Saturday, February 28, 2015

Anselm Kiefer, Exhibit B, and Controversial Works

I started writing this months ago...but never got around to finishing it.  But it keeps coming up in conversations I have so I'm posting it now for posterity.   It's a bit of messy thinking and questions with literally no answers. 

With thanks to @ChurlishMeg, Laura and I visited the Anselm Kiefer exhibit when we were in London in November.  It sparked some interesting conversation about controversial artists.

Kiefer is a post-WWII German artist who was one of the first of his generation to wrestle with the Nazi era.  At time when few in Germany were addressing the German history he confronted German identity and used in some of his earlier works Nazi imagery.  As his work evolve his use of symbolism became more nuanced and evocative--grand celebratory spaces, sunflowers, lead pipes, fields (with people and objects buried beneath them).  He moves from personal space to the public space as the symbol. He confronts when and where we build monuments to our ideas. He looks at how we create spaces to inspire and unite ideas--including highly destructive ideas. And then those spaces are abandoned or destroyed through wars.  But does that stamp out the ideas?

After we saw the exhibit (and got lost in the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland crack nightmare), I started to think about how art can be misinterpreted.  If Kiefer's early work had come to light in an internet age I can see how quickly his early work could have been seen as possibly pro-Nazi and quickly shutdown. But seeing a retrospective of his lifetime of work it was interesting to see his style and approach change and how that earlier work fit into the entire picture.   

It made me think about other work lately that has raised questions of appropriateness and work that has not seen the light of day because of protest--the first instance was the Barbican pulling Brett Bailey's Exhibit B, the second was Death of Klinghoffer being stopped from being broadcast in movie theaters. 

Death of Klinghoffer did get performed live at the Metropolitan Opera despite accusations of antisemitism and after I saw it I was really glad that important work was shared.  But I found myself happy that Exhibit B was shutdown even though I never saw it. And I wondered if I was being hypocritical about that.  As Isaac Butler's essay on The Interview points out, one cannot criticize work that one has not engaged with. 

Was it enough for me to accept reports from artists such as Selina Thompson that as an artist of color Exhibit B's point of view was racist and that it was perpetuating destructive acts of colonialism.  Did I need to see it for myself?  Did more people need to see it to dismiss it?  Frankly at the time I was thrilled that a work that just on the surface seemed revolting had been closed down. Exhibit B was not just depictions of racist scenes but used performers to demonstrate them.  And here was a white South African artist expounding on issues of colonialism in Africa using black performers to do so.

I continue to have strong feelings about The Scottsboro Boys.  I left that show wanting to vomit in the street in anger and revulsion.  For me it did not do enough to comment on the form it was using--a minstrel show--to criticize that form.  Having a white creative team did not help matters.  In the end I felt like I was trapped in racist minstrel show and I was really angry about being put in that position.

But should it never have existed.  Was it better that audiences saw it?  My reaction was certainly a minority position.  Others find it powerful for the reasons the creative team seemed to intend whereas I felt like it was perpetuating the issues it had set out to criticize. 

Point of view is everything when it comes to art tackling challenging subject matter.  Who is speaking, what they are saying, and how they are saying it are crucial to the analysis (for instance the recent Hamilton).  And of course misinterpretations of intent and expression can certainly occur.  But as one of my film school teachers used to say--once you put it up on screen, your intention goes out the window.  How it is taken by people will become how people see the work. 

But also do we need to look at whose voices we are amplifying and whose voices we deny space to?  Was my issue that Exhibit B was yet another white artist whitesplaining racism and colonialism in a world where we hardly let artists of color have space to do so?

Neo-Nazi's could appropriate Kiefer's images and see support for their cause.  But I guess I was most concerned with people being comforted in their racism by seeing something like Exhibit B.  If the work is taken on face value, and people walk through a human zoo, using the language of past racist acts which we have never really truly dealt with or wrestled with, and never question that that is a problem for our humanity.  But does that mean that exhibit should not exist in the first place.  Is it more important to walk through a protest outside which might help reframe your view and help you question the exhibit?  The protests around Klinghoffer certainly made me want to see the work and judge it for myself. Would it be better to see the work and start the conversation?

