MFA Boston Strikes up Dialogue with "Conversation Piece" Exhibition

iPhone App entitled Somebody, by Artist and Filmmaker Miranda July, is First Mobile Application Featured as Artwork at the MFA; Boston Ballet and Harvard University Collaborate on Performance Artworks

BOSTON, MA (October 7, 2014)—In 18th-century British portraiture, the term “conversation piece” referred to an informal group portrait staged in an everyday setting. Today, the phrase commonly refers to an uncanny object that serves as a launching point for dialogue. Contemporary works on view in Conversation Piece (October 10, 2014–March 15, 2015) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), invite interaction by serving as platforms for conversation. Loans and works from the MFA’s collection that reference everyday objects—such as a curtain, television, smartphone, table or chair—are designed to disrupt viewers’ expectations of what they would find in a museum. Two works of performance art, presented in collaboration with Boston Ballet and Harvard University’s Cultural Agents Initiative, are scheduled throughout the run of the exhibition. Also included is Somebody (2014), an iPhone app by artist, writer and filmmaker Miranda July (American, born in 1974)—the first mobile application to be featured as artwork at the MFA. The app sends a message not to its intended recipient but to the closest user nearby, who will then deliver it verbally to that person. MFA galleries are a hotspot for the app, which means they are one of the top places in the city of Boston to find “somebody” to deliver a message. The app is also part of the new “MFA Mobile” campaign, which allows visitors to enhance their experiences with the MFA’s collection and exhibitions by using their smart phones to access in the galleries. With generous support from The Contemporaries.

On view in the Eunice and Julian Cohen Galleria in the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art, the exhibition also includes installation, sculpture and video by artists Sarah Crowner (American, born in 1974), Pedro Reyes (Mexican, born in 1972), María José Arjona (Colombian, born in 1973), Andrew Witkin (American, born in 1977) and Jaime Davidovich (Argentine, born in 1936). Pointing to individual and collective agency, and art’s ability to mobilize, this exhibition prompts visitors to reconsider how they “perform” in everyday environments. Together with these works in the gallery space, visitors become the active subjects of a contemporary “conversation piece.”

“The Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art is envisioned as a lively social space, where our visitors feel comfortable interacting not just with the works of art but also between themselves, inspired by how the art throughout the Wing is a platform for dialogue, pleasure and progressive ideas,” said Edward Saywell, Chair of Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art and Arthur K. Solomon Curator of Modern Art. “To have an exhibition focused on empowering those conversations is tremendously important at a time when all too often our communication is limited to screen time.”

“The Cohen Galleria is a dynamic area of the Museum. Its beautiful I. M. Pei designed architecture can be appreciated as a work of art that we interact with every time we visit the Wing. This space was inspiration for Conversation Piece, due to the fact that it's not a neutral white box gallery, but a more public arena,” said Liz Munsell, exhibition curator and Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art & MFA Programs, whose position is supported by Lorraine Bressler. “My hope is that the arrangement of works will encourage people to pause and respond to each piece, to meet someone new, or to discover something new about something they assumed they knew everything about. The exhibition aspires to jolt people a little outside their usual routines. That, for me is one of the unique powers of art.”

Since opening the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art in 2011, the MFA has become one of the first encyclopedic museums in the US to fully integrate performance into its collection, exhibitions and programs. Conversation Piece continues this initiative with the large-scale painting Curtains (Vidas perfectas) (2011) by Brooklyn-based artist Sarah Crowner. Interested in creating works that serve as the backdrop for performances, Crowner uses her art to address the relationship between the object, the maker and the viewer-as-participant. In partnership with Boston Ballet, the MFA will host five performances in front of Curtains (Vidas perfectas)—which is made of painted pieces of linen that the artist has collaged and sewn together. Every third Wednesday of the month, from October through February at 7:00 and 7:30 pm (Museum admission is by voluntary contribution Wednesdays after 4 pm), dancers from Boston Ballet’s “Boston Ballet II” company will perform a piece choreographed by Boston Ballet principal dancer Yury Yanowsky in front of the curtain. Through both the painting and performances, Crowner creates a conversation between disciplines, linking craft and high art, dance and design.

Conversations in the gallery will also be encouraged by a series of round table discussions organized in collaboration with Harvard University’s Cultural Agents Initiative. These performance-lectures (October 22 with former mayor of Bogotá, Antanas Mockus; December 10 with University of California, San Diego professor Grant Kester; and March 2015) will be held around Pedro Reyes’ Colloquium (2014), a marble sculpture of interlocking panels that are cut in the shape of blank cartoon “speech bubbles” to scale with the human body. A multidisciplinary artist trained as an architect, Reyes draws from modernist furniture design, theatre, therapy and the graphic arts. The sculpture is activated by the discussions and vice versa—creating an open platform for conversation during each event. The talks will be hosted by Munsell and Harvard Professor Doris Sommer, and each will feature a Boston-area academic. Another interactive piece, Andrew Witkin’s untitled (2003), consists of plywood chairs that simultaneously represent furniture, sculpture and performance art when they are put to use by visitors. Subtle details—such as the artist’s selection of the wood for its grain, and the slight variations in the design of each chair—underscore how personal choice is as influential as form in determining the purpose of an object.

July’s mobile app, Somebody, proposes a new way to communicate: when "somebody" sends a friend a message, it doesn’t go directly to that that friend, but to another nearby user. That user—possibly a stranger—then delivers the message verbally, acting as a stand-in for the original sender. Conceived as a far-reaching public art project, the app encourages performance, inspires dialogue and builds community. The MFA is hosting the artist through its Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Celebrity Lectures: Evenings with Creative Minds for a lecture on Wednesday and Thursday, April 15 and 16, 2015.

Additional works on view in the exhibition include two multi-channel videos. In Four-Legged Animals (2009)—a black-and-white four-channel video from the series A line of thought, a line of action, a line of—María José Arjona discovers new points of contact between her body and a chair, channeling and responding to the powerful physicality of a simple object. Trained as a dancer, Arjona’s work in performance and video emphasizes the boundless relationship between the body and negative space. A second video work, Jaime Davidovich’s Blue, Red, Yellow (1974), alters 3 television screens by “painting” them with adhesive tape. This hybrid work combines video, performance, painting and sculpture in order to showcase the television as a physical object, and as a material for art. His palette references the primary colors in painting, rather than the components of the television’s red, blue and green display—bringing art and the human body to the static image of the screen.

Performance Art at the MFA is supported by Lorraine Bressler.

The Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Celebrity Lectures are funded by the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is recognized for the quality and scope of its collection, which includes an estimated 500,000 objects. The Museum has more than 140 galleries displaying its encyclopedic collection, which includes Art of the Americas; Art of Europe; Contemporary Art; Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa; Art of the Ancient World; Prints, Drawings, and Photographs; Textile and Fashion Arts; and Musical Instruments. Open seven days a week, the MFA’s hours are Saturday through Tuesday, 10 am–4:45 pm; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 am–9:45 pm Admission (which includes one repeat visit within 10 days) is $25 for adults and $23 for seniors and students age 18 and older, and includes entry to all galleries and special exhibitions. Admission is free for University Members and youths age 17 and younger on weekdays after 3 pm, weekends, and Boston Public Schools holidays; otherwise $10. Wednesday nights after 4 pm admission is by voluntary contribution (suggested donation $25). MFA Members are always admitted for free. The Museum’s mobile MFA Guide is available at ticket desks and the Sharf Visitor Center for $5, members; $6, non-members; and $4, youths. The Museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. For more information, visit or call 617.267.9300. The MFA is located on the Avenue of the Arts at 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115.