Archive for September, 2012

Oh Captain!

Saturday, September 29th, 2012

“Even the comparison with the Titanic isn’t right, because this didn’t take place on the high seas, but practically in a washtub,” said an Italian commentator in La Republica, describing perceptions of the Concordia disaster.  “It is a shipwreck that speaks of mediocrity.”

Thomas Hirschhorn, "Concordia, Concordia," (2012)

Thomas Hirschhorn’s new show, Concordia, Concordia, at Gladstone Gallery, takes the real-life Costa Concordia disaster as a starting point.  The Concordia, with 4,200 souls aboard and with a hull of 114,500 tons – more than twice the weight of the Titanic – ran aground off the Tuscan coast.  A rock tore a 160-foot long gash in the hull when the captain, Francesco Schettino, had maneuvered too close to shore to show off the brand new ship, valued at more than half a billion dollars.   Schettino called in to the coast guard a “small technical failure,” then cut off communication for over two hours while he reportedly dined with a woman.

Still ignoring the coast guard’s radio calls, Schettino abandoned ship before hundreds of passengers evacuated, later claiming to have fallen (with his laptop) into a lifeboat.  A coast guard captain ordered him back onto the ship to lead the evacuation.  “Get back aboard! Damn it!”  As a result of Schettino’s actions, an insufficiently trained crew, and equipment failure, 32 people died in the disaster.

It is well documented that the Titanic tells a tale of class struggle.  For example, Daniel Mendelsohn wrote,”Of the men in first class—who paid as much as four thousand three hundred and fifty dollars for a one-way fare at a time when the average annual household income in the U.S. was eight hundred dollars—the percentage of survivors was roughly the same as that of children in third class.”

Same goes for the raft of the Medusa, the real-life crisis that inspired Gericault’s great painting.  After the frigate Medusa lost her convoy and ran aground, the captain and officers unloaded 160 members of the crew onto a raft, the plan being that one of the Medusa’s boats would tow the raft.  The officers cut the tow ropes.


Surveying the damage

The Costa Concordia has become a drama of Trans-Euro Contempt, where the disaster symbolized Italy’s crippling recession, debt, and corruption, and Captain Schettino embodied Silvio Berlusconi.  And with their own stable economy, Germans began to resent bailing out their desperate Mediterranean neighbors:

“The birth defect of the euro was to put very different cultures of economic activity in the straitjacket of a single currency,” wrote a commentator in Der Spiegel. “Be honest,” he added. “Did it surprise anyone that the unlucky captain of the Costa Concordia is Italian?” He asked whether anyone could imagine that a German, or even British, captain would have behaved as the Italian did.  Il Giornale fired back a reminder about Auschwitz, while another paper turned the tables and compared Angela Merkel to a captain fleeing a disaster.

Merkel illustration by Benny

Concordia, Concordia, Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation at Gladstone Gallery, recreates the casino of the Concordia and is a splashing, colorful spectacle.  Your eyes might comb the densely scattered and piled materials for a moment before they settle on the fact that the room is tipped over.  And you might start to think about Thomas Demand’s Pacific Sun video, an animated wonder made from paper sculptures, based on the the calamitous rocking of the actual Pacific Sun ship at sea.

In both the Hirschhorn and Demand works, the contingent “sets” are depopulated.  That is characteristic of Demand, but not of Hirschhorn.  We don’t see the stumbles, faceplants, concussions, shrieks, and casualties that really happened – which is the opposite of Gericault’s Raft, which maximizes and capitalizes repulsive gore, derived from cadaver studies.  With Concordia, which looks like a toppled party, and not a disaster, are we supposed to project ourselves into this space?  Interpret the toppled furniture as surrogates for people?  Or is tactile biography insignificant against:

a) the historical facts (a billion dollar disaster),
b) the abstract translation (it’s about the banality of disaster), or
c) the aesthetic code (make it more kitsch)?

Image: Gladstone Gallery

It is unfortunate that viewers can’t penetrate Concordia, Concordia, as they could Hirschhorn’s unforgettable and deeply unsettling Superficial Engagement (2006).  Visitors can only enter the gallery, look up and around, then move on.  This presentation made me feel docile and amused, rather than stirred and investigative.  And being stuck on the outside really feels at odds with the statement Hirschhorn wrote for the show.  After twice repeating “Get back on board!” – the coast guard captain’s order- he adds, “There is no way out, there is no place to flee, there is no safe land anymore!”  Yes, there is, and it’s way too easy to find the exit.

