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No matter the season, when I was a kid and my family took a trip to Frankenmuth, Michigan, we always made a stop at Bronner’s, where it’s Christmas all year round. Straight on through the doorway and veering slightly to the immediate right brought you to a show floor full of decorated Christmas trees, towering to the ceiling. As I remember them they were largely of the aluminum variety, in every off-color imaginable: magentas and silver, greens that corresponded to nothing in nature. Even the icicles of tinsel were gaudy to my young eyes (tinsel being verboten in my household because it was considered overkill by my parents’ sensibilities). I was eager to move on as soon as possible to find another unlikely character figurine to add to an already crowded nativity scene (the choices seemed without limit: there were water carriers, bread makers, musicians and even an elephant).

The vivid memory of that indoor forest came rushing back upon entering Yerba Buena’s exhibition of Nick Cave’s Soundsuit creations, many of which reach altitudinous heights. If there was any sign of my jaded childhood self amongst the visitors, I missed it: the kids in the gallery seemed absolutely agog at Cave’s wild creations, which are fitted to mannequins standing on platforms, set in an a nearly intersecting X-formation, in the center of the room.
The costumes of Meet Me at the Center of the Earth show influence of the ceremonial garb of many world cultures, but they also display a keen eye for taking the most unpretentious and even (dare I say) vulgar of articles and constructing something beautiful from them. After all, here are the baskets that began appearing like clockwork every Christmas when my grandmother succumbed to a beaded plastic phase, the ones my sister and I would hide behind any bit of decorative screen available before guests arrived. I wish she was visiting now so I could point them out and she could shoot me a triumphant look of confirmation.

Attached like barnacles are potholders and knitted caps, God’s Eyes and plastic blossoms. Stretched over the shape of a polar bear frame are Aran Sweaters. One suit sports metal perches for porcelain birds, giving the appearance of a wearable candelabra. A tall polka-dotted feather duster looks ready to spring from the platform, an over-sized moldy bag of mobile Wonder Bread waiting to be set loose on an unsuspecting public. Like a fungal forest, another is covered with jutting brightly colored toys: tops and noise makers and rattles.
Eventually, a line of shaggy pom-poms come into the room as the day’s performance gets under way. The dancers are wearing costumes less elaborate than those on display but which allow them more freedom of movement. Their rustling procession seems to bring a hush of calm to we visitors a bit blissed out by the visual overload of the exhibit. What starts as the quiet percussion of brush on drums eventually becomes a loud and well choreographed group dance after the performers snake their way back into the side gallery near the stairs. I was a bit disappointed at first that I didn’t get to find out what, say, the sound of a suit-clad stroller with an abacus face mask sounds like. But the recital eventually won me over, even crammed as we were in that tight space. It was also rather humbling to find a profusion of cringe-inducing signifiers of my childhood, the lost articles of hundreds of flea market trips, making a star appearance, as if to say, this is what we were waiting for all along.


Memorable Equinox

I was explaining to the woman on the phone, calling regarding A.C.T.’s upcoming shows and my possible attendance, that money was tight. Looking over their lineup, and realizing I couldn’t possibly afford to see many plays this year, I admitted that honestly I probably wouldn’t be going to see any of them. “It sounds like you’re just not a lover of the theater,” she smugly observed.

And yet somehow I always manage to scrape together enough at the last minute for a new Cutting Ball production. Perhaps my tastes just align better with director Rob Melrose’s, but I think it also has something to do with the fact that I’ve never felt let down by any of their performances. Since they’re a relatively small company, you get to know their usual suspects and look forward to seeing how an actor will tackle an upcoming part.

