NORTH ADAMS — “Promise Me Peril” read the neon-lit sign on the wall upstairs at Mass MoCA in blazing hot pink. Nearby, a blue-green buggy snaked its way toward me along a cotton candy-colored track and stopped to let me climb on board. This is fine, I thought, taking a deep breath, as museum staff released the safety and wheeled me to an opening, where below me, the two-story expanse of the museum’s enormous building five came into full view.
I had a moment to contemplate the ribbon of track twisting every which way, and another thought surfaced: It didn’t look this steep from down there. A slight nudge, and conscious thought vaporized into existential panic — I was gone, falling in space, whipped around a curve and corkscrewing downward. I’ll admit: I yelped. The promise was kept.
Once every hour or so, this is what awaits visitors to E.J. Hill’s “Brake Run Helix,” a new, giant-size exhibition at the extra-large North Adams art museum. Rides are by appointment, and like any amusement park, there’s a minimum height for passengers. Past that, the ride is open to anyone willing to take the dare. The title is roller-coaster 101: A brake run is a stretch of track where the coaster loses momentum and slows, to give its riders a chance to recover; the helix is its opposite, a spiral where the g-force is the most intense and threat feels closest at hand.
Hill’s coaster here, which relies only on gravity and momentum to propel its rider along its whiplash-inducing course, is a mechanics-free prototype sure to draw as many engineers as art lovers. Coaster enthusiasts are a deep subculture populated by equal parts thrill seekers and structural design aficionados, and they are legion: rides on Hill’s are booked solid for months. The show will stick around until January 2024, so with a little patience, you’ll get your chance.
Roller coasters are a rare and maybe unique thing, where rigid practicalities of form and function — simulating danger without introducing any real danger is, after all, the goal — serve the intensely impractical goal of provoking emotions at their most extreme. The promise, indeed, must be peril, and it needs to feel real — otherwise, why bother?
At Mass MoCA, the coaster sits on a wooden stage, its mezzanine boarding area curtained off by two stories of thick green velvet drapes. It lends the installation a theatrical air befitting its goal. When I thought about Hill’s intentions for the work, it was clear they were very much in line with any art, whether still, like a painting or sculpture, or in motion, like theater, dance, or film.
If art has a purpose, it’s to move you — through its simulations, to prompt emotion that feels genuine. Just to pick something at random, I can’t stand in front of a Clyfford Still painting, with its jagged swipes of paint jabbed rough and loose, without sensing a quiet fury; a recent night at the Boston Ballet’s presentation of “Artifact Suite,” by William Forsythe, left me with a hollow, bereft feeling of loss. At its best, art is a way in — a proxy designed to access tightly guarded parts of our emotional selves. It’s why a song can fill you to near-bursting with elation, or, after a sad movie, you’re a quivering mess. It’s also why we need it.
I don’t know if I needed a terror-inducing plunge along a skinny pink track (yikes, is it too skinny? I kept wondering, as my internal organs mashed up against one side of my rib cage, and then the other), but I can’t deny the emotional response: Terror and thrill (in my case, way more terror) bundled up together, irrepressible.
Hill has been fascinated with that response since childhood, filling his elementary school notebooks with arcing doodles of cross-hatched trusses and tracks. In the gallery underneath the coaster’s loading area, his photographs and paintings, often an ebullient bright pink, are frequently titled “Joy Studies.”
For him, the work is personal, and the joy complex. Born in Los Angeles, Hill, 37, grew up in South Central, where race riots erupted in 1992 after four officers captured on video brutally beating a Black man, Rodney King, were acquitted of excessive use of force. He attaches a fraught social history to what some might regard as simple amusement. In the United States, leisure was bound up in the racial codes of a segregated nation; Hill, who is Black, has researched how non-white Americans were barred from swimming pools, skating rinks, and yes, amusement parks until the Supreme Court’s landmark desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Its immediate aftermath didn’t yield widespread equal access; many private amusement parks either closed down or relocated to faraway suburbs that required a car — and the means to have one — just to visit.
Every visceral and immediate thrill a coaster might provide in the United States is freighted with a social history of simple pleasures denied. In previous works, Hill would often insert himself in the piece as an emblem of that inequity; in 2016 at Harlem’s Studio Museum, he lay prone and silent on a wooden platform surrounded by a small-scale model of a neon-trimmed roller coaster track.
Another undercurrent runs below the surface of the coaster’s bright and cheery invitation to controlled danger. The installation cannily mashes up high and low culture — the rarefied realm of the art museum, the crass ebullience of the amusement park — with a subtle, equalizing grace.
Hill includes an occasional wink and nod. He knows where he is, and the arbitrary standard to be upheld. In the gallery space beyond the coaster, short lengths of pink-painted wood reminded me of gestures by canonized Minimalist artists like Carl Andre, whose work included a row of firebricks placed end to end. Another look establishes the pink planks as fragments of track. Around them, Hill has placed several rickety wooden structures with the deliberate air of the home-made: A roller coaster car of tacked together planks, and a precarious model track with rough arches cobbled haphazardly together.
One piece in particular made a larger point: A coaster car positioned on a track that arced sharply upward and abruptly ended in midair. Is it a journey into oblivion or liberation? It’s a fine line, and you’ll never know unless you get in and take the ride.
E.J. HILL: BRAKE RUN HELIX
At Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams. Through January 2024. 413-662-2111, www.massmoca.org