Darren Waterston’s Mass MoCA installation “Filthy Lucre” explores the relationship between money and art.
As the cello music stops, I crane my neck forward and lean in toward the toppled-over shelves, straining to hear the words being whispered by the broken vase. “An artist’s career,” the ceramic seems to say, “always begins tomorrow.” Next to me, Darren Waterston nods toward the urn. “I am a thing of beauty,” whispers the vase, “and a profit-maker forever.”
I chuckle a bit, and Waterston smiles slightly. “Kind of freaky,” I find myself saying. “But in a good way.”
The recorded voice and cello soundscape provided by the band BETTY begins again, and we wander through the distorted room. Walls are covered by vases that look as if they are about to fall from the broken, splintered wooden shelves on which they precariously sit. To our left, large images of peacocks painted in gold fill floor-to-ceiling window shutters. Gold shapes like stalactites hang threateningly from the ceiling. And at the far end of the room, a pool of gold paint collects on the wooden floor like blood from some long-forgotten crime scene.
Waterston’s installation “Filthy Lucre” is a reinterpretation of James McNeill Whistler’s “Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room,” and serves as the centerpiece of his new Mass Moca exhibit Uncertain Beauty. It is invitingly disorienting.
Waterston tells me he wanted to create a painted room, and was drawn to Whistler’s famous “Peacock Room” as a way to explore the complex intersections of money, art and patronage. The result is a space that invites the viewer both to remember the forgotten and discover the unknown. Either way, I find the experience of wandering through a reinterpreted recreation of a room that originally existed nearly 150 years ago extremely odd and unmistakably exhilarating.
“I set out to recreate Whistler’s fabled ‘Peacock Room’ in a state of decadent demolition—a space collapsing in on itself, heavy with its own excess and tumultuous history,” the mixed-media artist explains. The room’s “once-extravagant interior” is ruptured and warped, both lavish and grotesque at the same time, “like it’s diseased.”
Walking through the installation while hearing from Waterston the history of the original “Peacock Room,” I feel as if I’ve happened upon the remnants of some Gilded Age relic, which for decades has decomposed in a neglected, cobwebbed attic, waiting patiently to be reconsidered.
It’s the first time I’ve come across the story of the “Peacock Room.” But the tale feels familiar in that elusive, collective-unconscious sort of way.