I feared that we would not even get to that conversation with Exhibit B.  We need to address the most deeply embedded aspects of racism in our cultures but it seems we struggle to have even basic conversations about racism.  Would we really be able to engage in the difficult, hard conversation that Exhibit B would require?  There were the many inappropriate selfies at Kara Walker's A Subtlety exhibit but she then turned the camera on audiences and filmed people's behavior at the exhibit.  She thinks it's part of the conversation.  So maybe I'm being wildly paternalistic.  Or I don't have enough faith in humanity.  Or I'm a terrible snob. 

But just this month I had to argue with someone that there's no such thing as reverse racism. So maybe I'm just really pessimistic about the world we live in.

Conflict, Time, Photography: How We Bear Witness

I popped into the Tate Modern to kill some time while a friend had a meeting and blindly wandered into the Conflict, Time, Photography exhibit.  And I'm glad I did.  It's a moving, artistic, and educational approach to looking at war and conflict in an unexpected way. 

Rather than a traditional exhibit on war photography (focused on photojournalists shooting the conflict as it happens--think Robert Capa) it was structured around how time informs artists who are photographing conflicts.  For instance in the first room, images were taken of battles, moments, and events happening as the conflict was ongoing.  As you moved through the rooms, the distance between the event and the photographs grew until the last room involved photographs of events that had taken place 100 years before. 

With this framing, the photographs showed a variety of ways in which we memorialize, remember, or forget conflicts.  Because of the concept of conflict over time, we saw a lot less of soldiers and the mechanics of war and more of the aftermath and damage on everyone and everything else--the wounds on people, the earth, families, or objects.  It offers a new different way of looking at those events.  By mixing the subject matter (not a singular war and in fact using multiple images of certain events over long stretches of time) it became less about the politics of any one conflict and more about damage inflicted, the recovery or permanence of that destruction.  Though I did notice there was a tremendous amount of photography from Hiroshima and Nagasaki and a surprising lack of photography from Vietnam (well, surprising for an American who tends to think war and photography = Vietnam).  Then again Vietnam was a heavily photographed war for America and its impact was noted in more recent photographs with the change in US military policy with journalists now being embedded. 

The overall effect of the show was a grand scale approach to how we bear witness--how we memorialize, document, and make propaganda through images. But also in how we wrestle with comprehending complex and difficult events and find meaning from them. 

For me the most powerful moments were not necessarily inherent in the images themselves but in how the artists were framing their subjects.  One photographer, Emeric Lhuisset, upon the one year anniversary of the death of a Kurdish journalist, Sardasht Osman, used a light-sensitive photo of Osman and posted it all over town.   But as the sun rose and the day dragged on the image would disappear and just become a black square.  Suddenly you are experiencing the loss of this person all over again and all you are left with is the black square memorial. 

Taryn Simon photographed family bloodlines for victims of the Srebrenica massacre.  She had people sit for portraits and when a family member had been killed she photographed whatever she could find from that victim.  You see bones, or merely a tooth, that was used to identify a family member in a mass grave.  Simon did the same for the family bloodline of the living descendants of "Hans Frank, Hitler's personal legal advisor and the Governor-General of occupied Poland."  When family members refused to sit for portraits an empty photo was used or an object they had sent in stood in for them.   The Srebrenica photographs show families destroyed, eliminated, or irrevocably damaged.  For the Frank family photos, you see continuity of a family in the face of destruction. 

