Culture Vulture: Laurie Anderson’s HABEAS CORPUS at Park Avenue Armory and John Singer Sargent at the Met Museum

October 6, 2015

(click photos to enlarge)

10.3.15 — The size and scale of the Park Avenue Armory makes it unlike any other venue in New York City, and artistic director Alex Poots has mounted one fascinating unconventional production after another there. He commissioned Laurie Anderson to make a piece this season, and the result – Habeas Corpus, which ran October 2-4 – was unlike anything Anderson’s ever done before. There was a performance each evening, at which she told stories and sang songs and introduced guest musicians Merrill Garbus (aka tUnEyArDs), Stewart Hurwood (Lou Reed’s tech guy, who marshals a fleet of guitars feeding back through amps), and Syrian pop singer Omar Souleyman.

10-3 HC performance
But the performance was a minor part of the event. The centerpiece of Habeas Corpus was Anderson’s collaboration with Mohammed El Gharani, a 28-year-old Chadian who was kidnapped from a mosque in Pakistan after 9/11, tortured and interrogated, then flown to Guantanamo where he remained captive for six years until he was finally freed and sent back to Africa. Anderson has been working for many years on multimedia art works about prisons and prisoners, specifically the idea of broadcasting live video of incarcerated prisoners  onto oversized plaster casts of their bodies in museum settings. She hasn’t managed to do this in the United States for political reasons, but through the human rights organization Reprieve she made contact with Mohammed el Gharani and devised this remarkable art installation.

10-3 habeas corpus statue
In the vast Drill Hall of the Armory stands a huge white chair statue (almost the size of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC and constructed by some of the same artisans who worked with Kara Walker on her giant sculpture A Subtlety at the Domino Sugar Factory last year), onto which is projected live video of el Gharani sitting in a studio in West Africa. He sits silently, although when he takes breaks, prerecorded video is shown of him telling stories about his experiences in Guantanamo.

10-3 HC full room10-3 HC back wall with disco ball10-3 HC wandering musician
Anderson has activated the space through lighting (the room is completely dark, lit only by the artwork and a giant disco ball slowly revolving) and sound (an eerie immersive sound piece by her late husband Lou Reed sends droning guitar feedback throughout the space, mixed together with a soundscape of surveillance audio, and a handful of musicians wander through serenading audience members with violin and cello improvisations).

It’s a spectacular and haunting meditation on solitary confinement, literal and figurative. In a smaller room at the Armory interviews of el Gharani talking about his experience played all day. As usual, the Armory created a large-format elaborate program with extensive notes on the piece, and Anderson wrote a long essay about making it that was published on The New Yorker’s website. I encourage you to check them out. Habeas Corpus is an eloquent and maddening argument for holding President Obama to his promise to shut down Guantanamo and repatriate detainees who’ve never been charged with any crimes.

10.4.15 – Word of mouth insisted that the show of John Singer Sargent’s portraits of artists and friends at the Metropolitan Museum was a must-see, but I dilly-dallied about checking it out until the very last day. So glad I didn’t miss it! I don’t have a huge file on Sargent, but this show was a powerhouse introduction that included some of his most famous works, including Madame X, a full-length portrait of a beautiful American expatriate socialite named Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau in a low-cut gown with bare shoulders that so scandalized Paris when it appeared that Sargent had to move to London afterwards. The exhibition also showcases the painter’s many portraits of now-famous artists, many of whom were his close friends, including Henry James (like Sargent a discreet homosexual).

I was intrigued by this gender-queer writer of whom I’d never heard before:

10-4 vernon lee portrait10-4 Vernon Lee plaque
I also loved that Sargent got to see a gamelan performance, which inspired this painting of a Javanese dancer:

10-4 javanese dancer portrait10-4 javanese plaque
His portrait of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth is justly considered one of his masterpieces, thrilling to see in person:

10-4 ellen terry as lady macbeth10-4 ellen terry plaque
I love his drawing of the young handsome William Butler Years and also his fascinating, strangely off-centered cartoon-like portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson and his exotically dressed wife:

10-4 yeats10-4 rl stevenson et ux10-4 stevenson plaque
Speaking of queer, Sargent did quite a lot of homoerotic artwork, much of which the Met Museum owns, but very little of it showed up in this show, an exception being this watercolor:

10-4 tommies bathing10-4 tommies bathing plaque
Sargent was very handsome himself (he and many of his distinguished artist friends would fit right in with the bearded gentlemen of Williamsburg/Brooklyn these days), as you can see in this, my favorite of his three self-portraits:

10-4 sargent self-potrait10-4 self-portrait plaque

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