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Culture Vulture/Photo Diary: Laurie Anderson, DEEP BLUE SEA, House of Dior, and SANCTUARY CITY

October 12, 2021

October 6: Laurie Anderson’s fourth Norton Lecture

Some highlights:

She quoted her friend Justin Stanwix who refers to the internet as “assisted living for millennials.”

She mentioned that her middle name is Phillips, which led to Phillips 66 gas stations, named after Route 66. Also, who knew that the name of the phone company Sprint is an acronym for Southern Pacific Railroad Internal Networking Telephony?

She said that she always sets up and breaks down her equipment for a concert by herself and that sometimes she wears a wig and a “CREW” T-shirt as a disguise. (It’s true – I watched her nimbly and efficiently dismantle her elaborate sound system after a show in San Francisco, although she wasn’t in disguise on that occasion.)

She spent some time discussing the notion of “the avant-garde” in 20th century art, noting that Gertrude Stein – who might be a perfect example of an avant-garde artist whom people consider difficult or inscrutable – gave 74 lectures on an American tour in 1934-35, her book The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas made the best-seller lists, and her opera Four Saints in Three Acts was performed by an all-black cast for six weeks on Broadway in 1934. NOT marginal or obscure.

She brought up the nefarious Texas law empowering citizen-vigilantes to prevent women from receiving abortions and asked, “How is this different from the Taliban?”

She spoke poignantly about her mother, who was brilliant but cold, and wondered: “If I’d had a warm mother, would I have seen technology as more embracing?”

Her aspiration: “Try to have a big mind and an open heart.”

Norton Lectures #5 and 6 are scheduled for November 10 and December 8. You can register in advance to receive the Zoom link (free) here.

Laurie Anderson fans will also want to read Sam Anderson’s beautifully written profile of her in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

I was tickled to see the magazine reprint Allan Tannenbaum’s picture that ran with my 1980 cover story for the Soho News.

The NYT piece coincides with the opening of “The Weather,” her show of paintings and immersive installations at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. Click here for details.

Also this week Laurie plays MC for a series of shows at Joe’s Pub under the collective title Kludge (definition: “An ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose”), featuring poet Anne Carson, musician and composer Arto Lindsay, writer Lafcadio Cass, and cellist Rubin Kodheli, in different combinations. See here for details.

October 8: penultimate performance of Deep Blue Sea at the Park Avenue Armory

Bill T. Jones’ exquisite performance collage Deep Blue Sea weaves Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech into a monumental meditation on remembering and forgetting, the individual and the collective, freedom and justice, and asking young people to take the mic and share what they know.

For the first part Jones takes the vast stage of the Park Avenue Armory by himself, with occasional flights of sweet music from five vocalists at one end of the theater-in-the-round. For the second part he’s joined by the current members of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane company, 10 dancers with excellent chops and extremely distinct personalities. Amidst their rigorous choreography, Jones tracks them with a video camera, addressing them each by name, two different times.

Then for the last section, 100 other dancers appear and fill the stage with waves of actions and group image-making. The music throughout — original score with contributions from Nick Hallett, Hprizm aka High Priest, Rena Anakwe, and Holland Andrews — is beautiful, as is the extraordinary visual environment created by Elizabeth Diller – DS&R and Peter Nigrini with Lighting by Robert Wierzel.

For the last 15 minutes of the show, the “community participants” take turns declaring an “I know” statement. The extremely diverse cast includes at least three hearing-impaired performers (all the statements are translated by sign-language interpreters) and someone I casually clocked as “a Larry Goldhuber type” who turned out to be Larry Goldhuber himself, the plus-sized Jones/Zane veteran, whose statement was “I know everything.” Especially pertinent statements got greeted by snaps from their colleagues. Many dancers made statements that included derogatory assumptions about white audiences for the show — a fascinating role-reversal exercise for us white folks to be on the receiving end of unattractive generalizations. 

