April 1, 2013 § Leave a Comment
More than a decade ago, Jason Simon and Moyra Davey began an annual party in their barn in upstate New York — now their get-togethers are becoming the source of a retrospective installation at Mass MoCA.
“One Minute Film Festival 2003 – 2012″ opens at Mass MoCA on Saturday, March 23.
The film festival began with the capabilities to pull it off becoming available. Simon had come into possession of a video projector, left over from a short-lived artist group he had been a member of. At the same time, he and Davey were being evicted from their live and work space in Hoboken, N.J., and decided to follow other artist friends and look to Western Sullivan County in upstate New York for a home.
The couple found land with a finished basement that they could live in, while taking the next few years to build a barn on top of that.
The barn, Simon says, was begging to have a gathering in it, so he and Davey decided to hold an annual summer party which asked each guest to bring a one-minute video they had made, along with any food and drink.
“I had film projection equipment of my own already, and I had the video projector, and I had a history of doing a lot of different kinds of work in film and video as a day job, and so I could pretty much show anything,” said Simon.
The enthusiasm surprised Simon and Davey, with their guests often taking it far more seriously than they had expected, and pursuing their next year’s movie with deliberate intent. Artists with successful careers who had always been interested in filmmaking thought the party was a perfect testing ground, with low stakes and in a friendly environment.
“In a way that we didn’t anticipate, it definitely caught on,” Simon said. “People started to get into making their movies and wanting to raise the stakes for their movies and get the response for their movies and incorporate this kind of filmmaking into art practices that otherwise didn’t have it.
“That really happened more than a few times to more than a few people in a way that ended up being quite special. That caught us and them by surprise and really contributed a lot to the positive energy in it.”
Over time, Simon and Davey agreed on a 10-year-cap on the party and never really worked hard to turn it into a bigger event. Each year, though, more and more people showed up.
“It has zero online presence,” Simon said, “and we would hand out or send out the postcard, and then people would bring other people. We would also be busy during the year, traveling for work, and people would have already known about it and asked about it. We would just say, ‘yeah, show up.’ “
The final party was in 2012, where Simon found that planning the event required a much different tactic, thanks to the way technology had changed over its existence. It was decided to pre-arrange an exquisite corpse-styled project among the filmmaking partygoers in order to give some cohesion to the technical side of the party.
“When we started it, it was analog, and so I was vee-jaying tapes, VHS tapes, occasionally a DV tape, but still on tape, sometimes film projectors,” he said. “I became quite good at switching back and forth between formats so there was no interruption. As technology started to change that became harder to do.”
“People started bringing their movies in on keychains and stuff. It required a lot of advance work on a computer up there in the barn, which I never had to deal with before. I really reached my limit for tolerance of this combination of event culture and digital culture. I don’t think they’re a great combination actually. I think events should be analog.”
The planning began 18 months in advance of the final party, and the process saw a film being made and then the last second of that film — 30 frames — being sent to the next filmmaker to continue the work.
“We were able to get 63 people into that chain,” said Simon. “It took on this exquisite corpse structure. You didn’t know what your predecessors film was, you just got to see the last second. It was a way to try and take technology that was actually becoming increasingly frustrating and use it to our advantage.”
One second turned out to be a more generous prompt than it might seem.
“In fact, a second is a long time, it’s one-mississippi,” said Simon. “You can get a lot of information out of that. A lot of people actually did extraordinary transitions and, yes, the scenes merge and people pick up threads that they get in the last second. Other people just did what they decided to do no matter what they got in the mail
The final component came in the form of movie posters for some of the movies, created by the filmmakers themselves. It started out with 18 posters hung in the barn for the 2011 party, following which a formal call was put out, and the resulting movie posters are part of the space in Mass MoCA where the videos will be shown. The creation of the movie posters allowed the festival to end its life and begin, as Simon calls it, “an afterlife.”
“The goal was to make it another thing because it would never be like that thing,” he said, “and I think the posters really go a long way to making that transition happen. I think the posters are quite important in terms of that migration.”
The installation at Mass MoCA will also allow the show to live as a ghost in many other venues. Simon and Davey had done a few versions of it as guests in other places, but had typically turned down most offers to make it an official on-the-road film festival.
