Essays and Reviews

The Body in Language: An Anthology, Edited by Edwin Torres

Review by Hannah Wood

With The Body in Language, Edwin Torres has compiled works that attempt to explicate the connections between the physical, the spoken and the spiritual, as well as the nature of creation itself. He delineates the works—spanning from poetry and prose, to essays, scripts, and visual amalgamations of all of these elements—into four categories of forces. Each of the chapters is meant to be a complete body, comprised of these combined elements. These are “Fire/Sulfur,” “Water/Salt,” “Earth/Mercury,” and “Air.” The “natural elements” are compared to “concepts of the body” like “soul/intellect/emotion/spirit” (Introduction). According to Torres, by combining these elements, “the origin of the creative spark can be given a shape, a nucleus for conversation” (Introduction). These categories are meant to help language find a body, and to locate connections between the similarities and differences of form, language, visuals and the physical. 

The beginning chapter, called “Section I,” first features a poem by Patricia Smith called “It Creeps Back In.” The piece is labeled as “Air/Foundation.” It is a poem about a person who seems unmoored, who states: “I'm gulping gin and sitting water” (9). The narrator sleeps through the day, but “Depression/should never be ignored, the hers warn…” so the narrator looks around “finally opening my eyes” and observing the surroundings (9). It is fitting that discussing opening one’s eyes to what’s around should kick off the anthology, as the diverse array of pieces attempt to capture the various methods that humans use to express their world.

The next piece is a more specific short personal essay by Susan Osberg called “Dancing the Talk” (Fire/Creation). The essay is about Osberg’s lifelong connection to dance. In fact, she begins the essay by mentioning that her mother danced on the day that she was born, and once she herself was born, Osberg could not stop dancing. She was a member of the Junior Ballet in Norway, and then became a choreographer in New York City. “It is a mistake to think we dance to music,” she writes, referring to the fact that she hears words like music and gestures as sound (11). She suggests that painting, writing and drawing indicate a unity of body, mind, and spirit, bringing us back around to the themes of the anthology.

Will Alexander’s reflection piece “Out of the Ethers” (Earth/Emotion) explains this unity by providing actual drawings to go along with his musings. These abstract drawings of flowers and a hummingbird contribute to Alexander’s argument about beginnings, the birth of life on earth, and the construction of paradigms via a structure-less, but “in-convivial ballet” that began it all (12). He analyzes his origins, both chemical and natural, stating that he comes from the “‘zero-field,’” a hidden place full of the mysteries of the earth. In fact, everything seems to emerge inexplicably, including multiple suns. This seems to be a comment about the way that life developed, slowly, chaotically, inexplicably, but with a unique brilliance.

Urayoan Noel also discusses the emergence of the body in his “Uneasy Bodies” (Water/Thinking). However, he uses his essay to explicate the uneasiness of being in a body that has already been created and born. He mentions his book, In Visible Movement: Nuyorican Poetry from the Sixties to Slam about Nuyorican poets and the Puerto Rican diaspora, saying that he thinks that when looking at his study now, there needs to be more exploration of bodies within the work. He writes about how our bodies can fail us—whether his own body or those of his parents. This not only happens in terms of health, but also as a result of body politics. Noel admires the flaneur, or urban explorer and wanderer, but suggests that in modern day New York City, “city bodies are often uneasy” (16). He mentions Eric Garner and Occupy Wall Street as examples of how for non-one percenters and for minorities, urban space is often contested and fraught, even unsafe. Body politics is also an inadequate term. In fact, “multi-ethnic transnational histories are part of what gets elided when we simply riff on body politics in their immediacy” (17). Bodies are more than one thing. They carry a diverse array of memories and experiences that combine the personal and political. They are “neither and or” (20). We are literally tied to their idiosyncrasies, but we are also constantly reinventing the way we move through a city that is constantly changing, and our lives are all about that negotiation. 

The anthology features more than poetry and reflective essays. There are academic studies included, as well. In “The Body Speaks Whale” (Air/Foundation), philosopher David Rothenberg writes about his project involving putting musical notes to whale sounds and how it allows humans to see what they cannot hear. The sonogram images that were turned into music are pictured in the book. They look like small, curving blotches (84-85). These sounds are also turned into vibrations that Rothenberg uses to help two deaf boys sing along to the whale sounds, allowing us to “…reach over the border from one species to the next” (90). The boys are thrilled to be able to feel what they could never hear, and in internalizing it they are able to make sounds themselves.

The poet, Bob Holman, also does in depth analysis of sound, structure and image—in this case of his own poem. “What You Can’t Understand is Poetry is Connected to the Body Again” (Air/Foundation), is about a woman, Jean, who encounters a dead body. This reviewer originally thought the body was that of her dead lover, as in the second stanza, “She was remembering her lover’s face (230). However, this lover turns out to be the corpse of poetry. First, Holman parses out how he says the title in performance, with an emphasis on the “is” in “What you can’t understand is poetry…” He determines that this emphasis occurs because the existence of poetry, and of language itself, is a great mystery. The benefit is that these elements are “a mix of sound and meaning. Body and song, all together, what makes a poem a poem” (231). In this poem, Holman uses Jean’s predicament with the dead body to explore how poetry is connected to that physical presence. Through his discussion of his own work, he manages to link how these connections between language and sound appear in poetry, while also humorously satirizing the process of poetry analysis. 

The final piece in the anthology, Lila Zemborain’s “Materia Blanda/Soft Matter” (Fire/Creation), translated by Christopher Winks, shows another type of reflection, one more focused on the inner self. It begins with fifteen lines of successive “1’s.” This might indicate the connection between a person and the universe. On the next page, Zemborain writes, “Stretched out on a bed is a body that does not want to die. It’s a corpse, that is, it was” (342). Perhaps then, these “1’s” represent possible corpses that are trapped in uselessness. Eventually, Zemborain comes to the idea that we can center ourselves via a square, which is drawn on the opposite page looking like a shaded square with white outlines of a puzzle piece inside of it (347). This square will allow us to “Enclose oneself in a limitless space” for contemplation of “the flarings of the self” (346). Zemborain seems to be saying that only when humanity is confined in a safe space where all outside distractions can be banished, can we contemplate the meaning of time, and the body—ourselves. In fact, many of these pieces attempt to put readers into such a space where they can ask how it is possible to unify all of these core elements of life and language into one body.

At its core, The Body in Language is an exploration of the connection between the body and mind, the body and soul, and bodies with other bodies. The pieces within, though at times abstruse, all employ various philosophies, genres and formats to discover what it means to have a body and to use it to negotiate the world of sound, language, movement and imagery. Wide in its scope, the anthology explores the methods humans have at their disposal to describe the idiosyncrasies of language and the nuances of living.

Holding on When the Hand is Shoving You Back: Review of TOMASHI JACKSON Time Out of Mind

By Patricia Spears Jones

Often when confronted with complex economic and social justice issues, visual artists find themselves with this problem—how to make these concepts perceptible to viewers.  There are the crisply declarative poster art style works that blares the artist’s sentiment. There are large scale installations that attempt immerse the viewer. Then there is the thoughtful layering of the large wall works that Tomashi Jackson makes for her exhibition, Time Out of Mind, currently on view at Jack Tilton Gallery until June 29.

Property development is the toxic layer that goes through all of New York City history, from the trading of land possessed by the Lenape to Dutch settlers to the endless construction of ever higher buildings where wealth is measured in square footage for people who may never enter their lucrative residence.  How these “deals” are made, who makes them, who wins and who loses is the essential tale told in Jackson’s art work.

The African American property owners in what was called “Seneca Village” had few rights and fewer privilege, but they were homeowners.  They like Black people before and after, made a way where there was no way. But they were in the way of an even larger concept—a park meant to provide respite to all its citizens for what was an increasingly unhealthy city.  The land owners property was taken by eminent domain—some compensation was provided, but most claimed not enough and the hold outs were evicted in 1857. Jackson presents several works the explore that historic rupture and how it connects with current practices. In John Brown’s Body (Mr. Dorce in Red) and Heiresses (The Central Park Plan), she marshals skillful layering in her mixed media pieces—collage, digital printmaking, photography, muslin, vinyl, wood to narrate the ways in which government policies have been used to undermine Black achievement.

Press and Curl (Black and Brown People's Mortgage Free Homes), 2019 Silkscreen on mylar on canvas, on view at the Tilton Gallery

Press and Curl (Black and Brown People's Mortgage Free Homes), 2019
Silkscreen on mylar on canvas, on view at the Tilton Gallery

But it is her works focused on contemporary governmental land grabbing that truly stands out.  Mary Lyons, Yudy Ventura, & the Co-op Women (Blues People) and Mary Lyons, Yudy Ventura & the Co-op Women (Red Line/Red Scare)   powerfully conveys the steadfast resistance by people of color, esp. women of color to polices that are supposed to provide more “affordable housing”, but both take property from current owners and displace them with little or no compensation—a signature policy of the DeBlasio administration.  Jackson knows these women—you can feel it in this work and others. Their figures are prominent, the colors bright then muted as if the conversation go from shouts to whispers. These acrylics, oil and image transfer on paper and muslin with digital prints on vinyl serve as metaphors for a homeplace where paper, fabric and hard plastics abide.  Also, she encrusts these works with pearl pins and huge buttons—an expression of feminine elegance and eloquence. That one of the buttons says: “De Blasio Defends City Taking African American Properties” underscores the “same old, same old” city policies towards people of color.

Tomashi Jackson  Avocado Seed Soup (Davis, et. al. v County School Board of Prince Edward County)(Brown, et. al. v Board of Education of Topeka)(Sweatt v Painter), 2016  Mixed media on gauze, canvas, rawhide and wood

Tomashi Jackson
Avocado Seed Soup (Davis, et. al. v County School Board of Prince Edward County)(Brown, et. al. v Board of Education of Topeka)(Sweatt v Painter), 2016
Mixed media on gauze, canvas, rawhide and wood

Tomashi Jackson’s work is complicated, yet readable.  Her approach allows her to use layers of shapes, colors, techniques to narrate this tale —not even home ownership can protect any of us from racism.  Jackson is in full command of all her techniques and she really uses her materials-wood, vinyl, paper with panache. Her emotional connection to this topic combines well with her research.  As her gallerist noted this body of work:

is based on historical documents from archives on the creation of Central Park in the mid-1800s and draws upon the work by contemporary journalists Kelly Mena and Stephen Witt in the King’s County Politics New York newspaper and in Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar’s The Park and the People: A History of Central Park.

Ms. Jackson’s work on this theme is also in The Whitney Biennial 2019 and her show at The Jack Tilton Gallery ends June 29.

Harmolodic Ingenuity: David Hammons Marks an Immersive Return to Los Angeles at Hauser & Wirth

By George Melrod

David Hammons does things on his own terms. Even for an artist, he’s made a trademark of elusiveness. He doesn’t show up at his openings. Not that he has a surfeit of them: by now, any exhibition by Hammons is a significant event. But a show in Los Angeles is a once-in-45-years happening. Hammons, who was born in Springfield, Illinois, and spent much of his career in New York (and who is a longtime friend of this publication), lived in Los Angeles for a crucial decade at the outset of his artistic career, starting in 1963 when he was 20. So you know the place has got to hold a special resonance for him. In his new exhibition in Los Angeles, at Hauser & Wirth Gallery (running May 18 – August 10), Hammons returns triumphantly to his old stomping grounds with a cornucopia of works both recent and historic. As one might guess, he makes his West Coast re-entry with his well-known penchant for subversive conceptualism, racial identity, sociological critique, and material mischief firmly intact.

Installation view, “David Hammons,” Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2019  Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth; Photograph by George Melrod

Installation view, “David Hammons,” Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2019

Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth; Photograph by George Melrod

For someone who has always had a kind of disdain for the art world – “The art audience is the worst audience in the world,” he once stated, in an interview with Kellie Jones. “It’s overly educated, it’s conservative, it’s put to criticism, not to understand and it never has any fun! Why should I spend my time playing to that audience? That’s like going into a lion’s den…” – and who wields his identity politics like a razor, the fact is, Hammons manages to bring an awful lot of joy to his art-making. Despite his affinity for Duchamp and Arte Povera, his works draw not from the thin recycled ether of art history but, emphatically, from the real world around him, from its textures and materiality, its issues and its emblems. His ready-made materials have famously included the detritus of African-American life, from bottles of Thunderbird to snippets of hair culled from African-American barber shops. He draws meaning from the lone quixotic gesture and loaded allegorical icon. To trot out another telltale Hammons quote, “outrageously magical things happen when you mess around with a symbol.” Which is to say, although he may act like a cool cat, he’s always been playing with fire. But he’s clearly playing, too.

And despite the numerous ironies, that stance clearly works for him. Remarkably, he’s not attached to any one gallery. In 2016, he had a five-decade retrospective at Mnuchin Gallery, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. During the show’s run, a stone “head” bedecked with neatly cropped black hair was pulled for auction at Christie’s, where it sold for over $1 million. That number still pales next to the record high of his glass crystal basketball hoop adorned with chandeliers, which sold for $8 million in 2013, putting him among the top ten priciest living American artists. That’s quite a journey for a dogged iconoclast who has embraced not just distressed found materials but the iconography of civil rights and Black identity, and earlier in his career sold snowballs and doll’s shoes on the sidewalk to engage with random passers-by.

Despite his claim “I never, ever liked art, ever,” the Los Angeles art scene of the ‘60s must have been invigorating for Hammons. From 1966-68, he studied at the Chouinard Art Institute (later to become CalArts), where he first experimented doing body prints, using greased margarine; from 1968-72 he took classes at Otis, and studied with Charles White (whose own knock-out retrospective exhibition is currently on view at LACMA). While in LA, he forged relationships with artists such as sculptors Senga Nengudi and Betye Saar, with whom he shares various totemic and appropriative impulses (who will be subject of her own solo MOMA show this fall), and Noah Purifoy (subject of a wonderful 2015 retrospective at LACMA titled “Junk Dada”), an influential artist and organizer, and co-founder of the Watts Towers Art Center.

In 1971, Hammons showed his body prints at the Brockman Gallery in Leimert Park, and was featured in a three-person show at LACMA organized by the museum’s Black Arts Council, alongside Charles White and Timothy Washington. By then, Hammons was already employing forceful symbolic imagery, in one work showing Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale bound and gagged, and framed by an American flag; in another, titled Spade, creating a visual pun of a racist epithet. Some of these early works can be seen in an exhibition now on view at The Broad Museum, not far from Hauser & Wirth in Downtown Los Angeles, “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.” Yet even after he moved to New York, he continued to visit Los Angeles, staging art events, sharing a studio with Nengudi. His last official show here was in 1974.

Installation view, “David Hammons,” Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2019  Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth; Photograph by George Melrod

Installation view, “David Hammons,” Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2019

Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth; Photograph by George Melrod

Sprawling over several large galleries and the building’s central courtyard, encompassing both new works and a smattering of greatest hits, Hammons’ new exhibition at Hauser & Wirth is considerably more massive than the delicate installation of hair and wire that he set out, like a row of cattails, along the edge of Venice Beach in 1977. The build-up to the show was at once secretive and highly anticipatory. Even the press release is enticingly evasive, just a one-page flow-chart of scribbled lines, like an abstracted musical score, with the text “This exhibition is dedicated to Ornette Coleman, Harmolodic Thinker,” an allusion to Coleman’s innovative philosophy of free jazz. Although Hammons has long admired (and emulated) the detached attitude and experimental rigor of jazz musicians, his dedication to Coleman is notable, as if to explain that it’s not the notes themselves, it’s the idea behind them. As part of the homage, the show features two outfits worn by Coleman, which stand amid the artworks in clear plastic tubes, exuding the lustrous presence of vintage royal robes. One is gold, the other, a lush teal, black and magenta grid, like a shimmering sartorial riff on Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie.

At the press opening for the sprawling exhibition, Hauser & Wirth partner and Vice President Marc Payot explained gleefully: “It’s very much his universe. The show is free-floating between recent pieces and historic. David... worked years to put this together,” he added. “It’s all him.” In an email exchange afterward, Payot described the process of working with the artist on the exhibition. “Hammons really is like a master jazz musician,” he observes. “He makes work that is incredibly precise, but also improvisational and always multi-layered. And that approach extends into how he addresses the space where his work appears. So it made total sense that he would be in command of the work on site, and place it as he saw fit, in real time. For us it was natural to have the artist work on site and determine which things would be presented, and how. Like Ornette Coleman, to whom David has dedicated his show, he’s a ‘harmolodic thinker.’”

So what exactly does the show contain? Quite a lot. Among the classic works are one of his signature stone heads, that is an oblong stone affixed with short black hair, along with photos documenting the African American barber giving it a haircut. There are several African masks, one with its protruding sculpted hair sanded down, displayed with the resulting sawdust (and a comb), another splashed with orange paint and titled, in a typical dark pun, Orange is the New Black. On the subject of puns and hair, there is a plush chaise lounge, bedecked with snippets of black hair, titled Hair Relaxer. One room offers a half dozen of Hammons’ repurposed fur coats, assembled as if in conference; the onetime status symbols (and animal pelts) are smeared with crude expressionist splotches of pink, lavender or yellow paint, or visibly charred; transformed from agents of one type of cultural value system to another. A looming, orange-painted mask hovers behind one of them, like a backpack or a pair of wings, or a menacing shadow.