Where are the women and children?  With the human stories sifted from the wreckage, and with gallery visitors sidelined, evacuation is at work here, just as it was when the actual Concordia crashed.  For me, this deprives the work of the irrefutable and often visceral human experience that made Hirschhorn’s earlier projects in New York so challenging.  “Get back aboard!”

Fourth Wall, Third Eye

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

“I mean you watch that blue detergent blob run on the plate, watch the grease cut – well, it can be a real trip.”

That line from Slouching Toward Bethlehem could describe the material heart of The Joshua Light Show.  From 1968-71, founder Joshua and the original members were the resident artists at Bill Graham’s legendary Fillmore East, illuminating shows by the Who, the Doors, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Albert King, Chuck Berry, and Iron Butterfly.  The group disbanded, but returned in 2007 when Nick Hallett brought them to The Kitchen.  Still led by Joshua White, The Joshua Light Show has recently headlined high culture landmarks, including The Hirshhorn Museum, Lincoln Center, and LACMA.

Joshua White

One could ask: what ingredients fueled The Joshua Light Show’s ascension up the cultural ranks?  Is it the pure, self-evident relevance of projecting colored shapes, liquid lights, and ethereal “lumia”?  Is it this medium’s kinship to the canon of abstract painting? Is it the compelling affinity to performance art and relational aesthetics?  The collapse of high/low culture walls?  Some current demand for more 60s?

Swirly Hans Hoffman paintings on Charles and Ray Eames' ceiling

One could respond: it’s probably all of the above, and we are glad it’s happening.  Anyway, the climb continued last week, as The Joshua Light Show phased into an academic presence,  setting up shop at NYU’s Skirball Center.  For four nights, The JLS dazzled a seated audience with the vibrant, emotive, and delicious projections that have demanded a JLS resurrection even after more than three decades of relative inactivity.  (Just like acid!)

Forro in the Dark w/ The Joshua Light Show (Image: Skirball Center for the Performing Arts)

The Skirball series lined up The Joshua Light Show with an eclectic roster of musicians, including Dame Evelyn Glennie and Zeena Parkins, Terry and Gyan Riley, Ben Goldwasser and Andrew VanWyngarden of MGMT, Debo Band and Forro in the Dark, and an avant-super group: John Zorn, Lou Reed, Bill Laswell, and Milford Graves.

This collection of acts checked off an array of genres, generations, demographics, distributions, and demands.  For example, the MGMT night was “like a rock show,” and “full of college students,” according to my friends.  On the other hand, I overheard numerous professorial attendees at the Terry and Gyan Riley night, discussing the history of Terry Riley and his formal connections with La Monte Young, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass.  Jarvis Cocker was at that show, too, and he did look professorial.

The two nights I attended were like fire and ice.  With Terry and Gyan Riley, the mood felt cool and introspective.  With Forro in the Dark and Debo Band, the roof was on fire, hands were in the air.  In advance, I chose those nights because Terry Riley had always sounded trippy to me, just like The JLS; they seemed like the closest synaesthetic translations of each other.  And Forro in the Dark and Debo Band might come closest to recreating “a rock show” because they were bands with lead guitarists and amps.  In the end, The Joshua Light Show gave me a spectacle to passively enjoy, while also offering me a prompt for creatively shaping my experience: just what I wanted, and just what I needed.

Terry and Gyan Riley

Terry Riley alternated between a grand piano and a Korg Triton, while his son, Gyan, accompanied on guitar. “Detached” (though “lively”) is how I’d describe the Riley recordings I had heard prior to this show, but this live performance felt warm and genial.  Maybe it’s the father-son relationship, or the relaxed confidence of the artists, or the jokes during a technical lapse, or maybe…maybe it’s the lights!  The performance of Terry Riley’s classic A Rainbow in Curved Air sounded like a twinkling, pulsing sensation, and the light show seemed most alive through those moments.

Forro in the Dark

Forro in the Dark got my head nodding, and the ostentatious fists of the zabumba player reminded me of the hands controlling the dancing lights behind him.  As for the music, here’s Richard Gehr of the Village Voice: “Guitarist Guilherme Monteiro added an acid-rock flair, tossing off dub effects as easily as he did a Chet Atkins-inspired country solo. Locked into a second-line rhythm at one point, Monteiro prowled the stage, occasionally gazing meditatively into the multicolored cosmic eyeballs looming overhead.”

