Saturday, July 26, 2008

LERT Living Engaged Radical Theater!

Last night we saw three short plays performed for free in a courtyard of an apartment building.
"Eight To One," was the first production by LERT, Living Engaged Radical Theater
It was inspired by the Winter Soldiers Iraq Veterans Against the War event in Seattle on May 31.
Artistic director of LERT Andrew Perez, and a group of young actors from Seattle University and Cornish, as well as a few other actors that responded to the call, put on three plays that addressed the effects of war on soldiers after they return home. It included real incidents from the Iraq war, the difficulties of achieving intimacy, the insanity of caring about others in the midst of the mindless killing in Iraq, the craziness of life's random acts of violence, and much more.
Hidden Wounds, Hidden Costs, involved the unwillingness of young returned soldiers to talk about their experiences, the high suicide rate and the echoes of suicide among Vietnam soldiers.
Beverage Oasis was about the insanity of everyday life, the disconnects between people, and the perpetration of violence that can erupt mindlessly in response to PTSD
To-morrow we reach was more of a performance piece with a series of scenes about traumatic failures of intimacy, memories of death, and the distance between those who have killed and those who have not.
It was puncutated by the cast standing in rows calling out "move, move, move, move, move"
The effect of this sequence was both echoes of war and military, as well as perhaps directed at the audience to respond to the crisis.

Hats off to these young people for responding to the current world.

I don't have any pictures because I forgot to take a camera and they don't have a website. Just keep your eyes open for LERT in Seattle.
"Eight to One" is the ratio of wounded:killed in Iraq, in WWII it was 2:1 in Vietnam it was 3:1

What I was happy about is that their college programs are encouraging them to speak about issues.
Quite a contrast to visual art training!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Robert Morris and Lorna Jordan Land Art in the last century

Robert Morris Johnson Tar Pit, 1979 is one of his rare earthworks. Here you see goats eating off encroaching blackberries and maples.
Morris resisting making a beautiful place that would let the ruin of the environment off the hook, but he did create a usable park for the now dense development on all sides of it.
Dirt bikers love its steep hill. It is not quite a comfortable bucolic place, it is a steepish grade with few places to sit. Still it is an opening in the land now that suburbia has choked off all the other open land in a carpet of houses in every direction.

Not far away is Lorna Jordan's Waterworks Garden completed in 1996 . The first picture shows how it used to look. It is a serene parkscape intended to cleanse wastewater as it runs through a series of pools down a hill. Jordan created grottoes and mosaics that carry us along in a happy bucolic state of mind. Except for the fact that the pools you see are now choked with algae blooms . The surfaces are densely covered with green slime that is choking off all life. The irony is that the water appears free flowing and clear at the point that it enters the garden and by the end, instead of being cleansed, it appears to be trapped into an dense sludge. Jordan, unlike Morris, creates an arcadian environment in the midst of heavy industrial sites on all sides. Is this cosmetics for industry. Is any one near by paying attention to the detergent they use in their washing machines? You know those detergents that come in the giant plastic bottles that Americans use to constantly clean their clothes and pollute the planet simultaneously. There is no sense of a real connection to the ecosystem in America. In PC Seattle we drink shade grown iced coffee in giant plastic cups with plastic bubble tops on them to keep them from spilling. etc. And we buy organic raspberries in non recyclable plastic boxes.

I wonder if Lorna Jordan or Jones and Jones who designed the ecoscape can save Waterworks Gardens from algal bloom, or if what we really need to do is have a field trip for all the neighbors on laundry day. Perhaps Lorna will see this and think about what to do.
The last time I contacted an artist about an earthwork that had gone algal the artist replied that she actually had not even made it, that she had sold the idea to local people. Interesting. It was in all the books as one of her most famous works. She suggested I should do something about saving it.
I am not going to name her. That isn't really what this blog is about. I am not outing fraudulent eco artists. I am thinking about the tricky ethics of eco art, it overlaps with coverup of bad people who make a mess, and colonizing poor people who don't have parks, but it also involves a lot of artists who really do care about making the world a better place. Those artists are not the famous artists, the rich artists, or the trendy artists. They are people who get down and dirty with other people and try to move a few steps forward. And do the algal blooms change the fact that Lorna was trying to make a difference. Rather than bulldozing like a Smithson, she and Morris were restoring, Morris with the intent to say hey this is ugly anyway, Jordan with the intent of giving us a respite in an industrial wasteland of concrete plants.
More to follow on this subject, suitable for summer. What about artists and global warming?