On one wall is a set of photos documenting various historical works, among them a trio of battered fur coats splayed out on tree branches, a group of “toilet trees” in which he affixed Duchampian urinals to tree trunks, and a New York City subway gate that’s been adorned with condoms (titled, musically, Four Beats to the Bar). In one image, a pile of art books is stacked like a jack beneath a vandalized urban car that is missing its wheel. Just how useful is art history, he seems to ask. A similar concept animates one of the largest current installations in the show, a room of vividly arcane scales each set with a stack of art history books, on figures like Goya, Munch and Serra, as if to quantify the aesthetic knowledge and value contained within.

Installation view, “David Hammons,” Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2019  Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth; Photograph by George Melrod

Installation view, “David Hammons,” Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2019

Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth; Photograph by George Melrod

Particularly noteworthy, and amusing, is a shelf holding a bowl of water, ostensibly snowball residue from his famous 1983 action in which he sold snowballs to random pedestrians in New York’s Cooper Square; posted beside it, a letter from a collector to a gallerist politely declining the purchase of one of the snowballs. Nearby is an ice-cream freezer with copies of a book about the work. Set out among his own creations are works gathered by Hammons: paintings by de Kooning, Agnes Martin, Miles Davis (!), Ed Clark and Jack Whitten, the iconoclastic Black artist and painter who died in 2018. Set before the Whitten work is a dresser laid on its back, its mirror gazing skyward. There’s a game of exquisite corpse, with doodles from numerous artists. And don’t forget the giant chicken sculpture by Paa Joe, the celebrated Ghanaian coffin artist, a reliquary for chicken bones, roosting in the gallery’s outdoor garden, among actual chickens.

Filling the gallery’s courtyard is a colorful installation of tents, some of them stamped with the words, “This could be U and U.” Referencing the many homeless encampments which are now ubiquitous all across Los Angeles, it’s a stark reminder of the human misery we strive to ignore: talk about bringing the spirit of the street into the gallery. The tents spill down the gallery’s brick breezeway, past a coat rack of black-tie outfits, beneath a neon work by British artist Martin Creed that blithely proclaims: “Everything is going to be alright.” Spoiler alert: it’s not.

The show is best defined perhaps by his numerous ‘wrapped works’ – canvases which are often effusively colored, which have been obscured or wrapped so that one can only discern glimmers of the visions held within. They’re spread throughout the show in extraordinarily diverse variety. Upon encountering them, a viewer’s initial reaction is often frustration or puzzlement; but as the realization sets in that the ragged, banal or seemingly provisional coverings are in fact part of the work, one can appreciate them for what they are. Instead of frustrating the evocation of beauty, the tattered sheath merges with the hidden work and becomes the beauty. Some of these works are actually quite spectacular: in one a swath of vibrant lavender is revealed by a splintered hole, in another a pocked white tarp reveals glints of exquisite jewel colors. In one large piece, a field of dark Yves Klein blue is interrupted by a scuffed rubber walking mat. Some play a teasing game with silken swathes or diaphanous veils; in others, the tarps themselves conjure the bold graphics of abstracted flags. Devilishly, Hammons set one piece, inside a fractured shipping crate, along a courtyard wall, all but daring viewers to walk past it. More than just a conceptual one-liner, the works remain among the most challenging, and moving, of his oeuvre, in part because of the universality of their allegory, with their obstructed potential for exuberance and joy contained within. More than his other works, they both suggest but also potentially transcend issues of race. But, as usual with Hammons, he makes you work for it.

“My conclusion is that he is a genius, a true master of our time,” states Payot. “He is undeniably part of the trajectory of American art... He is a pivotal figure whose practice spans the 20th and 21st centuries as well as many of art’s movements, ‘isms,’ and cultural imperatives, and many important peers and younger artists cite him as a key influence. The market has come to reflect all of this, and we are glad to see that institutions and leading private collectors are embracing and reinforcing Hammons’ rightful place in the larger story of art.”

Installation view, “David Hammons,” Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2019  Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth; Photograph by George Melrod

Installation view, “David Hammons,” Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2019

Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth; Photograph by George Melrod

And what exactly is that place? Setting aside issues of race and materiality, in which he is clearly a trailblazer, one could say he shares the poetic performative impulse of, say, Vito Acconci, the distrust of authority of Hans Haacke, the appropriative passion for real-world artifacts of Haim Steinbach. One can almost view him as a kind of anti-Koons: while Koons employs a shiny veneer to reflect back his own kitschy values at the viewer, Hammons elevates a loaded racial icon, or a withholding dingy surface, then challenges the viewer to appreciate and look past it. Adding to the challenge of defining Hammons is his own reluctance to dance with the prevailing authoritative institutions. His involvement with these mega-galleries has been mainly on his own terms. He hasn’t had a major museum retrospective; indeed, the story goes that he actively derailed a prestigious museum’s intended retrospective of his work.

Discussing Hammons’ elusiveness, Elena Filipovic, in her book “David Hammons: Bliz-aard Ball Sale,” writes: “Rather than anecdotes of one artist’s cagey behaviour, all of these accounts describe gestures that occupy the very core of Hammons’ practice. Arguably, these gestures are his practice. That practice is based not on the habitual art-world hope (and hype) for ultimate visibility and omnipresence, but the opposite: willful obfuscation at the risk of obscurity.”

Like Miles Davis, one of his icons, or the famously reclusive Garbo, Hammons’ withdrawal has only burnished his mystique. And yet, I must respectfully disagree with Hammons as to the art world audience. Perhaps it has evolved in the decades since he made his remark, or perhaps it’s because his own work has by now informed it, but I’d say the art world audience has caught up with him. They’re in on the game: his affluent collectors aside, many art-goers are not moneyed members of the 1% but woke cultural consumers eager for a challenge. Even without the aid of wall texts or an artist’s statement, the crowds I saw ambling through his current show seemed highly engaged: open both to the artist’s mischievous spirit and to the solemnity of his themes. You don’t need to have known Ornette Coleman to grasp his creative ambition in “Skies of America.” You don’t need to have met Miles Davis to bliss out on “Kind of Blue.” In sculpting his career, Hammons has been savvy enough, and lucky enough, to stake out his own inspired plane. Good for him. But his music, as pointed, confounding or quixotic as it is, still clearly resonates with his many admirers left behind to complete the tune.

Notes on “Camp” and the Costume Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

By Katherine R. Sloan

Ensemble, Bertrand Guyon (French, born 1965) and headpiece by Stephen Jones (British, born 1957) for House of Schiaparelli (French, founded 1927), fall/winter 2018–19 haute couture; Courtesy of Schiaparelli.  Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo © Johnny Dufort, 2019

Ensemble, Bertrand Guyon (French, born 1965) and headpiece by Stephen Jones (British, born 1957) for House of Schiaparelli (French, founded 1927), fall/winter 2018–19 haute couture; Courtesy of Schiaparelli.

Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo © Johnny Dufort, 2019

When I became aware that the Met’s 2019 costume exhibit would be on the “Camp” aesthetic inspired by Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay I was very excited but not as curious as most because I felt like I’ve been in love with campy things my entire life (even before I knew what the word meant). Joan Crawford’s exaggerated red lips and eyebrows have always spoken volumes to me and, most of all, her earnest gaze in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) as she kept her old Hollywood glamour intact all the while shooting a decidedly B picture. According to Sontag, this would be an example of “naïve camp”—a “seriousness that fails.” One of the funniest examples of this from Sontag’s 1964 essay Notes on “Camp” is, in conversation, a friend admitting that “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”

Having opened in May, the Metropolitan Costume Exhibit will be on view through the first week of September and is very apropos of June—Gay pride month and the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots. Camp is, of course, very close to the heart of the LGBTQ community as it is a celebration of beauty and is enjoyment in its purest form. It’s important to remember that Camp should be joyous. Sontag explains that “Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation—not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.” One of the greatest examples of this and of “things being what they’re not” is a pale pink Christian Lacroix dress that resembles a tiered wedding cake complete with pleats and frills galore: is it a dress to wear or something decadent to eat? The garment is so exaggerated that the fact it transcends earnest beauty makes it all the more satisfying.

Viktor & Rolf's "Less is More" gown. | Metropolitan Museum of Art

Viktor & Rolf's "Less is More" gown. | Metropolitan Museum of Art

According to Sontag, “Not only is there a Camp vision, a Camp way of looking at things. Camp is as well a quality discoverable in objects and the behavior of persons. There are ‘campy’ movies, clothes, furniture, popular songs, novels, people, buildings. . . . This distinction is important. True, the Camp eye has the power to transform experience. But not everything can be seen as Camp. It’s not all in the eye of the beholder.” Some “Random examples of items which are part of the canon of Camp include Zuleika Dobson, Tiffany lamps, Scopitone films, The Brown Derby restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in LA, The Enquirer headlines and stories, Aubrey Beardsley drawings, Swan Lake, Bellini’s operas, Visconti’s direction of Salome and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, certain turn-of-the-century picture postcards, Schoedsack’s King Kong, the Cuban pop singer La Lupe, Lynd Ward’s novel in woodcuts, God’s Man, the old Flash Gordon comics, women’s clothes of the twenties (feather boas, fringed and beaded dresses, etc.), the novels of Ronald Firbank and Ivy Compton-Burnett and stag movies seen without lust.” I find that it’s helpful to know what, in 1964, was seen as campy by Sontag; it helps put everything else into context.

Andrew Bolton, curator of the costume exhibit, has a wonderful lecture on the Metropolitan Museum’s website so, if you cannot see the exhibit in person, I highly recommend listening to what he has to say. He stresses that the Camp ideal that the Met wanted to celebrate is all about “irony, humor, parody, theatricalization, excess, extravagance and exaggeration.” Firstly, the exhibit introduces the viewer to the origins of Camp and is called the Camp Beau Ideal: here you can revel in portraiture of King Louis XIV and his famous bisexual brother, Phillippe I, Duke of Orléans (fondly known as “Monsieur”). Phillippe I is dressed for his brother’s coronation in 1654: with long black curls, an ornate cape, white tights complete with a bow at the ankle and a background of red velvet fabric as he holds a bejeweled crown, this is a definite precursor to “Camp,” dandyism, over-the-top regality and just too much.

“Camping” was thought to be first used as a verb by Molière in a 17 th century comedic play called Scapin the Schemer and, according to Sontag, “to camp” is “A mode of seduction—one which employs flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation; gestures full of duplicity, with a witty meaning for cognoscenti and another, more personal, for outsiders.” The exhibit also cites French diplomat Chevalier d’Éon as an inspiration for the early 18 th century camp aesthetic as he dressed in women’s clothing in order to infiltrate courts in Europe as a lady in waiting. According to Sontag’s essay, Camp’s “Soundest starting point seems to be the late 17 th and early 18 th century, because of that period’s extraordinary feeling for artifice, for surface, for symmetry; its taste for the picturesque and the thrilling, its elegant conventions for representing instant feeling and the total presence of character—the epigram and the rhymed couplet (in words), the flourish (in gesture and in music).” Camp is all about gestures and flourishes, in music and otherwise.

Some of the most interesting aspects of the exhibit are the articles of clothing inspired by Oscar Wilde’s wardrobe—including a cloak emblazoned with golden peacocks and a velvet suit—as he was clearly one of the first great thinkers to truly embody the spirit of Camp with his epigrams, one of its “conscious ideologists” and “wits.” Of course, Camp has always been hugely important and widespread in the queer community. A witty and pithy remark of Wilde’s that would be considered campy, for example, is: “I can resist everything except temptation.” Wilde sort of became a living example of camp as an aesthete and a dandy.

The exhibit boasts a Jean-Paul Gaultier gown based on an 18 th century silhouette combined with a modern day men’s suit and tie. This conflation of masculine and feminine is a characteristic of the Camp aesthetic. There is a Gender without Genitals section of the exhibit that features young designers such as Palomo Spain and his non-binary clothing along with Thom Browne’s tuxedo-wedding dress. According to Sontag’s essay: “Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described. One of these is the sensibility—unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it—that goes by the cult name of ‘Camp.’” There’s an exquisite Vivienne Westwood gown from her 1995 “Vive la Cocette” collection that’s full-on 18 th century Marie Antoinette inspired complete with pastels, frills, lace and bows almost everywhere imaginable. Westwood’s exaggerated silhouettes with wide shoulders, padded hips and bottoms are, as the designer once said, made to reflect a fashion illustration. Westwood clearly has an interest in applying historical trends to modern ways of dressing. The dress on view looks like a Fragonard painting—complete with a young woman soaring through the air on a swing made of garlands.

Some of the pieces in the exhibit are undoubtedly modern and almost futuristic, such as Jean Paul Gaultier’s green gown that Linda Evangelista infamously wore on a catwalk while holding a hairdryer as it pumped air into the garment to amplify her bosom and buttocks. This over-the-top fun and exaggeration of the female form is a wonderful example of the Camp sensibility of enjoyment. There is also a PVC neon green jacket designed by Walter van Beirendonck for Wild and Lethal Trash (1996) that inflates with air to build muscles.

Susan Sontag from Warhol's 1964 screen test. | Metropolitan Museum of Art

Susan Sontag from Warhol's 1964 screen test. | Metropolitan Museum of Art

For those still unsure of what Camp is, Sontag lays it out for us: “To start very generally: Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.” Artifice is such an important part of the world of camp and is on full display at the Met: colorfully lit boxes present furry Céline pink pumps along with Philip Treacy fascinators. One of Treacy’s most notable hats simply called “Marilyn” (2003) is of Monroe’s face the way Andy Warhol saw her—in paint—with a single black crystal for a beauty mark. According to Sontag “One may compare Camp with much of Pop Art, which actually embodies an attitude that is related, but still very different. Pop Art is more flat and more dry, more serious, more detached, ultimately nihilistic.” Even though Camp is something entirely different, Andy Warhol’s 1964 screen tests of Susan Sontag can be seen on display at the exhibit—complete with Sontag in black cat eye sunglasses.

Two versions of Judy Garland singing “Somewhere over the Rainbow” can be heard playing over the soundtrack of the Camp exhibit—one was recorded when Garland was 16 on the set of The Wizard of Oz and the other just months before she died. Another wonderful example of naïve camp is the Salvatore Ferragamo rainbow platforms that were designed in earnest in 1938. They are so completely over-the-top and colorful that they are simply overkill. What was considered to be unintentional camp in the 1930s is now incredibly fashionable and falls into the category of “deliberate camp” (this is evident with Gucci’s 2017 platform rainbow sneakers).

Salvatore Ferragamo's rainbow platforms alongside Gucci's rainbow sneaker. | Metropolitan Museum of Art

Salvatore Ferragamo's rainbow platforms alongside Gucci's rainbow sneaker. | Metropolitan Museum of Art

There is also a floor-length rainbow cape designed by Christopher Bailey for Burberry (2018-19) that is a wonderful example of something that Liberace may have worn today if he weren’t closeted. “Camp is a sensibility that, among other things, converts the serious into the frivolous” and this can be seen with Jeremy Scott’s “paper doll” dress (2017): there are literally white tabs sticking out of the garment that makes it look like a cut-out ready for a little girl to play dress up with her illustrations of grown women. Another wonderful example of the Camp aesthetic is a woman wearing a baby doll dress: Anna Sui’s pale custard, baby blue and ballerina pink baby doll dresses from 1994 illustrate this point perfectly. With fur stoles and showgirl headpieces, these little dresses were inspired by nostalgia and the designer’s childhood.

“Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of ‘character.’ . . . Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as ‘a camp,’ they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.” A sort of sophisticated example of this can be witnessed in the form of what Sontag literally meant when she said that “Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” Jane Wrightsman—a famous benefactor to the Met—wore a Balenciaga evening dress covered in pale peachy pink marabou feathers complete with a silk bow (1965-66). In praise of feathers, there are literally millions on display at the museum right now: it’s like a haute couture showgirl’s paradise complete with every color feather imaginable: ones that sort of lay like palms in the desert and tiny ones that stick out like antennae and float gaily with the slightest movement.

Sontag muses that Camp is really, above all, an appreciation of beauty, art and culture. In a way, Camp is life affirming. “The experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly upon refinement. Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste. (Genet talks about this in Our Lady of the Flowers.) The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating. The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out of the market, so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.” Some examples of what may make someone cheerful upon entering the exhibit include a pink Armani Privé dress covered in marabou feathers (2018), a 2019 haute couture tiered gown designed by Viktor & Rolf that is nine feet in diameter and emblazoned with the phrase “Less is More” in green cursive lettering and even more tiered gowns made entirely out of tulle by Giambattista Valli (2017-2018). These are some of the largest objects on display.

Of course, there’s lots of Jeremy Scott for Moschino at the museum as well, including a dress made of canary yellow feathers (something Lola at the Copacabana would simply go gaga over) as well as an explosion of feather and paper butterflies atop a mound of deep purple feathers (2018). A hat in the shape of a cauliflower complete with tiny white synthetic pearls and folds of green and yellow silk, satin and chiffon can be seen and enjoyed as a sort of fashionable piece of produce (Deirdre Hawken, 2013). There’s a suit covered in Gucci logos, a dollar bill dress by Jeremy Scott, Bjork’s infamous swan dress that she wore to the 2001 Academy Awards (designed Marjan Pejoski), a Marc Jacobs opera coat decorated with the visage of Maria Callas, a dress that’s styled to look like bouquet of flowers (Jeremy Scott for Moschino) and a Saint Laurent coat that resembles an over-sized fuzzy red heart. There’s a coat made of tinsel, purses in the shapes of an iron and garbage can (Moschino), a flamingo headdress (Schiaparelli Couture, fall 2018), a speedo embellished with Warhol’s banana, a Moschino cloak with golden arches to resemble the McDonald’s logo and purple sparkly cloven hoof shoes. All of these incredibly campy objects and garments are testaments to folly, fun and the enjoyment of, not just fashion and popular culture, but, life as we know it.