When the show was over, the cast stayed onstage and Jones urged the audience to mingle and talk. I got to chat with a queer black performer who represented fiercely and a white lad whose statement was “I know how to bottom.” Both of them said they come up with a new statement for every performance. The white boy said he likes to come up with something spicy. One night he said, “I know I’m waiting for Donald Trump to die.”

October 9

This morning at the farmer’s market at 57th Street and Tenth Avenue, a sight I’ve never seen before: a jazz combo set up on the corner. I couldn’t help thinking of the Joni Mitchell song: “They were playing real good, and for free.” The two horn players traded sweet and cool licks so intimately it brought tears to my eyes. The bandleader was the drummer, Will Terrill, who said he’s associated with the Jazz Foundation; his crew included Sharif Kales on flugelhorn, Chris Hemingway on alto saxophone, and Jason Clotter on bass.

Later that day, we trekked to the Brooklyn Museum, where we stopped in to see the Obama portraits by Kahinde Wiley and Amy Sherald.

The museum’s main attraction at the moment is a spectacular multimedia exhibition to rival the David Bowie retrospective in 2018. This one, Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, traces the groundbreaking history and legacy of the House of Dior.

I know virtually nothing about the artistry of couture and couldn’t care less about dresses, so for me this was immersive theater, fun for people-watching and eavesdropping as much as absorbing the art and fashion.

The show has the unmistakable touch of Matthew Yokobosky, the museum’s Senior Curator of Fashion and Material Culture (also responsible for the Bowie and other great shows in the past), who put a decidedly 2021 stamp on Dior by choosing to display all the designer gowns on black mannequins. That small choice has immeasurable impact.

On our way back out of the museum, we passed this alabaster relief with a 9th century BC queen swinging a clever little clutch.

Another show of contemporary work included this nutty three-channel video of the artist lip-synching to the Bee Gees’ “Nights on Broadway” in airplane lavatories.

And then there was Karon Davis’s Nicotine, a striking sculpture of an essential worker on break.

October 10

In my therapy practice I somehow acquired the understanding that “having brings up not having” – sometimes when we get something we’ve longed for, there is a paradoxical bittersweetness or sadness recalling all the times we wanted that thing and didn’t have it. As I took my seat at the Lucille Lortel Theater to see New York Theater Workshop’s production of Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City, I was mystified by the wave of melancholy that swept over me until I realized: oh, this is “having brings up not having.” Returning to the theater after 18 months of pandemic lockdown has been an emotionally charged experience, joy and excitement tempered and dampened by remembering exactly why we’ve been away – the losses, the deaths, the turmoil, the fear, the vaccine anxiety. We’ll get more used to it over time, like people in war zones get used to metal detectors everywhere, but we’ll never get over it.

The first act of Majok’s play covers a year in the life of two high school seniors from immigrant families in Newark. The fractured narrative skips around in time with lots of blackouts and repetitions without losing clarity or coherence, thanks to the original staging by Rebecca Frecknall (remounted by Caitlin Sullivan), Isabella Byrd’s lighting, Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound, and the performances of Jasal Chase-Owens and Sharlene Cruz. The second act (intermissions and concession stands have been 86’d out of covid precautions) consists of one continuous scene that unfortunately descends into soap opera territory as the three characters (Julian Elijah Martinez joins at this point) play out an overly melodramatic love triangle. The playwright has some subtle insights about class, race, immigration status, and sexual orientation dynamics but the second act lurches through a series of contrived plot points and sudden reversals that turn nuanced characters into TV-drama stick figures.

Recommendation: go see Todd Haynes’ documentary The Velvet Underground, which opens this week. It’s a fast-paced Warhol-esque stream of images, split-screen video, talking heads, vintage footage, and satisfyingly loud sound focusing on the early 1960s artistic/cultural milieu from which emerged the unlikely team of classical violist-composer John Cale and Long Island poet-rocker Lou Reed…and the rest is history.

