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What I Did On My Summer Vacation Part II:Josiah McElheny at The ICA Boston

Boston in the summer is terrific—particularly when you are at the redeveloped water front and can take water taxis to your destinations and get an amazing view of downtown Boston. Boston did what Toronto can only talk about—they buried their version of the Gardiner expressway and created a parkland that is outstanding .

Nothing that 10 years of work and 16 billions dollars can’t achieve…but if I digress into that quagmire called municipal politics I may get stuck in it. Art is so much better…

The former derelict South Boston Seaport District harbourfront area has been rejuvenated with a concert stadium, trendy restaurants, hotels and of course upscale condos. In the middle of this construction lies the Institute of Contemporary Art , a small modern, edgy building overlooking the water. The area is still in transition with lots of construction, but it is worth your walk through a generic public parking lot to get to it. The ICA gets mixed reviews, but they certainly did justice to Josiah McElheny’s exhibition “Some Pictures of the Infinite”.

How does a “craft” get elevated to fine art? Take the craft and apply to it virtuosic technique and philosophical contemplation and you have Josiah MeElheny’s mesmerizing glasswork that speaks to space and time, human history, and the ongoing dialogue among design, everyday objects, and art.

Czech Modernism Mirrored and Reflected Infinitely

The chilling reflections of mirrored surfaces, as seen in works like "Czech Modernism Mirrored and Reflected Infinitely" create a mood of emptiness and vanity inspite of the perfection and beauty of the objects. McElheny works in many mediums but it is with glass that he creates his most profound insights and commentaries into the cosmos and the meaning of life no less. Hand blown plates stunning in their simplicity and design, intertwined wine glasses with glass links—loving cups imprison and delight, a spiral chandelier geometrically aligned to the specific calculations of the solar system and a room filled with planetary glass objects that depicts the astronomy of alternate universes. One walks through the first room where there are stunning glass works of plates, glass linked goblets, into a room of video installations where the geometric play of mirrors has a mesmerizing and distorting effect—one little girl around the age of 4 stood perfectly still for at least five minutes watching a looping video of a cow being efficiently cut up by butchers as her father looked on.

Island of the Universe

Then one entered the Island of the Universe: “Working in collaboration with the cosmologist David Weinberg, McElheny fashioned a system to represent our ever expanding universe, converting the almost inconceivable span of cosmic distance into visual depiction of current scientific theories The five hanging structure represent different models of the cosmos, following the Multiverse theory of Andre Linde, which proposes the coexistence of many potential universes, each with its own unique shape and properties. The sculptures parts correspond to specific astronomical realities, with the hand-blown glass globes and discs representing cluster of galaxies, and the light bulbs signifying quasars…” the statement reads. Heady stuff on a summer day.

One could spend a good hour relaxing in the computer area that showed videos of the exacting techniques and philosophy behind McElheny’s approach to glass. The room overlooks the water and you get this strange perspective of falling into water if you go down to the windows and look down.

We saw two other exhibitions which continued on the theme of the cosmos and the meaning of the Infinite in very creatively different ways. Doris Salcedo who lives and works in Bogota, Colombia had a somber exhibition on loss and mourning with “Atrbilliarios” having the strongest impact for me.


The title refers to the Latin expression “atra billis” which describes a state of melancholy and mourning.

The series of ghostlike shoes “sewn” into the walls and covered with stretched cow bladder and surgical thread had a chilling effect. Salcedo collected the shoes from the families of the “disappeared” women who were taken from their homes during the 1980s during the internal conflict with the paramilitary and the guerilla forces. The shoes are a reminder of the losses of the past and yet these lost women are very present in their melancholy state.

Salcedo is the eighth artist to have been commissioned by the Tate Gallery in London to produce work for their turbine hall in 2007. She often focuses on themes of memories and loss through sculptural depictions of furniture some of which were also on exhibit.

On a lighter note the visit ended with Os Gemeos, a name for two identical twin brothers from Sao Paul Brazil who have taken public art and put their own personal edge and social commentary into their work.

Os Gemeos

Heavily influenced by hip hop music and graffiti when it came to Brazil, they invented their own materials and paints to create surreal, fantastic visions of Brazilian life for the average person in their painting, sculptures, public murals and installations throughout the country. This is their first U.S. solo exhibition. It was bright, colourful in your face and inspite of its biting social commentary an upbeat ending to the afternoon. Os Geomos is on exhibit until November 25.

The week soon came to a close in Boston but I managed to get back to the ICA’s free Thursday evening concerts by the water. Their gift shop is small but it carries an eclectic and varied range of items and books given its size.

What tourist visits Boston without going to the North End and trying some cannoli? Dare I say that Modern Pastry beats out Mikes—the line ups were just too long at Mikes. Each time we went back for Italian food the lines up were insane and I must admit we went back four times—totally fun lining up with no reservations and chatting with everyone. I met a pregnant woman seven months along expecting her first child and we sat down on the street curb waiting the requisite two hours and chatting about life –her husband was out getting some Mikes cannoli to tide her over. My daughter couldn’t hold out—never cross a hungry teenager. We left the lineup and found another great Italian restaurant that specialized in Sardinian Italian food.

As we were walking through the streets in little Italy I noticed abandoned old television sets on the streets where cars would be parked and I thought to myself -- maybe there was some sort of environmental pick up day for old TV sets the next day? Boston was more progressive than I expected…. I was informed that this was the way people saved their parking spot from being taken. It used to be oil drums in the 80s but now it is TV sets. I only have one word for this….hmmmm. Makes you think about the cosmos and the meaning of life doesn’t it? In case there are any doubters, here is a classic photo you won’t see at your local tourist kiosk…

The Josiah McElheny exhibition “Some Pictures Of the Infinite” closes October 14. I leave you with the poem from the exhibition written by the incomparable Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986).


I, who felt the horrors of mirrors Not only in front of the impenetrable crystal Where there ends and begins, uninhabitable, An impossible space of reflections,

But of gazing even on water that mimics The other blue in its depth of sky, That at times gleams back the illusory flight Of the inverted bird, or that ripples,

And in front of the silent surface Of subtle ebony whose polish shows Like a repeating dream the white Of something marble or something rose,

Today at the tip of so many and perplexing Wandering years under the varying moon, I ask myself what whim of fate Made me so fearful of a glancing mirror.

Mirrors in metal, and the masked Mirror of mahogany that in its mist Of a red twilight hazes The face that is gazed on as it gazes,

I see them as infinite, elemental Executors of an ancient pact, To multiply the world like the act Of begetting. Sleepless. Bringing doom.

They prolong this hollow, unstable world In their dizzying spider’s-web; Sometimes in the afternoon they are blurred By the breath of a man who is not dead.

The crystal spies on us. If within the four Walls of a bedroom a mirror stares, I’m no longer alone. There is someone there. In the dawn reflections mutely stage a show.

Everything happens and nothing is recorded In these rooms of the looking glass, Where, magicked into rabbis, we Now read the books from right to left.

Claudius, king of an afternoon, a dreaming king, Did not feel it a dream until that day When an actor shewed the world his crime In a tableau, silently in mime.

It is a strange dream, and to have mirrors Where the commonplace, worn-out repertory Of every day may include the illusory Profound globe that reflections scheme.

God (I keep thinking) has taken pains To design that ungraspable architecture Reared by every dawn from the gleam Of a mirror, by darkness from a dream.

God has created nighttime, which he arms With dreams, and mirrors, to make clear To man he is a reflection and a mere Vanity. Therefore these alarms.

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