Faces, Frames, and Americanism: A Review of the Whitney Biennial 2019

Whitney Biennial 2019 Poster Credit:

Whitney Biennial 2019 Poster

Written by Talia Green, including an interview with co-curator Rujeko Hockley

If you’re at all acquainted with the contemporary American art scene, you’ve likely heard of the Whitney Biennial. Presented by the Whitney Museum of American Art every two years, and established by the museum’s founder in 1932, the Biennial is one of the most renowned exhibitions which celebrate modern American art. Each Biennial presents a catalogue of the most up-and-coming developments in the art scene, demonstrating a comprehensive collection of what trends within American art look like today.

Myself an art fanatic, living a short car ride from the George Washington Bridge and having never visited the Whitney, I was near-nauseatingly thrilled to attend this year’s exhibit.

Photo Credit: The Whitney Biennial | Whitney Museum of American Art

Photo Credit: The Whitney Biennial | Whitney Museum of American Art

“The Biennial every iteration is a snapshot of the current moment,” curator Rujeko Hockley explained to me in an interview, “whatever that means to the curators and the artists involved.” Over the last two years, Ms. Hockley and her co-curator, Jane Panetta, had frequented over three-hundred studios in over twenty-five different locations across the United States, searching for the most cutting-edge pieces in American art. And it was an arduous research process. “We spent fourteen weeks in total—not consecutively, thank God—on the road… and came up with the full seventy-five who are in the exhibition.”

Historically, the Biennial not only spotlights the most emergent installations in American art, but also investigates Americanism—an exploration rooted within the museum’s foundation. Behind the collection lay the ever-current analyses: Who is an American, and what is American art? How is our current socio-political and cultural environment represented in trends, from gallery to gallery, and how is that ingrained in an overarching American identity?

That investigation seemed apparent to me in the program’s broad range of artists: the various ages, genders, and cultural identities represented. Ms. Hockley reflected on how their expansive catalogue nudges the boundaries of what it means to be an American: “We have artists who were born in the United States, but live abroad… some members are American, but actually, their primary location is not in the United States, and their primary focus has not historically been in the United States.”

Photo Credit:  MISSION TEENS: French School in Morocco     Meriem Bennani  Born 1988 in Rabat, Morocco Lives in Brooklyn, NY   The Whitney Biennial | Whitney Museum of American Art

Photo Credit:
MISSION TEENS: French School in Morocco

Meriem Bennani
Born 1988 in Rabat, Morocco
Lives in Brooklyn, NY
The Whitney Biennial | Whitney Museum of American Art

The outside installation on which our interview was conducted offered me a prime example. Ms. Hockley and I spoke under a shaded area of the fifth-floor terrace, facing a video sculpture-garden which expanded across the balcony. The artist, Meriem Bennani, is a Moroccan native who currently resides in Brooklyn, New York. Her work, entitled MISSION TEENS: French School in Morocco explores the remnants of French colonialism in the Moroccan school system, interviewing teenagers in Morocco—most of whom hailing from wealthy families—who had attended French schools. Ms. Hockley explained how the piece evaluates social positioning in Moroccan culture, reflecting on “what kind of values, what kind of education is actually being proposed in those spaces.”

A reminder of the importance of re-evaluating Americanism, and all its implications, breathes intentionality throughout this exhibit’s catalogue. In this Biennial, the exploration of Americanism importantly extends to Puerto Riccan and indigenous artists. Ms. Hockley mentioned how, in her collecting, her internal dialogue included questions of American citizenship—yes, Puerto Ricans are Americans—without worthy representation in American art. Similarly, her inquisitions extended to indigenenous identities.

It’s this versatility within Americanism that spoke to me most profoundly. That this is America: a vibrant versatility, where one individual shares shades of her identity, and identities, with her neighbor—each individual undeniably distinctive. We reflect each other in our expansive array of cultures, citizens, genders, and narratives. Even the variety in the exhibit’s artistic mediums—the photography, the videos, the sculptures, the performances—represents the scale of individualism innate to the American narrative, currently and historically.

I would recommend a visit to this year’s Biennial—closing in September—to anyone able to get their hands on a ticket. As Ms. Hockley herself pointed out, it’s crucial to constantly re-evaluate Americanism, and the multifaceted meanings, identities, and implications embedded in that narrative. That’s exactly what this exhibit will allow you to do.

The 58th Venice Biennale "May You Live in Interesting Times" - Part Two

Photo Credit: (Biennale Arte 2019 | 58th Exhibition)

Photo Credit: (Biennale Arte 2019 | 58th Exhibition)

The 58th Venice Biennale
"May You Live in Interesting Times"
Running: May 11 - November 24, 2019
Part Two

By Lee Klein

...Gold Lion (leone d'Oro) winning artist Arthur Jafa's giant medallions fashioned of tires wearing chains and clusters of rocks seemed both made for and in parody of those effecting style to make huge impact. In fact many of the pieces in the Giardini section of the curated international exhibition appear to have been selected to strike with deep impact; from Yin Xiuzhen's "Nowhere to Land",  made from an upside down set of gigantic tires into sort of an axle like turned over skyjack-in-the-box from an airport runway in a sci-fi movie, to Lie Wei's sculptural cubist-tubulist blown up medley "Micrworld" .   So as has been indicated in other reviews works run the gamut of exploring ideas about world issues and social trends but at times it was a bit too much to take in so many large scale works at once.

During his press conference talk Biennale curator Rugoff highlighted specific works and this viewer was sort of checking them off at the exhibition. The most apparent minefield of cognition for this writer was when coming into the room in the Giardini where some of the choice painters the director of the Hayward (who sent me away wayward) decided to embrace were grouped. Henry Taylor who has earned renown for his painting of Emmett Till in the 2017 Whitney Biennial here shows a canvas "Another Wrong" of a white Wall Street type fictitiously getting arrested by two white cops for financial crimes as well as a painting of the iconic David Hammons on a voyage to Africa next to his famous snowball work, the adobe Mosque in Djenné, Mali and a hyena, titled, "Hammons Meets a Hyena on Holiday". Adjacent in this volley are works by Julie Mehretu which differ somewhat from her earlier work with less color-coded shapes but which are busier on the avenue of pencil work. Meanwhile here is George Condo (in one of the exhibition's few 1980's flashbacks -along with Rosemarie Trockel). Here Picasso who outlived Picasso is exhibiting among other works a large canvas called "Facebook', which is of course of countenances on top of one and other and Condo's great eventuality down the Yellow Brick Road of his ouevre.   "Facebook", plays well with others, including, a work in the arsenale also dealing with the role of community in social networking. Therein, Eva Rothchild's instillation in the Irish pavilion sort of illustrates how sculpture or instillation or a sculptural instillation might gather people together in certain areas like a social media platform; so a social platform platform might actually literally be a social platform,

Having always thought that along with the curated and official pavilions the whole city of Venice and its environs and everything being shown in all the collateral exhibitions is still part of the Biennale. This Biennale goer believes it is the total experience which is the experience. Thus it is cool to point other highlights, one of which for I this time was Jake Szymanski and Alexandra Kohl in the "Venice Design 2019" exhibition at the Palazzo Michiel del Brusà. Here this design duo offers a hanging creation of two long stick lucite like rectangles for a large part of their length clothed in black attached but movable up against a cast iron ball, also black. This construction grew and grew on me (-thinking chopsticks have always been navigated when placed together as instructed by human digits but here they are attached and still moving so as if one had long ago thought about the limbs but not the joint-), Seduced and stupefied by the simplicity this Bellini sipper actually started daydreaming of a David Rockwell type of theme park Las Vegas restaurant where a Hollywood worthy version might one day hang. 

Some of the national pavilions caught my attention. At Iceland where we wound up at the party for the opening where Shoplifter / Hrafnhildur Arnardottir in her immersive work "Chromosapiens", festooned the space with giant psychedelically colored fabric hair in covering an entire long entry chamber in an upside up upside down run to render a totally imagineered textural world, Three huge dandy artists who were everywhere (including on a vaporetto where there was a fight and a belligerent passenger had to be removed by the carabinieri who appeared dockside [violence in in Italy always reminds me of the public battle and death scene in the Merchant-Ivory film version of E.M Forrester's "A Room with a View"] were going on and on about it. The artiest one was saying he lived in Iceland as well as China (but also said the lead singer of the death metal band on stage was otherwise the Icelandic Minister of Health and he turned out to be incorrect)... The party went all night and as far as I was concerned is the party of the century so far..

Mark Justiniani's work in the Philippines pavilion also in the arsenale was quizzically pleasurable.  With an architectural layout shaped to be evocative of the Philippine archipelago.  The viewing vantage for the work is reached by climbing up onto the islands.  Once atop the islands they offer an illusionistic infinity as one might find in a Turkish cistern through ages old trompe l'oeil... The Argentina pavilion is exhibiting the work of sculptor Mariana Telleria. They have her giant creature like hybrids of materials with anatomies which include fabric and automobile parts hanging out and it was indeed fun to navigate around them at the opening while hunting down flutes of prosecco on the fly.

The pavilion of Japan makes light of the natural unnatural phenomenons which have washed ashore after the great tidal waves and have been aptly christened "Tsunami Boulders".  For this work called "Cosmo-eggs" an entire ensemble team made up of artist Motoyuki Shitamichi (visual artist), Taro Yasuno (composer) , Toshiaki Tshikura (anthropologist), and Fuminori Nousaku (architect), along with curator Hiroyuki Hattori have collaborated to imagine a successful co-existance between the planet and our species all the while taking a extraterrestrial yarn as a thread to explain the appearance of these ominous rocks.

Then on the flip side there was the torture of the Israeli pavilion. Artist Aya Ben Ron here turned this duplex pavilion into what she what she termed a "field hospital". Here one takes a number as if waiting for an emergency room visit. Then when one's number is called one is invited up to a chamber like a storage pod behind a warehouse to scream where "no one will hear you" after listening to a series of instructions. Later you move to a station where you learn about her coming out about being of victim of family abuse (of which variety you never find out). One then watches a seemingly endless video trying to program you for victim status . Oy!..seemingly a big waste of time which makes fun of medical attention and you only learn of being a victim but never what preceded to get you there. Soon you join a long list of those who went before you in becoming a victim of this pavilion.

While there some magic was missed by this writer but it is all part of the atmosphere. Looking along on instagram it did not go unnoticed that the Socialite Peter Brant Jr. and the vogue editor at large Hamish Bowles were out and about for what turned out to be for them and other fabulists like Tilda Swidon and Sienna Miller to attend  a semi-recreation of the  Bal Oriental (often referred to as the the ball of the century [20th] where Dali designed for Dior and vice versa).  It was held at the very same Palazzo Labia in Ca' Rezzonico, but, this time as the Grand Tiepolo Costume Ball for the Venice Heritage Foundation chaired by architect Peter Marino... So who knew Marino would leave his bike leathers for the garb of Giacomo di Casanova.. I was out in Posagno trying find the Gipsoteca Canova and then hit Ristorante Da Bepi in.Mestre for the supreme seafood antipasto starring Bon Jovi's father's sister Anchovy.  Then later after returning to the hotel it started storming and as my vaporetto card had run out I returned a pumpkin.   But to top it all off Banksy was there going to work in the stall of a Venetian touristic painter but laying down a sectioned but giant seascape of an oversize cruise ship... And then don't you know just a couple of weeks later a out of control one crashed into the the cruise terminal.

Diving as the chosen sacrifice in mesh metal neptunic the aqueous beast comes thrashing into the cage rattling the armored sushi inside driving along the highway on an interstate such as I-95 and Trans-American trucking company's monster comes along out of its passing lane and into yours' on the passenger side obliterating the side-view mirror like a skeet target shot upon having mostly missed the automobile the tail end swiping appearing as if a steel bridge span then moving off into the distance with the arch in its form with the gradient in the road.

In Venice a huge luxury boat pleasure mall afloat directionless after its crew having lost control having come in off the Giudecca Canal form the sea wedging itself in lopsided between the shore or the filled in shore who can be sure as tourists as if cast for a mega- tweet scamper and evacuate.. and nowthis was it just a minute ago Banksy was here in La Serenissima making light of it all.

The Art You Should See At The 58th Venice Biennial

May You Live In Interesting Times,’ is the theme and title for the 2019 Art Exhibit of the Venice Biennial. Undoubtably the hot topics of our era are expressed through diversified creative mediums, from sustainability and climate change, to growing disparity of wealth and gender inequality, from virtual reality and social media, to politics and resurgence of nationalist agendas. As the President of La Biennale di Venezia, Paolo Baratta said, “This title evokes the idea of challenging or even ‘menacing’ times, but it could also be an invitation to always see and consider the course of human events in their complexity.

The beauty of this 58th edition is that the artwork on display, besides being aesthetically spectacular, challenges viewers to  look beyond conformism and avoid oversimplifying attitudes. In times of great change, where certain political stances threat of bringing back civilization to a less democratic and multicultural world, it is vital to turn our eyes on art, that denounces the failures of humanity and tries to persuade it to embrace a brotherhood of man.

As curator Ralph Rugoff explained: “The proverb ‘May You Live In Interesting Times’ was first mentioned in a March 1936 article in The Yorkshire Post, reporting on a speech made to the Birmingham Unionist Association by the British MP Sir Austen Chamberlain, who addressed the serious threat to Europe’s collective security posed by the move earlier that month of German troops into the Rhineland. To underscore the drama of the situation, he invoked an ancient Chinese curse. But it turns out that there never was such a curse in China and was presumably fabricated by a British diplomat. This kind of uncertain artifact suggests potential lines of exploration that seem worth pursuing at present, especially at a moment when the digital dissemination of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ is corroding public discourse and the trust on which it depends. For an exhibition that in part at least, considers how art functions in an era of lies, it struck me as an apt title. At the same time, it is my hope that art can give us tools to reimagine the possibilities of these ‘interesting times’ in which we live today, and so transform this phrase from a curse into a challenge that we an enthusiastically embrace.

The exhibition opened to the public on May 11 and will run until November 24, set in the habitual venues of Arsenale and Giardini. Ralph Rugoff underlined the desire to enhance a split format betwixt these two exhibiting spaces, to epitomize the title of this edition. He said: “‘May You Live In Interesting Times’ is intended to evoke the parallel information landscapes that define our increasingly polarized public discourse. This phenomenon is exemplified by the term ‘alternative facts,’ first used by Counsellor to the US President Kellyanne Conway in defense of the Trump’s administration’s bogus claims about the size of the audience for President Trump’s inauguration. More and more public communication is divided into smaller and smaller bandwidths, with special interest groups largely talking only to themselves and reinforcing heir boxed-in perspectives. In this ‘post-truth’ era does art’s capacity to question established ideas and attitudes appear in a different light?

Ralph Rugoff has termed the Arsenale section of his Venice Biennale exhibition “Proposition A,” while in the Giardini’s Central Pavilion is “Proposition B,” and it includes the same artists, who in most cases are showing different kinds of work. This is the first time the Biennale has an exhibition that allows artists to express themselves at a double level. I personally favored some of Proposition A’s creations, but truly enjoyed finding those same artists expressing themselves in a different manner with Proposition B.

Here is the artwork that fully embraces problematic histories and social situations, that you should not miss.


Shilpa Gupta from India
Shila Gupta’s sound installation ‘For, in your tongue, I cannot fit,’ addresses the violence of censorship through a symphony of recorded voices which speak or sing the verses of 100 imprisoned for their work or political positions, from the 7th century to the present day. The title is inspired by the work of the 14th century Azerbaijani poet imavddin Nasimi. In the dimly lit room, a grid of 100 microphones suspended from the ceiling are reverse-wired to function as speakers. The recitations in multiple languages (including Arabic, Azeri, English, Hindi and Russian) create a soundscape that might, in turn, include and exclude the listener, depending on which languages they understand. Each microphone has its corresponding verse printed on paper, waiting to be read by one and then echoed by a chorus of disembodied verses.

Sun Yuan and Peng Yu from China
Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s installations often involve the staging of visceral, intimidating spectacles. ‘Dear,’ presents a white silicon chair behind a Plexiglas barrier, loosely based on the imperial Roman chair featured as a component of the statue in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. In Sun Yuan and Peng Yu’s installation, the chair is kept company by a rubber hose that violently whips around the surrounding space in response blast-off highly pressurized air. In between these periodic eruptions of violence, the chair sits inert again, almost invitingly serene, until the assault recommences.

Photo Credit: Sun Yuan and Peng Yu from China

Photo Credit: Sun Yuan and Peng Yu from China

Otobong Nkanga from Nigeria
Otobong Nkanga has described landscape as body, which nourishes and provides, but which is plundered, scarred and poisoned. In ‘Veins Aligned,’ the vein in question is almost 26 meters long, formed of fleshy toned glass and marble, that recalls both a long hand-drawn line and a river, with the clouds coursing through the marble suggesting chemical pollution. Beyond the colonial and post-colonial exploitation of natural resources, Nkanga also finds in mining a metaphor for exploration into the great, cyclical sweep of time.

