Saturday, September 30, 2006


Agora II at McCarren Park Pool, September 29, 2006

co-written by Jake

I must say, we were hyped up about attending this performance. What with the reams of preparatory emails, the signed waivers, the dance lesson videos, and the required props, it was obvious that Agora II was going to be something special. The Event of the Season. Hoo-whee.

Jake, a veteran of Group Motion, came in from Philadelphia, not once but twice, the first performance having been rained out. We rehearsed our dance steps in the studio, decorated our props, and checked our watches. 'Player' tickets had to be there half an hour early. Since our 'mission' included the running of several laps around a larger-than-Olympic size pool, and the abovementioned dance steps, we figured that we shouldn't wear too much restrictive clothing. Like, say, a COAT.

McCarren Park Pool is one of the more special performance venues in NYC. Sitting on the pool ledge, watching the half-moon rise over the half-finished high-rise condos (look, all you greedy developers and invading yuppies, 'Park View' is a misnomer. A view of McCarren Park is not a 'Park View.' It is a 'view of a barren field covered with trash.' Get a life) I realized what it was--one never sees so much sky. McCarren Pool is huge. There are no buildings, or almost no buildings, crowded around it. It's neat.

Until you sit there in your t00-thin sweater and contemplate the fact that body heat radiates to the sky.

This performance was, in fact, just like Burning Man. It had the interactive, spontaneous, community-oriented thing going. It had the 'huge, flat space' locale. It had the 'large amount of chaotic activity going on simultaneously' concept behind it. Only this performance, this media-lauded performance by choreographer NoƩmie Lafrance, was unlike Burning Man in one crucial aspect: it was tepidly, arrogantly, crushingly lame. Burning Man Lite.

Yes, we had the surprise element of lots of oddly dressed strangers coming up and holding our hands. There were flocks of people on bicycles. There was post-modern music, there was nudity, there were attempts at striking visual tableaus involving long bolts of fabric, and screaming, and focused spotlights.

But at Burning Man, I'll have you know, the people on bicycles had huge neon fish sculptures attached to them, and the musicians were riding surrealistic, fifteen-foot-high fantasy vehicles, and the naked strangers had real conversations, and the participation was extended and genuine.

This performance even had the Burning Man factor of mild physical suffering. By the time it actually started, we had been sitting on a concrete ledge under a heat-sucking sky for a solid hour, and could not feel our fingers. By the time we finally got to start running laps, we had been shivering uncontrollably for forty minutes, and three laps around the pool was not sufficient to alleviate the chills. When the long-awaited participatory dance finale finally arrived, we were too numb to realize what was happening. Or maybe the cues were bad.

At any rate, it did not go on nearly long enough. Instead of being a vortex of dynamic group energy, rising and surging and going wild, it was more of a gestural indication of such. It was over in less than a minute. I kept dancing anyway, to the lame, five-piece semi-jazz band which touched off the 'after-party,' just to warm up. We went home as soon as I could bend my hands well enough to drive, though. Or rather, we went to Long Tan for chili-laden food and a shot of bourbon.

This is what happens, I am afraid, when Avante-Garde Choreographers spend much more of their time and energy negotiating NYC bureaucracies for the use of derelict WPA pool spaces, and setting up labyrinthine on-line instructions, and schmoozing every other performance group in Williamsburg, than in ACTUALLY CHOREOGRAPHING SOMETHING. The abundant raw materials of space and talent were just not used. I mean, come on, if you've got Streb in the mix, where on earth were the cool-ass circus acrobatics, on a high vertical structure that would have transcended the too-big pool plane, and allowed us to see what was going on? Where was the thirty-piece jam band of amazingly talented musicians that would have reverberated the entire space until the wee hours?

And if you're going to demand so much of your audience, you'd better be prepared to give something back. This performance was just patronizing. It was a pretense of interaction, an arrogant gesture, nothing more.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Woman, art, life

Rachel Winborn, 'In Floor,' 1995, photo by Charles Morris

Rachel Winborn, performance artist, has a new website up. Please go look at it. It's beautiful, and fun; click on each room in the little house, watch the videos, read the stories. Pay particular attention to the wallpaper.

In order to get a genuine sense of what Rachel's work is about, you have to allow yourself to become immersed. She's not making a one-line 'statement' about Women and Art and Drudgery; though her work is labor-intensive and conceptual, it is an exploration, an illustrative process. One of my favorites is "Launder":

For Launder I made 1200 bars of old fashioned laundry soap and "tiled" the floor with them. I built a wood plank or "boardwalk" around the perimeter of the room for the viewer to experience the piece. In the beginning of the exhibition the walls were bare. Once a week, while the gallery was open I came in and "did laundry": scrubbing the clothes on the floor. Over a 7-week period I did laundry on six days, the seventh week/day I rested. During each performance I washed one set of clothes each for a man, a woman and a baby. The water in the wash tub was never changed; I only added one pail of fresh water to it per week. By the third week the gallery had a rancid smell due to the moldy water and tallow soap. Toward the end of the exhibition it was evident that the clothes first washed were brighter than the latter washed. The more I washed the worse the laundry came out. Hence, the work is never

And there you go. Perhaps the ending is a typo, but it works for me.