“Typically, we would say no, but just organize your own, it’s not rocket science,” Simon said. “Places that had asked us if we would bring it there, a few years ago we could start to say no, but if you wait till after the 10th year, you can just take the show. Some version of that will happen.”
It also has the promise to be a template for a BYOV — bring your own video — party, and Simon sees the benefits of others adapting the format into their artistic and academic practices.
“When you are working, if you are a visiting artist at another school and you’re there for a week or a month or a semester or something, it can be just a really nice way to wrap up a process, to summarize a process that you’ve been going through with students. It doesn’t have to be a focus.”
June 30, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Montreal musician Patrick Watson and his band — collectively also known as Patrick Watson — have been making music together for the past 10 years. With their new album, “Ad ventures in Our Own Back yard,” the lessons of the past are being applied in simple ways that will project their love of live performance into the future.
With his new album, Watson says that the band was aiming for something more down to earth, and to achieve this, recorded it in his Montreal apartment.
“We had a very different goal on this record,” he said. “We wanted something that wasn’t too over-produced. We wanted something that was kind of raw and just the basics of what you need. I think that played a huge role in terms of the sounds. I was also trying to make a really touching record, 12 really touching that give people goosebumps.”
The band’s typical process sees it experimenting with different arrangements and pushing for musical goals that are more ambitious than whatever they accomplished previously. Watson says that this time they were more interested in melodies than complexity of ar rangements, and more fo cused on having the vocals fit in with the music more comfortably, allowing them to flow together.
The band’s current method of sculpting sound in a simpler way hearkens back to their experience with touring for their 2007 album “Close To Paradise,” which put them in the difficult position of at tempting to reproducing certain studio concoctions that weren’t necessarily easily replicated live.
“We’d have to trigger things,” Watson said. “It wouldn’t be as raw, so during the tour we started to find acoustic ways of doing the same kind of production that you would do as an electronic concept. So we went back to Carl Stalling and different people like that to find arrangement ideas that were a kind of sound effects but also something we could do on the stage without just pressing a button.”
“I think that paid off in that it paved the way for the next record. The sound design is still happening but it’s a bit more subtle than the other records.”
Their next album, 2009’s “Wooden Arms,” served as an exploration for the band that lead them to the frame of mind that would see them deliver their current work.
“Playing live is an important thing and most the stuff we record is live takes, it’s not tracked at all,” said Watson. “I think it’s always important for us to work on our sounds from the source instead of doing it in the mix.”
Watson’s trajectory wasn’t always to head up a rock band. He started on music around the age of seven, taking piano lessons and chasing a much different career in composition.
“I wrote songs in the middle of the night for myself,” Watson said. “I always wrote songs. And then when I studied in college, I was studying classical music and composition. I was more ambitious to be a composer than a pop musician when I started.”
“Even to this day my ambition has always been making interesting mixes of music. I don’t want to be a singer/songwriter, that doesn’t interest me, that kind of career. I enjoy working with people and making interesting arrangements. That’s my trade.”
Watson’s opportunity with a band came in the form of a multi-media project, which saw him and his partners grouping to create a soundtrack for a photo book.
“I thought it would be fun to do it live at least once,” he said. “We got lucky because we ended up booking this old porno theater, which was an ancient vaudeville theater. It was sold out because people were so curious to see inside the theater but didn’t have the guts to walk into it during the day, so we had this really fun start.”
The debut worked so well that the band wanted to do it again, and continued to perform multimedia shows with the same visual artists. When they started to feel like a band, they also found the desire to take things on the road, a harder proposition than they imagined given their configuration at the time.
“We tried to bring our multi-media type of thing on the road and it was just impossible at that time,” Watson said. “We could just never afford to do it. You can’t go to a city for the first time and bring this elaborate set-up and nobody knows who you are.”
“Close To Paradise” was the result of the band’s desire to create something that they could actually tour around bars and play, and also allow the other guys in the band to flex their influences and not have Watson dominate the music. The visuals that originally accompanied the music were the impetus for the band forming, but also the ingredient that would help Watson take his songwriting the next level.
“I was interested in doing some score writing, and I had written songs but they were not very interesting to me,” he said. “The songs that I was writing were pretty lame, and then when I had the photo book in front of me and I saw all these pictures, it gave me another approach to writing lyrics and songs. It was kind of surreal at first . Then I got really inspired and found a way of writing songs that I actually liked.”
