Many reviewers have hailed the Institute of Contemporary Art’s (ICA) new $51 million building on the Boston Harbor waterfront as all but a divine gift to architecture. Writing in The Boston Globe, Robert Campbell called the building “the most inventive, most interesting piece of local architecture since the Hancock Tower of a generation ago,” while a Globe editorial hailed the museum as “a floating palace for art” and “a rectangular revolution,” which resembles “an elongated pizza box on top of an extra-wide shoebox.”
Yet the building, designed by the firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, photographs far better than it appears in person, unless you view it from a boat a few hundred yards off the shoreline. Viewers approach the very boxy building from behind, and upon entering find themselves in a structure resembling a black box theater with some art hanging on the walls. Instead of integrating the art with the neighborhood, the museum allows only one view of the harbor from a long narrow hallway that contains no art. The rest of the pieces huddle in dark rooms cut off from their surroundings.
But ICA Boston does boast interesting Islamic works, primarily three pieces currently on view by artists Ambreen Butt and Mona Hatoum. Born in Beirut in 1952, Hatoum now splits her time between London, England and Berlin. Her work specializes in objects that are not only useless, but downright harmful. Viewers would not want to step on “Pin Rug” (1998-99), which looks like a comfortable carpet only when viewed from a distance. Upon closer inspection, the “rug” is composed of thousands of stainless steel pins affixed with glue to a canvas ground, which the ICA correctly describes as weaving “an uneasy tension that slyly unravels our assumptions about what is safe and secure.” The piece resembles another one of Hatoum’s works titled “Welcome,” which creates a welcome mat from thousands of pins.
Hatoum, who has shown her work in six major ICA shows in the past 12 years, often works with deceptively inviting objects. Her “Keffieh” (1993-99) creates a convincing headscarf using women’s hair, while “Incommunicado” (1993) creates a child’s crib out of metal and wire that more closely resembles a torture device and source of imprisonment than it does a comfortable bed. The crib alludes to domestic abuse, as does the installation “Homebound” (2000), which recreates a kitchen with a table, clothing rack, chairs and utensils, all electrified with 240 volts via wires. The installation, which literally hums from the electric current, explores the decay of the home from comfortable, personal space to a dangerous, chaotic nightmare.
Though they also focus often on paralysis and constraint, Ambreen Butt’s works at ICA are a bit brighter. Born in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1969, Butt currently works in Boston. She uses a modern derivation of Persian and Indian miniatures, and often uses her own figure as a model in her work. Her watercolor, gouache (opaque watercolor) and thread work on Mylar paper, from the series Bed of My Own Making (1999), which is currently on exhibit at ICA, shows a woman (perhaps the artist) holding a lit torch with a snake wrapped about it, as woman’s hair mimics the snake by tying her feet together and to a small shrub for good measure. The Mylar is layered with small dots and red, orange, white and grey vertical lines. In the ICA wall text, Butt describes the series’ protagonist as “a graceful nayika (heroine) looped in endless cycles of entanglement,” in particular “making choices and living with them for better or for worse.”
“Multiplicité (AB95)” from the series Cirque du Monde (2007), also on exhibit at ICA, uses watercolor, gouache and thread on Mylar, much like “Untitled.”The wall text identifies this work as representing the artist as she is swallowed several times by a dragon-demon, which Butt identifies as the challenge of “being pulled in many directions.”
Ironically, Butt’s and Hatoum’s work makes perfect sense in the architectural chaos of the ICA. Pieces about imprisonment and entanglement carry special significance when they are stuck in a dungeon of an art gallery, where viewers need to leave the art to catch a glimpse of sunlight and water. Perhaps the curators did not intend the pieces to occupy a space so connected with their content, but ICA Boston certainly caters to its Islamic paintings and installations.
A Washington, DC-based writer, Menachem Wecker blogs on religion and art at //Iconia.canonist.com.