NORTH ADAMS — One month ago, in the middle of the Fresh Grass music festival here, a red-tailed hawk smashed through a window of Mass MoCA’s vast, high-ceilinged Building 5, leaving an almost perfect circular hole in a pane of glass.
Museum curator Denise Markonish was overseeing the first intense week of the installation of a Nick Cave exhibition, “Until,” which opened Oct. 15. She was standing by the stairs in the space with Cave’s partner, Bob Faust, when they heard — then saw — the hawk smash through the window, about two feet from their heads.
The hawk survived the impact. It spent the day “hanging out in rafters, swooping back and forth,” recalls Markonish.
Cave is known internationally for his wildly inventive “Soundsuits,” which have been shown, and acclaimed, around the world, including recently in Boston and Salem. But, with one exception – a dramatic video installation with footage of Cave dancing in a raffia chicken Soundsuit – Soundsuits will be absent from “Until.”
Markonish proposed a Mass MoCA show to Cave three years ago. She told him: “‘I want to make a show with you but I don’t want you to make a single Soundsuit.’ He said ‘Thank you.’ We left it a year, and then he came back with a plan.”
Building 5 is almost the size of a football field, so it had to be a big plan. And indeed “Until,” says Markonish, “is far and away the biggest project at Mass MoCA focused on a single artist.”
The work will feature millions of plastic pony beads, 16,000 wind spinners hanging from 2,000 strands, 24 chandeliers, 10 miles of crystals, a fiberglass crocodile covered in large marbles, 13 gilded pigs, thousands of ceramic birds, fruits, and animals, and 17 cast-iron lawn jockeys.
The exhibition takes its title from the legal principle “innocent until proven guilty,” as well as its obverse – “guilty until proven innocent.” It is an exasperated, heartbroken, and yet stubbornly hopeful response to the ongoing crisis of gun violence and race relations in America, and in some ways a return to the anger, triggered by the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991, that inspired Cave’s first Soundsuit.
During a visit at the end of September, I walked with Markonish from one end of Building 5 to the other. Separate scissor lifts stretched up to the ceiling. Perched atop each was an assistant attaching wind spinners – many in the shape of guns, targets, teardrops, and bullets – to thin strands descending from rafters.
“Nick’s work is so seductive but it’s always had this political thread,” says Markonish. “He aims to seduce you and then punch you in the gut.”
The scissor lifts made piercing beeping sounds every few minutes. Large areas of floor, meanwhile, were covered with cardboard boxes containing more wind spinners. Seven hundred will be motorized, producing dazzling, holographic effects as they spin.
Markonish has been in charge of some of the biggest and most complex exhibitions at Mass MoCA, including “Oh, Canada!,” “Jim Shaw: Entertaining Doubts,” and the ongoing “Explode Every Day.” But “Until,” which called for a team of 14 people working for several months, is different.
“The reason it’s more complicated is, firstly, because it’s unlike anything the artist has ever done. And, secondly, because we have had to do a huge amount of R&D to figure out how to do it. There has just been an insane amount of things to figure out.”
After the forest of suspended wind spinners comes what is in fact the heart of the installation. It’s a “cloud” of thrift shop junk — metal foliage, tinsel, gramophone horns, and those 17 lawn jockeys — from the underside of which dangle shimmering chandeliers and crystal garland, all of it suspended 14 feet in the air.
Four gently sloping industrial ladders will be positioned around the “cloud,” allowing visitors to climb up into it.
The idea, according to Cave, came from his wondering whether racism existed in heaven.
To contemporary eyes, the lawn jockeys — statues of jockey-clothed African-American boys that were once used as hitching posts for horses — evoke embarrassing racist stereotypes. They have complicated origins. There’s evidence, for instance, that lawn jockeys were used to indicate safe havens for escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad.
But in the apocryphal tale usually told to explain their origins, the jockey figure represents an African-American youth who served under George Washington. Insisting the boy was too young to cross the Delaware and join the surprise attack, the general instead ordered him to tend the horses and keep a light on the bank of the Delaware for the army’s return. Loyal to a fault, the boy stayed in position and froze to death.
In one of the exhibition’s concessions to hope, Cave has some of his lawn jockeys holding enormous dream catchers. The gramophone horns, meanwhile, function as mute witnesses.
The “cloud” is the biggest fabrication project Markonish says she has worked on. Designing it took a year. Cave spent three weeks in North Adams this summer figuring out how to do the top part.
As we strolled around it, Richard Criddle, Mass MoCA’s director of art fabrication and installation, was behind the wheel of a forklift trying as carefully as possible to lift into position an enormous metal armature, made to resemble a dead tree that has been felled across the cloud of kitsch.
Assistants from Cave’s Chicago studio were seated beneath the cloud, which was yet to be raised into its final position. They were patiently affixing crystal garlands.
During the year-long run of the exhibition, the space beneath the cloud will double as a gathering place and a stage for performances by, among others, Bill T. Jones, Solange Knowles, and at the Saturday night opening, singer Brenda Wimberly and organist Sereca Henderson.
But “Until” doesn’t end with the cloud. It continues with more suspended wind spinners, then a series of giant hanging beaded tarps decorated with political symbols and patterned designs.
Fabricated in Chicago, the tarps were laid out on the ground and still covered by cardboard during my visit. Three will be draped over “mountains” of scaffolding, one of which will act as a cave over the entrance to the video installation, “Hy Dyve.”
Upstairs, a series of barrel fans will blow air at another structure draped with Mylar strips in blue, black, and silver. The idea is to suggest a waterfall — a moment of “cleansing and respite.”
“Until,” says Markonish, has tested her and her team on many levels. “The crew has had to be a little more nimble than usual, because Nick works in such an intuitive way. And Nick, too, has had to make some decisions earlier in the process than usual.”
Back in September, Cave had been at the other end of the vast room when the hawk crashed through the window. In some cultures, Markonish learned, hawks are harbingers of truth and creativity. They’re good omens. So she salvaged the broken pane and presented it to Cave.
The bird, meanwhile, had found its way out. “We opened the big roller door,” says Markonish, “and he flew out of his own accord the next morning, before the bluegrass revelers arrived for the final day of the festival.”
NICK CAVE: UNTIL
At Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams. 413-662-2111, www.massmoca.org
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.