Culture Vulture: Jacolby Satterwhite and David Byrne

October 31, 2020

I’m pretty sure the first time I laid eyes on Jacolby Satterwhite’s work was when it appeared in the 2014 Whitney Biennial in the form of “Reifying Desire 6,” an eye-popping animated video (above) densely populated by writhing black male figures, words, phrases, and a kaleidoscopic meteor shower of images and objects. It was sexy, psychedelic, groovy, and unforgettable.. I couldn’t wait to see more. Happily, he’s super-prolific so there’s been lots to follow. I knew he had a show this fall (his Instagram kept reminding me), and by chance I wandered onto his website just in time to realize it was closing the next day. So I hopped on my bike and in less than half an hour I was at the Mitchell-Innes & Nash gallery in Chelsea walking through “We Are In Hell When We Hurt Each Other,” a luscious visual, aural, trippy, intellectual bombardment.

It comes at you from so many angles. One launching point for the show was the album of dance tracks the artist put together (with collaborator Nick Weiss) based on original songs his beloved mother Patricia (who lived with schizophrenia and died in 2016) sang a cappella into a cassette recorder. The songs serve as soundtrack to an 18-minute virtual-reality film that one viewer at a time could watch at the gallery; I came too late to get a crack at the headset, but selected scenes were projected onto the gallery: a tribe of CGI fembots (modeled on the artist’s own body but decked out as Grace Jones-like warriors) inhabit a video-game landscape of menacing orbs and other intruders whom the figures easily vanquish. (The artist has said he got into the video game Final Fantasy while being treated for cancer as a kid.)

Present as a sort of goddess-matriarch figure in many iterations is the legendary fashion model Bethann Hardison, still looking magnificently regal at 78 (above); the ritualistic battles she oversees resolve into the final image of a floral shrine to Breonna Taylor.

Then there’s a multimedia sculpture called Room for Doubt – four larger-than-life nude male figures (again modeled on the artist’s body) in the midst of some kind of cryptic healing ritual involving golden ropes tied around their heads.

As Patty Gone wrote in her review for the online magazine Hyperallergic, Room for Doubt reimagines Caravaggio’s 1603 painting, “The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” in which the famous non-believer dips a finger into Christ’s wound. In Satterwhite’s version, four life-size nudes mimic the poses of Jesus and company, their torsos containing small screens showing a performance in which Satterwhite grimaces as he drags his body across a floor. There’s no messiah or disciple here, only shared sacrifice. Stillness creates room to behold another’s pain.” On the floor in the shape of animal hides are papyrus-like scrolls with rough drawings and notes (not unlike the note-to-self scribblings Jean-Michel Basquiat would include in his rich collage-landscapes).  

A version across the room, called simply Doubt, is one of several works in neon, including a kind of hilarious, witty neon version of Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe, Picasso’s rendition of which formed a key moment in the emergence of Cubism as a modern way of seeing and making art.

Besides drinking in these heady, color-saturated works, the high point of my visit was meeting the artist, whom I instinctively knew would be there. (Where else would an artist want to hang out?) He turned out to be friendly, handsome, and chatty, the kind of artist whose temperament lends itself to effortlessly discoursing about his work, where it comes from, what dots he’s connecting, etc.

You could happily entertain yourself for some time disappearing down the rabbit hole of his videos and interviews, enumerated on this page.

He told me I could watch the video in extra high-def on YouTube at home, and I scanned the QR code but couldn’t find the video later. Instead, Andy and I wound down from the crazy week by watching Spike Lee’s film version of David Byrne’s American Utopia on HBO Max. It was great revisiting the show, which we saw and loved on Broadway for the design, the lighting, and the exuberant performances. Spike Lee clearly had fun capturing Annie-B Parson’s fluidly inventive choreography from all angles, including backstage and Busby Berkeley-like aerial shots.


Quote of the day: WRITING

October 31, 2020

WRITING

One of the few things I know about writing is this: Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you.

–Annie Dillard


In this week’s New Yorker

October 23, 2020

This week’s New Yorker is an especially good issue.

On the hard news front, there are two excellent reporting pieces. In “Safety Last,” Eyal Press writes about how Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia (yes, son of the late Supreme Court Justice) has gone about weakening worker protections during the pandemic. It would be more shocking if it isn’t all too depressingly consistently with this Administration, which has routinely hired cabinet members whose values and experience are antithetical to the realms they’re now overseeing. And Rachel Monroe’s “Stolen Valor” investigates the world of military impostors — elected officials, candidates, and others — and the outraged veterans who have made it their mission to expose them.