“Once I got to that point it opened up a way of looking at songwriting for me, and then at one point, it was just like an Achilles’ heel, I could adapt that style and I didn’t need the images anymore. I could approach that way of writing and I think it was very lucky for me, because I don’t think I would have found a way of writing songs without that.”
They also helped Watson develop his lyric-writing abilities, which he paints as pretty poor in the beginning — up until that point, he was more interested in instrumentals.
“I was terrible,” Watson said. “It took me awhile. I still say it’s still not my favorite thing in the process. The photos helped because I could make some really colorful and surreal lyrics that allowed me to write interesting music underneath it. I can make interesting short stories that are a bit surreal and open and kind of dreamy, and that way underneath I can make crazy music and support those types of scenes.”
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found ways of incorporating more simple subjects. I’m not an actual lyricist by any stretch of the imagination, it’s not my skill. I can write a thousand melodies and play piano every day, but with lyrics, it takes me months to finish a song.”
In Watson’s mind, the band has finally reached the point he hoped it would creatively, one that captures its original intentions while showing a progression in learning its craft.
” ‘Adventures in Our Own Backyard,’ I feel good about be cause I feel like we’ve learned our trade and our sound,” he said, “and I feel like it’s an album that we’ve succeeded in capturing that it’s cinematic, but still nice songs. It has a nice balance. I think that we could have got a producer a long time ago and would have found something quicker. I think it would’ve been different, and I’m kind of happy it took a long time to find the sound we wanted to make.
“It’s been a long process for us to learn how to do what we do. We didn’t have any teachers for what we did. There was no band that sounded like we were doing when we started. We didn’t have anybody to give us an example for what we were doing or some sort of roadmap. We had no roadmap for what we were making.”
And while his entire musical career has been part of a learning process that has lead him from one focus to something that seems entirely distant from that, the one consistent component has been the love of performance, and that is the recurring link in the chain that endured from effort to effort.
“That was more natural than anything else,” Watson said. “I love to perform. I think that’s why I ended up going this direction more than the other direction. I love playing shows, I love performing, I love singing for people. That’s one of my favorite parts of the whole process. I guess if I wasn’t a performer I don’t think I would have ended up in this band because of circumstance. I think that’s ultimately what sealed the deal in this direction.”
June 16, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Artist Nathan Sawaya’s material of choice can be found in almost any kid’s room, but his Lego creations go far beyond the complexity of any Lego kit.
Sawaya’s work is part of “Curiosity,” which opens at KidSpace at Mass MoCA on Saturday, June 23.
Sawaya’s artistic journey with bricks almost didn’t happen when, just out of college, he chose to not follow his muse.
“I didn’t really have faith in my art, so what did I do? What does every young budding artist do? They go to law school, and I ended up studying law in New York City,” Sawaya said. “I actually ended up getting a job practicing corporate law, doing mergers and acquisitions and securities work. I was a Wall Street attorney.”
Even lawyers need a hobby though, and Sawaya would create art in his off hours at home. He sculpted more often than any other pursuit, and one day began to consider moving away from traditional media and decided to experiment with the unlikely material of Lego blocks.
“I started doing large-scale pieces using just Lego,” said Sawaya. “I got such a strong reaction that I decided, all right, let’s see what else I can do. I eventually put my website together and that’s when it took off. I started getting commissions from around the world very soon. I decided it was time to leave the law firm and open my own art studio in New York.”
His muse caught up with him anyway, and the transition from corporate lawyer to independent freelancer was one that required some faith in his decision to veer off his initial path.
“It was weird, because I went from this very secure world to this very bohemian lifestyle,” Sawaya said. “I had a nice apartment and a six-figure salary, I was paid every two weeks, I got a paycheck in the mail, I had health insurance and I said, all right, let’s give all that up and go this direction. You really find out who your friends are when you do something like that.”
Sawaya began to make his money through some very random requests for commissioned work that saw him reproduce, in Lego form, buildings like the Cincinnati Insurance Com pany headquarters and Trump Tower — that was a 20-inch commission for Ivanka Trump — as well as a complete and intricate reproduction of an air conditioner for manufacturing company Carrier.
“I still take on commissions from time to time,” he said. “Last year I ended up doing a life-size Conan O’Brien for Conan’s show, and you end up taking on projects like that because they’re fun, and it’s a chance to be on Conan’s show, so what the heck!”