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin extracted images from the Belfast Exposed archive which preserved images taken by professionals and amateurs about life in the city.  Whenever someone requested an image to be used the images were tagged with round stickers. Broomberg and Chanarin reprinted the images that lay beneath the stickers. Through their installation of these circular images you get brief glimpses of faces and places.  Juxtaposing them all next to each other you can flit from joy to sorrow in an instant.  We see soldiers, people in the street, children happy and laughing. Kids playing. Effigies. Faces in grief. Crying. People playing sports. Hoods covering faces.  Without further context each individual image becomes a larger story when connected to all the others around them.  And leaving the selection process to random application of stickers over the years puts the power in the hands of the archives.  The archive is speaking for itself in a way. 

Some images showed nothing about the conflict because the events happened in secret and so only through an artist's commentary do we learn what happened inside certain buildings.  Or with the passage of time the evidence of prior conflict had been removed.  Nazi objects were removed but the pedestals where they stood remain.  Locations of where executed soldiers were shot are photographed at the time and place of those executions but 99 years after they took place.  The absence of evidence becomes as powerful as the existence of scars.  Forgetting can be damaging too. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Hamilton: Salt Peter This

When the young Revolutionary War upstarts in a tavern shout "Showtime" and burst into rap, it's a massive collapsing of history and culture and says those rowdy upstarts who dance through the L train breaking the rules, shaking things up, and causing havoc, and music, and magic are part of the lineage of the foundation of this nation. And it may be the greatest revolutionary act of Lin Manuel Miranda's Hamilton. This ain't no powdered wig 1776 and thank god.

Lin-Manuel Miranda has written the book, music and lyrics of a musical revolution within the Revolution.   In this musical inspired by Ron Chernow's book Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda) becomes a rising star in the colonies.  He is the center of rebellious thought alongside Lafayette (Daveed Diggs), Hercules Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan), and John Laurens (Anthony Ramos).  King George III (Brian D'Arcy James) is none too pleased.  Eventually Hamilton falls in with George Washington (Christopher Jackson) and becomes his right hand man.  Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) struggles for recognition and becomes Hamilton's frequent rival.  As Hamilton climbs he acquires a rich wife (Phillipa Soo), a sister-in-law who has feelings for him (Renee Elise Goldsberry), and a mistress (Jasmine Cephas Jones).  His precipitous climb naturally comes with a fall when his personal life issues interfere with his political ambitions.    

Miranda's first act of challenging the status quo comes in casting all men of color to play the founding fathers.  With one white guy playing fatuous King George, he extends this further.  The casting makes clear that outsiders, rabble-rousers, visionaries, writers, and young men of color are America. They are a critical part of its DNA.  Of course these young men are mythologizing as they go. As they tear down the fabric of their past and charter an unknown future, they (well Lin-Manuel Miranda and team) are doing so with a consciousness that the steps they take matter. Representation matters.  Everything we see in this musical matters.

And there's a narrative motivation for this aggressive push forward. Hamilton is seen as the outsider even among his peers. He's the immigrant, a Creole, an orphan, and a big mouth. He has no place. He doesn't fit into the elitist social structure of English society in America. He  represents exactly the idea that this country will become. He's the misfit who finds a place to fit in.  He made this country a place for people like him to fit in.  And that's massive when what you're saying is that immigrants made this country and shaped its foundation.  And yes one can extrapolate to mean all immigrants but when early Americana rhetoric gets tossed around the white, elite vision of those founding fathers is what people are invoking.  Miranda subverts that with his Latino hero.  Again he's collapsing timelines to connect Hamilton's personal immigration story to later waves of immigration to America and taking us right into the present.

Identity is made as important to Hamilton as it is to us today.  The story is also structured with a wholly self-conscious narrative.  Overt storytelling and authorship of the story is omnipresent.  I was reminded of Taylor Mac's explanation for the indefinite article judy (Mac's preferred pronoun) used in judy's A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. Mac was not writing THE history. Mac was writing judy's version of things. And yet all history is someone's version of things. We've just stopped questioning whose version we are paying attention to.

