Monday, January 21, 2008

The Berkshires Seemed Dreamlike on Account of That Frosting

Or, Relaxation, Hospitality Professionalism, Conceptual Art, Post-Industrialism, and, Because We Don't Want to Stray Too Far From Narcissism, My Hair

As previewed, children were deposited and we took off for scenic North Adams, Massachusetts to stay at The Porches. We spent much of a day at Mass MOCA, where we had, ridiculously, never been, and we ate at Jae's (because everyone said it was the place to eat), Cafe Latino, and Mezze (Mezze was great, Cafe Latino good, and Jae's fine--more about Porches and Mass MOCA below). We took a hot tub under a full moon; it was 15 degrees and my hair froze. I worked out twice. I read Ian McEwan and S read David Mitchell. We listened to Miranda Lambert, X, Wilco (of course), and Okkervil River. If you didn't know better, you would think we were pretentious artsy rich people, probably from New York. OK, so we're just pretentious artsy people, but at least we're honest about it.

We are also increasingly picky and cranky people. Really, we SHOULD be rich New Yorkers. Except that I think part of the reason we are so picky is that if we're going to splurge, we want things to be right. Some things that were right at the Porches were the incredibly comfortable bed and, oh my god, the sheets (could some of the rightness come from the fact that they were, uh, clean?). Also the fitness room with great machines and enough of them. The hot tub was most excellent, and the decor was hip--didn't thrill me off my rocker (that's kind of a Porches joke), but certainly was what it should be.

The service, though? Not so much acceptable. What's going to happen on a holiday weekend at a destination hotel? A LOT OF PEOPLE ARE GOING TO COME. So what do you need to do? MAKE SURE YOU HAVE ENOUGH STAFF ON DUTY. To do things like HAVE ENOUGH COFFEE CUPS AT BREAKFAST and RESTOCK THE TOWELS IN THE POOL ROOM. I tell you, next time there's an opening for a cranky rich New Yorker, I am so there. But seriously, a hotel that nice and expensive should not be making me notice that the croissants on Sunday morning look like bad airplane croissants (and then what's with the perfect croissants Monday morning? uh, you know, you're a weekend kind of hotel, you should be serving your BEST croissants on SUNDAY MORNING, and if the baker takes Sundays off, well, find a new baker). OK, even I am getting disgusted with myself, so I will spare you the rant on the restaurant that wouldn't find space for us Saturday night even though half its tables were empty, and anyway S does that rant much better than I do, having the professional angle and all.

As I said, it's just ridiculous that we've never been to Mass MOCA, given all the time we've spent driving back and forth between the middle of the country and the right side of the country over the last several years. But now we've been, and I will say upfront and thoroughly sincerely that Mass MOCA is brilliantly excellent and we loved it. Oddly, both S and I had envisioned it in the middle of a field, but it is right there in the middle of town, a huge old mill complex, which is just fabulous for big art. And I love that there is no permanent collection, which means it really can be a museum of contemporary art.

We loved Spencer Finch's exhibit, What Time Is It On The Sun?, from the first piece, which is a pair of black-and-white photos, labeled, that mark the two ends of a rainbow in Brooklyn, I think in 2004. You know how there are supersmellers and supertasters? Well, this guy is clearly a superlooker. The show is all about light and color and time. Like, there's a piece that is 100 paintings of pink circles, all different pinks, and the title is something about trying to remember the color of Jackie Kennedy's hat. And as soon as you start looking at the paintings, you think, what color WAS her hat, because of course it was round and pink, but which pink? And several other paintings are colors at different times of day. And there are these fabulous window filter installations which are also about capturing color and light at precise moments. So this was where I had my insight about conceptual art, because there were some pieces that did nothing for me. One was a circle of fans, and the title was something about the wind at Walden Pond for two hours and 22 minutes on some day, and the fans went on and off to capture the direction and speed of the wind that day. It was technologically and theoretically interesting, but aesthetic pleasure in the moment? None. So, for me at least, conceptual art works if it engages me in perception, not just thought, and that's my insight.

There were also mind-blowingly amazing Anselm Kiefer paintings which that link barely captures. Really, if you have any chance of going to see these paintings, you must, and you must think of Waterloo and Jay DeFeo's "The Rose," and, wait, maybe I can find better links for those paintings, yes, try here and here, but truly they barely capture them either, so you must just take my word for it and go. There is also a Jenny Holzer exhibit (good link on that one) which is behind a closed door and I said to S, as we went toward it, "This I am so not interested in, she has done nothing new since the mid-80s," but it was actually kind of cool: the banal words were projected and moved across the enormous room and there were giant bean bags to lie on and watch them move, kind of like The Weather Project at the Tate Modern a few years ago, only not nearly so fabulous (I tell you, the pretentiousness meter is rising, rising, rising). And then there are giant paintings from military PowerPoints about the plans for the war, which are pretty compelling and make an interesting counterpoint to Kiefer's war paintings at the other end of the building.

