than homelessness in Cleveland, but Collins’ exhibit attempts to transcend those differences through the common language of music. Hickey feels this will speak to Cleveland’s rock-and-roll heart.

“Cleveland has a fantastic, groundbreaking music scene with a lot of musicians who are civically engaged,” says Hickey, who joined MOCA's staff last September. She hopes the exhibit will hold particular resonance for local musicians and music fans. In conjunction with Phil Collins, MOCA will be sponsoring a benefit concert for homelessness at the Beachland Ballroom in January. 

Many of MOCA’s pieces this fall resist the easy interpretation and digestion that Salavon’s aggregator comments on. Hickey encourages museum visitors to make a second trip.

“It’s a show that definitely requires some time,” she says. It’s time Clevelanders would be well-advised to give.

Read more articles by Billy Hallal.

Billy Hallal works as a freelance writer and an adult literacy advocate at Seeds of Literacy. You can find his writing on Northeast Ohio dining and culture at Thrillist and Cleveland Scene.