The commissions made possible the artistic roads that Sawaya has taken since.
“It’s what got me started, what got me on my feet, being a working artist,” said Sawaya. “Then I could pursue my own work, and that’s my human forms, where I can really put my emotion into the sculpture and see what comes out. That is eventually what lead to my first solo exhibition and then that was followed up, and it just grew from there.”
Sawaya’s human forms are meticulously-wrought representations that take into account the medium in their presentation and uses that for surrealism and absurdity.
“The whole purpose of my art is to try and take it in a whole new direction,” he said. “Let’s put something behind this, let’s make it an emotional piece, and let’s take Lego and put it out of this toy store and into the fine art gallery.
“Those monochromatic pieces, to this day they’re still my focus. That’s where I enjoy producing something, be it something like ‘Yellow,’ where the sculpture is tearing his chest open and Lego bricks are spilling out, that’s where I really want to explore my art.”
As with any artform, Lego sculpting has its demands, and number one is organization, as well as supply.
“The big challenge is making sure I have enough materials for when I need to make that creative decision,” said Sawaya.
To that end, Sawaya’s studio is not just a work space, but also a storage place for a million and a half Lego pieces that he keeps at his fingertips for sculpture at any given time.
“All the bricks are separated by color and size, and I keep them in these clear bins on rows and rows of shelves, all these shelves,” Sawaya said. “There are rows and rows of color. It’s a lot like walking into a rainbow, because you have these rows of color. Everything’s organized so I have a pretty good idea of where everything is, so while I’m building it’s not a search.”
Sawaya used to have to go to toy stores to stock up, but one sign of his success is revealed in the way he orders his art materials.
“I buy it directly from the Lego company,” he said. “We’ve established enough of a business relationship. I’m a pretty unique customer, so our relationship is that I can buy directly from them. It’s still coming by boat from Europe, so it takes about three months from when I place an order to when I receive it. That’s usually the process. I can shoot an email and say I need 500,000 red bricks and eventually get them.”
Sawaya’s creations are assembled in the traditional way any Lego concoction would be, but he also applies glue to add some sturdiness to his pieces.
“That’s a function of shipping,” said Sawaya. “Museums get grumpy when they open up a crate and it’s just loose bricks.”
Next for Sawaya is finding other ways to present his work through collaboration. One project has producing a short film called “Daddy Warblocks” that features props created by Sawaya. Another will see him teaming up with Australian photographer Dean West that they are finishing up the work on after two years and hope to debut soon.
“We combined our skills and used Lego in a way that I’ve never seen before, so I’m excited about it,” Sawaya said.
Sawaya’s one plan is to keep exploring, and his one belief is that there is no limit to the creation he is capable of. For him, Lego blocks are an invitation rather than a limitation.
“Lego is a great medium, I don’t think there’s anything I can’t build out of it. Given enough time, I’m able to figure a way to capture that look or feel of something using the bricks. That’s the magic of it.”
Review: Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City” by Guy Delisle and Best of Enemies: A History of U.S. and Middle East Relations by Jean-Pierre Filiu and David B.
May 31, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Two recent graphic novels have taken one topic — the conflict in the Middle East — and given it two very different, but equally compelling, treatments. What unites the two books is their viewpoint — one is by a French-Canadian travel cartoonist, the other by a French scholar specializing in Arabic history. Neither present the American viewpoint, and this enlightening vantage point — as well as the great talents of the people producing the work — recommends both books to American readers who want to understand the re gion apart from their own cultural biases.
In “Jerusalem,” Guy Delisle follows up his previous travelogues with this account of a year in the holy city. Delisle’s partner works for Doctors With out Borders and he spends his time raising their children and working on his book. It’s a mix of ordinary life and willful discovery — Delisle wants us to know everything from the way traffic flows and supermarkets are stocked, to the way settlers view their invasion of Palestinian neighborhoods. He’s a friendly and self-deprecating presence, and that’s the strength of his work. Informed, but not an expert, Delisle truly manages to function as the everyman for his reader, despite the exotic nature of he and his partner’s occupations.