Miranda is focused on the outsider voices but these are men's voices.  He acknowledges in part that he's leaving out a woman's history of these events.  There are female characters with interesting voices which he dabbles in but let's face they too are marginalized.  But he does not just leave it at that, accepting that marginalization.  He makes a conscious choice in the storytelling to  make clear they could have a whole musical unto themselves and in doing so seems to be showing that he's aware of leaving them out completely but in a three hour musical he could only do so much. It's an incredible act of  unprecedented self-awareness to say--I know I left you out but you are worthy of your own story.  When most new musicals barely know what to do with women, he manages to create dynamic female characters, he gives them passions and ideas of their own, and though they may be trapped in the circumstances of their times, he shows us how remarkable they were.  Even if he can't hand the reins of the story over to them completely.  

The music and lyrics incorporate a mixture of hip-hop and musical theater ballads.   We've seen hip-hop musicals used to reinterpret the work of old dead white guys before (The Bombitty of Errors was one of my favorite shows when I saw it).  But Miranda's usage here feels organic and earned.  He's blending musical traditions in a way we don't often see.  He's combining American musical voices in a truly unique American tapestry. Musical theater fans will hear familiar references.  Hip-hop fans will hear homages to their music heroes.  And Miranda somehow makes the marriage of the two feel effortless and obvious--like what were they waiting for. They should have always been married.  He's helped in this task with his talented cast.  But more on them later.  He also uses the music format to extend his narrative.  Political debates become rap battles, with insults, mic drops, and some badass lyrics spit. 

Identity politics aside, the work is also successful because all creative elements are working together. Thomas Kail's direction and Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography all sync perfectly with Miranda's book, music, and lyrics. The dancers move like structured anarchy--expressing revolt, frustration, and change through movement.  Kail's direction brings together the rapid fire lyrics, the relentless pace, and the mountains of history to be traversed and hones it into some elegant and crystalline direction.

In one of the most sumptuous and perfectly staged sequences I have ever seen, he puts Renee Elise Goldsberry, in the eye of the hurricane of staging as she remembers and flashes back to meeting Hamilton for the first time.  Expressing the time shift, her emotional state, and the complexities of her feelings for her brother-in-law and her station in life as the eldest daughter who had to marry for position, Kail creates this cinematic and time-bending sequence which fits with the song so perfectly.  I could watch this scene over and over again until the end of time. 

And these elements click because of the cast who are perfect in their roles.  First, Daveed Diggs is a rapper and performer but not really known in musical theater circles.  But HOLY JESUS GOD.  He plays both Lafayette where he raps in French and is all bravado and Thomas Jefferson where he's an opportunistic and elitist jerkface.  They are distinct characters and he imbues them both with just enough, je ne sais quoi that you will likely be blinded by his star-quality shining through.  With one sidelong glance and a knowing smile, he becomes charm, danger, and rebellion all wrapped up into one man.  I want to see everything this guy does from here on out.  Musically (he performs with clpping), theatrically, everything-ly. Renee Elise Goldsberry and Leslie Odom Jr. who have been terrific in other musicals get these complex and rich characters to dig into here.  And as always they deliver moving performances through their incredible voices.   Brian D'Arcy James is hilarious as the uptight and put-out King of England.  It must be said that Miranda is a wildly talented composer and lyricist but in the company of these voices he is musically a weaker link.