Debo Band w/ The Joshua Light Show (Image: Skirball Center for the Performing Arts)

Debo Band’s fusillade of horn-powered blasts, Bruck Tesfaye’s stamina, and of course THE LIGHTS got people out of their seats and into the aisles.  A front-row dance party quickly grew, then lasted till the show ended. Tesfaye kicked and hopped on stage over the dancers; kaleidoscopic rhombus shapes and scarlet scatter bombs beamed over Tesfaye.

Debo Band

Further describing those light effects, Gehr writes, “Slowly dripping oils suggested emerging oceanic life forms, slitted sheets of laminated plastic splintered white light into galactic replicas, blue neon clouds blossomed overhead, and a Helen Frankenthaler blob of orange expressionism briefly suggested a gigantic grinning Halloween pumpkin.

Debo Band w/ The Joshua Light Show (Image: Skirball Center for the Performing Arts)

Compare that to Laura Snoad, writing earlier this year.  “The Light Show’s fantastic spectrum of colours brings to mind the most benign of acid trips – either imagined or remembered – but at times the light show is gruesomely visceral, conjuring up pulsing internal organs, Petri dishes and cell division. Its soft-focused abstraction allows audiences to project their own narrative: neon signs distorted by a rain-blurred taxi window, childhood motorway car journeys, blood draining from a murder victim.”

And compare that to Joshua White, speaking to Karen Day: “We have people coming up to us going ‘were there camels carrying giant bears?’ or something, and we always say ‘You saw that? Good for you!'”

(l-r) Debo Band founder Danny Mekonnen, Julie Mehretu, Jessica Rankin, Sanford Biggers, Eungie Joo - a Mehretu painting is the cover art for Debo Band's debut album

That is, The Joshua Light Show forgoes steering anyone’s trip.  It does not court the audience the way a DJ, with the right selections, teases movement from the crowd.  While watching all three performances, I could see the musicians monitor and respond to each other.  But with the JLS on the opposite side of the screen, I wondered how the light artists could follow the musicians.  Weren’t they looking for visual cues?  Didn’t the wall force the artists into a passive, dependent role?  After the show, Joshua White explained to me that the group just responds to the sounds.  Then the audience members can shape their own responses. “You put the conditions in place for the audience to synthesize something new?” I asked.  “Yes, and that is how the synaesthesia happens,” is what Joshua told me, paraphrased.  JLS’ Gary Panter, also an SVA faculty member, described it for the Bomb blog:

“It really is an equivalent to jazz in a way. Improvisational, fugitive performance where you’re responding sympathetically to the music, and then the audience fills up the gap. They provide the closure relating the music to the light. Their minds start organizing it, even hallucinating it. People see things in the show that we don’t do.”

Another Joan Didion quote: “Only the very young and the very old may recount their dreams at breakfast.”  I feel similarly about recounting hallucinations on blogs, so I’ll spare you my visual assocations.  But when The Joshua Light Show is back in town, we can discuss our trips in person, because I won’t miss it.

Great vintage photos at Cool Hunting.

Tranquility Base

Friday, September 14th, 2012

“How was Burning Man?”

The answer can’t be both faithful and concise. The adjectives scroll by the dozen and explanations just dull the experience.

Life from Above

The week long festival offers the highest highs and lowest lows.  It is a sensory and emotional adventure, uniquely monumental, fueled by spectacular art, the greatest parties, and the most epic nights.  But it is a grueling commitment, a jarring expense, and a ton of work in unforgiving conditions.  Your cost-benefit analysis will begin before the trip and continue afterward, especially because you might lose, break, or damage the things you carried.

Pier 2 by The Pier Group
Cleared for take-off (Image by Jake Zwierzycki)

What I can easily share is how sunset on my first night out felt like visiting another planet – or maybe an ant farm with LEDs and subwoofers.  Senses can’t settle among the simultaneous, buzzing activities and incomprehensible trajectories of the surrounding 50,000+ people around me.  Where are you going, but why are you here? 

By day, you can troll or stroll through the camps, many of which have activities big and small – spas, massages, bowling, french toast brunches, yoga, haircuts, meditation, dance parties, and other things that you don’t mention outside of the tent.  I got a cucumber and lavender eye treatment by Dilated Peoples, then attended a Sacred Spaces  seminar called Catharsis and Dark Archetypes, where I learned about my Jungian shadow (and I learned not to remove my shoes for any camp, because one hour later, dust-covered shoes all look the same, especially when there are hundreds).  Continue past the camps and you can comb The Playa to check out the sculptures and installations.