I've known Rachel for two or three years, now. She's the kind of person you can invite anywhere. Down-to-earth, generous, engaging, she can and will make cheerful conversation with anyone, even if she doesn't speak their language. She's the mother of a ten-year-old daughter, Ruby, and she and her husband are expecting their second child soon. She's nothing like the stereotype of a snotty, shallow, elitist 'performance artist'; her art is a natural outgrowth of her life.

In addition, Rachel knows what she's doing in the technical arena. There aren't too many things she doesn't know how to make or do, from carpentry, to sewing, to photography, to soapmaking. Thus, the installations she creates have an integrity to them which transcends the act of 'installing a bunch of found objects in a space.' Rachel gets the right stuff for the atmosphere she is creating, whether she finds it in an attic, or spends months making enough ceramic tiles to cover an entire room, grouting herself into the floor.

Most of her pieces involve a leisurely, almost ritualistic exploration of a simple action, such as knitting and unravelling a dress/blanket in bed, or shaking flour out of dresses. As such, she is essentially creating physical poetry in time and space. The most arresting aspects of her pieces are sometimes the smallest, most incidental detritus of the process; the amplified sounds of flour-laden dresses hitting the floor, the smell of rancid soap. Her work owes a lot to theatre and set design; she cannily uses all the tricks at her disposal to create an energetically charged space.

One thing you may note, as you browse through Rachel's virtual house, is that the dates on the pieces range from 1995 to the present. Some of them are more involved than others; some are merely gestures, while others required months of labor and preparation. But she's not mindlessly spewing out piece after piece after piece, performing every weekend, having the sort of frenetic 'art career' that is expected, almost demanded, of the Chelsea set.

I, for one, don't have a problem with that. To me, there's something hollow and brittle about art which is churned out at the expense of the artist having an actual life. Rachel's creative pace is authentic to the dictates of having a well-rounded life as an artist, wife and mother, not merely the life of a woman artist making art about wives and mothers.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Spiritual whammies

This week, my last in Maine, I've been unabashedly a tourist. Monday I went down to the Fairmont Museum in Rockland, to see the Andrew Wyeths and incidentally some other stuff. I became disgusted all over again with whatever New Yorker critic it was who reviewed the Wyeth retrospective and some irritating conceptual guy in the same article. He spent three quarters of the article extolling the virtues of the conceptual guy, whose signature piece was eight full-size resin casts of himself, in various poses of auto-adoration, entitled, "Oh, Charlie, Charlie, Charlie, Charlie." I patiently endeavored to keep an open mind, until I got to the three petty, terse paragraphs tacked on to the end, which were equally dismissive of Wyeth and the hordes of people lined up around the block to see him.

Okay, so maybe Andrew Wyeth's work doesn't push the boundaries of what 'art' could be. Perhaps it is flat, boring, predictable and bland. Perhaps it does 'reproduce better than it looks in person.' Certainly most of the artists who paint pictures of boats and hills and buoys and figures and random Maine flotsam, who are NOT Andrew Wyeth, can be slotted into this category.

But in my HUMBLE opinion, Andrew Wyeth achieves 'mastery of technique and transcendence of subject matter,' which is my personal yardstick for artistic success. Yes, they're pictures of boats and landscapes and figures. The early ones in particular are virtually indistinguishable from anything at a random plein-air kitsch art fair. But the more Andrew Wyeth paints, the more the nervous, edgy, obsessive, piercing, penetrating, secretive nature of his soul peers through, and the more intense and even alarming becomes the result. That works for me.

I feel sorry for Jamie, however. The poor man is sixty this year, and from what I saw at the Wyeth Museum, he's still painting like a talented but confused twenty-five-year-old. He's stranded in the indecision between commitment, experimentation, fantasy and release. A few of the paintings were amazing; the rest of them were divided between competent studies and ambitious failures. I can identify with that.

For myself, I finally gave up all notion of this being a 'working vacation.' Instead I am re-connecting with my sense of wonder, and coming to terms with the fact that I'd lost it in the first place. After three weeks I am able to wake up and just be with the light. Walking to the herb patch to get chives every morning is a momentous experience, what with the billions of diamonds on the grass, and crouching forest and exultant fauna and teeming waters and whatnot. I recall this. Intellectually I've known that it is always there. I've just been numbly unable to access it for, oh, I don't know how long.

When I was about twenty-seven, I fell in love with a serious Zen Buddhist. Simultaneously I started working out a lot, and meditating, and eschewing most meat, dairy, alcohol, and other mind-fuzzing substances. Also I kept re-reading "Anne of Green Gables."

The upshot of all of this was, that colors gleamed, shadows deepened, light became crystalline, and I wandered around in a state of besotted, childlike amazement much of the time. Some of my friends at the time--well, a lot of them--found this annoying. Oh, they said it was great. But when the whammies started happening, one after another, a lot of them vanished.

