A burial mound. An archeological dig. A physical manifestation of the subconscious. A display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
An exhibition by pop superstar Annie Lennox, opening Saturday at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, evokes each of these things.
Its centerpiece is a large earthen mound, into which she has partially buried about 250 items from a curiously thorough collection of mementos she’s held onto through the years — from an audio mixing console to three plaster casts of her teeth to her late mother’s eyeglasses.
The mound is roughly 65 feet long, 38 feet wide, and 8 feet tall at its highest point. At the top sits a Yamaha rehearsal piano.
“We’re calling it a dreamscape,” Lennox, 64, says in a telephone interview from her Los Angeles home. “It’s ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’ manifested in an earthen mound, which sounds so bizarre.
“But I feel the roots of ‘Sweet Dreams’ lies in the sort of surrealism of our lives and the juxtaposition between human existence and the natural world that we inhabit. That question mark about: Why are we here?”
The Scottish musician scored multiple international hits in the 1980s as half of the duo Eurythmics before embarking on a successful solo career. She’s won four Grammy Awards and an Oscar. Since a visit to South Africa in 2003, she’s been a passionate crusader for efforts to combat HIV/AIDs, and her eponymous charitable foundation advocates for women’s rights around the globe.
She’ll mark the show opening with a rare performance at Mass MoCA on Saturday, playing some songs on solo piano and sitting in conversation with museum director Joseph Thompson. (That show is sold out.)
The exhibition, called “Now I Let You Go . . .,” which will run through early spring 2020, is Lennox’s first stab at creating fine art for a museum setting. (A glossier collection of artifacts from her music career has been displayed at museums in the United Kingdom.) It also includes a stylized display of gold and platinum records, an installation of several music videos (shown, disorientingly, in reverse slow motion) and a nine-minute suite of instrumental piano music, which will be released as an EP on Friday.
Lennox first visited the museum in 2013 while in town to receive an honorary degree at nearby Williams College, and filed it away as a potential place to someday show some work.
“The art world is not always accepting when people sashay in from the world of music or theater,” Thompson says. “But to me she’s a creative soul that’s hugely talented and thoughtful, with a great body of work.”
The items embedded in the earthen mound can seem quite random: a Moroccan teapot, assorted black masks Lennox wore with Eurythmics, a figurine described aptly as “a miniature pig seated on a stool.”
But the artist carefully arranged these items — the detritus of a life — within the mound over a 10-day period, grouping them by themes. One portion includes her children’s shoes, which her collector’s impulse led her to save, arranged from largest to smallest as if stepping backward in time. Another is a de facto memorial to her mother.
“If you just look at it quickly, you might think it’s just a lot of stuff in dirt,” says Thompson, the exhibition’s curator, “but when you start looking at [the items] and drawing connections, you can see that they’re visual essays. These are carefully constructed, thematic vignettes.” (That dirt, by the way, was trucked over from Hancock Shaker Village.)
Though the piece is a kind of monument to one woman’s memories, Lennox says there is room for individual museumgoers to relate to it.
“Some people will identify with it immediately and understand what I’m trying to say. Other people might be puzzled. They might not understand it. They might think I’ve lost my mind,” she says.
“If you take the opportunity, it will guide you into yourself to ask some questions about the human commonality — that the one thing we all have in common is that we go through this life and we’re going to leave it. The materials that we interact with on the planet, they might remain after we’ve departed and they tell us something about the person who used them.”
The work is clearly concerned with mortality, but it’s not morbid. If a viewer is reminded of an archeological dig, that context imbues the artifacts with a sense of importance. If the collection of precious keepsakes juxtaposed with curious ephemera appears more like a pile of debris, the sense of death as the great equalizer may predominate.
Lennox initially devised this project with the idea of getting rid of all these items in a grand act of psychological spring cleaning, a notion reinforced by the show’s title. Now she faces an urge to keep holding on.
“I’m feeling an ambivalence about the letting go,” she says. “The honest truth is, I don’t know what’s going to happen yet. I will find out.”
She’s keenly aware, though, that even if she has all these items packed up again and shipped to a storage space in London, her custody over this history is only temporary.
“Eventually,” she says, “you will part with everything.”
Annie Lennox: Now I Let You Go . . .
At Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams, May 25 through spring 2020. 413-662-2111 www.massmoca.org