"Black Art " An exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum

The small exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum curated by Sandra Jackson-Dumont includes about twenty artists. Among the well known artists are Jacob Lawrence, Gwen Knight, Kara Walker, Lester Johnson ( an abstract expressionist who included figures), Kerry James Marshall and Lousie Nevelson ! What? Who? Jackson- Dumont is expanding our thinking from black as ethnic to black as a color and an aesthetic choice, as well as a subject of black identity in art. My fellow critic with whom I saw the show was outraged by the inclusion of abstract work by white artists who happened to use the color black. She felt that it created a fudging, blurring, annoying confusion that was entirely unnecessary. Black art in the art world she declared is black artists making art. But I said, what about the fact that black artist don't always want to be ethnically trapped in representing their own histories, what about white people who represent blacks. That's fine she declared, but why black as a color, that is so generalizing the issue.
The sequence of three works by Lester Johnson, a french academician representing a black man, and Kerry James Marshall sang with resonance of different ways of viewing black people.
I think maybe my friend is right about including black as a color, that seems unnecessarily broadening. After all, this is the Jacob Lawrence and Gwen Knight Gallery, they represented the black experience, why shouldn't the gallery include black artists only, or sympathetic white artists addressing race, why include famous white artists who had nothing to do with thinking about blacks. Don't we get enough of that already, everywhere else.
Incidentally, this gallery is the result of vigorous local lobbying by an entity that I won't identify. For some reason it is not under the purview of American art, but rather Sandra Jackson- Dumont who is, I believe, the only African American on the entire professional staff of the museum. She is the talented and innovative Curator of Education. She also installs work in another area of the museum for educational exhibits, but I find it troubling that this particular gallery is cut off in a corner physically and mentally from the main American art gallery. I have no doubt that the curator of American art would be happy to show Jacob Lawrence and no wonder that Jackson-Dumont is including Louise Nevelson in her "Black Art" show. All ways to avoid pre selected categories is a step toward integration in the dominantly white perspectives of the Seattle Art Museum.
I am sure SAM would disagree with that characterization. After all they have an African art gallery that includes Nick Cave and Marita Dingus, contemporary African Americans. What about that? What about the Northwest Indian art galleries that include contemporary artists. This is their innovative idea, to bring past "ethnic art" up to the present. But in the end what is left for the big glamorous contemporary galleries? Michael Darling as the curator in that arena shows the "big names." I haven't checked to see how diverse those big names are. Maybe that will be for another day. Meanwhile, thanks to Jackson-Dumont for playing with the boxes in our heads.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Orientalism Redux 2

Last entry on my trip to England, we made another foray into Orientalism by visiting Brighton an example in architecture that long precedes the painters in the Lure of the East (see below)
The Royal Pavilion is an extraordinary monument that lays out in its every detail the British perspectives on the rest of the world at an early date in the course of Empire.

The exterior was designed by John Nash for Prince Regent George IV in the late teens of the nineteenth century.
We all know it was intended as a pleasure palace, so of course, it had to be looking at the "exotic " styles associated with pleasure. Outside is based on John Nash's references to what appears to be Islamic architecture. His source was drawings by a father son team Thomas and William Daniell, who traveled all over India publishing a book in 1808 "Oriental Scenery" and in 1810 " A Picturesque Voyage to India by the way of China." No one had yet had access to the Taj Mahal and Fatahpur Sikri. What comes across is a complete lack of integrity to anyone at all familiar with Islamic architecture. It is crudely assembled,with all the panache of someone who knows he is a leader in his field. Nash, the expert in the restraint of Regency architecture, has here indulged his every whim, with little sense of a need for integrity. This is after all built for a Regent, later King, who simply indulged all the pleasures of life as his main occupation. This not coincidentally was at the height of the British colonizing process in India, as the British government began to see itself as the civilizer of a backward country, after several hundred years of trading with India.

The interior is Chinese inspired, that is artists in England "copied" designs based on ceramics, textiles and other decorative objects brought to England. This trade with China was based on forced trade insisted on by the British who had bombed the port of Humen in Guangzhou in 1637, and introduced opium for the first time into China in 1800. The pink cheeked women with Chinese features, and the decorative dragons and snakes throughout the interior suggest the artists and George are co opting the power of Chinese dragons, even as they are trivializing it as a grotesque three dimensional ornamental device.
Inside the Brighton Pavilion, Prince Regent George IV had lavish parties for people with nothing else to do but eat, play cards, and ride horses.He had little to do with the policies of the government in the countries upon which his palace was based.
In front of the pavilion is the poster you see above. Note the ethnicity of the bridal couple, as though today the pavilion is most appropriate for Indian couples !
It is all so clear and obvious in architecture and painting, how the "West" views the rest of the world.

