from "succession IV" from "MATTER"
It’s a long, ruminative drive from Portland to Parsonsfield, where Mainers are once again congregating in the four-story, 80,000 square foot Robinson Mill. Built on the Ossipee River in 1880, the former woolen textile mill stands at the intersection of the rural communities of Cornish, Kezar Falls, and Parsonsfield. It’s been out of operation since 2000, but for the next three weeks, it’s the site of a bizarre, unclassifiable, and oddly intimate sort of production by the renowned Maine artist Amy Stacey Curtis.
In local art circles, Curtis’s ambitious, career-defining project is well known. “MATTER” is the eighth of nine biennial installations exploring elemental concepts within the walls of largely abandoned Maine mills, an 18-year series she aims to conclude in Lewiston in 2016 (at the same site she launched her first installation, “EXPERIENCE,” in 2000). Like previous exhibits (my first was Biddeford’s “TIME” in 2010), “MATTER” balances on a thin line between high-aesthetic conceptual art—the room’s oily, graffiti’d interior is juxtaposed with sleek, ivory-hued pedestals and glass vials of seemingly infinite quantity—and a rigorous commitment to populism and downright folksy inclusivity. (Curtis herself, gregarious and a little enigmatic, is present during all hours of the exhibit).
Whether experienced alone or in groups, Curtis’s installations tend to produce in visitors a sort of quiet reverence. That sensation is particularly strong here, where the nine exercises of “MATTER” are encased within one of the state’s most rural, remote mills, eerily still, with many of the rooms’ windows shattered by rocks. Large signs bearing painstakingly elaborate instructions guide participants along; in each, the conceit is barebones simple—one asks you to make small alterations to a material form; another to barter with objects left by previous guests; a third, quixotically, to mediate the levels of meniscus on a platform holding nine tall cylinders full of water.
Many exercises seem arbitrary by design, as though an opportunity for extended meditation would help encode the exhibit’s actions deeper into memory. The selection of the wooden cubes in station seven—stamped with digits ranging between one and 2,700 and arranged in haphazard order in narrow caches along the wall—depends entirely on whim. Some might select numbers entirely at random, others according to personal significance, others still in an effort to complete some labyrinthine mathematical riddle.
Some of “MATTER”’s are so minimally devised that participation calls for little more than witness—and as reluctant as we should be to read some pedagogical intention here, this could be a clue. Whether they call for us to build, transform, swap, displace, or discolor, none of these exercises have any sort of real utility or scientific measurement.
And why should they? The value of such physical labors began being swept out of rural Maine long ago. More and more, we live in an experience economy now, where simple acts of extracting meaning from memory, interaction, and sensation is increasingly the model by which human lives are valued.
This is why Curtis’s project works better each time. She works in sites containing an incredible amount of cultural memory of human labor, creating a space for people to perform simple tasks and gestures of physical and mental activity. Freed from the value those gestures once generated their employers—to say nothing of wages earned for themselves—these collectively performed actions can signify whatever we want them to mean—an experience that can be anxious, liberating, and oddly memorable.