Photo Credit: Otobong Nkanga from Nigeria

Photo Credit: Otobong Nkanga from Nigeria

Cameron Jamie from USA
The folk tradition of the Perchten — an Alpine winter character associated with the Krampus — is the inspiration for the installation ‘Smiling Disease.’ These grotesquely grinning carved wooden masks reference the collections of tribal artifacts that were popular among surrealist artists in the early 20th century, thought to reflect contemporary ideas about the subconscious and the universal significance of dreams. This installation is similarly both frightening, humorous, and macabre.

Michael Armitage from Kenya
Michael Armitage’s series of paintings are the outcome of when he joined a group of photojournalists documenting the political rallies that led up to the Kenya general election. During these events, the artist witnessed staged campaigns of political agitation that incorporated carnivalesque elements and a circus-like atmosphere. In his artwork, he conjures the strange chaos and urgency of these events. Drawing from original footage and documentary images, magnifying issues of inequality and political uncertainty.

Liu Wei from China
Liu Wei’s recent large scale installation ‘Microworld’ evokes the formality and splendor of modernist stage sets, filled with geometric shapes. The artist has fashioned an assortment of outsized curved forms and spheres out of highly-polished aluminum plates — intended to invoke magnified and glossy versions of molecules, elements, protons and other microscopic particles. Liu Wei’s fictionalized portrait of the microscopic sphere, dwarfs the spectator, whose sense of awe-inspired distance is emphasized by the fact that we cannot enter the space, only view it through a giant window, as if looking at an exhibition in an oversized museum vitrine.

Alexandra Bircken from Germany
Alexandra Bircken’s practice is built around the human form. Her installation ‘Eskalation’ presents a dystopian view of what the end of humanity might look like. Forty figures, made from calico dipped in black latex, are suspended from ladders that extend to the ceiling. The work revolves around a sheer verticality, as the figures ascend to the top, arriving at obstacles and falling. This invokes an upward struggle between polarities: heaven and hell, success and failure, hope and despair.

Tarek Atoui from Lebanon
Bridging music and contemporary art, Tarek Atoui’s practice expands notions of listening through participatory and collaborative sound performances. He conceives and coordinates complex environments to cultivate sound, and through installations, performances and collaborations, breaks down expectations both for performer and audience. Combining visual, tactile and aural modes of perceiving sound, ‘The Ground’ is the result of Atoui’s travels in China’s Pearl River Delta, when he recorded his observations of contemporary and traditional agricultural, architectural and musical practices from the region. He later asked craftsmen and instrument-makers to respond to his notes and drawings. The resulting instruments were set up by Atoui to play separately and autonomously at exhibitions, where various artists and musicians are invited to respond to the forms and sounds of the works.

Photo Credit: Tarek Atoui from Lebanon

Photo Credit: Tarek Atoui from Lebanon

Lorenzo Quinn from Italy Hands
Building Bridges’ is contemporary Italian artist Lorenzo Quinn’s most ambitious project to date. Six pairs of monumental hands bridge the basin of the Arsenale as both symbol of our commonality and an expression of human aspiration. The project depicts six of humanity’s universal values — ‘Friendship,’ ‘Faith,’ ‘Help,’ ‘Love,’ ‘Hope,’ and ‘Wisdom’ — each symbolized by human hands coming together to overcome differences and build a better world. Famous as city of connection through its canals and crossings, as historic base of international trade, and ongoing hub of artistic exchange — Venice, a World Heritage Site with visitors from all over the globe, is an ideal place to spread a message of unity connecting societies, nations, communities and individuals through building bridges, not walls.

Photo Credit: Lorenzo Quinn from Italy Hands

Photo Credit: Lorenzo Quinn from Italy Hands

Vasily Klyukin from Russia
At Arsenale Nord, you will find ‘In Dante Veritas’ an exhibition by Russian sculptor Vasily Klyukin who makes a parallelism between the Italian poet’s Inferno and the distortions of our time, through diversified mediums that are harrowing and aesthetically beguiling at the same time.

CHILE Pavilion — with a special attention to The Hegemony Museum
The project by Voluspa Jarpa for the Chilean pavilion, is a conservation space that presents different case-studies of Eurocentric and colonial worldview from the 17th to the 20th Century. Her Museum presents this hegemony in six case studies of the European male, white, heterosexual, patriarchal, monarchial, culturally and economically “superior” and present in the very concepts with which the colonies were coined and conceived. European ways of doing, looking and analyzing are submitted to the public for study, in order to understand how the hegemonic psyche developed a whole series of complex mechanisms of oppression that emerged in concepts like race and miscegenation, subaltern male subjects, cannibalism, imperialism, gender conceptions, civilization and barbarism, and the conflictive relations between monarchy and republic.

GHANA Pavilion
The elliptically-shaped interlocking design of the pavilion by Sir David Adjaye, creates trajectories both across time and place, through the mesmerizing exhibit ‘Ghana Freedom’ curated by Accra-based Nana Oforiatta Ayim. The inspiration came from the wordsGhana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, proclaimed in 1957: “At long last, the battle has ended! And thus Ghana, your beloved country if free forever!” Nkrumah described this freedom as a reshaping of the country’s destiny, as an awakening, and as the birth of a ‘new African in the world.’ He linked Ghana’s independence with the rest of Africa’s, stating that is was meaningless without the liberation of the whole continent. As the first sub-saharan country to gain its independence from colonial rule, Ghana became a touchstone for many others from the continent and its diasporas. And yet, the country’s boundaries like so many others had been drawn by colonial hands, and its new freedom was predicated on the denigration of the cultural and spiritual foundations of the groups that now made up Ghana. The ensuing years saw a struggle to reshape, as Nkrumah had foreseen, not just political, but also cultural, social, and economic realities. For the first foray to the Biennale di Venezia, this country brought together artists whose individual works speak to each other in pluralities of medium and narrative and scope, as well as across generations through archives of everyday objects in large-scale installations by El Anatsui and Ibrahim Mahama; through representation and portraiture, both in the studio work of Ghana’s first known female photographer Felicia Abban and imagined by painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye; and through the relativities of loss and restitution in a 3-channel film by JohnAkomfrah and in a film sculpture by Seals Awusi Sosu.

Photo Credit: GHANA Pavilion

Photo Credit: GHANA Pavilion

INDIA Pavilion
In the ambient shades of sandstone and brick of building material and of the land, viewers encounter clusters of padukas (wooden slippers), cane armor and headgear, earthen pots and shards, painted posters/frieze, words dematerializing in a curtain of mist and wooden cabinets with objects and photographs, all transacting artistic responses to the exhibition’s theme ‘Our Time for a Future Caring,’ conceptualized under the broader thematic of 150 years of Mahatma Gandhi. Emphasizing the austerity of materials and the diversity of forms envisioned in simplicity and silence, the exhibition takes the viewer through eight artistic projects, conceptually mediating and translating the Pavilion as a sarai, a place of rest, inviting one to pause and ponder with each instance, separate yet linked, intersecting at various levels. The India Pavilion — curated by Roobina Karode — symbolically is a fragment of the pavilion put together at Haripura in Gujarat, envisioned by Gandhi and realized by Nandalal Bose. His Haripura Posters (1937), easily perceived as the first public art project in India aimed at cultural and artistic awareness through a direct engagement. MF Husain’s seminal painting depicting Zamin/Zameen celebrated the village republic, upholding its indigenous crafts. Taking further cue from Atul Dodiya and Ashim Purkayastha, a conceptual artist, the Pavilion creates intimate affinities as well as conflict, between fragment and the whole, individual and the multitude. The works of Shakuntala Kulkarni, Rummana Hussain, GR Iranna and Jitisch Kallat push on to interrogate one’s way of being and capacity to act in the world. The curatorial intention is implicated in the belief that Gandhi’s presence is far from being fixed in time and space and has its relevance in the everyday paradoxical charge of contemporary India. His propositions of passive resistance, peaceful protests, minimal consumption and ecological concerns continue to resonate.

Photo Credit: INDIA Pavilion

Photo Credit: INDIA Pavilion


VENICE Pavilion
A group of seven international artists with strong creative ties to the Italian art scene were elected to represent the city itself in the Venice Pavilion: Mirko Borsche, Lorenzo Dante Ferro, Sidival Fila, Ferzan Ozpetek, Plastique Fantastique, Fabio Viale, Giorgos Koumentakis. Curated by Giovanna Zabotti in collaboration with directors Alessandro Gallo and Stelios Kois, the Pavillion this year has ever more a choral nature, through works that are fruit of individual experience, that represent a collective vision. The name of the exhibit ‘Corpo Reale’ (Real Body) has the aim to utilize Bodies in Alliance to represent how equality among individuals is not only spoken or written but is performed precisely when bodies appear together in space. The concept of the exhibition is inspired by the urban fabric of the city, exploring its history and mythology, the plethora of narratives that weave into it, they perceive it as a multitude of inter-connected spaces and ecosystems that share a non-linear continuity.

RUSSIA Pavilion
The exhibition’s title ‘Lc. 15: 11-32,’ references both the bible chapters of The Parable of the Prodigal Son within the Gospel of Luke and Rembrandt’s painting of this subject, which has become a central masterpiece at The Hermitage Museum. Since 1848 ten Atlantes have welcomed visitors to the New Hermitage, exact replicas of which can be seen in the first room. The granite figures themselves have over time become a shrine in their own right, with pilgrims from all over the world coming to worshipers at their feet. Rembrandt’’s The Return of the Prodigal Son is the main theme of the installation by the celebrated film director Alexander Sokurov. It simultaneously represents one of the halls of the Hermitage and an artist’s studio with video installations showcasing the turmoil of war that lies beyond its walls. The inner staircase send us down the world of the Flemish School brought to life by artist Alexander Shishkin-Hokusai, which is dedicated to the intricate mechanisms in the Winter Palace such as the famous Peacock Clock. His signature plywood sculptures of cut out human figures move on mechanical constructions to create a theatrical mise-en-scène, blurring the boundary between reality and imagination.

AUSTRIA Pavilion
Discordo Ergo Sum’ (I dissent, therefore I am) is the title of Austrian artist Renate Bertlmann’s site specific installation for the Austrian pavilion. In this rephrasing of the philosophical principle Cogito Ergo Sum (I think, therefore I am), the artist attempts to cancel out the supremacy of reason and to describe herself within her insurgent worldview. With a further modification of this principle, the phrase Amo Ergo Sum (I love, therefore I am), Renate Bertlmann ironically signs the pavilion’s architecture. An installation of knife-roses in the courtyard, allows us to sensuously experience the dichotomy of our existence. Between this foundational movement in the exterior space and the pavilion courtyard, the exhibition space gives way to a cartographic view of Renate Bertlmann’s artistic practice, with a selection of her aesthetic and conceptual aspects exemplifies her multilayered oeuvre since the 1970s. The presentation of wall charts, sketches, photos, filmstrips, and drawing in a box inserted to fit into the pavilion creates contemplative zone where visitors immerse themselves in her artistic self-understanding.

ISRAEL Pavilion
Field Hospital X (FHX) is a new project by artist Aya Ben Ron. It is a mobile, international institution, an organization that is committed to researching that way art can react and act in the face of social ills. Learning from the structure and practice of hospitals, health maintenance organization and healing resorts, FHX provides a space in which silenced voices can be heard and social injustices can be seen. When visitors enter Field Hospital X they take a queue number. While waiting at the Reception Area, they watch the FHX TV Program and read the FHX Booklet to receive information about the hospital’s ideology, its Care-Ares and Care-Kits. Once their number is called, they go to the reception desk, choose a Rick-Wristband and continue to the Care-Areas. Visitors first go to Safe-Units, where they can learn through sound instructions how to produce a Self-Contained Shout. They are then guided to Care-Chairs, that are designated to affect the visitors’ physiological and emotional conditions, to generate attentive listening. Each Care-Chair consists of a personal screen and headphones for personal viewing of FHX Care-Kits. The video is preceded by an introduction and followed by two Second-Opinions by FHX experts. The pavilion tackles Anti-Transgender Violence: one of the main problems experienced by people who are going through gender transition is embedded in the social insistence on the gender binary.

The 58th Venice Biennale "May You Live in Interesting Times"

Running: May 11 - November 24. 2019
Part One
By Lee Klein

Photo Credit: (Biennale Arte 2019 | 58th Exhibition)

Photo Credit: (Biennale Arte 2019 | 58th Exhibition)

Oscar Wilde, never did declare, that he had nothing to declare, but, his genius which is not to say he had nothing to declare...

It is fake news; alternative facts all over again, given a different name in a different context from satire or a byline owner attempting to proprietize a zinger from another word slinger. Therein when Ralph Rugoff the curator of the 58th Venice Biennale selected for his phrase of departure "may you live in interesting times", an ancient Chinese proverb which it turns was not an ancient Sino saying at all, he went straight into alternative practices, mirroring alternative facts, with one set of work by each main exhibition Biennale artist in each of the two main pavilions respectively; the Arsenale, and the Giardini.

This all sounded superb to this future viewer of the exhibition while watching the press conference on youtube while on an exercise bike at the New York Sports Club elite gym on East 23rd street after going on a thrift shop safari run and acquiring super size blue linen Ralph Lauren polo pants to be worn in Venezia.  Once onsite it just seemed like a neat way to repackage curation and offer an avenue to see a more in depth selection of each artist's works . .i.e. less artists more pieces per practitioner then in the exhibitions which immediately preceded this one....

Having been (being) an obsessive-compulsive wikipedian it goes that a few of the artists in the survey 's English online encyclopedia pages are ones which I created.  This gave this person onus to stay and watch Alex Da Corte's 57 varieties (title and numerical count taken from Heinz by an artist obsessed with Ketchup who did time in the Ketchup city of Pittsburgh and who doesn't love someone who loves ketchup look at me I am playing ketchup all the time) series of video vignettes.   Rugoff has described this piece as monumental (think perhaps in a manner ala Christian Marclay's "Clock" which turned back time at the 2011 Biennale or "66 Scenes from America" by Jorgen Leth which is very close to Da Corte's artistic heart as for it is from whence Warhol's Burger King Super Bowl ad came and you guessed it in which he is playing ketchup). This work includes, among other episides, Elphaba the wicked witch of the West joining a silent Oscar the grouch on screen to croon blue over you and a reclining daisy self plucking ...

But a Mexican artist brought a wall; Teresa Margolies in the Giardini pavilion implanted a found object taken from a school in the city of Juarez where four young women died in drug related gun violence.  This can be read as a reminder (as is the character based on Joseph Beuys in the stellar German film "Never Look Away" talking of the Berlin Wall and how it is [was] almost art) that it is a symbol of today which we cannot avoid. In the meantime the artist Laure Provost within her work "The Deep Blue Sea Surrounding You"  announced in her movie in the super popular French pavilion "welcome immigrants" while looking down and talking to tidal fish.

David Hammons at Hauser & Wirth

It’s been done before
This could be u

By Sola Saar

What is your authentic reaction to an art piece? What is your first impression, before reading what others have told you the work is about? The press release for David Hammons’ “Harmolodic Thinker,” a squiggly line drawing evocative of a composer’s hand motions, equally places the casual viewer, the art critic, and the student on the same plane to draw their own conclusions. It forgoes the theoretical context, the gallery’s interpretations, the artist’s educational background, the list of museums that have shown the artist’s work to lend credibility and give the art critic words to regurgitate, markers into which David Hammons, one of the nation’s top 10 selling artists, could easily play. At a certain point, don’t all press releases proffer the same format, check the same boxes of art world success? If stripped down to their main function, they feed the art market, not the artist.

David Hammons has not had a solo show in Los Angeles for 45 years, has eschewed large commercial galleries and who has long criticized the white, profit-driven art world, dedicated “Harmolodic Thinker” to the late Ornette Coleman, a jazz musician known for his spontaneity. Hauser and Wirth, a gallery with locations all over the world, would seem a surprising place for Hammons to make these kinds of statements, however the gallery’s location in the downtown arts district lends context. Hammons created a site-specific work: an encampment of tents with stenciled messages such as “this could be u” directly addressing the LA homeless crisis most visible near the rapidly gentrifying downtown arts district. Like his previous site-specific work, “Six Sites in Alexandria” in Egypt, Hammons continues to invites the viewer to deconstruct the boundaries between designated art spaces and the real world. Noticeably absent from the two gallery spaces were traditional artwork labels. Categories such as the year the piece was created, artistic medium, or a short blurb about the work, are forgone, forcing the viewer to more directly and viscerally form their own response to the work sans context.

David Hammons
Mixed media
Dimensions variable
© David Hammons
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Photo: Genevieve Hanson

Instead open-ended phrases were handwritten on the wall in the place of titles such as “It’s been done before,” “this reminds me of…” parodying trite phrases people throw out when evaluating art and also giving new meaning to them when placed next to David Hammons’ work.

Hammons’ tarp series dominated the bulk of the two gallery spaces and underscored the exhibition’s theme of art world criticism. Initially he painted abstract expression paintings in the likes of William de Kooning, whose work is of high value in the art market, and cloaked tarpaulin, brown paper, patchwork fabrics, and clear plastic wrap over the paintings. The covering materials are reminiscent of freight shipping materials, yet draped over the paintings like Grecian robes, allowing only slips of the paintings to show through. Often placed on the floor, they are intentionally presented as though the exhibition hanging is in process, questioning the authority of curation and “finished” presentation in these spaces.