Like Being in Tron

By night, it’s like being in Tron.  Or imagine if Disneyland’s Main Street Electrical Parade went rogue, met Mad Max, started a desert cult, and conceived hundreds of hydraulic, high-wattage, pyrotechnic progeny.  They would include the marvelous, sculptural art cars that drive around with lights, sound systems, flame throwers, and dancing revelers.  Some art cars are high-tech, masterfully crafted by fabricators and electricians; others look cobbled from a drunken welders’ guild.  At the smallest scale, they are modified golf carts and ATVs; larger, they are mobile nightclubs and bars.

Burn Wall Street surrounded by art cars (Image by Laura Szu-Tu)
El Pulpo Mecanico by Duane Flatmo, Steve Gellman, and Jerry Kunkel

The best of these clubs-on-wheels was Robot Heart, which looked like a charter bus covered in speakers. At 85,000 watts, you can hear Robot Heart loud and clear from over a mile away.  -I tested this myself when I walked at a brisk NYC pace for 10 minutes away from Robot Heart – and back – to retrieve an item I left behind a valuable item at a distant sculpture.  Despite that long-range power, speakerfreakers still clamor to dip their heads into the speaker boxes for a low-frequency blessing.

Robot Heart (Image by Flickr user jonandesign)
"Star Seed" by Kate Raudenbush (Image by Flickr user extramatic/James Addison)

The structures in situ at The Playa are dazzling monuments of professional fabrication, including 3D modeling and CNC machining, kinetic components, and self-illuminating frameworks.  Burning Man ticket sales fund the production of some of these projects.  Some are discreet sculptures, while others are installations, sets, or colonies – all are destinations.  They are fun to climb and offer shade from the otherwise unmitigated sunlight.  For some of the artists, burning it down is better than storage.  One impressive work was the laser-cut metal sculpture, Star Seed, by Kate Raudenbush, which invited brave visitors to climb into its nest of biomorphic shards.  The most “incendiary” was Burn Wall Street by Otto Von Danger, and its fiery demolition at the end of the week was a landmark eventThe Serpent Twins  by Jon Sarriugarte and Kyrsten Mate returned this year, as did Zonotopia and the Two Trees by Rob BellThe Pier Group’s Pier 2  attracted crowds, as did Gregg Fleishman‘s Man Base Pistil the interlocking geometric wonder that made habitation possible under the eponymous, communal hotspot, The Man.

The Man (Image by Laura Szu-Tu)

The most sublime structure was The Temple of Juno, designed by David Best and The Temple Crew.  A wooden pagoda centered within a 22,500 square-foot walled courtyard was accessible by four entrances, only to pedestrians, and not noisy cars.  I witnessed one wedding at the Temple but most people visited the Temple to pray, to mourn, to chant, and to reflect.  The Temple is an emotional hothouse and the architecture seems to trace and crystallize the delicacy and density of visitors’ otherwise intangible wishes and memories. Creeping, woven, layered patterns were intricately cut into wooden panels that sheathed the altar, the interior alcoves, and the courtyard walls, all the way to the top.  “The temple’s large enclosed exterior space, along with its interior structure and altar space is intended to address the needs of our community, to reflect and meditate in private,” according to David Best and the Temple Crew. It’s all gone now.

The big climax is Saturday night’s burning of The Man, the iconic effigy standing atop a multi-story shell.  The solemn denouement is Sunday night’s burning of The Temple.  Saturday night is intensely festive and euphoric.  The Man doesn’t so much “burn,” but rather explodes in multiple, face-warming blasts backed by screaming fireworks.  Then everyone charges in to dance around the smoldering embers.  It’s a hot fantasy for a pyromaniac, who otherwise would chase around El Pulpo Mecanico, pictured in my gif above.

He Burns (Image by Flickr user extramatic/James Addison)

Temple night, on the other hand, is astonishingly quiet.  Attendees sit in a ring around the Temple and watch in silence as the towering flames engulf it over one pensive, tearful hour.  “Tearful” because throughout the week, people leave photos and keepsakes of lost people or events that haunt them, or write vows and affirmations in graffiti along the interior of the Temple.  The whole thing is an architectural votive candle and there’s no way to describe the penetrating emotional atmosphere of the burning Temple.

Interior view of The Temple of Juno (Image by Laura Szu-Tu)

Stray myths and misprision about Burning Man still circulate – “dirty hippies,” “dumb and druggy,” etc – and I was hardened by them myself. Now I see that a good sandblasting and some vigorous dancing are all I needed to shake off the callouses.

Anubis by Dan Fox and the Anubis Team (Images by Flickr user extramatic/James Addison)

Update: There are great photos here, here, and here.