Culture Vulture/Photo Diary: Arooj Aftab at Pioneer Works in Red Hook

September 6, 2021

The musical discovery of my year so far has been Arooj Aftab, the sublime Pakistani singer whose new album Vulture Prince has been commanding a lot of attention everywhere. As soon as I heard it in early June, I got busy online trying to learn more about her and spied a concert by her scheduled for September 3 at Pioneer Works, a community arts center in Red Hook. Checking out the concert seemed like an excellent way to view her up close and personal, learn something about Pioneer Works, and get some exposure to Red Hook, a neighborhood I’ve heard about but like most Manhattanites primarily associate with the IKEA store.

It was a beautiful, post-Hurricane Ida Friday night, perfect for toodling around a new location on Citibikes. Even more than Maspeth, where a bunch of music venues and dance clubs have opened in recent years, far from complaining residential neighbors, Red Hook is partly urban industrial landscape and part very local neighborhood. Even the subway stations don’t look like the ones you see elsewhere.

The golden hour before sunset always lends a special glow to otherwise unromantic vistas.

And then there is the occasional shrine to Betty Boop in someone’s window.

Pioneer Works turns how to be a groovy multipurpose arts center that hosts artists’ residencies, galleries, a bookstore, a performance space, and a lovely garden with a full bar and a viewing deck. (I’m keen to see a Moses Sumney installation that just opened and will be viewable through the month of September.) The announced showtime for Arooj Aftab was 7pm, which seemed early, but who knows? There were only three people in front of us when we arrived, which signaled that the show wouldn’t be starting until after 8. There was an opening act, a 24-year-old guitar whiz named Yasmin Williams who finger-picks in an American folk style that makes you think of Doc Watson or John Fahey, but then she’s likely to lie the guitar flat and work on it as a percussion instrument. There are occasionally pedals, and she wears tap shoes to provide her own rhythm section on a wooden footrest. A bit chatty between songs — she will learn soon enough that the audience doesn’t need to know the mundane details of how she wrote each and every song — but I’m glad I got to glimpse her budding virtuosity.

Arooj Aftab and her Vulture Prince Ensemble are the real deal — they create a dreamy cloud of sound on harp (Maeve Gilchrist), guitar (mainly Gyan Riley, son of composer Terry Riley, with a guest appearance by the excellent Kenji Herbert), bass (Shahaad Ismaily), spare synths (also Ismaily), violin (Darian Donovan Thomas), and drums (Greg Fox). Aftab works in the tradition of ghazal, a spare pensive style of poetry that takes a small amount of material and works many changes on it. Abida Parveen is one of the great performers in this style and one of Aftab’s musical influences. But she has her own exquisite style, beautiful mid-range vocal tone, very understated, very interior, never showing off high notes or held notes. She mostly performed songs from the album, including an adaptation of a Rumi poem that she sings in English, “Last Night.” I usually skip over that track on the record, but it turned into a totally different experience live — NOT about the words, slowed down and stretched out and indeed beautiful.

Late night in that corner of Red Hook, not a lot of dining options. But the San Pedro Inn, the tacqueria down the street from Pioneer Works was hopping. Clearly it serves as its own form of community center.

Photo diary: Saturday 1-16-21

January 18, 2021

Walk to the Metropolitan Museum.
Walk through the Metropolitan Museum.
European paintings. Gold figures pointing. Japanese sculpture. Islamic calligraphy.
Walk to the West Side through the Rambles.
Walk through Lincoln Center Plaza.

Culture Vulture/Photo Diary: Bleach and Barshaa in Bushwick, Miro and Matisse at MOMA

February 24, 2019

Friday night my friend Dave and I ventured deep into Bushwick to see a show with no publicity that I learned about from the TodayTix app: Dan Ireland-Reeves’ play Bleach. It propelled me to the Wilson Ave. stop on the L train, farther into Bushwick than I’d ever visited before, and into a performance space called Tyler’s Basement, next-door to a tiny shop selling CBD products made from hemp.