By including artworks by artists as versatile as Miles Davis, William de Kooning, and Agnes Martin, the exhibition challenges notions of authorship and authority in art. An expansive exquisite corpse created in collaboration with poet Ted Joans, includes contributions from artists, writers, musicians, and intellectuals from around the world, including William Burroughs, Ishmael Reed, and Paul Bowles. The exquisite corpse, a game invented by the surrealists in which each person adds to a drawing to create a collaborative work, underlies a desire for communal rather than ego-driven art.

David Hammons
Mixed media
© David Hammons
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Photo: Genevieve Hanson

“Harmolodic Thinker” is also a dialogue with Ornette Coleman, the free jazz musician and composer who passed away in 2015. Coleman’s jazz philosophies were somewhat unorthodox but influential, especially to David Hammons. The essay on Ornette Coleman from Hauser and Wirth states:

“‘Follow the idea, not the sound.’ This statement by Ornette Coleman is an inspiration for David Hammons who reflects, ‘I was impressed with that. Follow how my ideas are put together, as opposed to whether the rainbow appears or the rain comes. I use this logic a lot. It moves in the realm of poetry as opposed to the actuality that people are used to or expect.’”[1]

With this sentiment, Hammons’ work is best taken in without the expectation of a finite conclusion of what the work is meant to convey, as with jazz or poetry, his is an art form intended to open up new modes of thinking rather than express an ideology. Throughout his decades-long career, Hammons has made art out of the ephemeral— selling snowballs on the street, or urinating on Richard Serra’s work. While neither of these concepts could be replicated at Hauser and Wirth, a single bowl of water in the place of a melted snowball with a note from an art collector who declined purchasing one of Hammons’ snowballs on the basis of it being too expensive to maintain, implies a larger problem in the art world— that it is preoccupied with the idea that art is ultimately a commodifiable object.

David Hammons
Orange is the new black
Mixed media
139.7 x 40.6 x 30.5 cm / 55 x 16 x 12 in
© David Hammons
Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth
Photo: Genevieve Hanson

Speaking about his installation in Alexandria, Egypt, Hammons wrote in Artforum, “I was more interested in shifting the idea of how artists think about producing art. Artists are often more interested in the act itself. I choose artworks that are ephemeral because, well, life is that. It’s such a temporary journey.”[1]

With this idea I wonder why with visual art and prose, the intent is always a finished unchanging product, whereas with poetry or music, the creation process is inherently ephemeral, open to change, and performative. As opposed to performance, a gallery space has historically been a one-way interaction between a viewer and object, but “Harmolodic Thinker” encourages the visitor to transcend beyond these distinctions by doing the work for themselves, forming a meaning not based on what art experts would want you to think, but by inciting a response you might not know existed and giving you permission to access those feelings as you would in daily experience.

Bret Easton Ellis’s White: Non-fiction Essays that Probe the Meaning of Art and Aesthetics

By: Katherine R. Sloan

photo by Ryan Pfluger for The New York Times

photo by Ryan Pfluger for The New York Times

Bret Easton Ellis’s new book, White—his first in nearly a decade and first non-fiction ever—is one that I’ve been hesitant to write on as it’s proven very controversial. What’s most appalling is that the media seems to view Ellis as some sort of Trump apologist, misogynist (due to a 2008 Tweet about Kathryn Bigelow) and bigot. Ellis would say that one should “Look to the art” and not the artist, that his personal and political leanings do not matter— it’s the writing that matters. I would not be reading his novels with such fervor if I believed him to be a Republican stooge or even sympathizer.

What interests me most about White is not Ellis’s views on the current political climate, millennial culture or his pseudo-friendship with Kanye West but freedom of speech and aesthetics. To Ellis, it is an artist’s duty to speak his or her mind no matter what the repercussion. His brilliant way of making me want to revisit certain titillating films from the 1970s and ’80s that are gritty, unflinching and very sexy is part of the book of interlocking essays that held my rapt attention. The way he speaks of an un-coddled youth where movies were the gateway to exotic, adult worlds reminds me of why I have been besotted with films my entire life. Ellis discusses—in great detail—Paul Schrader’s 1980 film American Gigolo and how watching it at fifteen had an influence that was “vast and undeniable” and “impossible to tally.”  Ellis agrees that American Gigolo was not a great film but that “It changed how we look at and objectify men, and altered how I thought about and experienced LA.” What’s so fascinating about Ellis’s discussion of this film in particular is that it’s not a cinematic masterpiece but it does have resonance in popular culture and proved to influence his fiction.

Ellis also goes on to do what, I feel, he does best and that’s to take his readers into completely faraway worlds, whether they’re of his own design or that of another artist (in this case it’s Paul Schrader). Ellis goes on to describe the film as “Set in 1979 Los Angeles, whose denizens dine at Ma Maison and Perino’s and Scandia and Le Dome—and Julian Kaye, the title character, is living in a chic Westwood apartment, adorned in Armani, driving the empty streets in a Mercedes convertible and making his living as a male prostitute for wealthy older women while haunting the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel.” Ellis goes on to discuss his understanding of the “male gaze” and how the camera ogled Richard Gere, thus making the film very gay: it objectified its leading man, was “minimal and chic” and saw Los Angeles as a “brightly colored wasteland.” Ellis also talks about Gere’s blankness, his emptiness. All this harkens back to his 1985 novel Less Than Zero: a story of privileged, nihilistic youth in Los Angeles.

I think what I loved about Less Than Zero and immediately understood was that Ellis’s depiction of certain behavior is not an act of this behavior; he’s not even condoning it but, instead, criticizing it. This is why Ellis is such an effective satirist. At times, his work can even be considered absurdist; he was the Jonathan Swift of the 1980s and early ’90s. American Psycho (1991) was his ultra-violent, sexually explicit version of A Modest Proposal (1729), if you will. Ellis is a wonderful record-keeper of popular culture, especially films. He writes about the 1977 film Looking for Mr. Goodbar (starring Diane Keaton and Richard Gere) with such finesse that I immediately re-watched it—even though I was completely horrified upon the first viewing—stating that “Gere brings Keaton to orgasm in her apartment while Donna Summer sings ‘Could it be Magic’ and then performs a balletic mock-rumble kung-fu dance in his jockstrap while brandishing a glow-in-the-dark switchblade.” Ellis then goes on to say that this scene is “ludicrous” now but was “electrifyingly sexy” to his “eighth-grade sensibility.” This is what Ellis does so brilliantly: the nuance of his language trips off the tongue; the cadence sounds like a suggestive, playful bell that tolls for readers who want a thrill.

Ellis discusses his youth where he was able to go to the local movie theater and watch horror films without a chaperone and how this ignited his imagination. He also deliberates on how these violent films (which were then mostly rated PG) would most likely be restricted now but how, in the 1970s, the horror films he watched “Smoothed the transition from the supposed innocence of childhood to the unsurprising disillusionment of adulthood.” Some of the most satisfying excerpts from the book are when Ellis describes the world of pre-internet pornography and a society where instant gratification didn’t exist: people actually purchased dirty magazines, drove to a video store to rent tapes and watched endless television at odd hours to catch only a glimpse of nudity on screen. This is all almost unfathomable today because of the internet; we simply have to look at our smartphone for X-rated entertainment. Ellis’s musings on film remind me of James Baldwin’s expert film criticism in The Devil Finds Work. Baldwin— like Ellis—was an avid fan of cinema and wrote some of the most insightful film commentary ever published.

I think the crux of White is when Ellis states that “The greatest crime being perpetrated in this new world is that of stamping out passion and silencing the individual.” This “new world” he mentions is where we all seem to be getting bent out of shape and offended by the slightest thing. I actually do believe that, as a society, we cannot become silent or complacent and that people should get angry but I also agree that, in today’s climate of over-sharing and posting every opinion on the internet, people are increasingly upset over things that seem petty and unimportant. Ellis describes the past few years (especially since Trump got elected) as “An age that judges everybody so harshly through the lens of identity politics that if you resist the threatening group think of ‘progressive ideology,’ which proposes universal inclusivity except for those who dare to ask any questions, you’re somehow fucked. Everyone has to be the same, and have the same reactions to any given work of art, or movement or idea, and if you refuse to join the chorus of approval you will be tagged a racist or misogynist. This is what happens to a culture when it no longer cares about art.” He refers to this world as “post-empire” and this is pretty much the takeaway from White: it’s wrong to think that everyone must, somehow, be moved by the same things and, in turn, equally outraged.

I, as a progressive, believe deeply in freedom of speech and differing opinions. This, of course, means dealing with speech I don’t particularly agree with or even like (hate speech is a completely separate and problematic issue). I am also not a saint and have been angered by those who do not share my views but, as human beings are contradictory by nature, I also believe that one can have many opinions—and these opinions often waver. We are all mercurial, imperfect and guilty of making certain remarks that do not necessarily define us. Ellis goes on to discuss Trump and, because he does not vilify him, some seem to think that he’s condoning and, therefore, supporting him. I simply am of the opinion that Ellis got all his Trump hatred out when he eviscerated his lifestyle in American Psycho. He explains that he has never considered himself to be political and that he’s more focused on art and aesthetics: “A romantic by comparison, I’d never been a true believer that politics can solve the dark heart of humanity’s problems and the lawlessness of our sexuality, or that a bureaucratic Band-Aid is going to heal the deep contradictory rifts and the cruelty, the passion and the fraudulence that factor into what it means to be human.” Pondering man’s existence is the exact purpose of art and what Ellis continues to do, even in the genre of non-fiction.

Ellis is no stranger to controversy. After American Psycho was published (it almost wasn’t) he was deemed a rampant misogynist and even received death threats. The novel that detailed the decadence of 1980s New York complete with greed and unimaginable horrors brought on by a society based on status was such a successful satire that it was actually taken seriously. He writes about all of this in White but the big question here is: how do we separate art from reality and are they one and the same? Ellis tends to agree that art exists separately from reality and explains that art never offended him.

photo by Mario Kroes

photo by Mario Kroes

Ellis explains that he “Understood all works of art were a product of human imagination, created like everything else by flawed and imperfect individuals. Whether it was de Sade’s brutality or Céline’s anti-Semitism or Mailer’s misogyny or Polanski’s taste for minors, I was always able to separate the art from its creator and examine and value it (or not) on aesthetic grounds.” He also goes on to cite James Joyce as an inspiration when he said that “I have come to the conclusion that I cannot write without offending people.” As for my take on valuing a work of art simply based on its aesthetics, I can only recall D.H. Lawrence’s 1920 masterwork Women in Love when the character, Loerke says of his sculpture: “It is a work of art, it has no relation to anything outside that work of art.” So, what Lawrence is trying to say, at least in part, is that it is possible for an artist to view his creation as something that can only be defined in an artistic context.

White is a complex collection of essays filled with all sorts of topics ranging from freedom of speech, the author’s disinterest in politics, Twitter, literature, actors and films. I would say that, if you’re a fan of Ellis, give it a read but don’t expect it to be like his fiction (I prefer his fiction) and don’t read only one-sided reviews that use the word “Trump” as click-bait. Instead, read it for Ellis’s discussion of Joan Didion, shout-outs to Charlie Chaplin and his musings on writing his autobiography, random reflections on nearly-forgotten performances such as Yul Brynner as a robot in Michael Crichton’s 1973 Westworld and for the sheer pleasure of delving into a fascinating writer’s life.

Lyricism, Dark Nostalgia, and Vulnerability in Willie Perdomo's The Crazy Bunch

The Crazy Bunch  Willie Perdomo Book was designed by Elise J. Strongin, Neuwirth, & Associates.

The Crazy Bunch
Willie Perdomo
Book was designed by Elise J. Strongin, Neuwirth, & Associates.

Willie Perdomo Public Domain Photo Credit: Oscar B.

Willie Perdomo
Public Domain
Photo Credit: Oscar B.

Willie Perdomo's The Crazy Bunch, snakes up on you like a twisting code of portmanteaus and allusions that exemplifies some early lines as told by Papo/Skinicky: "Bro, poems were falling from rooftops, flailing out the/windows; sometimes you'd pick up the corner pay phone and a/poem would be calling collect" (xiii). The nod to Pedro Pietri's telephone booth poems is not just a nod. It is documentary, for within the vivid language in this poetic bildungsroman, we are given back doorway into the very real poetic imaginary of crews that carry secrets to the death. This is not poetry about a world; this is a world that lives and speaks in poetry because there is no other way to decipher it or survive it.

There are three ideas that I explore in this review. The first has to do with its lyricism. Early reviews of the collection have made much of its homage to hip hop (Abdurraqib; Publisher's Weekly) and Perdomo himself acknowledges his love of the art form. However, I would like to pose that this collection is not influenced by hip hop. Instead, it records moments when hip hop is created, meaning that the collection reflects and records the phenomenon, the people, the actions that manifested hip hop. hat is to say, the work remembers that hip hop came from somewhere and it places the who, what, where, and why. The second idea I explore here is what I call dark nostalgia. We often think of nostalgia as sweet or bittersweet, often smoothing over edges and casting a sunset filter on memory. However, over the course of the weekend depicted in The Crazy Bunch, the look back is an excited frenzy couched in pool dips, fire escape adrenaline, junk food, high school crushes, and blood. T When the mix is gloomy, I argue the pull back is stronger. The final concept I explore is the vulnerability of our black and brown men, shown as a tableaux in what amounts to a poetic memoir. Right now, when so many African American and Latinx men are being shot, and then accused as an afterthought in order to justify these shootings, we desperately need a text that reveals that running boys with hard muscles en el barrio have soft hearts, too.

Some of us will read The Crazy Bunch and interpret one thing, but I swear that Perdomo's crew from back in the day will read something on top of, or perhaps underneath, the something the rest of us read. The pretext and subtext will be different for its varied readers, depending on whether you are from a barrio, or el Barrio, or whether you were part of the inner sanctum of the crew. Perdomo said in an interview that this book was a response to his homeboy Baby Los asking when he would write about their crew (Charney), and the poems themselves confess to us, "But there's some shit I promised to take to the grave. Y'all know/how that go" (xv). Regardless of your velvet rope status, the poetics communicate how this gathering of Black and Brown folk weaved "wild style" (3) and "masticated benches" (7) into the gold that became the world's rhythm.

The titular name of the crew was born on a day when two dozen friends were planning to "crash Josephine's sweet 16" and select members set up "a Florsheim guiso" or cooked up plan to get some shoes for free (7). The juxtaposition between the saccharine celebration and the economically-driven desire for kicks—both for selling and stylin'—sets the tone for the moniker. Skinicky, who is the central character, responds to Nestor's suggestion of calling the crew The Crazy Bunch, with a non-chalant, "Naturally" (7). Not, yes, that's great, or sounds good. Naturally. Yes, naturally because that is the beat, the rhythm, the vibe. The feeling isn't the crazy bunch electricity alone. It must include the casual, everyday acceptance of the crazy bunch static and its melodious crackle. Of course, naturally, that's just what we have here. Poetry droppin' everywhere.

Some of the poetry drops in the form of interrogations, which, unfortunately, are part of the locale's tapestry, but Perdomo's Poetry Cops are "Consolidated Poetry Systems," so in this imaginary those doing the questioning are the embodiment of word artistry. The neighborhood has come together to form an interconnected mechanism that brings together creative aspects of genius and wordplay, all to figure out what happened that weekend when three friends met their untimely end and left others with the puzzle. The answers are in the soundwaves of syntax. Dying too soon is an echo of Gwendolyn Brooks, reformed in the words:

Body Shot
Chop Shop

Black Hole
Myths Sold

Break That
Like This

Black Cat
Death Kiss (10).

House-heads will also hear Chip E's "Like This" remix spinning in the background as the friends wonder if they will be next. At this point, I remember, these are boys, the age my son would be, if I had one. Sons of nature and concrete, specifically sons of pineapples, grapes, and daisies (13), just the same as "cracks in planks" and a "rumble down a fire escape" (22-23). One begins to hope that the frutas are sweet enough to counteract the bricks that break the night (89). Nothing is certain except the pulse of language. When the barrio sages speak, even they say language is "a lemon running/up the stairs, a piano plink, an uppercut & a right cross" (90). Perhaps there is the salvation, the fact that here no one merely moves or speaks, they "electric boogie past that old hot dog stand" and "rock your Lees right" (25). Life itself must be a conglomeration of poetic action, in everything from naming your crew to the search for "Juice & Butter," juice being "a wink underwater,/a finger snap in a dark hallway,/…a club of coded fists" and butter being "leather bombers,/Virgin Mary medallions, Starfire/rubies" (18). Juice=power; Butter=the profits. All of it a campy painting of what it takes to create music when under pressure.

This dark nostalgia is perversely entertaining, a very guilty pleasure that borders on obsession. What happens when all of a sudden you are face-to-face with how dangerous your surroundings are, when you thought you were just having an illegal midnight swim with your homies? Perdomo writes, "We could've been six feet under for all we knew, so we hopped/the public pool gates, & swam 400-hundred-meter relays/in our soaked boxers" (91). This moment, three days, is all-consuming and it feels like a year. Isn't that what it feels like when you are shaken from the day-to-day to see what is actually before you? What has been taken from you? The first encounter with death is through Nestor, who was left so mangled on the crime scene, his "bile/the shade of old butter" echoes the power he would no longer be able to cop (47). The bravado changes here, Perdomo explaining, "Who was there to see what became of us at the touch/of blood?" (47). How can someone feel nostalgic for such moments? My response to that question is, "How can one not?" Anyone who goes through such heartbreak will become tormented by it. It will hound the thoughts, begging for a rewrite, as shown in the lines: "None of us wanted to exit this world without a sense of/procession" (47).

