Archive for the 'Performance Art' Category

Music, With Occasional Gun

Lulled into complacency by Christian Marclay’s video Screen Play looping right inside the street entrance I’m totally unprepared upon climbing the steps and entering New Langton Arts’ gallery proper on the second floor. It’s, well, it’s big, and the current show Every Sound You Can Imagine has a scope to easily fill the space. Presenting works that date back to 1974 (a little bit of uncertainty there, other sources seem to state that 1975 was when New Langton went live) the show broadly explores the interplay generated by conceptual collisions of music and the visual arts.
Here’s a sampler of some of the pieces that caught my attention, leaving out so much that I’m afraid only a proper visit will give you some sense of how extensive the exhibit really is (hint, hint).

Always contrary, I attacked the show counter-clockwise rather than the path laid out for me which takes you first down a little cul-de-sac before doubling back to cut behind the front desk. First stop was Fluxus composer Dick Higgins’ Symphony #186 from The Well-Colored Symphony: part of the series A Thousand Symphonies, 1968/1997. 4 pages of orchestral paper are riddled with holes; the holes surrounded by nimbuses of pigmentation. At times they appear variously like clouds or galaxies except where the punctures have practically torn the paper apart (fittingly, these seem to correspond to notation on the score indicating percussion). The effect was achieved by machine gun, as employed by a New Jersey police officer who directed his fire at a paint can which contained the score sheets.

Stephen Vitiello’s approach also shows an inclination toward the element of chance in its composition. Overlaid upon the sheet music of Pond Set 1, 3 and 5 are images of thin reeds in standing water. Where the vertical lines of the stems cross the staff is presumably indicative of the usual presence of clefs and notes. Since so much of the composition relies upon uncertain variables (there is no telling where the vegetation will cross the staff until it is superimposed and the superimposition is the result of any number of accidental decisions like the position of the camera and framing of the plants) Pond Set performs the function of a mandala. Musical composition is a process of molding sound into a pleasing or remarkable sequence. It requires the human element of choice (unless you’re composing with machine gun) yet strives for something organic. There is a certain irony in the amount of work necessary to achieve a melody destined to be deemed “pastoral.”

Already it’s apparent how important the musical staff is to the artists as a conceptual starting point; a familiar structure to riff off of. Yasunao Tone has also seized on the importance of notation’s placement as a kind of trigger point. Anything crossing that horizontal plane at a particular point can constitute a direction for performance, whether conventional sign (F-sharp) or incidental like the lines of elevation in Tone’s Geodesy for Piano, 1962. The starting point is a topographical survey map this time, specifically one produced by USGS/USC & GS of the Thirteenth Lake region of New York, N4330-W7400/15 in 1954. According to the printed handout provided by the gallery “…the intersection of lines on the sheet of acetate with contour lines on the topographical map are used to determine the heights, angles, and positions from which a set of objects is to be thrown from a ladder onto a piano.” I wonder if Tone incorporated any of the names of prominent features in the region into his score? They’re wonderfully evocative: Balm of Gilead, King’s Flow, Kettle Mountain, Lost Creek, Siamese Ponds…

Steve Roden’s When Stars Become Words conjure up the pleasing aesthetics of an H.A. Rey book, yet from a few steps back look like the kinds of interplanetary fantasia that used to adorn the covers of old pulp magazines like Astounding Stories and Amazing Stories. But by the time I reach Douglas Hollis’ work I’m ready to see something that isn’t another improvisation on the musical staff. Thankfully Hollis’ Scored Bridge is narrative, conceptual, elegiac and steeped in memory. He recounts how the idea sprung from a structure from childhood reminiscence dubbed “the Singing Bridge” due to “the humming it made as we drove across its steel grating.” When he discovers that another beloved metal bridge is due to be superseded by a concrete replacement, he devises a score as if sung by the latter in memory of the former, the melody of a structure with no particular music of its own in dirge to another whose song was itself.

Stepping up to Alison Knowles’ offering of strips of onion peel fallen at intervals like leaves on a long strip of vellum I’m already mentally planning my Ode to Nicotine wherein a slow moving sheet will catch spent clusters of ash resulting from long drags on a Marlboro Light. But I imagine it would be better if I leave that endeavor to someone else- I really need to kick the habit.

Fever to Tell

The exhibition of work from the recipients of the 2008 Murphy and Cadogan Fellowships in the Fine Arts has come and gone, but I arrived in time to snap some pics before it vanished. The show filled the small gallery in the War Memorial Veterans Building on Van Ness, a venue that housed Meat Show a few years back. I seem to have no knack for hitting the performance pieces. I missed the functioning hot dog stand at Meat Show, and this time around I wasn’t able to attend any of the performance/discussions held on Anthony Marcellini’s stage installation called A Grass Mound (With Kind Regards to Utopia). That said, Meat Show still remains one of my all-time favorite SF gallery experiences and I have a feeling that the pieces on display at Immediate Future will linger in my mind for some time to come.

Annie Vought’s Scatter, 2007 presented words pinned like lepidopterist specimens to the wall.

All by its lonesome to the extreme right you can find “hope.”