When last I saw Paul Gerrior, he was popping his head out of a bin in the fairly dotty role of Nagg in End Game. In Krapp’s Last Tape, which just closed at the Exit Theater this weekend, he wheezes and huffs his way about stage in the lead part, with David Sinaiko providing the voice of a younger Krapp recorded on reel-to-reel audio tape. Although for much of the play the character is simply listening and reflecting on ruminations of his thirty-nine year old self, Gerrior is wonderful to watch. Whenever he moved to the foreground to perform some business, we all eagerly craned our necks to see above the obstructing sea of heads. Likewise we followed his every dash off stage to the loo with rapt inquisitiveness. I’ll venture that never has a banana been more lovingly regarded or more breathily consumed than in Gerrior’s portrayal of the elder Krapp.
The meat of the play is sixty-nine year old Krapp’s reaction to the tape dutifully logged as “box 3, spool 5,” wherein the silky voice from out of the past is found to be embarrassing and infuriating but also prompts melancholy over opportunities missed, sensations unsavored. Long suffering over his magnum opus, which his younger self abandoned much to labor over, has ended up producing a book which has only sold seventeen copies. “Perhaps my best years are gone… But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now,” explains Sinaiko’s voice, as Gerrior ruefully but tenderly curls his arm around the machine. In this sense, Krapp is more than just a one man show. While visibly absent, Sinaiko’s presence, the optimism, the curiosity and recklessness come through strongly in his performance giving Gerrior a strong foil to play against. The pathetic reality of an old man, living largely vicariously through his own words and observations is softened by Gerrior’s physicality in the moment. A shake of the head in disapproval is softened by a smile, a burst of anger that clears the desk is balanced by his bursting into a baritone song, evidence that he indulges in what his younger self could never bring himself to do. The once eager author-to-be is now nearly voiceless, “Nothing to say, not a squeak.” Yet we still all burst out in laughter to hear the relish with which he barked out the inane exclamation, “Spool!”

The hour frankly whizzed by.

Reckless With Other People’s Hearts

I’ve been dreading writing up a review of a doc that I wasn’t really crazy about to begin with. Instead, I thought I’d point you to this work by David OReilly that I recently stumbled upon that’s one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time.
Please Say Something has more interesting ideas and comments on life than films twelve times its length. I’m usually way behind the curve on stuff like this, which is why I rarely post them, but according to the creator’s blog, the short recently won a Special Distinction award at the Festival International du Film d’Animation d’Annecy. So if you’re already hip to this, consider a celebratory re-viewing.


Arriving at Togonon Gallery I find there’s an artist talk already in progress, so I drift to the back of the room to hear a few details about Viva Paredes’ prayer wheels. The cross beams are all reclaimed wood, fitted together without nails. Her mindset regarding material is deeply influenced by past experience working with recycled products. I’m dying to give the wheels a spin. I’d like to get a closer look at the frosted image of a fleeing family on the surface of the jars and the medicinal plants contained within as well, but mostly I want to spin them. Not the most spiritual response to a work inspired by an object intended to foster wisdom, mindfulness and merit.

samsara1The talk ends, everyone stands, and I inch toward the sculpture but am cut off by the attendees headed toward the food and wine table. I am eventually pressed right up against it as people crowd around the artist with further questions, so I get a good look at the contents inside, even if I can’t identify them. Why herbs? The title, I learn, is Benediction for a Wetback, which means that setting the cylinders tumbling might be a way to prompt reflection upon those who uproot their lives either to escape hardship or to support their loved ones. Considering the wheels can be spun both ways on their spindles, the imprinted image is a clever comment on the plight of the migrant family: there is always the possibility of constant movement back and forth. Following work means there may be no easy measure of “progress” in a journey. Setting the wheel spinning makes you to some degree responsible for the silhouettes’ current plight, whether rapid flight or frenzied backtracking. I decide after all that maybe I’d rather let them be for the moment. Paredes’ work has given me something to contemplate, but already it’s safe to say it has inherited a penchant for instilling mindfulness from its archetype.

Proximity Space

I’m actually kinda pleased whenever I find that images on a gallery’s website don’t do an artist’s work justice. There are so many great sites that you can visit that’ll give you your daily art fix that it’s heartening to find qualities that are simply irreproducible as a jpeg, no matter the number of pixels. Method, presentation and experience, it turns out, can all be considered under the right circumstances as victims of lossy.
So, here are your options: you can either take my word for it or you can head over to Rena Bransten Gallery yourself to view Amparo Sard’s The Error of Oversight: New Work. The white frames and white paper hiding in plain sight on the walls like peppered moths require your close attention, preferably with eyes no more than three inches from the genuine article.