The series of deaths occur at the same time these young men are learning to shape their love. "That's My Heart Right There" explains to the reader that the phrase reveals a metonym for someone who is dear to you. Perdomo uses a prayer beat to explain:

We used to say
That's my heart right there.

As if to say,
Don't mess with her right there.

As if, don't even play,
That's a part of me right there. (37)

For young people who need to carve a space for tender sentiment to counteract the grind of the daily hustle, the reverence is not overstated. This nascent love in combination with the harshest losses is an acute trauma that results in "PTHD. Post-Traumatic Hood Disorder" (94), a trauma that simply isn't forgotten. However, the love isn't forgotten, either, hence this dark nostalgia that won't loosen its vice. The beauty within the tragedy brings you back even though the signs of logic flash, "forget." The view is distorted, "As in,/the best way to watch was the/other way./To see before they could say, I saw./You lean to the side & recline, only to see/Who else is hurting (69). And the danger is in staying in the distorted view of the past so that you might not have a future, as Perdomo explains, "The thing is, though, not to/stay behind &/take the Life/that was taken/from you" (73). This stanza begs the questions, who took these lives, and didn't a part of all the crew's lives go along with them when they were taken? One might fear that forgetting might be tantamount to taking the lives away again, therefore keeping the dark nostalgia by one's side is the only way to bear the past.

Which brings me to the last part of my exploration: creating space for beautiful, flawed, human Black and Brown men. How we need this space, and it is done here on their own terms. We do not want a space for the White Idea of a Black Man. We want to know that our crazy bunch sons, brothers, fathers, cousins can have a hand in being beauty's father (104), and Perdomo confirms it (although some of us already knew it, just to be clear; this collection just paints the knowledge in technicolor letters). Glory be to "A brother named Jose…[who] will tap out a happy hour blues with his rolled-up/Daily News (81). Thank you Brother Lo, who "was a story master, a library without a card, a cuento" (79). Let us remember that these men "practiced [their] lives in lobbies & layaway, ganders & goofs" and they "were god bodies…had God in [their] bodies" (101). We want to remember the wicked humor, the honorable struggle, the ritual and spiritual. Perdomo sublimes the memory into a vapor that we can breathe and feel, one which I hope will cause more of us to understand what is lost when someone is lost. However, it would be a mistake to think that the work romanticizes Perdomo's experience. No, there is great warning against forcing young men to scrap for cash, or juice, in this way. There is no way one can read this text without coming to that understanding. The reader is left wishing that every crew member had taken flight like Papo/Skinicky, if only to see each one of them dance to make a point (5).

All the words dance on the pages of The Crazy Bunch. It is a text I will be able to read over and over for years because of the unique language but also to help understand my own upbringing in a similar hood, Chicago's Logan Square of the 1970s and 80s. I know these crazies. I still think of the ones who disappeared and wonder if they made it. Part of me feels as if I found them on these pages, and it hurts to admit that this map shows me that everyone's story had a different ending.

Bio: Dr. Grisel Y. Acosta is an associate professor in the English Department of the City University of New York-BCC, where she teaches creative writing and Latinx literature. Her articles, short fiction, and poetry are published widely. She is the editor of the anthology Latina Outsiders Remaking Latina Identity (Routledge, 2019), which features over 30 Latina contributors from throughout the U.S. 

Grandmother’s Red Carpet Review for Pearls on a Branch

Grandmother’s Red Carpet Review, Pearls on a Branch Compiled by Najla Jraissaty Khoury Translated by Inea Bushnaq

Grandmother’s Red Carpet
Review, Pearls on a Branch
Compiled by Najla Jraissaty Khoury
Translated by Inea Bushnaq

There is a popular contemporary genre of retellings of the canonical fairy tales: take a narrative known by the entire population of former children and reframe or rewrite the structure of the tale in order to fundamentally alter our understanding of the normative assumptions that lie at the core of the stories we tell. Hundreds of ‘feminist fairy tales’ have been published since the mid-20th century, rewriting classic stories like Cinderella or Snow White to allow the women in the stories to be more than a passive object of the desire for the prince who sweeps them out of poverty or mystically prolonged dozing. The recent film The Lure (2015) provides a starkly feminist retelling of The Little Mermaid as a punk rock horror-musical set in a seedy Polish nightclub in the 1980s, drawing out the injustice of the sacrifices asked of women conforming to society to gain the love of human males only to be betrayed by those very men.

In another mode, novels like Gregory Maguire’s Wicked provide a focus on female villains in fairy tales – Maguire’s novel takes the story of The Wizard of Oz and shifts the narrative to focus entirely on the life and times of the Wicked Witch of the West, in order to draw into question the trope of the evil woman dedicated to monstrous evil and ask why so many unmarried women in fairy tales are painted as evil anyway!

While this genre of ideological reframing the canon has a great deal of value – it’s good to question stories defending patriarchy or racism or feudal orders! – I sometimes get a sense that these collections are produced so that there can finally be stories for a marginalized population to see themselves in. And this project of refitting classic fairy tales into non-patriarchal, non-western-centric fairy tales is troublesome for two reasons: 1 it assumes that the stories which have been judged problematic can be saved by prudent editing and 2 it fails to ask what stories the marginalized communities have been telling themselves. For if a marginalized group doesn’t see itself recognized in the mass popular culture, they don’t just sit at home in silence. They turn around and tell stories themselves. Instead of working to save stories which might not be salvageable, storytellers and adapters would do well to remember they are creating art for living and breathing communities, and sometimes there is more value in asking your audience what stories they are already telling themselves, rather than assuming a gap of mass popular representation is paired with a lack of narrative representation overall. If no stories are being written for women or non-white audiences by Hollywood or Broadway, then what stories are being told by those women when the evening winds down and people need entertainment, when children play with dolls or toys, or when disparate communities start to form over new modes of mass communication less limiting than film or television production? How might those stories be captured, if no one is putting them on a stage?

A joyous example of an artist/archivist carrying out this work of cross-cultural recording and interpretation is the happy publication in English of “Pearls on a Branch” (2018, Archipelago Books), a set of oral tales from Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, collected by Najla Jraissaty Khoury and translated from the Arabic by Inea Bushnaq. Khoury began her work during the Lebanese civil war by touring refugee camps and rural communities, asking her interviewees to tell stories they remembered being told as children. Khoury and a theatrical troupe she founded – the Sandouk el Fergeh, or Box of Wonders – would then perform these stories exactly as delivered by her elderly storytellers, travelling throughout the Levant, even as the civil war raged from 1975 to 1990, bringing these stories to camps of Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese refugees, performing them with shadow puppets when the only stage available was a canvas and a lantern. Eventually Sandouk el Fergeh closed down, but rather than let that be the end, in 2014 she selected her favorite 100 stories to publish in book form, in order that the works she and her collaborators had collected and brought to life could be shared with a new generation of listeners and storytellers.

These stories, nearly all centering on young girls figuring how to make their way in a patriarchal world which often treats them unjustly, are excellent examples of a popular culture produced and delivered from below. Khoury describes realizing after several interviews that there were some stories which would be told quite differently if men or children were in the room. As she writes “certain stories told by women were for women only” (12). Khoury asks whether this was a way for women to assert their presence and independence in a deeply patriarchal society, particularly before the middle of the 20th century, when these stories were first told to the majority of Khoury’s interviewees as children. As Khoury describes it, at this time –

“Women, once their housework was done, were confined…to their homes. The men could go out to the coffee house to hear the Hakawati, recite the old epics before a strictly male audience. The women visited each other and told stories; stories in which men are dependent on women who are sharper and more intelligent than they are, where women become the true heroines if only through their patience in the face of oppression” (13).

In these stories, adventurous young girls defy their fathers who have unjustly locked them in rooms to keep them from marriage and run away to seek their fortune outside of the home, but even demure girls who do not make such dramatic gestures show determination and wily scheming to attain their desires. As Khoury writes – “In a society where the men dominate, women use 1001 wiles to assert themselves.”

These dynamics of feminine agency within a patriarchal society show most clearly in the title story – “Pearls on a Branch”. In it, the young princess Husun Kamil (Loveliness Perfected) seeks to marry a nearby king, named Lulu Bighsunu (Pearls on a Branch). He refuses her request in such an insulting manner that she immediately steals out into the dead of night, sells herself as a slave to Bighsunu’s household, and grows close enough to make small bets over the playing of a game. If Husun Kamil wins, she can make one request. The first night, she wins and ties Lulu Bighsunu’s hands together until morning. The next night, fascinated by Husun Kamil, Lulu Bighsunu asks her to come to his chambers and serve his dinner. Husun Kamil comes at his request, but as she peels an apple over his palm, she intentionally cuts into his hand. She rushes to bandage his wound and then leaves the city without saying another word. When Lulu Bighsunu does not find her, he searches everywhere he can think of, until he unwraps the bandage, revealing a letter placed directly over the wound –

Lulu Bighsunu will not be coming to sit at Husun Kamil’s hearth?

The first night with her belt she tied your hands

And let you sleep as if on firebrands.

The second night she cut your palm and made it bleed

You’ll never be the one that Husun Kamil needs.” (94)

Aroused but humiliated, Lulu Bighsunu goes off to seek his own revenge by asking Husun Kamil’s hand in marriage, only for Husun Kamil to be told when she arrives that he will in fact be marrying someone other than her! She bows her head and seemingly accepts this and reenters Bighsunu’s household as a servant. But when Bighsunu directs Husun Kamil to sleep with his black-skinned servant Saiid, Husun Kamil, in order to avoid this sexual activity with a man not of her own choosing, demands that Saiid complete impossible tasks which he 1 cannot finish before morning and 2 will not be able to describe to Lulu Bighsunu without Bighsunu assuming the job was carried out.  The first night she asks Saiid to separate out an enormous bag of white and black beads into black and white piles. When Lulu Bighsunu asks how his night went, he can only say “as God is my witness, my Master, between black and white, I was up all night!” When Husun Kamil orders Saiid to fix an unfixable door, Saiid can only report to his master “By God, it was push and pull, push and pull, hour after hour, my Master” (99). Husun Kamil tricks her way into Lulu Bighsunu’s bed, with the aid of Bighsunu’s other wife, and gives birth to a child so beautiful and so obviously Bighsunu’s son that he is forced to overcome his need to dominate Husun Kamil, since she will obviously come out ahead of any further battles! He agrees to marry Husun Kamil and they live “happily to the end of their days” (104).

These events begin when Husun Kamil asks her father to bring back “Pearls on a Branch” on the advice of her maid, even though she does not know what the phrase means. Her father does his best, but when this object asked for as a gift turns out to be a human male, and this male immediately insults her and refuses to come to her, her pride demands she work and scheme until she has acquired this Pearls on a Branch , even if she has to go out herself into the wide and treacherous world. She becomes a slave and works her way to become Lulu Bighsunu’s wife, leaping up and down the economic hierarchy of his kingdom. Husun Kamil does not simply beat Lulu Bighsunu at games of chess and wit, she grows familiar enough with his servants and his other wife that she can make bargains or demands without them telling Lulu Bighsunu what’s been really going on. She proves to be a master of spycraft and intrigue without ever acting in a way which would give her opponent and desired husband any evidence of acting shamefully.

There are other stories in this collection which do not provide as many opportunities for clever ploys for young girls. In the story “The Sun Her Mother, the Moon Her Father”, a young girl born with the sun for a mother and the moon for a father is courted by the king’s son. She finds him pleasant and accepts his offer of marriage, but her aunts warn her as she leaves to join his household – “Because he is the king’s son you have to maintain your own position. Don’t say one word to him until he mentions your mother the sun and your father the moon” (47). She follows this advice and the king’s son puts her through terrible trials trying to get her to speak to him, but until he recognizes her descent from the sun and the moon, she speaks not a word! Of course, he does so, after overhearing this secret from some enchanted tableware, and when she immediately runs to his side we are told that “he kissed her and she kissed him” (52). She takes the demure silence demanded of women in so many spheres of the world of the story’s original listeners and turns it into a means by which to sustain her position as an equal of her husband. The girl is in a position of legal and cultural weakness, but as every good reader of Clausewitz or Sun Tzu knows, there is strength and advantage in even the worst position!

In “Sitt Yadab”, a young girl named Yadab respects her family and her teachers so very much that when she sees the Sheikh who teaches at her school is in fact a horrifying ghoul who eats small children in the dead of night, she tells no one as this would be disrespecting her teachers! The ghoul tries to trip her up by coming and asking her if she saw him eating children, because if she speaks against her teachers he will be able to eat her up next. But she is not fooled and even when the ghoul threatens to eat her family’s cows, her family’s camels, or her parents, she says only that she saw her teacher “preparing tests/To help his students do their best” (191). She runs from her hometown, but wherever she goes the ghoul follows and eats her loved ones when she does not admit that she saw her teacher eating her classmate. She marries a prince and bears two children, but the ghoul appears and, after she refuses to admit what she saw, eats her children and leaves a mark of blood upon her lips. Yadab’s husband locks her in a prison cell as the killer of her own children, and in this cell she grieves and cuts marks in a Stone of Patience with a Knife of Sorrow procured on a Hajj from Mecca. As she cuts into the stone she cries out all the sorrows she could not admit to the ghoul without disrespecting her teacher. After an entire night and day of weeping and declamation in total isolation, her ritual attains its purpose:

“the ground at her feet split open and the Sheikh appeared. He addressed her with these words:

‘O Sitt Yadab, no human has existed

Who defied my orders or strength resisted

Until your patience and your tears

For the first time in all my years,

Sapped my strength and conquered me!” (199-200) 

Whereupon her entire family, its camels and cows, her children and everyone else the ghoul had consumed throughout Yadab’s trials all appear in Yadab’s small room, and the ghoul disappears back into the ground. The prince hears about the magical commotion, everything is revealed, and Yadab is reinstated as princess. Her wedding celebrations are renewed to allow her parents to celebrate and recognize this second beginning, and the couple “then lived together in happiness and peace” (201). This is a didactic story, firmly advising young women to respect their elders and their teachers, but the lesson is pushed to such an extent that in living according to the maxim “respect your teacher”, Sitt Yadab allows her parents and children to be eaten by a ghoul. This requires a deep and abiding subjective fortitude in the face of literally inhuman attacks. The quiet, abiding patience of Sitt Yadab is evidence not of a blind unthinking adherence to a schoolbook lesson, but rather of real subjective courage as she upholds the virtues she demands of herself in a hostile world.

These three women, Husun Kamil, the daughter of the sun and the moon, and Sitt Yadab, are active members of their society, toying with and becoming masters of the deeply patriarchal rules they must live within. They turn deeply unfair requirements of silence and obedience to their own advantage, whether that advantage be a desired sexual partner in the case of Husun Kamil, mutual respect as an equal of her husband in the case of the daughter of the sun and the moon, or a meaningfully life defined by ethical virtue in the case of Sitt Yadab. And this is all done without explicitly decrying the injustice or arbitrariness of these customs and orders.

Given that these customs and laws are so much a part of the worlds of these stories, some readers might well wonder whether these stories will be unintelligible to an American without any grasp of 20th century Lebanese history. I can tell you this is of no concern. The translator Inea Bushnaq has rendered these tales in an English which echoes the prose of most children’s stories in this language without erasing either the Muslim faith of the storytellers or the Jinns and Ghouls of Arabic spirituality. The stories leap from raucous comedy to delicate melodrama to truly frightening moments of horror; stories filled with astounding magic and talking animals exist side by side with tales featuring nothing more surprising than a young girl who stands for what she wants in the face of masculine petulance. Additionally, there is another entry-point into this collection for the wary American child - many of these stories will be immediately recognizable the stories of Cinderella, Rapunzel or Snow White, shifted and translated into Arabic audience. The Snow White figure, placed into a mysterious sleep by her jealous step-mother, is protected here not by 7 dwarves, but rather by Ali Baba and his 40 thieves, and must sleep until a virtuous sultan speaks a magic phrase to wake her from her slumber. The sultan marries her as his wife and live joyfully together, causing the wicked step-mother to become so angry that she bursts into a thousand pieces! If the stories here require some moments of translation on the part of the listener, we should remember that stories always have. Even the most isolated of rural communities or marginalized populations have taken stories from other cultures or more powerful groups within the same community and reworked them to fit their own needs.

But the crowning glory of this collection, as well as of the translation by Bushnaq, lies in the farshehs - a rhymed framing device placed before the prose stories in the book. Readers of English fairy tales will be familiar with the phrase “once upon a time”, which tells us that we will now be hearing a story in the half-pretend world of King Arthur or Mother Goose. These tales have an Arabic equivalent which begins most stories proper – the wonderfully conceptual “It was or it was not” – but the farsheh, a word referring to a pillow brought into the center of the living room at the end of the day to create the sleeping space, is a luxurious sequence of rhymed puns, filled with nonsense words and goofy images mixed together into an opening movement to a night of storytelling. The farsheh sometimes primes the listener to what the story will be about, but often is nothing more than an occasion to revel in the talent of the storyteller as the community gathers around to listen to the story. As Khoury describes it in the beginning of the book, “the purpose of the farsheh…is to catch the listeners’ attention and announce that they are heading into an indeterminate elsewhere. ‘This is what the story will lie upon,’ says the storyteller” (13). Bushnaq’s rendition of “The Sun Her Mother The Moon Her Father” reads:

It happened or maybe it didn’t.