And so Delisle moves from the practicalities of settling in, shopping for groceries and taking the kids to the playground to the less ordinary areas that Israeli existence offers, taking trips to settlements and Palestinian colleges, and wrangling with the government to get special permission to visit Gaza. He gets to know people through his profession, interacting with other cartoonists and teaching a few classes, as well as other trans actions, and is the sort of curious soul that lets a path unwind in the name of finding out something new, perhaps uncovering something hidden.
The revelations are less from the wider geo-political one and more from an examination of the little lives involved. Delisle’s focus is on what it is like to be an ordinary person in an extraordinary backdrop, and what normal means in such a situation anyhow. As he interacts with not just Jewish citizens, but secular ones, as well as Christian and Muslim, he uncovers a situation that is more diverse — some would say shattered — than we have a sense of, and therefore, even more complicated than the lens of U.S. media portrays. Israel, it turns out, is much, much more than just the Jewish homeland or the current site of Palestine, but Delisle manages to capture that reality with gentle humor not often tied to the situation in Israel.
“In Best of Enemies,” Filiu and David B. take a straight for ward technique of unraveling the history of the region from the Arabic point of view, with a starting point in the Epic of Gilgamesh — drawing direct parallels from that ancient text to the modern situation, via its enormous influence on world culture — on through the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran. In between, the book chronicles the history of conflict as the main point of interaction be tween the west and the middle east.
In the most fascinating chapter, Filiu frames the American perspective of Arabs by chronicling our country’s less celebrated first war after the Revolution, which saw a succession of naval efforts against the Muslim pirates originating from Morocco, Algiers and other ports. It was the capture of American trade ships in 1785 that brought Barbary pirates to the attention of the American public, and created a series of talks with the government of Tripoli and others to try to buy peace.
It was Thomas Jefferson’s pithy elitist tongue — and guilt over slave-owning — that destroyed these efforts and lead to battles and blockades and blood shed that wouldn’t end until treaties were signed in 1816, and France took the Algiers in 1830.
Oil became the next object of conflict, with Israel brewing.
Filiu and David B.’s work is just part one, taking the history up to 1953 — no doubt the follow-up will be just as crucial. Their take on the wider swathe of the region incorporates an exciting tension that is accentuated through B.’s illustrations — they literally explode with fury in places.
Delisle, however, has moved on from Israel — the images and observations he presents remain a haunting marker to his one-time effort to capture the country. That is obviously an impossible task, but Delisle manages to humanize the larger issues by allowing us to meet the people and routines on both sides that exist in the middle of history.
April 30, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The tradition of calling your son “a chip off the old block” is purportedly for a show of pride, but really it seems like a hidden insult. It implies that while the son is like you, he in no way matches your stature. He’s just a misshapen little remnant of the monolith that is the father. A chip is a pathetic knock-off to the old block.
Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) is a Talmudic re searcher who specializes in a secular view of the Jewish texts, one devoted to history. More specifically, he is a philologist studying the language of ancient texts and carrying a burden of his past research. After spending decades on a theory of an alternate Talmudic source, a rival professor accidentally discovered the physical source and, refusing to share this with Eliezer, stole all the credit for it.
Further humiliating Eliezer is the success of his son, Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi), also a professor of Talmudic studies, but with a distinctly religious bent that his father despises. As Uriel reaps acclaim and awards for his work, Eliezer spends his years emotionally shrinking into his solitary research and becoming more distant from his family.
A simple clerical mix-up will lead to the biggest storm father and son have been required to weather together, and it requires Uriel to act out his usual beaten-to-a-pulp psyche in the
form of sympathy for his father. But at the edges of this sympathy are unanswered questions that may never be resolved about his father’s hidden life, professional skill and personal motivations that constantly work to shatter Uriel’s attempt to do the right thing. In this scenario, all lives are texts and all texts are as mysterious and ultimately impenetrable as the Talmud itself.
At center of director Joseph Cedar’s treatment of this relationship is the battle of the generations, but not in any easily answerable dichotomy. When Eliezer’s relationship with his son is portrayed, it is revealed as a tug of war between trying to not be his father and mirroring his father’s behavior completely. It is a tug of war that is in all of us — the struggle to pick the parts of our upbringing that we agree with, but dispense of those we see as useless or, worse, harmful.
