Ensconced in the Museum of Modern Art’s big atrium, Amanda Williams’s “Embodied Sensations” is a richly reverberant installation piece. You can take it as sculpture, institutional critique and social commentary on public space and its inequitable accessibility — and that’s only the beginning. Like a stone tossed in still water, this piece sends ripples in all directions.
Williams, a visual artist from Chicago, took part in MoMA’s recent “Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America,” contributing a meditation on freedom and freedom of movement inspired by Kinloch, Missouri’s first all-Black town (founded in 1890). Her strategy in the atrium was simple. Because of social distancing rules, the museum had cleared its lobby of nearly all of its black modernist furniture — by MoMA-approved designers like Jean Prouvé, Charlotte Perriand and Harry Bertoia. Williams had these chairs, sofas and benches stacked on view in the museum’s atrium in two oblong piles. The hoard of furniture mirror the masses of art that the museum owns, of which only a small portion is used. Like MoMA’s stored art, the piles render the seating useless. Its social purpose — for comfort, comity, study, eating — is constricted.
The second part of the atrium presentation is a series of slides projected on the wall that takes constriction into the social sphere. We see pages from executive orders regarding Covid-19, Georgia’s recent voting rights bill, a Louisiana state literacy test and a court case about illegal voting. Also projected are sketches of show figures, a floor plan of the lobby, and instructions for mini-performances for visitors devised by Williams and the choreographer Anna Martine Whitehead. For example, try humming your favorite song while walking backward around the piece or applauding something or someone for 60 seconds. In other words, make freer use of MoMA’s space, make it more a part of life, which is what Williams’s ambitious work is doing too.
Other pages query visitors, asking in one case what they do when their “presence in a public space is questioned.” That one illuminated the kinds of blackness that have always been acceptable at MoMA — in modern design and art. The Blackness of artists and visitors? Until recently, at least, not so much.