Then there are a bunch of profiles of smart, fascinating people whose names are new to me:

  • Moxie Marlinspike (almost certainly not the name on his birth certificate) is the creator and CEO of Signal, the end-to-end encrypted messaging service, interviewed by Anna Wiener for “Privacy Settings.” Among other things, before Signal, Marlinspike created a browser extension for Firefox called GoogleSharing, which “pooled users’ activity on Google services and anonymized personal information, scrambling individual activity and assigning it to generic proxy identities. This prevented Google from building user profiles, and from collecting information from services that did not require a log-in. Marlinspike no longer maintains the software, but it is still available to download, for free, on GitHub, and has a successor, DuckDuckGo, a search engine that strips queries of identifying data.”
  • Saidiya Hartman, a writer and academic whose scholarly work on untold stories about Black life (especially Black women, especially the legacy of slavery) earned her a MacArthur Fellow and who has also appeared in a Jay-Z video (“4:44”). Alexis Okeowo wrote the story (“Secret Histories”).
  • Rita Indiana, an amazing 43-year-old 6’3″ lesbian musician and novelist in the Dominican Republic, a superstar in her country where she is known as the Monster (La Montra, in the local dialect). Daniel Alarcón tells her story in “Songs for the Apocalypse,” which mentions a bunch of songs and videos you’ll want to look up online {“After School,” “El Juidero,” “El Blue del Ping Pong,” and my favorite “La Hora de Volvé”).
  • Jennifer Walshe, a queer Irish composer about whom music critic Alex Ross writes an essay called “Sublime Chaos,” describing her work as “mystical Irish Dadaism.”




Quote of the day: ACTIVISM

October 2, 2020

ACTIVISM

You understood the dangers of American policing, the criminalization of Black, native, and brown people, 50 years ago. Your activism and your scholarship has always been inclusive of class and race and gender and sexuality. It seems we’re at a critical mass where a majority of people are finally able to hear and to understand the concepts that you’ve been talking about for decades. Is that satisfying or exhausting after all this time?

I don’t think about it as an experience that I’m having as an individual. I think about it as a collective experience, because I would not have made those arguments or engaged in those kinds of activisms if there were not other people doing it. One of the things that some of us said over and over again is that we’re doing this work. Don’t expect to receive public credit for it. It’s not to be acknowledged that we do this work. We do this work because we want to change the world. If we don’t do the work continuously and passionately, even as it appears as if no one is listening, if we don’t help to create the conditions of possibility for change, then a moment like this will arrive and we can do nothing about it. As Bobby Seale said, we will not be able to “seize the time.” This is a perfect example of our being able to seize this moment and turn it into something that’s radical and transformative.

One of the things that you’ve talked about that I hold on to is about diversity and inclusion. In many industries, especially the entertainment industry where I work, those are buzzwords. But I see them in the way that you taught me during our conversation for 13th. These are reform tactics, not change tactics. The diversity and inclusion office of the studio, of the university, of whatever organization, is not the quick fix.

Absolutely. Virtually every institution seized upon that term, “diversity.” And I always ask, “Well, where is justice here?” Are you simply going to ask those who have been marginalized or subjugated to come inside of the institution and participate in the same process that led precisely to their marginalization? Diversity and inclusion without substantive change, without radical change, accomplishes nothing.
      
“Justice” is the key word. How do we begin to transform the institutions themselves? How do we change this society? We don’t want to be participants in the exploitation of capitalism. We don’t want to be participants in the marginalization of immigrants. And so there has to be a way to think about the connection among all of these issues and how we can begin to imagine a very different kind of society. That is what “defund the police” means. That is what “abolish the police” means….
      
We haven’t been talking a lot about that period of Occupy. I think that when we look at how social movements develop, Occupy gave us new vocabularies. We began to talk about the 1 percent and the 99 percent. And I think that has something to do with the protests today. We should be very explicit about the fact that global capitalism is in large part responsible for mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex, as it is responsible for the migrations that are happening around the world. Immigrants are forced to leave their homelands because the system of global capitalism has made it impossible to live human lives. That is why they come to the U.S., that is why they come to Europe, seeking better lives.

–Angela Davis, interviewed by Ava DuVernay in Vanity Fair


Quote of the day: PLEASURE

September 29, 2020

PLEASURE

It can be easy to believe pain has a monopoly on profundity, that we access truth or salvation through suffering, from the story of Christ’s crucifixion to the mundane ravages of our own daily lives. But perhaps the Western obsession with Turkish baths, in all its fantasizing and fetishizing, has been in part an attempt to claim pleasure as something more than indulgence, more like a mode of survival. Pain claims so much of us; why not give pleasure its due when we can?

Visiting the hammams of Istanbul was like taking a rigorous course in pleasure itself, a syllabus committed to exploring the granular texture of bodily enjoyment, and to proving that pleasure holds its own pathways to meaning, that it might matter most at precisely those moments when it seems most out of place. Life finds unexpected ways to make this argument. In line at the grocery store a few weeks after I returned from Istanbul, just a few days before lockdown, with my own cart full of diapers and Pedialyte, I admired the cart of the elderly woman standing in front of me. It held nothing but cookies and beer. Her cart seemed to be telling me, You’ll need those diapers, but that’s not all you’ll need. She had so many years of living under her belt. I bet she knew a fair amount about pleasure, and also about endurance — how each permits the other, and how impossible they are to separate.

Pleasure demands presence. It invites you to inhabit your body more fully; no part of you is held at remove. For centuries, the Turkish bath has embodied the seductive prospect of seeing other people’s bodies not simply physically exposed but also psychically exposed, caught inside the particular vulnerability of enjoyment. There can be a radical honesty to pleasure, a profound nakedness in surrendering fully to unguarded, un-self-conscious states of enjoyment. It’s harder to hide or dissimulate when you’re enjoying yourself.

–Leslie Jamison in the New York Times Magazine


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