It’s not so easy a task, as any adult can attest. That’s because the family strands that link parent to child are as invisible and immeasurable as any of those in culture and history. A religion might attempt to codify these strands — as with the Talmud and Judaism, in context of “Footnote” — but the reason re ligious scholarship continues over thousands of years is that no final code is ever really achieved. There is always room for interpretation, as well as need. So it is with family, as well.
There is no ultimate, final, perfect son. We are all chips off the old block, but perfection should not be implied with the parent any more than with the child.
April 21, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Though records are still released in limited fashion, the girth that created such a pastime as record collecting has been gone for a long, long time.
While the surface implications of what is lost might not be huge to the many people who point out the huge amount of music available on demand these days, those who participated in the pursuit can tell you it was never just about hearing things. Record collecting was an activity, a hunt, it was a game you played with reality in order to unearth pieces of information that, when they joined the other pieces of information you had procured, told a wider story.
Record collecting was an engagement with mystery.
Thomas understands this and his book, “Listen Up, Whitey,” which documents the pieces — both lauded and obscure — of the recording element within the Black Power movement of the 1960s and ‘70s.
The book itself isn’t literally about record collecting and doesn’t often say much about the pursuit of the titles discussed within, but the air of discovery permeates the work and functions as the guiding principle of the knowledge passed along, as well as the origin of some of the investigation.
Relating the history of the Black Power movement — easily obscure knowledge to most 21st-century white people — Thomas winds through the back catalogs and record store bins that include not only music releases by the likes of Gil Scott-Heron, Charles Min gus, Pharoah Sanders and a host of more obscure artists, but also poetry titles by collectives like The Last Poets and speech recordings by Stokely Carmichael, Bill Cosby, H. Rap Brown, Angela Davis, and others, documentary recordings like “Guess Who’s Com ing Home,” which featured interviews with black soldiers serving in Vietnam, religious records by the Rev, C.L. Frank lin, and much more.
In one of the most fascinating chapters, Thomas reveals all the existing recordings of the actual Black Panthers leadership like Bobby Seale, Elaine Brown, Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton. Another equally mesmerizing section dissects the output of the Black Forum label, Motown’s politically themed subsidiary.
Nowadays, revolutions are easy to track — you just Google them. But back in the 1970s, LPs became dispatches from the front that people could play in their homes, or on local radio stations, to gauge how the rest of the world was approaching the political that was so personal to them.
These small discs were part of the overall effort that allowed African Americans to get real information about the Black Power Movement, to let them know they weren’t alone, to show them ways to be involved, to stoke ideas and energy, and to provide catharsis. Thomas mines this territory to construct a richly illustrated history of a time when revolution was damn hard, and it left reminders that it once existed.
April 13, 2012 § Leave a Comment
To look at one of Diana Al-Hadid’s sculptures is to enter a point of perception that leaves you struggling — is this an architectural structure? The ghost of one? Or accidents meant to evoke structured, physical space? The Syria-born artist focuses on place as monuments to memory in her work — not necessarily specific locales, but more general swathes in the nostalgia that can infect our emotions and provide emotions of belonging through more vague structures that seem to span ages.
Her new work at Mass MoCA, “Nolli’s Orders,” which is part of the “Invisible Cities” show that opens on Saturday, April 14, reflects this quality in Al-Hadid’s work, mixed with a fascination for the human figure as it appears in classical paintings.
Pulling bodies from Renaissance paintings and reconfiguring them within the architecture of the sculpture, Al-Hadid has brought the relationship between the human body and its structural creations to a logical extreme.
“I started pulling from these figures in paintings a little bit at random. It was kind of privileging figures that I’ve had that were extremely different from each other as I collect them,” said Al-Hadid. “Holding a very different posture, but always looking a little bit relaxed.
“The first figure I pulled, he’d been stabbed with an arrow in his side and he’s laying down super-heroically and really comfortably, like he’s taking a nap under a tree. He had just been shot and it was a very weirdly beautifying as a violent moment.”
“They all have that quality about them where they look relaxed or comfortable. I felt like if I could get this part, then everything would fall into place, because they’re the anchor of the piece.”
Al-Hadid began the piece over a year ago, before being approached to participate in the Mass MoCA show, and while it was on the basis of her previous work that she was considered, it was really when Mass MoCA curator Susan Cross saw the beginnings of the piece in Al-Hadid’s studio that her inclusion was queried and the sculpture’s fate became linked with the actual show.