The figures in each work are composed of precise stippling, using a pin rather than a pen, so that the surface of the paper rises in gentle mounds describing contours and giving emphasis to intricate patterns on clothing. The subtle bas-relief allows extremities to submerge into the milky background in Untitled (Four legs – after the mistake) (or has the “mistake” lopped them off altogether?). Following the series around the gallery counter-clockwise, limbs begin to become disjointed and disembodied. In a piece from The Error Series, 2007, the female figure grasps two child sized arms like tools as if divorced or debarred from her immediate physical sensations.
Eventually the subject’s forms begin to stretch like taffy, tubed tentacles lazily puddle around torsos or dangle from holes in nearby walls. In Untitled (Divided by the half – still alive), the woman has been completely bifurcated, but her heart fills the foreground. Fragile, mangled, twisted and pulled, Sard’s figures each have a kind of resilience built into the details. There is the occasional expression of disbelief, but more often those of determination or accord. In Divided perspective wins out: broken, but the heart still beats.

Six Guns and Sinta

As this blog is rapidly approaching its terminal point, this will likely be the final update about films that I put on my must see list last year (the previous capsule reviews can be found here). Didn’t manage to see very many, but I place the blame squarely on distributors not knowing a good thing when they see it. Hopefully more will find their way to Region 1 DVD release soon.

Sukiyaki Western Django

sukiyakiIn the shadow of Mount Fuji, a drifter spins a tale about a hidden cache of gold left behind in a town that was once the battleground between two warring clans. That town just happens to be in Nevada, and the drifter is a sharp shooter played by none other than Quentin Tarrantino, so you know right off the bat that you’ve entered Takashi Miike territory.

With his usual daring, the director up and plunks down the American Old West squarely within Japan’s borders, working within the framework of the Spaghetti Western. Since the genre itself blossomed into glorious excess at the hands of Italian directors re-imagining Andalusia as the American Southwest, and many a Japanese chanbara inspired American knock offs set at High Noon in a dusty street, Miike is not so much completing the loop as giving the wheel another spin.

It’s as over-the-top as its forebears and everything you’ve come to expect from a Miike film (that is, you never know just what to expect). When one of the clan bosses begins instruction on catching a falling katana with your bare hands, you can tell something is up, and simply have to wait to see how Miike will spin it. Shakespeare, otaku references, critiques on the sweetness of sukiyaki (reminding me of another fav, Tampopo) and quick draw goddesses in human form: it’s always better to be disappointed by a director’s daring misfire than settling for reheated seconds, and for me anyway, Western Django didn’t disappoint.

Opera Jawa

operajawaIt was fortuitous that recently I was able to enjoy a taste of Balinese wayang kulit as performed by ShadowLight as well as finally getting around to watching Sita Sings the Blues online. You get a brief glimpse of the clashing puppets here, as well as the gender wayang instruments employed during the Yerba Buena Gardens show. In truth, Opera Jawa incorporates a bewildering number of artistic performance and presentation types, from wayang orang dance to contemporary styles, traditional tembang sunda song and sets dressed like a Matthew Barney exhibit. Nina Paley’s animated marvel proved a great primer for the myth of Sita (here referred to by her Indonesian name Sinta), the abducted wife of Rama who is accused by her husband of infidelity with the demon Rahwana (check out blogger Engineer’s Daughter’s impressions here).

Just like in Sita Sings the Blues, the mythological tale looms large over events in a contemporary story. Jealousy begins to stir in Setyo (Martinus Miroto), a potter, when faced with the attention that a local thug named Ludiro (Eko Spruyanto) is paying to his wife, a former dancer named Siti (Artika Sari Devi). The fact that Siti was famed for her portrayal of the role of Sinta gives the ensuing events the air of tragedy replaying itself.

While no doubt the production must have had a lavish budget, it is amazing to see the small improvisations that are made with relatively common materials. During a contentious scene in their bedroom, Setyo resisting the entreaties of Siti wraps his t-shirt around his head as he dances, making implicit in action his attempts to shut out his wife emotionally. After he spies her returning from an encounter with Ludiro, lump of clay resting in his hands, Setyo imagines Siti sitting atop his potting wheel as if he could mold her desires to his wishes. Woven cones for scooping and covering steamed rice are converted into any number of things from scene to scene: the head and tail of a caterpillar-like beast, a mask, the larger versions even becoming tent-like blinds from which Ludiro’s gang members spring out to startle Siti.