Tyler’s Basement is named for the one and only character in the play, which is performed immersive-style — meaning that the audience (limited to 10 people) sits on chairs and sofas in the studio apartment occupied by Tyler, who’s in bed under the covers as we arrive. When the lights go down, he wakes up, gets up out of bed naked, and proceeds to pull on tighty-whities while launching into the tale of his life as a sex worker, an escort, a gay hustler, an existence haunted by a recent outcall that turned scary. When we checked in at the all-purpose box office, kitchen, and stage manager’s booth, friendly Jake Lemmenes asked us to turn our cel phones off and inquired as to whether we consented to being touched by the performer. The audience — 9 gay guys and one woman — gave our consent, and indeed 4 or 5 of us had some close personal contact with Eamon Yates, who performed the role this night. (He alternates with Brendan George to do 14 shows per week.) Although the plot and the story stayed pretty predictable, Zack Carey did a reasonably good job of staging the play, managing locations and the passage of time with surprisingly sophisticated lighting cues (also run by Jake Lemmenes). The show runs through March 10.

While we were in the neighborhood, we made sure to scope out a local eatery and found ourselves at Barchaa, a Peruvian fusion joint that just opened last summer. Doing pretty well, judging from the full house on a winter Friday night . We were the only gringos in the house and enjoyed grilled octopus and quinotto (risotto made from quinoa) along with cocktails, greeted warmly by the owner Kelvin, who said the staff is a mixture of Dominicans, Venezuelans, and Colombians.

On my commute, I listened to Marlon James being interviewed by Gia Tolentino on the New Yorker Radio Hour — good stuff!

“The Hunter (Catalan Landscape”)

Saturday afternoon, after our respective workouts (he at Training Lab boot camp, I at the West Side Y), my husband Andy and I roused ourselves from weekend afternoon sloth and spent an hour wandering through the Museum of Modern Art, checking out the members’ preview of a delightful show (“Birth of the World”) of works by Joan Miró as well as “The Long Run” (a show focusing on late-in-life experimentation by established 20th century artists like David Hammons, Joan Jonas, and Joan Mitchell) and the selections from the permanent collection currently on display.

“The Beautiful Bird Revealing the Unknown to a Pair of Lovers”

“The Escape Ladder”

“Personages, Mountains, Sky, Star and Bird”

“Portrait of a Man in Nineteenth Century Frame”

I’ve always enjoyed Miró’s quirky, surrealistic work, and the pieces included here are quite delightful. It’s always interesting to see the early figurative work of artists who went on made their marks with unmistakable signature styles — like Duchamp, Rothko, Pollack, and so many others, Miró started out relatively conservatively before he busted out with the distorted swoops and shapes we recognize at a glance now.

Among the permanent collection, I revisited a canvas that always draws me in, James Ensor’s “Masks Confronting Death” (above, painted in 1888! but resembles some of Hopper’s more impressionist pieces).

And I relished several Matisse paintings that didn’t immediately scream “Matisse,” including “The Piano Lesson” (above) his “View of Nortre Dame” (below), which for some reason reminded me of Joni Mitchell’s song “Two Grey Rooms.”

Looking up a video of that song, I came across this information (from the liner notes of The Complete Geffen Recordings) that I’d never encountered before. Oh, Joni, how we love you so!

“It took me seven years to find words for it. I kept thinking, ‘This thing wants to be written in French,’ and I had to find the right story for the mood of it. It’s a very dramatic melody, full of longing. So, I finally found a story in some magazine about a German aristocrat, a homosexual and friend of [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder, who had a lover in his youth that he never got over. He lost track of him for many years. One day, he discovered that his old flame was working on the docks. He moved out of his fancy digs and into a couple of dingy rooms that overlooked the route where, with his hard hat and his lunch pail, his ex-lover walked to work. He lived to glimpse him twice a day, coming and going. He never approached him.”

Culture Vulture/Photo Diary: “Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future” at the Guggenheim Museum

January 13, 2019

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