But enough about art, what else was on my list? Oh yeah, post-industrialism. Hmm, I'm getting tired, and I can't imagine anyone besides Jenny is still reading, but I must go on (I can't go on, I must go on). I don't really know the abandoned factories of the midwest or the abandoned mines of the west and southwest, but, to me, the abandoned mills of the northeast have always been one of the most powerful symbols of our collapsed economy. Not the mortgage collapse of last year or the stock market collapse of this week, but the utter collapse of an economy of production into an economy of consumption that seems at best decadent, at worse hopelessly unsustainable.

We used to call North Adams the armpit of Massachusetts. It was a bus stop and a place to get through as quickly as possible, happy you didn't live there. Mass MOCA is an amazing thing, truly, as is the recuperation of mills everywhere--whether they are condos, community spaces, high-tech companies, artist's studios, whatever. And yet, I found myself asking, again and again, how much of the renascence of North Adams via contemporary art is really trickling down to the descendants of the people who worked in those mills. Surely there are jobs: service jobs, for the most part, though also secretarial, security, construction. But are there enough jobs? Are there real opportunities? Is there anything for the kids? I hope--and I am not going to try and figure it out, this is not my problem--that Mass MOCA has a great educational program, that they are employing high school students in putting up exhibits, and bringing every North Adams elementary school kid into the museum at least twice a year, that they send their visiting artists and interns out into the schools, that they are championing art education for the masses, not just art consumption for the elites, because that is what has the possibility to make a real difference for North Adams which, frankly, aside from Mass MOCA and the Porches and a few nice restaurants, really does not look so different than it did back in the day.

Am I done yet? Oh yes, my hair. My hair actually looked fine this weekend. Which could be because 1) I have gotten used to it, 2) it has grown out sufficiently to look reasonable, or 3) the real issue is less my hair than the exhaustion in my face so that on a relaxing weekend my hair was free to look fine. Whatever, we'll find out soon enough, and I'll be sure to update.

Longest post ever?? And I didn't even talk about the pathetic tweed-jacketed professorial type we saw both Saturday and Sunday night, clearly trying his hardest to get laid on a college town holiday weekend. Way too depressing, and not my problem. Truly, though, it was a lovely break.


Kathy said...

Read through the whole post--even the links and loved it, even the hair analysis. Sounds like a mostly great weekend sans croissants. I can't believe I've never been to Mass MOCA either (though we tried once--it was closed.) Hope you had enough relaxation time!!!!

addy said...

Totally jealous as you know...but it helped that you talked about your curiousity about the jobs and the education. My guess is no, because in the end there are no decent jobs in the Berkshires. Also it is the most ridiculous meeting place of townspeople who have no money and rich, cranky New Yorkers. I miss it muchly!

Jenny Davidson said...

I am laughing--but yes, I am sure you have a lot of people reading all the way through!

Dee said...

Holy crow, got to delurk for this.

We were there too -- Dad over-50, mom over-40, both slightly overweight, overseeing our riotously happy 3-year old boy. Maybe he even ran into you in the Jenny Holzer!

We're locals, and your concerns about jobs/ schools are justified. There's a big divide, between those who think the North Adams school system is perfectly fine, and those who keep their kids out (and go private or homeschool) at all costs. I am still on the fence since we live in one of the "better" elementary districts, although how much difference can there be?

There are still some pretty good manufacturing jobs around, though nothing like the Sprague days. Plastic molds, metal plating, the gypsum refinery -- that kind of thing. DH has worked at the same printing company 20 years, and has great benefits.

Sorry about the snotty restaurant -- give a clue which one, so I can go in and stir things up!

Phantom Scribbler said...

I grew up in one of those decaying mill towns. In fact, we dubbed it "The Armpit of the Universe." And it is.

Anonymous said...

MASS MoCA does have a program called Kidspace which brings every elementary school kid through the museum 2x a year and a program called Art Assembly which brings kids in 4 times a year (not all NA kids come to every show) for performing arts events. Kidspace is program of MASS MoCA, Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, and Williams College Museum of Art.

Eric said...

Hello! I'm Eric, the assistant innkeeper at Porches. I happened across your mention of us and wanted to thank you for your comments about our inn. I'm glad you enjoyed your stay and found it relaxing. The outdoor hot tub in the middle of winter is a favorite spot, and yes, our beds are so comfortable, that occasionally guests buy them from us! As for
the d├ęcor, we refer to it as "Granny chic," as it combines the vintage-y aspects you'd find in your grandmother's house with modern stylings.

I'm sorry you encountered issues related to our being busy that weekend. Unfortunately, when a large number of guests are enjoying certain areas of our inn all at once, it can cause temporary shortages. I’ll be sure to speak with the staff about being more vigilant during busy times to ensure we do not run out of things. I also apologize about the inconsistency of the croissants from one morning to the next. Thank you for bringing that to our attention so we can work with our staff to create a more consistent experience.

Once again, thank you for your comments and we look forward to having you return as a guest in the future!

Eric Nixon

Assistant Innkeeper -- The Porches Inn