“I’m sure the concept of the show affected how I saw the piece, although I had sketched it out in advance of the piece,” Al-Hadid said. “I think there was something in my earlier works that is architecturally very structural and I think alludes to a city, but I think it’s really more of a structure that relates to a single figure. I mean that in terms of the scale but also in terms of the concept that might have inspired the work.”
The piece has grown upward from its beginnings down below, which have created a threetiered world for Al-Hadid to design. She wanted to include pedestals, and ended up placing six at the bottom, big white boxes from which the sculpture moves toward the figures.
“I’ve been treating the pedestals as a spatial blank canvas in my work recently,” she said. “I started by setting up six pedestals and started removing the figures from these paintings and started treating them as a compositional element rather than characters. So I set them up and I made the piece from one side very pyramidal and triangular and then changing a bit from different perspectives, from one perspective it’s really deep and from another it’s diagonal.”
The pedestals begin to resemble a Roman city, on top of which is a grid of sorts, with dripping elements, that form into a theoretical mountain flanking the city, above which the figures float like gods on Mount Olympus. The piece is inspired by Nolli maps of Rome, 18th century cartography meant to measure the density of a city by capturing the structures within in it, like a photograph taken in the air.
“I’ve been determined to create a mass, a population rather than a single entity or a work that corresponded with one,” said Al-Hadid. “So I started with that. I was looking at a lot of these paintings and I knew that I wanted to isolate figures from these paintings because I wanted to remove them from their narrative, decontextualize them. So I go off with some paintings here and there, and I would draw a line around a figure that I wanted.” Al-Hadid says that her latest sculpture is different from her previous work in several ways, most notably that in the past she had made use of computers to plan out the pieces and test ideas, which gave her more of a clear vision of what the sculpture would look like in the end. She started her work with a clear floor plan that gave some idea of what was to come, but “Nolli’s Order” retained mysteries even as she moved ahead on it.
“This one looks a lot different, it’s a lot more improvisational, a little bit more painted,” Al-Hadid said. “It’s a different kind of painting. This one’s little more like an expressionistic painting, while the last one’s more like a modernist painting in terms of the organizing principle, in terms of the surfacing.”
“This one started out a little more like groping in the dark. I’ve often had some kind of key to how to make the first move on a sculpture, and I really haven’t done that on the last year’s worth of work and it’s totally changed how I work. “ The long process is part of what makes “Nolli’s Order” different from previous works. Al-Hadid juggled four other commissions during the period of time she created it, but the lead-up to the Mass MoCA show offered her the excuse for full concentration and the ammunition to bring it to full fruition with spontaneity. It was a change of process that will affect all works to come “It was really hard to return to and give it the full attention after a year of not working on it one hundred percent,” she said. “It was like it had been at this stage fro a real long time and I have to change it completely and really fast, and it changed completely and really fast. In a month. I dealt with the problems.”
March 22, 2010 § Leave a Comment
For a while there, it seemed like Johnny Cash was relegated to being a remnant of your grandparents’ pop culture — yet another old country singer delivering the same old Nashville clichés as any other.
But in the early 1990s, he hooked up with producer Rick Rubin — at the time best known as rap and metal producer — and began to record tracks for what would become his most important album in years — “American Recordings.” This not only reinvigorated his career and creativity, but also re-established him as the brooding man in black who is constantly on the run from his own darkness.
Johnny Cash was cool again.
It’s probably no mistake that in the 1990s, even as Kurt Cobain self-destructed in real time in front of everybody’s eyes, that the dark heroes of yesteryear were being trotted out as relevant again.
Frank Sinatra certainly benefited greatly from this — all of a sudden, he was getting his due with the younger generation, and the troubled Sinatra of the Capitol years was the Sinatra of preference. “New York, New York” was to be ignored — “Angel Eyes” was to be embraced.
Dean Martin found himself in a similar situation, thanks to a biography by Nick Tosches that framed his life and his psyche within the American mystique of booze and mobsters. The problem with Sinatra and Martin — and others who got the same opportunity during that decade — was that they weren’t prepared to match their revived cool cache with new work that seized on why the public had decided to look their direction again.
Johnny Cash, on the other hand, rose to the creative challenge and won, remarkably.