Let us tell stories that amuse and delight.

Even if we sleep a little later tonight

Some on pillows stiched with pearls and coral rings;

Some on pillows full of lice and crawling things.” (43)

Whereupon the story begins. Bushnaq describes the farsheh in her introductory text as “the equivalent of a red carpet rolled out for the stories about to be heard” (17). In this book, most of the farshehs are less than six lines long, but when these stories were told live, storytellers could go on at astonishing length, until they nearly ran out of words to rhyme! These tales come to us fully prepared with a joyous and unmistakably oral poetic form attached, whose entire purpose is to ease the audience, whether they be children or adults, whether they speak English or Arabic, into the world of the story, that glorious zone of indeterminate existence found directly between “it was” and “it was not”.

As always, when reading a collection of such charming folktales, I feel a temptation to rhapsodize on the imagination of these un-Disneyfied narratives, to ‘go back’ to this rural life filled with linguistic invention and rustic virtue. But this desire to return to a perceived ‘simple’, ‘rural’ life is itself a failed engagement with Khoury’s work! By holding this book as the answer for the ideal set of stories to sell to feminist parents, I’ve asked precisely the wrong question. Instead of proclaiming  Khoury’s collection of intergenerational oral tales as the True Feminist Stories to be stamped as the Official Children’s Literature of the Modern World, we should be following the example Khoury and her interviewees have set us.

What stories are told in your worlds that are not being translated or transcribed or recorded, whether because of a lack of time or a perceived lack of interest in the wider audience? Instead of taking the massively distributed narratives from the wider culture (blockbuster films, animated television shows, etc) and retooling them to represent marginalized populations or promote liberatory ideals – I repeat that these are worthy goals in their own right! – we should take Khoury’s text as a prompt to look for the stories which are already being told by those marginalized populations! Ask your family members and the strangers around you what stories they tell themselves and their children. Ask yourselves!

Certainly, for anyone born in the United States in the last century, the films of Hollywood and the books published by British or American publishing houses have been the major prisms of childhood narratives. But as hegemonic as these narrative structures have been, anyone despairing at the lack of popular engagement in the creation of stories and ideas would do well to look in the odder reaches of the internet, where entire communities form around fandoms of just about every novel or film or television show imaginable. These fandoms gather to write criticism and get to know each other, but most of all to retell the stories under discussion, drawing out minor characters or utterly revamping the world of the fiction to fit communal needs and desires. We live in perhaps the most absolutely mediatized time in the history of human civilization, with our every interaction taking place via some multinational corporation or other, whether as the foundation of our imagination or the medium of its communication, but the blossoming of fan-fictional and communal narratives online provide a profound counterargument to the idea that there are no new stories being told or no new storytellers taking the time to tell them.

This is not to say that corporate control over our popular imagination isn’t a threat to the emancipatory powers of storytelling, or that stories can’t ultimately disappear. Khoury’s project of collecting these stories took place in a time of massive displacement and exile, as the stories here and the peoples telling them through generations were passing into new, less coherent forms of communal being. Most archival projects only come about as to respond to an imminent threat of informational dissolution, to grab hold of some body of culture before it is gone. Khoury herself, since 1997 has been working with the NGO Assabil Libraries to establish and expand public libraries throughout Lebanon, to create institutions working against the disappearance of popular culture.

On one level, this erosion of narrative memory is nothing more than the basic experience of living as a finite being in a finite world. Every story will pass away, just as every storyteller will pass away. But on another, this erosion is a reminder that this does not have to be the end. Erosion is the experience of time, yes; but if you experience it then you are still alive, and so can still pass your story on! If you do so, along with a farsheh and its power for opening the intimate theatrical space of communal storytelling, then perhaps another audience unused to such a generous experience of narrative might be brought to its unique joys. Perhaps this story will be the one that future audience needed to hear!

And if you don’t have a story to tell, ask yourself whose stories you have never heard. If you treat them with respect and show you are an earnest listener seeking only to translate for the good of the story, they will love to tell it to you, as there can never be too many librarians asking for stories in this war-torn world so driven to forgetting.

Review for Problems by Jade Sharma and the House Stark Women

Photo: ‘Problems’ by Jade Sharma

Photo: ‘Problems’ by Jade Sharma

As soon as I saw episode 4 of Game of Thrones, I came across Jessica Chastain’s tweet slamming it with the sentence: “a woman doesn’t need to be victimized in order to become a butterfly.” I agree with Chastain’s statement, however I also do not feel that Sansa Stark’s character construction glorifies rape and abuse as a tool to empower women. When the young Lady of Winterfell tells the Hound that, “Without Littlefinger and Ramsay and the rest, I would’ve stayed a little bird all my life,” I immediately thought about Nietzsche’s quote: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.Game of Thrones presents a violent world from the very first season, where both genders (think of Theon Greyjoy’s brutal emasculation), have to navigate a survival of the fittest. This is the same gut reaction I had while reading Jade Sharma’s ‘Problems,’ that was published a few years ago in the USA and was just released in my country, Italy. Perhaps, being a European who was lucky enough to live for a while in New York, I had the chance to nurture my personal matriarchal ideals from both cultural perspectives.

Feminist historiography is important to deconstruct patriarchy, but we should aim for an inclusive world where neither gender prevails on the other. This can be achieved by reminding ourselves that in fiction, as much as in reality, both men and women can either be frail and be destroyed by tragic events, or embrace a combative spirit to emerge as phoenixes from their ashes. Along these lines, Jade Sharma, presents this crude reality through her female protagonist. ‘Problems’ unveils the story of a troubled heroine who is overwhelmed by drug abuse, but seems to fight like a warrior through a world of perdition she has chosen to helm.

The Indian-American author introduces us to Maya, “a thrifty, generic brown” woman full of self-destructive complexities. She has a low self-esteem and is a lymphatic bulimic, heroin junkie and is addicted to a zillion other drugs. Maya is also an unrealistic writer and bookseller, who is married to an alcoholic and has an affair with a professor who is over sixty years old. The literary style adopted, for this harrowing coming-of-age tale, is a stream of consciousness that is fiercely physical, both from a lustful and scatologic standpoint. The way the writing flows almost seems to be taken from a stand-up comedy stage: it’s sardonic, irreverent, raw and current with millennial psychology.

‘Problems’ is fraught with sharp thoughts, that obviously pertain to those struggling with addiction, but also to people pondering upon the challenges of intersubjectivity. For instance Maya brings to the readers’ attention the weariness that can come out of an unhappy marriage when she says: “Seeing the same person so much it makes you not see them at all.” She also struggles with body appearance when she declares: “Age is meaner than death,” and reminds us all, how conflict sometimes can be a trigger for people craving for attention, when she admits: “I can’t handle not having someone around to tell me I look hot or get mad at me or just acknowledge my existence. It’s like, what’s the point of being alive if no one is there to see it? If there’s no one to disapprove of my behavior, then why bother doing it?

Those who have pursued a career in the arts, moving to New York City, without necessarily being addicts will definitely identify with Maya’s reflections on the subject matter: “You live in New York, and you’re cool. You have an apartment in the East Village, and you call yourself an artist. But after a while, you forget what it was you were excited about. There is nothing here for you. You feel like a sucker every day paying fourteen bucks for a pack of smokes. You take stock of your resources, and you don’t have anything. You call yourself an artist, but you work fifty million hours a week just to sleep in a room where only a bed fits. You go to bars where you can sit down or hear anyone talk. You’re a hipster in New York City. There are a million of you, and it doesn’t matter that you believe you’re talented, because no one cares and you’re only getting older. The thing you didn’t realize when you were fourteen and thought Kurt Cobain was God was that not every weirdo with an ironic tee from Urban Outfitters makes it. There are a lot of people in their sixties, toothless, broken and poor, who have stories of almost making it. At what point do people hear ‘loser’ when you say ‘artist’?

Our narrator truthfully grasps the struggles of living that New York artists have to confront. She equally dissects mercilessly and authentically the life of a junkie: “One of the greatest myths of addiction is that it’s interesting. It’s the most boring thing anyone could ever do. There is a slight glamour in the beginning, a feeling of doing something wrong, of indulging in a weird world populated by ghosts who used to be struggling musicians but don’t make music anymore, or writers who need write. And then your whole life is getting high and being numb, and there’s absolutely no reason to leave your bed except to get more money. Your life becomes a triangle of elemental needs: get money, get drugs, get home. Dope is a tease. It makes you not want anything else. There’s no freedom in the end, it’s just another jail.” Maya, besides the profound observations also manages to be humorous about life in rehab, venting out: “Sometimes it feels like you are being punished, and the real program is to make you so miserable that you don’t try to use or off yourself again because you may fail and have to come back. That’s pretty much the lesson you take away: next time kill yourself properly, or don’t try.

The conclusion of this psychotropic chronicle is summed up with Maya’s query: “When did I confuse hedonism with lousy old self-destruction?” But whether we have addictions or not, the ultimate lesson Maya teaches us is to embrace the hardships knowing that the ebb and flow of life will knock you down, only to teach you to stand up again and not give up. As the book beautifully ends: “You will feel waves of sadness and you will let them run through you because that is what they are: passing waves.” To stay in line with Game of Thrones our Maya seems to adopt Arya Stark’s mantra to the question “What do we say to the God of Death ?”… “Not Today!

Interview with Academy Award Pixar Producer Jonas Rivera Reveals The Magic Of Toy Story 4

There is a child-like spirit in all of us, perhaps that is what makes the Toy Story franchise so popular, with kids as much as with adults. These Pixar motion pictures remind us about the importance of integrating our youthful spirit into our everyday life.

Someone who knows how to do so exquisitely, through his storytelling is Academy Award Producer Jonas Rivera. He joined Pixar animation studios in 1994 as an intern, working precisely on the very first Toy Story film, and eventually worked in all subsequent Pixar films, becoming Up’s producer in 2009, the Oscar-winning animated feature film. In 2015, Rivera collaborated again with director, Pete Docter, for the film Inside Out, which won an Oscar for Best feature-length animated film and candidate in the Best Original Screenplay category. More recently he played the role of producer in the Disney-Pixar movie Toy Story 4, that allows the character of Woody to find new purpose.

Photo: Jonas Rivera (Academy Award Pixar Producer)

Photo: Jonas Rivera (Academy Award Pixar Producer)

The fourth segment of the Toy Story saga provides new insight to what it means to boldly confront your unique calling. The floppy pull-string cowboy doll has always been confident about his place in the world, and that his priority is taking care of his owner, whether that is Andy or Bonnie. So when Bonnie’s beloved new craft-project-turned-toy, Forky, declares himself as “trash” and not a toy, Woody takes it upon himself to show Forky why he should embrace being a toy. But when Bonnie takes the whole gang on her family’s road trip excursion, Woody ends up on an unexpected detour that includes a reunion with his long-lost girlfriend Bo Peep. After years of being on her own, Bo’s adventurous spirit and life on the road, fail to fulfill her delicate porcelain exterior. As Woody and Bo realize they are worlds apart when it comes to life as a toy, they soon come to find that it is the least of their worries.

After a preview of some clips from Toy Story 4,I sat down with Jonas Rivera to talk about the upcoming Pixar animation:

Photo: Disney-Pixar’s Toy Story 4

Photo: Disney-Pixar’s Toy Story 4

Question: The content seems very much for an adult audience rather than children, to whom is this film addressed to?

The film is really for us, we never really thought about making films for kids, we want them to love them, but we somehow act like kids at Pixar, we have a world that is very child-like and yet we love movies from around the world. I think a lot of that seeps into the filmmaking at Pixar. But our job is to make it work for everybody. There are some dark moments in the movie, but there is also a lot of comedy and humour. Honestly I use my kids to test the films, I have three children, aged 13, 10 and 7, so it’s a good spread and I can see what sticks out for them and what they understand. Kids always surprise us at Pixar, when we are screening our films. There was the same concern with Inside Out whether it could be too esoteric or philosophical or emotional. I found that kids understood it better than adults, which is always a joy and a reminder that the audience is smart and will go with you. In Toy Story 4, when we meet Gaby Gaby, we play a little record and that is the music from The Shining, that children may not be familiar with. Kids won’t know there are also echoes of Sunset Boulevard in the film, but they’ll get that a certain place is scary and you shouldn’t go in there, and that is all you need. So we just make sure it works on multiple levels.

Question: In these franchise sagas it is always difficult to find a reason to continue, what was the trigger that encouraged to make Toy Story 4?

When we started we realized we didn’t want to make another film unless there was a deeper reason to tell a story. Toy Story 3 had such a nice ending, that we did’t want this to feel like another adventure and we just tagged on. The thing we talked about most is character, so all the adventures that Woody has had, those are just the plot, but thinking about the character we were inspired in continuing Woody’s story beyond Andy. Woody has done everything correctly and has landed in a successful way, but yet feels unfulfilled, that felt interesting to us and worth chasing down and dramatizing.

Question: As regards the restyling of Bo Beep, I read there was some controversy regarding some animal activists who had asked to remove the crook that she uses to grab her sheep, I wanted to know how your reaction at Pixar was?

We have a great group of young women, two directing animators, our head of story, one of our story artists and one of our character modelers and a few others who call themselves “Team Bo.” They basically kicked the guys out of the room — including myself — and they wrote up everything about Bo, how she would hold herself, stand, and dress. They didn’t want her to fall into any stereotype and build a unique strong character. We heard about the animal activists, and we had to make sure she was recognizable from the past and left the crook that she used to move around and traverse the world. We never see her using it as a shepherdess might have, we were aware of it but our version of Bo Beep is harmless, plus she is a toy. In a certain level, even a comment about animal rights just says that people care about these characters, and this world and that it somehow feels real to them. We don’t want to make anything that’s offensive and we never will, but even that is an example that it is meaningful to people, so we just do our best and do what’s right and tell stories with characters that relate to people.

Photo: Disney-Pixar’s Toy Story 4

Photo: Disney-Pixar’s Toy Story 4

Question: At Pixar you stage emotions in a majestic way, when you hire new people how do you make sure that they have enough heart to work for you?

Ed Cantwell, who is the President and one of the founders, always said that he looks for people over ideas. If someone comes in who has a very great idea, that is less valuable than someone who could have the potential to have multiple ideas. I think Pixar is not a perfect place, but I think it does a pretty good job at seeing potential in people. I’m an example of that, I came in with nothing and worked really hard, and it’s a place that rewards that. Pixar has built a place for people with a common goal, we love movies, we love animations, we grew up loving the Walt Disney animated films.

Question: Toys can have a very strong influence on children’s minds, how do you think you can deal with the future of the Playstation movement, do you think you’ll make a film about traditional toys versus video games?

We played around with that idea, and I think it’s a great theme. When we began to think about the character for Forky, we pondered upon how something that could be very primitive could acquire value, as well as what could distract a kid from the traditional toy like a computer. In my life I’m a very analogue person and try to provide old fashioned toys for my kids, whether that seeps into the Toy Story world I don’t know. There is a short film [Toy Story That Time Forgot] where there is Bonnie who goes to the house of her friend Mason and her toys encounter his new Battlesaurs video game. Bonnie ends up tossing the toys into the room to join Mason in playing with his video game console. So we’ve used it in the universe a little bit, but there is the opportunity to go more, because there is a truth. You walk into a kid’s room and find him on an iPad and you feel bad for the toys.

After working for so many years at Toy Story, how has your relationship with toys changed, do you feel guilty in giving them away, considering you have kids?

Oh my God! Yes! It’s awful, I tell you I feel terrible when we do, I feel like I’m betraying my job in someway. It has given me great cause. I realize how less these films have seeped into my life, it’s so funny, it’s a great question! I think everyone feels that because of these movies, and there’s less toys thrown away because of these, so I feel proud because of that, I guess. Thank you.

From Behind a Kitchen Window: A Review of Memory for Forgetfulness

Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982 (Literature of the Middle East)  by Mahmoud Darwish (Author), Ibrahim Muhawi (Translator), Sinan Antoon (Forward) ISBN-13: 978-0520273047

Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982 (Literature of the Middle East) by Mahmoud Darwish (Author), Ibrahim Muhawi (Translator), Sinan Antoon (Forward) ISBN-13: 978-0520273047

I was first exposed to Mahmoud Darwish through an Israeli-Palestinian Literature course; his poem “In Jerusalem” was the first that I read. The poem, whose narrative voice perhaps transcends between sleep and wakefulness, chronicles his journey through the epochs of Jerusalem. As he wanders, remembering and not remembering the pathways, the mysticism of Jerusalem seeps into his narration. He expresses his love for Jerusalem, for its holiness, and his love is undying—even if he is displaced from those walls. It was with this eye, already exposed to the hypnotizing writing and familiar themes of Mahmoud Darwish, that I dove into Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982.

It is one of Darwish’s most notable works, and for a reason. It was first published in March of 1995, masterfully translated by Ibrahim Muhawi. Its newer edition, published in May of 2013, includes a forward by Sinan Antoon, offering an extensive introduction to Darwish’s previous works and the historical context from which he writes. This collection of essays—really, a set of prose poems—reflects on Darwish’s experience during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In a meditative rendering, the collection touches upon the political and historical dimensions of the Palestinian exile, and particularly on “Hiroshima Day” during the Lebanese Civil War: witnessing the barrage of Beirut in August of 1982. Through recurring symbols of death, coffee, wakefulness, and memory, Darwish explores fear during conflict: a sentiment which is, as he recounts, constant, pervasive, and disturbingly routine.