Orientalism Redux

This is Captain Colin Mackenzie painted by James Sant in 1842.
The portrait is a major work in the Lure of the East Exhibition at the Tate Britain. The exhibition re-examines Orientalist painting, mostly concentrating on nineteenth century painters in the countries around the Mediterranean.
But this portrait is of quite a different subject. Captain Colin Mackenzie was leader of the Madras Army that was one part of the massive British defeat in Afghanistan in 1842. Sixteen thousand British and Indian soldiers and followers were massacred during a retreat from Kabul to Jalalabad according to the catalog essay by Christine Ridding.
He was taken prisoner by Muhammad Akbar Khan, the son of the ruler of Afghanistan. who had been deposed by the British forces. Apparently Mackenzie got along with him very well, and was given this magnificent attire as a present.
When he got back to London, he posed for the artist James Sant, and the painting was included at the Royal Academy, to much acclaim. Astonishing arrogance! After a disastrous defeat Mackenzie dons the garment of Afghanistan royalty and looks like a heroic leader!
As suggested by one of the critical commentators included in recordings in the exhibition, imagine today, if a British soldier donned the garb of a Taliban leader for a portrait to be presented to great acclaim in London!

The artist who stands out in the exhibition is John Frederick Lewis whose detailed drawings of the architecture of markets and cityscapes are magnificent.

The catalog includes many excellent essays that re-think Orientalist paintings. It speaks of how these painters when confronted with the realities of domestic privacy and the landscape in places like Jerusalem and Cairo, altered their vocabularies and conventions. They posed themselves and their wives in public and private settings to compensate for the fact that they could not paint women and men together and had no access to harems.

Rana Kabbani 's essay juxtaposes Botero's Abu Ghraib image with Ingres Turkish Bath. He is making the comparison of the British occupation of Egypt inspiring striking paintings, and what paintings we will have from the occupation of Iraq. As he states " might such pictures ( of Abu Ghraib) come to be seen as the Orientalist art of the twenty first century, born, like their predecessors ,of military conquest and colonial expansion and fixed in commercial exploitation? "
That says it all very concisely!

Friday, July 4, 2008

9 Scripts From a Nation at War at the Tate Modern

The Performance of the Combatant Status Review Tribunal at the Tate Modern was based on the online transcripts from the Department of Defense of the tribunals that were invented after the Supreme Court said that Guantanamo prisoners should have some rights. The fraudulent character of the tribunals came across loud and clear in the performance. There were three tribunal members, then there was a "recorder" and a "personal representative" ( that's a substitute for a lawyer), a translator, then the detainee, he had an empty chair next to him for a witness( he had the right to call witnesses, but of course calling someone all the way from Afghanistan was impossible) Finally there was a narrator, which was not part of the transcript, but kept the audience on track.
The collaborative of artists who created the work ( David Thorne, Katya Sander, Ashley Hunt, Sharon Hayes and Andrea Geyer) selected material from the total transcripts to make a four hour performance.
The result was searing. The detainee's words dominated the presentation. We learned that they were in Guantanamo for random reasons ( an assistant cook to Bin Laden, watching a piece of land ( which was clearly in the wrong place), getting arms training in Afghanistan to defend himself in Africa, working in a shoe shop ( again obviously wrong place),
In several cases they declared that they didn't understand the concepts, (not surprising since we don't either, and several declared that they had no education), didn't know it was an Al Queda camp, etc. It was obvious that these were randomly imprisoned. In the first transcript on the Department of Defense website referenced above, the detainee seemed to only be growing vegetables.
The day after I heard this performance the Supreme Court upheld habeus corpus for Guantanamo Prisoners.
The performance was part of an installation at the Tate called "9 Scripts from a Nation at War"
It included Citizen, Blogger, Correspondent, Veteran, Interviewer, Student, Actor, Lawyer.
I was intrigued by the choice, there were no politicians, no generals, no political activists, war resistors, or demonstrators. The blogger was a composite anonymous blogger, chosen because blogs have played such an important part in the war.

In each case real people were interviewed, then their words were edited and re-presented by
actors. In choosing the veteran, they asked for veterans who were actors. The veterans were asked about the transition from civilian to soldier, how an individual dissolved into a group as a result of military routines, how someone moves from individuality and to collectivity.

The result was much more mediated than the recent testimony of the Winter Soldiers. In those testimonies, brave veterans were describing the actual atrocities that they committed. They were speaking as individuals, they had re entered society from the collectivity that was forced on them in the military.They covered in detail as eyewitness accounts of the occupation, the horrors of racism, breakdown of the military, the abuse of power, pillaging, rape, and much more.

So the question is, did "Nine Scripts" work? It worked because it was so undramatic and monotone. The fundamental problem with a nation at war is, especially with Iraq and Afghanistan, is that we are just going on. These nine scripts are only a few of the parts that people are performing, the parts that are constructed in the public arena.
We just go on and on performing, as we perform we can convince ourselves that we are actively involved in stopping the war, but actually, we are just drones in a huge system that is manipulating us. The individual is embedded in the collective of society as a whole, not just as a soldier in the military. Of course that doesn't mean we should stop for a minute our resistance. Without it we are completely lost. "Nine Scripts" represents a type of resistance to the status quo even as it records how we are all embedded. It made me want to redouble my efforts to get out into the street and protest.