I came back to this piece a few times while wandering through the exhibit. Untitled (plane), 2008 captures the fragility behind many of the things in the modern world in which we have a misplaced feeling of security. There is more to it than the simple jitters of travelers or the world’s collective memory of a horrifying attack. With the price of oil skyrocketing and the world tottering on the brink of economic meltdown, the idea of air travel as leisure activity is less than secure. The image itself is a springboard for any number of conceptual shifts that are occurring as we reevaluate the legacies of industrialization and First World economic hegemony. Claire Jackel’s paper sculpture is simple and haunting in its delicateness.

The more jaded might find this one rather frivolous, but I kind of adore this love letter synechdoche-style. Including furry paens to My Dad, David Crosby, My Muse, and My first true love, collectively Gina Tuzzi’s Beards of Paradise have a kind of Burger King crown charm to them. Peter the Great and other misopogons need not apply.

Dollar Heroes, 2008 are the result of a unique barter system that Elisheva Biernoff set up whereby the responses of those who received her art paid back inspiration in turn. The initial set of hand painted images represented someone the artist respected. As she passed them off a day at a time to people she admired for “their small acts of heroism or common decency,” the recipients offered up their own figure to be represented on a replacement.

The piece is accompanied by a record of the transactions, with descriptions like “May 20, 2008. Ned and Michael were playing a banjo and guitar in Café Trieste. I gave Ned the Gregory Pincus dollar. His hero was Samuel Gompers, American labor union leader.” The hand painting over the mass produced, the act of giving away what is deemed something of fixed value, the exchange of stories: all the elements add up to an exercise in rewriting human experience over the bureaucratic and systematized.

A great unwritten chapter in Art History is that of the exhibit in the tiny, dark, booth-like alcove of a museum or gallery. Even arcades forced those in search of private entertainment to indulge in it while bumping shoulders with the rest of the hoi polloi. But seclusion is the name of the game if you want to endure a few minutes of Paul McCarthy’s Clown Torture. Tucked away around a corner near storage is April Grayson’s looping video Another Word for Family, 2007. The short film is an exploration of the filmmaker’s hometown in Mississippi. Personal stories relate how the experience of racism seared the lives of residents. One woman describes the memory of burning crosses on the front lawn. Another attempts to reconcile his memories of an idyllic childhood with the fact that people from other parts of the country view his state with unconcealed scorn.

Jeff Ray’s Heterotopia: Sauna with video and sound installation, 2008 took me back to another Paul McCarthy exhibit, wherein I found myself dressed like a reindeer sitting inside a little wooden shack with a similarly clad Japanese businessman watching a video of a swearing elf covering herself with chocolate. Ray’s exhibit is all about how a space can be infused with the personal, less a haunting than a habitation. Reading the accompanying plaque and sitting within the wooden shelter, it becomes clear that transplanting a small building within a gallery is not an act of eccentricity but a necessity. There are two stories playing in projection inside. I watched the one about the Swedish woman relating her still vivid memories from childhood of her family’s sauna. The work, according to the wall signage, was inspired by the artist’s intention to erect a shelter at his mother’s home in response to her “battle with cancer caused by the toxicity of her home.” The effectiveness of the finished work for me is its ability to capture experience through the tactile and through the interaction of the visitor who “moves into” an environment suffused with personal emotions.

What at first glance look like row upon row of crayola crayons are actually replicas of M16 shells made from plastic.

Take a few steps back and the picture of George W. comes into focus. WARHEAD, 2008 by Moses Nornberg demonstrates that less is more, in every possible sense of the term.

S Patricia Patterson’s watercolor Curtain, 2008. The self assured expression of the eldest along with her relaxed posture contrasts so beautifully with the unreadable nothings radiating out from her siblings.

I can’t remember the last time I encountered works as daunting as Jina Valentine’s Consumption II(a), 2008 Marx vs. Foucault and Consumption II(b), 2008 Kaprow vs. Nietzche.

Tiny scrawled writing occupies every available inch of the twinned dry erase boards on display.

Try not to give in to the inevitable feeling of intense guilt at not reading every bit of it. Of course, once that starts, you begin to think: do I have to read the whole thing to be able to comment on it intelligently? Perhaps I can look at it conceptually, the fact that she is using a medium that screams impermanence or the fact that the labor involved in something that is ultimately perishable says something about the folly of creating “for the ages.” Perhaps if I throw in a bit of text, that’ll somehow give the illusion that I read it start to finish: “Contemporary art production is a multi-valent and self-perpetuating creation circuit. At the most fundamental level, art objects demand that we form words about them/ and the words formed about these objects inspire the creation of other art objects.” Oy vey. That’s only line one.

Even if it points out the limits of patience (i.e. laziness) of today’s viewer faced with a work painstakingly inscribed and displayed for viewing or even if it’s an elaborate joke masquerading as message, I liked it if nothing else because its impenetrability is linked directly to your input.

While it would be overreaching to read into the works collected as indicative of some kind of impending trend, I found it heartening that so many of them seem to place so much of an emphasis on narrative. The replacement of the impersonal dollar with the personal story and subjective determinations of heroism, the word cloud of Annie Vought, the posture of a charred paper plane as the limp body of a dead swan, a tiny shack with memories on playback, indeed all the works mentioned here have a desperation to them, the need to explain, to relate. Damien Hirst’s works are zipping through the auctions right now, but so are many works by Chinese artists, where themes of history and memory collide. In the face of globalization, the leavening of the subjective in lieu of the official, the brand, the franchise, these are anxious attempts to speak us back into existence.

On the Masthead

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