It’s Cash’s persona as not only a dark rebel, but also a can-do one, that defines German artist Reinhard Kleist’s graphic novel biography of the singer, “Johnny Cash: I See A Darkness,” published by Abrams. Tracing Cash through his childhood and up to the concert at Folsom Prison — then taking a leap into the future and ending with the Rick Rubin sessions — Kleist captures a man burdened by his ghosts and acting out in his life, but not letting those problems stop him from focusing on his great talent and harnessing that into opportunities.
Kleist rolls out Cash’s life not just as a series of actual events, but as a psychological and artistic space in which Cash inhabits the stories that his songs tell. Through dream-like sequences, Cash does kill a man in Reno just to watch him die — he does battle the world after being named Sue, and he does run from ghost riders in the sky who chase him down.
But that’s the power of Cash — and any great singer — the ability to make any song their own, to put it in a context where the emotions or experiences related in the lyrics sound autobiographical. In this way, a good singer is not just a good storyteller but also a good actor, and Cash was able to play the role of the Man in Black to great effectiveness.
But as Kleist makes clear, the role also had a way of taking over, and it’s this struggle that is at the center of Cash’s story, as well as the artistic endeavor to balance the role with the man, to utilize the role that is within the man to create great work while not letting it also pull the strings of the personal life.
That is why the “American Recordings” sessions are so important — Cash finally achieved that balance and control after years of dipping to both extremes. Kleist does a wonderful job at telling the story of a man through the incidents of his life, but he does a better one at capturing the flavor of his soul.
March 17, 2010 § Leave a Comment
Like “Village of the Damned” without the science fiction element — and with a lot more darkness — Michael Heneke’s “The White Ribbon” presents a small-town drama in which the children seem to be at the center of the intrigue. Unlike that film — and most others — Heneke prefers not to spell things out, but instead to allow suspicion to loom around the story like an ominous mist.
Set in a small German village just prior to World War I, “The White Ribbon” presents a community with the appearance of order but with seismic shifts that threaten to crumble the surface, shaking the stance of the solid citizens who depend on its surety.
The film starts with a strange assault — the local doctor, while biking home, is overturned and injured badly. Sent away, the mystery does anything but unravel — in fact, it sits right there where it happened and barely moves forward. The police investigate, but frustration quickly sets in when the only witnesses — women — can’t give their accounts the righteous coherency the investigators desire.
From there, mysterious events dot the landscape over the course of the next year, told partly from the vantage point of the schoolmaster (Christian Friedel) and partly from intimate exposés of the private lives of the families he serves, offering more context for the viewer, though fewer solid answers. The schoolmaster attempts to pursue his own heart, even as those of everyone around him sink. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 6, 2010 § 3 Comments
Filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor are both anthropologists based at Harvard University — she is curator of visual anthropology at the Peabody Museum; he is director of the Sensory Ethnography Lab.
Their new documentary film, “Sweetgrass,” captures the change in the American West by documenting the last sheepherders on Montana’s Beartooth Mountains to make a practice of driving sheep onto protected federal lands for summer pasture.
Barbash and Castaing-Taylor were teaching in Colorado when they heard about Lawrence Allested, a rancher in Sweetgrass County who had told someone, “I am the last guy to do this, and someone ought to make a film about it.” That was enough to grab the couple’s interest.
“As anthropologists, we really were interested in this idea of people clinging to tradition against all sorts of really difficult odds,” said Barbash in a recent interview.
“The sheep drive itself almost takes the life out of people, and this is a family that has been doing it for years and years and years despite the difficulty, because at this point they’re doing it despite the fact that it’s not really economically viable. They hang on to the tradition, and they’re taking a significant amount of pride in that,” Barbash said.
In 1930, the area had 30 bands of sheep with a head count of about 90,000 over the summer. By the time Castaing-Taylor went to scope out the cinematic possibilities, there was only Allested with his one flock of 3,000 sheep in the mountains near Yellowstone Park.
Castaing-Taylor visited during lambing season to meet the farmers and farmhands, which resulted in packing up their family for the summer and start filming.
“They put me up in an old sheepherder wagon from frontier days outside their house for a few days,” Castaing-Taylor said. “When we got to the end of the road and I went up to the top of the mountains with them, I was aware that this was an amazing place — it was so powerful and beautiful, so remote, that there was definitely a film there that was interesting.” « Read the rest of this entry »