I suspect that whenever a person makes a leap in consciousness, there is usually a corresponding toxic fallout. You have to cope with all the ways you've been lying to yourself before, all the habits you have that sabotage you, all the relationships which don't support you. Toxic fallout is not fun. Sometimes you find yourself vomiting copiously, sometimes your lover abandons you, sometimes you wind up homeless and half of your former friends say you make them 'uncomfortable.' Sometimes all of these things happen at once.

And when you commit to a lifetime of spiritual growth, sometimes, I think, these sorts of whammy episodes tend to happen at regular intervals. So much so that when you start apprehending the billions of diamonds again, something inside you cringes and waits for the other shoe to drop. Which obviates the diamonds and leaves you in a fearful, suspended limbo. And, incidentally, unable to artistically produce, since you're not taking in enough to feed it.

So the battery is beginning, just beginning to re-charge. I don't know how long it will take. It may take years. I think I have to work on being fine with that.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The world gets brighter

Oh, man. Thank you, A.R. I went to see Rose the wondrous bodyworker again yesterday, courtesy of one of my best and oldest friends in the world, and Rose has given me a new right arm.

There was so much toxicity built up in the old one that by the time I went to bed yesterday evening I was cramping all over (it is not seemly to thwack yourself compulsively in the butt during a community dinner party), and had to keep climbing up and down the stairs in the middle of the night, as my system went into 'rapid flush' mode.

The amazing thing was that Rose did not go into the monster knots and whale on them, the way I would have done. She hooked onto the fascia in my shoulder and stretched them, one layer at a time. There was one point that I felt my arm getting longer and longer, and knew for a certainty that it could become infinitely long, that there was never going to come a point when it would go no further.

Oh man, I needed that.

This week I read a book which I now wish to recommend to everyone in the world. Our copy of Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found my Faith, by Martha Beck, seems to have vanished along with our erstwhile houseguest, so that I cannot quote the huge excerpts from it that I was intending to. However, if the houseguest DID take it, it could not have gone to a better place, so that's the last I will say about that, except that I hope to God she finishes it.

The reasons I'm tooting this book beyond all others are interlocked and legion. First of all, it's hilarious. Her writing style is reminiscent of that of yours truly, at my most puckish and urbane, and her material is, to say the least, flamboyant. Those Mormons--well, let's just say that if I had made up a religion, complete with elaborate rituals, at the age of six, and documented it thoroughly, it would have looked a lot like Mormonism. Weird-ass fundamentalism has got to be a natural developmental stage of the human psyche. But even at the age of six, I wouldn't have taken it nearly so seriously.

Anyway, if it was just funny, I wouldn't be bothering. What really impressed me was both her masterful descriptions of 'the peace that passeth all understanding,' that infinite joy that cannot be evoked in words, and her profoundly wise integration of justice and forgiveness.

There seems to be a pervasive notion in human culture, on all sides of political fences, that 'forgiveness' equals 'saying it's okay.' We see it in right-wing ideologies that equate 'compassion and understanding' with 'flopping over and playing dead while the criminal element tramples civilization.' We see it equally in left-wing ideologies that equate 'peace and forgiveness' with 'denying our wounds and playing dead while the patriarchy molests us and silences our voices.' Nobody seems very hip on forgiveness, unless they're ordering someone else to shut up and play nice.

This book makes it clear, in the most compelling way I've ever encountered, that true peace can only be attained through truth, justice, clarity, and then an understanding and compassion that encompasses both the abused and the abuser. You do not obtain peace, or even a lasting social stability, by sweeping ugliness under the carpet. Neither do you obtain justice by signing up for a lasting inner rage which obviates trust, compassion, and redemption.

I was going to go on and on, but this morning, in peace and clarity, I find myself completely unable to do so. You just have to read the book.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Happy birthday to me

Got David G.'s invitation for the 63 openings in Chelsea tomorrow evening. David will be attempting 20 of them. I will be attempting none. I am still, blessedly, in Maine.

I'm-not-there-and-I-don't-care, doo-dah! Doo-dah!

No, I am still sitting by ponds and watching obese tadpoles try to figure out what to do with their new limbs. I am wandering around in forests, gazing intently at ridiculously pretty flora. Today I climbed a small mountain and stared out to sea for an hour. This is all urgent business. My calendar is full.

Last week I got my first massage in I don't know how long. The bodyworker is great, and nothing at all like me. She started at my sore ankle and commenced subtly unravelling fascia. It took her an hour and a half to work her way up to my right shoulder, which I thought was causing the trouble; that wasn't the trouble. Evidently the real trouble comes from protecting my sore heart. She barely got started on it. I booked another session for tomorrow.

I'm a little better at standing on my hands, and a lot better at standing on my head. I lost three pounds in two weeks, then just now the scale told me I'd gained it all back, but I'm choosing to ascribe this to PMS. Being around nature and good conversations makes me happy, so I naturally eat less.

This year, I think I will make no plans at all. I will not try to save the world. I will not engender any grand schemes. I'm still up in the air as to whether to apply for a NYFA grant, although I conceivably qualify in two different categories. I think that making plans at the moment is bad for me.