Visual Arts Review: “Ways to Baffle the Wind” — Exploring Humanity and Nature at Mass MoCA
By Chloe Pingeon
Yto Barrada’s intent in this show is not to warn about environmental catastrophe so much as to explore where culture and the natural world meet.
As I walk out of MASS MoCA in North Adams, I can’t help but conclude that the galleries here make a strikingly fitting home for Yto Barrada’s show Ways to Baffle the Wind (on view through May 29, 2023). Located inside a renovated former textile mill, the space is cavernous. As I make my way through the museum’s vast interior, one exhibition seems to blur into another. At times, my eyes would unexpectedly drift from a piece of curated art toward a glimpse of a frozen river through one of the building’s floor-to-ceiling windows. I enter a slanted metal tunnel that stretches over the snowy ground — a bridge between two buildings. Here, I am met with echoes of voices, recordings of a low humming, and then a high-pitched bell ringing from an invisible speaker. It’s hard to discern whether the noise is coming from inside or outside the tunnel. And this disorientating sense of fluidity — in sound and space — echoes how Barrada self-consciously blurs borders in her exhibition only slightly down the hall.
Yto Barrada is a Moroccan-French multidisciplinary artist whose work is rooted in history and draws on archival material — film, photographs, and personal experience — in order to examine how people control the spaces where they live. At MASS MoCA, Barrada’s galleries are located in a quiet corner of the museum. Here, her name is outlined in a white font on a gray-green background. Beneath her name is the title of the exhibition, a reference to an essay of the same name featured in a 1952 copy of the lifestyle magazine Sunset Patio Book. Placed in front of Barrada’s abstract work, the complex configurations of multimedia objects that fill her galleries, the words take on a philosophical air. In the popular magazine, the advice on baffling the wind was fiercely literal. When it comes to tending a garden patio, the Sunset Patio explained, the wind is a nuisance. “To baffle the wind” was about controlling, in the name of suburban grooming, the air around us. Tips were provided on how best to accomplish this task.
As I enter the exhibition the first thing I notice is a small metal fan placed on the floor. Above the fan hangs a delicate grid of strings and cotton balls. The balls sway slightly in an artificial breeze so soft that I might not have noticed the gentle airflow. The breeze is there though. The fan sits on the floor, still, not stirring the air around it. On closer inspection, it turns out that the fan’s propeller has been weighted down with rocks. A machine designed to generate wind has been rendered inert. In this case, the wind has been canceled, perhaps stymied. There is a playful tone to the work here, a neutrality that cuts against the reasonable expectation that this exhibition would deal with concerns about environmental justice. It is also representative of the show: Barrada’s intent is not to warn about environmental catastrophe so much as to explore where culture and the natural world meet. How much can we control the wind? How much can we control the climate? How often should we take command? These are the questions Barrada raises — like all good artists, she does not necessarily provide neat answers.
The final room of the exhibition is dark, filled entirely with a large screen that projects two films on a loop. The first, Tree Identification for Beginners (2017), centers on the story of students who are part of Operation Crossroads Africa, a 1964 program where African student leaders were sent to the United States with the objective of helping Africans and Americans expel misconceptions about each other. Barrada’s mother was a participant on this trip. As the film’s audio relays personal stories, we see a gray-blue background: a series of orange squares, blue triangles, textile prints, and green shapes flicker across the screen. A Moroccan woman, a member of an anti-imperialist group in Paris, was invited to be part of the program. She agreed because it was an opportunity to “go see the devil.” When she returned, she was expelled by the members of the radical organization, accused of consorting with the enemy. As I enter the room, a voice-over is discussing the performance of the students in the program. They seemed more concerned with their physical comfort than with making the program a success, the audio tells us.
The screen goes black and then white, and then it is filled with flickering footage of machinery and a laboratory. The second film begins: The Power of Two or Three Suns, 2020. Words flash across the screen. The film is an exhibition of scientific machines whose purpose is to duplicate and intensify natural forces: it is extolled as a way to better understand the real world.
The machines, a plaque outside the film explains, “are said to have the power of two or three suns.” We are warned: “Caution use protective glasses when looking into the arc.” In the film, fingers are shown pressing fluorescent yellow-green buttons. There is the sound of machinery whirring to life, a shot of metal spinning around a fluorescent green light, the spinning increasing in speed until the green light blurs. The screen turns a blinding hot white and then goes red, then white again, and then black.
The link between the two movies is unclear, as are the connections among the sculptures and cardboard objects scattered throughout the other galleries. When do human attempts to control the natural world become acts of self-destructive hubris? When are they genuinely useful? The answer, Barrada seems to be suggesting, is blowing in the wind.
Chloe Pingeon is a rising senior at Boston College studying film and journalism. She has written regularly for the features and arts section of Boston College’s Independent Student Newspaper The Heights, and has also written for the culture section of Lithium Magazine. She is currently a creative development intern at Foundation Films.