It’s shocking actually that the three elements of song, dance and set design work in concert so well considering how dream-like and memorable is the visual element. I was reminded of Gummo director Harmony Korine’s stated intention in the DVD extras of that film to create images he’d never seen before, but wanted to see. Ludiro dancing in a room of silver heads next to a suspended slaughtered carcass, a servant reverently laying flower petals on a sculpture of a television set next to an ancient temple, mannequins with candle heads that bleed wax down their length: in the hands of an individual artist any could be a work unto themselves, but here each is seamlessly interwoven into the whole.


Tipped off by my friend Heidi, I’d been reminding myself to keep an eye out for Mick Wiggins’ work any time I’ve hopped on BART to get somewhere. Never graced with a sighting, after a while I just figured I was unlucky and promptly forgot about them. Weeks turned into months, until one weekend returning from Balboa Park I spotted Steller’s Jay, feeling like any bird watcher who has spotted an elusive lifer after a long search.

Since I generally take MUNI rather than BART, the story pretty much could have ended there. But on the way back from the 49 Geary building on a subsequent weekend, on impulse I walked down to the Montgomery station rather than catching the 27 Bryant home. Inside, literally every available advertisement display was devoted to a Canadian tourism campaign (which informed the prospective visitor that through some recent shift in Plate Tectonics, the Great White North had been conveniently relocated just a stop away from Lake Merritt). Were Wiggins’ pictures gone for good? Or were downtown BART stations just too valuable to make space for a few pieces of public art? I decided to head back to Balboa Park the next day and see if the artist’s work was still up.

BART’s poster program is an interesting experiment. By reclaiming some of the ad space, the agency demonstrates a willingness to acknowledge the public nature of its enterprise. The hills of Black-Tailed Deer, dotted with lights, are a familiar sight to any Bay Area resident which never fail to fill me with a sense of euphoria, especially when viewed after returning from a trip elsewhere. “I’m home again,” I can tell myself when I see them.

Yet there is the danger that Wiggins’ work, with its smooth graphic richness, will simply vanish into the background noise of the other ad posters. The choice of displaying the name of the flora or fauna in capital letters in the center of each in some ways serves as urban camouflage. It is exactly the approach taken by many an advertiser hustling for your acknowledgment.

One wonders if the visual landscape can make room for such works, just as wildlife in the corridors along BART’s route are often crowded out by our presence. Unlike Shephard Fairey’s work which puts itself in confrontation with its surroundings, Wiggins’ pictures are attempting to coexist and co-mingle. Fairey’s work can easily be torn off a wall, but if you’re that angry it’s already shown its teeth. By contrast, Wiggins’ works have no natural defenses.

I enter at 24th and Mission a little dozy and fixated on the trip to Balboa Park so it takes me a second to realize that Eschscholzia Californica is staring me squarely in the face.
I take out my camera and everyone on the platform begins to shoot me puzzled glances as I enthusiastically snap a few pictures.
No one seems to pay any particular attention though to the picture, which could just be general indifference or evidence of its relative crypsis amongst the plugs for Altoids and Pepsi.

Zipping past Glen Park I catch sight of another Steller’s Jay. I’ll stop by on the way back I tell myself if the next station is now full of blurbs singing the praises of Canada’s bounty.

I shouldn’t have worried. Before I even have time to turn around, the train leaves Balboa Park station on its way to SFO and once again I find one of the works facing me from across the tracks.
I wait for the station to clear out and then take a few pictures of Steller’s Jay on the other side of the platform.
I admire the frames around each work (a nice touch I think) before realizing even the Blackberry ad has one.
I’m still left wondering why I’ve never encountered any of the works downtown, whereas the further along the line I traveled the more I discovered. I have to admit though that my limited use of BART makes a conclusion hard to draw: my travel habits hardly constitute a representative sample.
Attempting to exit the station upon my return I’m baffled that my card is reading insufficient funds. I suddenly realize that I never exited the station at Balboa Park, and now I’m forced to add another fare since I’m certainly not traveling to another station just to reenter again and return. Art: that’s how they get you.

Luckily, Ivy McClelland’s woodcut prints are waiting for me when I emerge at 16th and Mission and so any muttered recriminations are swallowed as I dig into my bag for the camera.

On the Masthead

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