The litany of my analysis, praise, and criticism could go on and on.  I found Act 1 to be nearly perfect (I could have done with out the odes to babies and I hope from the preview I saw some of this got cut--there's a streak of sentimentalism throughout that is not my jam at all). Act 2 like Alexander Hamilton's real-life second act was a lot messier.  Traversing the political and the personal, it felt a little more rudderless at times.  But it's harder to plot the confusing self-destruction of a man than it is to build his meteoric rise.  Nevertheless I wasn't bored or confused or lost (but I noticed the meandering more).  Even with these criticisms Hamilton remains leagues above most new musicals.  This show is really special and I think we all need to take a moment to appreciate what a real gift it is to this generation and all those that follow it. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Pretty Filthy: The Heart of Porn

The last thing I thought I would feel at Pretty Filthy, the Civilians's new musical about the porn industry, was kinship.  As a newbie to the world of internet content, I wanted to raise a fist in solidarity with the characters on stage lamenting the trouble with making money anymore in the internet age. Porn stars and theater writers unite! It's a tough world out there when you pour your heart and soul (and other body parts for performers) into your work but no one wants to pay for it anymore.  Someone is getting rich but it's not you. 

Expanding upon their cabaret format, the Civilians take their documentary style storytelling to the porn industry and in doing so upend the stereotypes of drug-addled, desperate people clinging to the bottom rung of life and ending up in porn. This is not that story.  Highlighting voices of men and women who work in front of and behind the cameras they catalog the changing economics of Internet porn, the fading days of video stars, the inequity for performers of color, and the power that women in the industry have (and don't have).  It's not what you expect and yet what we have come to expect from this company who are primarily interested in voices we don't hear a lot of.

Bess Wohl authors the book with Michael Friedman doing music and lyrics and Steve Cosson directing.  They have shaped a story of a newbie to the industry Becky (Alyse Alan Louis) who moves to the San Fernando Valley with her boyfriend Bobby (Marrick Smith) in tow with the intent of becoming a porn star.  Agents guide the careers of the performers (Steve Rosen, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Jared Zirilli). For older performers such as Georgina (Luba Mason) the days of selling 1,000,000 copies of your videos are over.  Some couples struggle to stay together in the business, but others such as Oscar and Holly (Steve Rosen, Maria-Christina Oliveras) have managed. The racial politics of porn much like the racial politics of everything make the business an uphill climb for women of color as one performer explains (Lulu Fall).  Visionaries like Fredo (John Behlmann) cornered the squirting market until everyone started faking it.  And the time to make your mark is shorter and shorter and the profits are harder and harder.

The story of Becky and Bobby forms the backbone to the piece which feels like an expanded upon cabaret.  I'm not wholly complaining.  I love the Civilians's Let Me Ascertain You cabarets but it's episodic and the strength of the cabaret tends to be gorgeous singular moments when performer and material just click and the voice of the human experience becomes transcendent. Here, Pretty Filthy aims for a lot of laughs with a dollop of pathos.  And on the whole it delivers them.

Steve Rosen never met a lovable, weirdo he could not wholly inhabit.  Here he gets to run amok with characters such as porn agents, cameramen, and his piece de resistance, Oscar.  His Oscar somehow channels Constantine Maroulis and maybe Sesame Street's the Count in equal measure.  So much drama and a pure delight.  I could watch a show that was just all Rosen all the time.  Luba Mason seemed to be having a rough night with her voice but her character's strength and resilience after a long career in the industry was one of the more poignant moments of the night.  I was glad to see the focus return over and over again to women in the porn industry (on both sides of the camera) and though there was only one segment on the issues of race it was a powerful one with Lulu Fall making it quite clear the challenges for women of color in the industry. The cast across the board did a great job of playing multiple characters and giving each a distinct voice.

I thought the show reached for some extreme comedy at moments (most notably in the choice of phallic and squirting projections) which felt a little cheap considering how much smarter the rest of the work was.  Neil Patel's simple but wonderfully meaningful set (with the back of the Hollywood sign always in view) reminded us where we were and how the Valley's proximity to Hollywood was only just that.

Michael Friedman's lyrics can get verbose and get in the way of sentiment sometimes but the simpler moments seemed to deliver the message best.  His lovely and sad and searching refrain of "What If I Like It" and the confusing aspects of porn performers in their personal sex life (Becky & Bobby & Taylor & Dick) were for me stand-outs.

I received a complimentary ticket to attend this show.