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'Desire' Reflects Mass MoCA's Modern Outlook

"No one knows what heights you can soar to, and you will never know until you spread your wings."

"Dreams are only dreams until we awake."

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Such statements bordering on clich flow thick and fast in visual and audio form in "Desire," an installation by David Byrne, which opened July 27 and runs through Oct. 20 at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA).

This multimedia show is a mocking consideration of the influence of modern advertising and promotion - and more broadly of power and hype in today's society. It takes place in the Night Shift Cafe, one of many buildings in the abandoned mill complex being taken over by Mass MoCA.

"Desire" is the first of what Mass MoCA's sponsors hope will be many forward-looking artistic events, but at the moment, the cafe still looks more like Building 13, its original designation. Steel columns rise from a dusty floor to huge ceiling beams as you approach an array of brilliantly illuminated billboards. It's hard to tell where the Byrne display ends and the rest of the room begins, but this uncertainty enhances the sense of freedom from categories and boundaries that characterizes the show.

Byrne, who has worked in many genres - film production, travel photographs, music composition - is probably best known as part of the art-rock band Talking Heads.

"Desire," his first solo museum exhibition, is a postmodern mix that makes no pretense at anything resembling logical sequence. On entering, you pick up a Walkman and listen to an "Acoustiguide" - a private experience, since each visitor is probably hearing a different part of it as he or she looks at a particular display. Against often vapid "inspirational" music, clips of slogans and ads bombard your ear, suggesting the power of persuasion they have on audiences in today's society.

The billboards form two large concentric circles. The outer circle of 12 billboards offers stereotypical travel-brochure scenes - like the British houses of Parliament or Monument Valley in the American West. In each scene, a piece of drug paraphernalia hovers, and an often pompously vapid slogan from a corporate handbook is written. The 12 billboards of the inside circle combine images of violence and money: switchblade knives, a stun gun, brass knuckles - with folding money in a number of currencies.

In the center, on a huge table, sits a three-dimensional model of a cityscape - a mixture of images, like the rest of the installation. New York's Empire State Building dominates the center. Models of buildings from other cities fill the rest of the surface. Around the city, a model train circles. Off to the side stand two stacks of four video screens showcasing a laser-disc slide show. One assembly features a play on the wording of corporate slogans. The other flashes familiar equipment - like a fax machine - along with philosophical comment.

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The total effect is to conjure up the "desire" of the title. Much of the show is a scathing imitation of the overblown expectations created by mass media and corporate promotion. Yet a certain ambiguity is also detectable. A few appealing sounds and words are presented - just as some media promotions include good feelings amid the pitch. The freewheeling and sometimes-bewildering impact of the exhibition re-creates, in miniature, the unpredictable nature of encountering these forces in the real world. This show surrounds you with ads, but it also lets you ponder - and feel - their effect in ways not easily done when they're coming at you in the media.

In that respect, "Desire" is an instructive reminder of how easy it is to accept such influences without stopping and noticing their effect. When you walk out of this show, you're more likely to take notice of them.

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