Faith and Formalism: Rachel Harrison at MoMA
Rachel Harrison: Perth Amboy at the Museum of Modern Art
March 19 to September 5, 2016
11 West 53rd Street (between 6th and 7th avenues)
New York, 212 708 9400
In 2000, a miracle occurred in the blue-collar town of Perth Amboy, New Jersey. On a window of Ramona and Marcelino Collado’s second floor apartment at 103 Washington Street, the Virgin Mary appeared. As news of her advent spread through the neighborhood, scores of the Catholic faithful lined up outside the little house with peeling vinyl siding in order to troop up the stairs and pay homage. At the time, artist Rachel Harrison caught wind of the event and traveled to Perth Amboy with her camera to document the worshippers. Seeing is believing.
The photographs resulting from this pilgrimage currently line the walls of the Museum of Modern Art’s second-floor Dunn Gallery, a component of Harrison’s larger installation Perth Amboy (2001), marking the first time MoMA has displayed the work since acquiring it in 2011. Large sheets of corrugated cardboard form a winding labyrinth throughout the room, and a guard controls entry to the gallery. (To have such a respite from MoMA’s infamous crowds is reason alone to spend time with the work. The relative quiet fosters meditation and augments the contemplative quality of Perth Amboy.) Because freestanding cardboard is intrinsically precarious, the viewer is especially aware of her body as she moves through the space, taking extra care not to accidentally brush up against the boards, lest one tips and sends the whole thing toppling like dominoes. Rounding the corner of a cardboard sheet she might be surprised by another body on the opposite side. The installation choreographs these chance encounters, where a stranger is obliged, even if fleetingly, to regard another.
“People see what they want to see,” Harrison has said of her own work, and here, it’s the act of looking itself that is being plumbed. In a neat metaphysical sleight of hand, Harrison sets up moments throughout the installation where the very action the viewer performs is also what she is challenged to consider. Upon carefully placed pedestals interspersed within the maze are coupled objects: in each case one half of the pair is distinctly figurative while the other represents a “work of art.” On one pedestal, a “Becky, Friend of Barbie” doll, sitting in a wheelchair and with a camera around her neck, gazes upon a chromogenic print tacked up on the wall before her. Elsewhere, situated on a mirrored base that reflects the lower half of a viewer’s body, a cheap figurine family of Dalmatian dogs stares up collectively at a common cardboard mailer, which has been bent so that it stands upright. A plaster bust of Marilyn Monroe — plunked into a Stor-All box and perched on a small, wheeled platform that has been shoved into a cardboard corner of the labyrinth — is unexpectedly moving. The objects themselves are garish and sometimes tawdry but in each instance Harrison investigates the visceral experience of looking at something, really stopping to consider it. This “something” might be anything: a work of art, celebrity culture, the Divine. Suddenly the kitschy objects are suffused with a more profound resonance—like Marilyn, the classic icon of fashion and Hollywood who epitomizes what it is to be seen, slung low to the ground and sliding towards the informe on a warehouse dolly.
And then there are the photographs. Taken from a vantage point somewhere across the street from the Collado family’s anointed window, most of the images capture believers who have come to witness the Blessed Virgin. Depending on the angle of light, their faces are not always visible through the glass; most often we see only hands pressed against the pane. The images evoke another biblical reference: the tale of Doubting Thomas. According to the story, after Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to all the disciples but Thomas. When the others informed him of Christ’s return, Thomas replied he couldn’t believe it until he saw for himself. It’s from this story that the common idiom “seeing is believing” originally derives, and which proves especially prescient to Perth Amboy.
Non-believers may scoff at Virgin Mary sightings in unusual places, and the gullibility of those who are certain of their truth. But Harrison’s unexpectedly beautiful photographs reveal the poignancy of religious pareidolia, and the believers who are heartened by the perceived emanation. Faith is an intense, sometimes overwhelming emotion, and the sense of sight is often its most powerful incubator, regardless of whether the idol is religious, political, celebrity, aesthetic, or something else entirely. With Perth Amboy Harrison interrogates the unequivocal, and in so doing challenges viewers to examine their own dogmatic beliefs whatever they might be. What aspects of our own convictions might only be mirages on a pane of glass?