The essays are war-ravaged, recreating the violence of a city under siege from behind Darwish’s kitchen window. It is hauntingly mundane, illustrating a ‘day-in-the-life’ of an individual during wartime; as he yearns for his coffee, his “morning silence,” (7), he evaluates whether the walls of his home will protect him from the bombshells. As he listens to the morning birds, awake at daybreak, he wonders “for whom do they sing in the crush of these rockets?” (9). Thoughts of death for Darwish, for a man encumbered by the normalization of war, are thoughts as commonplace as his morning coffee, as the 6am bird songs. It is this normalization - the disturbing interweaving of uncertain death among regular elements of life—that makes this collection so unsettling.

I thank God everyday that I’m unfamiliar with the distresses of war. Moreso, as an Israeli, much of the Palestinian narrative is muffled behind distortions of emotion, of cultural sentiment. On both sides, there is an overwhelming tendency to approach the conflict through biased eyes. When such a conflict involves family and identity, it’s easy for personal narratives to overpower those on the opposing side. But that’s why reading work like this is so deeply important. Beyond understanding from the standpoint of an Israeli, this work offers all readers insight behind the walls of Darwish’s kitchen. It translates experience - a distinct kind of suffering - across all borders, regardless of perspective. The reader is called upon to question the extent of their awareness, and to regard the experiences of those living in one’s periphery. I would argue that that’s the point of this kind of work, this striking, scarring poetry. The transmission of experience. And though I pray I’ll never be burdened by the normalization of war, never be wrought by fears of falling rockets as I brew my morning coffee, I am grateful to consider these burdens through Darwish’s haunting readership.

On Image, Steve McQueen and Renegotiating our Relationships with the Dead

I’ve considered very much the business of curating family photo albums. It’s a messy affair. We consider, when framing an image, how that moment integrates into an ongoing narrative. A narrative often devoid of a reliable narrator. This isn’t to suggest that we are with the intent to manipulate, but it is to suggest that how we prioritize the representation of memory is predicated on a nostalgic sentimentality. Nostalgia operates as colors for which we use when painting the empty spaces of our memory. Each brush stroke, a sensation that we prescribe to a smile, a kiss or the tears swelling in the eye of an unknown pallbearer. If you’re Black and you’ve sifted through a family photographic album, you know the inevitable page turn to the photograph of the man, or woman, in a casket. Maybe you know them, and your relationship to them, or maybe you’re unaware of where they fit in the gumbo that is your Black folks. Regardless of whoever that person may have been, in life, in this visual compilation of your familial lineage, they are positioned in the same context as the living. Their contribution to memory is immortalized, just as your parents’ wedding or your nephews’ first birthday party. If I’m inquiring how that photograph arrived in its place, I’m asking what was the intent in curating the photographic album. And If I am directing that question at someone with the same face as I, then I am acknowledging our collective obsession with death. Death and the curation of our dead.

Photo: Steve McQueen

Photo: Steve McQueen

I will continue to use the term curation, given that there is an artistic language required to successfully narrate the history of man through still imagery. In the interview with Kass Benning, artist John Akomfrah comments on the morbidity of Black artistry, specifically film-making. “I think necrophilia is at the heart of black film-making. Not in the literal sense but in a postmodern sense in which people are invoking figures, there is an act of feeding off the dead….There is a kind of level morbidity which I think people have to realize in the quest for identity.It is a morbid business”. Whomever undertakes the task of curating a Black family photographic album is of the same obligation as the filmmaker and considers their responsibility to aesthetic. For the Black family photographic album curator, as Akomfrah may agree, it is the assumed responsibility to a digestible aesthetic, of the dead, for the consumption of the Black voyeur. We, as observers, are in effect voyeurs,  when turning the pages of these photographic albums. We imagine the inner thoughts, and private lives, of the unknown faces in each photograph and all within the frame we imagine as a stage where these lives interact. Even if we, ourselves, are the subject, in the frame, we remain ignorant to the interior of other bodies surrounding our own. Thus, we apply stories to the faces, of others, and the process of memorializing concludes with an achieved sentimentality that allows us to accept the narrative, of the album, as a functioning record of our emotional histories. We do the same for our dead. We craft stories about whomever lay, embalmed, prepared for burial to fit into the puzzle of affections that are the surrounding images of the living. Often, their exploits are shrouded in mystery. The keys of discovery, of which, are locked behind the conscious of an unidentifiable source, generally our elders, who’d rather let unresolved matters of shame, guilt or frustration decompose with the corpse, of the dead, than find resolution. But, it matters not how the person died, nor how they lived, only that we must long for them, in death, in the same as we long for the memory of baby showers and family reunions.  I do not mean that we wish for their presence, but our affections for their lived experience, even if we are absent this knowledge, must be merciful. We must be kind to our dead. This I agree, but am not without concern.

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When looking at the work of British visual artist, Steve McQueen, there is a gentle, albeit brutal dissection of the present, informed by the past, most notably, his early installations which saw him attempt to memorialize, with moral rigor, African and African Diasporic bodies having been morphed  by space-time. In a published collection of still frames, from McQueen’s installations, Carib’s Leap (2002) and Western Deep (2002), the former find’s McQueen, and long time cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, documenting the meanderings, labor and destitution of Grenadians along the shoreline of the same beach where, in 1652, Caribs, of Grenada, committed mass suicide. The act itself, of the Caribs throwing their bodies onto the rocks below what is now regarded as Carib’s Leap, has become historicized as a measure of defiance against the then French sponsored genocide of the indigenous Kalinago, or Carib population of Grenada. McQueen has little desire to curate memory here, instead inhabiting the station of witness. The history of atrocity is explicit and requires little from imagination. The dark bodies and faces are tethered to something historic and bear little room for one’s imprint of imagination. Jean Fisher, author of Imitations of the Real: On Western Deep and Caribs’ Leap, contends the point. “In Caribs’ Leap the Caribs are absent in actuality; and yet, we could say that they remain as a virtual past co-present, perhaps in the memory of an obscure image-thought floating in limbo until tricked into consciousness; or, as a displacement , in the way the African descendants re-inhabit the space-time of the island, doing what Caribs presumably always did when they weren’t being aggressed by colonialists - hanging out on the beach, attending to their boat’s, dying. Time passes, and yet is simultaneously strangely immobile.” And it is here, in the immobility of the unseen, as Fisher suggests, that McQueen reimagines the experience of nostalgia.

McQueen’s evocation of sentiment, and memory, is uncannily married to the origin of the word, nostalgia. Nostalgia finds its origin in two Greek root words, nostos and algos. Nostos translates to the English phrasing, returning home, and algos translates to the English term, pain. This is to suggest that McQueen’s narration of space-time, as a witness, requires a morally rigorous excavation of the historic and the prevailing legacies of trauma to procure the equitable  memory of the viewer. For McQueen, the only way to establish a truth, especially of death, is to reveal the often disturbing components of that truth, in an effort to embrace the veracity of truths delecation’s. To discover a prevailing truth in that final act of the Carib’s, one must acknowledge that which led them to that cliff and the troubles which would befall their descendants, in order to properly, and justly, preserve the memory of their deliverance-in-death.

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I am in no way indicting anyone for soliciting pleasure through the photographic image. I cherish the familial, and familiar, joy associated with exploring, from cover to cover, the family photographic albums stored away at my Grandparents’ South Carolina estate. I adore the images of my mother’s adolescence, my many cousins’ arrival to puberty and the discovery of relational details I hadn’t observed prior. I find myself engrossed with the motions, the positions of bodies embraced, the humourous posing in preparation for being immortalized by the lens. But inevitably, I’ll turn to find that body in a casket. It never summoned of me, inquiry about my relationship to lineage. The encounter is an unsettling one and not for the reason that I was in view of death. I remain disquieted, in fact, due to the image’s distance from death. There is rarely context and the body is an often ahistorical one. The remains are only that-remains. But death is something of reverence, fear and fetish for the sons and daughters of humanity's’ greatest injury-the Transatlantic Slave Trade. We are in a transgenerational tango with the grim reaper and it reflects in our lyric, our food, our sex, our delights and our sorrows. Thus, It would behoove us to renegotiate how we, familially, memorialize our dead.  Addiction, abuse, brutality, disease, poverty, medical neglect and other harms have contributed to the demise of so many whose deaths are trivialized only to include the body in it’s burial state. What of the truth in their names or of their tales? We cannot honor the memory of the dead without unraveling the veil’s of our shame given the conditions of global Blackness. We are ashamed of our lineage, familially and historically. We loath succumbing to the condition of the victim, but as with the final act of the Caribs’, as Fisher describes, “Death here is liberation: a turn towards immortality through a return to a generative signifier, the ocean, which must have been as important to the sea-faring and fishing Caribs’ as it was to the later African survivors of the Middle Passage.” The stories of our dead may not read as melancholically robust, or worth some triumphant mourning song, but they are knitted into the same fabric as any other story of the Black body in death. A sole Polaroid image, of a body, embalmed, is mere erasure of the unseen. I do not suggest capturing, in documentary form, the precise details of the every day, but if we are to appropriately memorialize our dead, we must consider the intent for which we memorialize, and document, their lived experiences. All that isn’t seen in the pages of our photographic albums, pictures along our walls or spoken with their names on our lips. If we do not, their deaths remain hollow and our narrative; disempowered. As McQueen suggested, responding to an inquiry about the agitation of Black audiences towards the production of 12 Years a Slave,  during an interview at the Walker Art Center, “In order for one to go forward, we must embrace that shame and master it, in order to move on, just as other groups have done within their unfortunate pasts. It’s a must.” McQueen's appeal, I do concur. We are storytellers, only our tales serve as archive of, as we know but may not admit, great horror. To neglect any detail is to maim our histories and to be complicit in assuring we amount to solely decaying bone and tissue. That, more than mastering the memories of our deceased, is damning the dead.

Russian Dolls: We’ve Only Just Begun

Russian Doll.jpg

Netflix, Season 1
Starring: Natasha Lyonne, Charlie Barnett
Created by: Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, Lesyle Headland
Reviewed by Jade Sharma

For a lot of people life consists of repeating the same self-destructive patterns. That girl who can’t permanently shake the doucebbag who everyone can see treats her like garbage. The guy who lets some girl string him along, uses him to build furniture from Ikea, ditches him for anyone else, but picks him back up anytime she feels like it. We kinda know when we don’t see a friend for a long time that means they’re probably using again. Instead of lecturing the people around us, we listen patiently as they share their litany of reasons of why this time it was different, and we hear the words: This is the last time. One of the lesser known clichés of addictions is that relapsing is part of the nature of the disease of addiction. But for the person who is in the cycle it really is always different. The idea that it’s laziness or weakness that leads us back is offensive. We’re not idiots.. Yes, we know how it seems but the truth is always complicated. And it all looks easy to the outsider but even when we are brave and end the cycle, we have to deal with the messy parts of life that are harder to solve like loneliness and emptiness.

Russian Doll is about 36-year-old Nadia, who is stuck in a loop, re-living the same day. This isn’t a grungy hipster version of Groundhog Day. Russian Doll has bigger existential fish to fry than finding how to give love another chance. Russian Doll does a good job of showing us the messy complicated parts of life but packages it in a tight well-written narrative that moves at a good pace.

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Russian Doll starts in the bathroom. Where we find Nadia (played by Natasha Lyonne in all her androgynous, sarcastic, ranting, glory. Side note: Lyonne is one of the creators.) in front of the mirror. She swings the door open and we find a refreshingly diverse hipster wonderland as her best friend Maxine (played by scene-stealer Greta Lee) exclaims, “Sweet Birthday, Baby.” Nadia, after bemoaning mortality, and asks whether women have mid-life crisis, urns to the party goers “to make some decision.” She decides to have meaningless sex with a pretentious douchebag named Mike, whose mouth is constantly expounding opinions, illustrating that too much Académie can be a bad thing. Nadia’s first death is being hit by a cab. As a viewer it’s jarring to see a character to get hit by a car and then cut to the next scene to find her standing in a bathroom, completely fine, like someone who wasn’t just hit by a car. But that’s we get used to in Russian Doll and what becomes even comical: like the montage of scenes where she seems to die every single time she tries to get down the stairs.

The first thing Nadia does is to figure out what the hell is going on. The earie part of the show is Nadia does what most people would do in her position: sharing what is going on with her friends and getting frustrated when they don’t seem to take her seriously. How frightening/maddening would it be to try to get the people around you to believe you, as you go through this, totally terrified and alone.

Her first theory is that is must be the drugs but after a few deaths, her investigation, confronting the dealer, is that the only thing laced with the joint is anti-depressants and ketamine (which she first blames as the reason as she swears she has never done ketamine, only to be reminded by Maxine that she had actually done ketamine) which ends the drug theory.

After finding out that her party is being thrown in what used to be a Yeshiva school, the next segments, finds her investigating the clumsy idea of something religious/supernatural/has to do with ghosts that is thankfully short and concludes with Nadia turning to a homeless guy that lurks throughout the show, named Horse, who probably is the key to something but somehow, for me, this is the part that drags in this show. I don’t care about Horse and it seems both heavy-handed and nonsensical that Horse, a random homeless dude in Tompkins Square, could hold answers. He doesn’t but he does take up too much screen time to not hold some importance that I’m not interested enough to investigate.

Then we have a phase where Nadia parties, does whatever drugs or drinks are in front of her, and dies in whatever way, taking a break from trying to figure anything out. That’s what there is to love about this show: the pacing is great. I love how though it meanders it still manages to stay compelling.

So, as much as we’re with Nadia we also find relief when she finds a fellow being who is also stuck. After death has gotten to just be a normal part of her routine, she finds herself on an elevator that starts to plummet to the ground and Nadia says to the guy next to her, who is not freaking out either, “Didn’t you get the memo?” she asks, and tells him that ‘We’re all going to die.” He responds, deadpan, “I die all the time.” This new turn in the narrative is a welcome one, we are relieved that finally Nadia isn’t alone in her loop, and that the narrative is extending past just Nadia and her world.

While Nadia’s been agonizing in her loop and trying to figure out what has been causing it; Alan (Charlie Barnett) has been finding comfort in his loop. He likes knowing the rhythm of what’s going to happen but Nadia messes all that up. But Nadia also jars herself and Alan back to figuring out how to get out of this.

They team up, going through each other loops and meeting back at Nadia’s party after they die. They figure out that the very first death, the first night, they actually ran into each other which leads them to the theory that neither of them was supposed to die. That somehow this leads to the universe catching a virus, leaving both Alan and Nadia in this loop.

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Russian Doll ends in what could look like a heavy-handed  mantra to reach out and save each other, as the key to ending the loop turns out to be that Nadia intervenes on Alan’s first night so he doesn’t jump off a building because his girlfriend dumps him and Alan stops Nadia from being hit by a cab, this corrects, or as Nadia sees it de-bugs the universe, and we finally see our characters break free from their loops and move forward.

When Nadia and Alan are both in their loops we see them meander through, following different paths, to find the same outcome: They wake up from their deaths in the same place. This metaphor of being stuck in the same loop, is how a lot of us feel, like someone hit the pause button, and like Nadia, we may spend some time dwelling on the sofa doing nothing until something jars us awake, and we look for answers on how to break free. This is where the metaphor ends. Sadly, the solution to breaking free in real life isn’t ever an universe-bending puzzle with the solution lurking in some obscure part of our world, like a random person in Tompkins Square, or someone going through the same thing but lies in our boring selves (like the title Russian Doll, where going inward to find replicas of the self) to make the steps out of the rut by doing real work that wouldn’t be entertaining to watch. There is something to be said that having real friends to be present to do the dull work of listening to us and doing things like taking a walk with us, or going to a movie to calm the agony of making the hours go by, slowly, stepping forward, one step at a time, or as they say, one day at a time, until we are free and can then investigate what plagued us to find solace, again, and again, in the same self-destructive tendencies.

Back to Russian Doll: The series has been green-lit for another two seasons. Where exactly does a series go, after it’s untangled an extensional crisis and what exactly could be in store for our characters with a-dozen-or-so deaths behind them? Russian Doll has created a feat for itself, it’s hard to imagine what Easter eggs of wisdom will emerge in the narrative space it’s created once life goes back to normal.

Gregory de la Haba Brings His Totem Poems & Wailing Reef Project To Monte-Carlo

The role of the artist is not merely to record history for future generations, but to enlighten society on the issues of our time. There is an artist from the Big Apple, whose origins go all the way back to Emerald Isle, who lyrically conveys sustainable tidings in his most recent exhibit.

Gregory de la Haba is a classically trained painter, writer, author, publisher, cum laude graduate of Harvard University, and Curator-at-large at Geuer & Geuer Gallery in Dusseldorf, Germany. Furthermore, the New York artist with his wife, Teresa, owns and operates the oldest bar in New York City, McSorley's Old Ale House, which encapsulates the authentic spirit of Ireland in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Marina Roeloffs Von Hademstorf, Gregory de la Haba, and Kira Roeloffs Von Hademstorf in front of The Three Muses of Monte Carlo (back wall)

Marina Roeloffs Von Hademstorf, Gregory de la Haba, and Kira Roeloffs Von Hademstorf in front of The Three Muses of Monte Carlo (back wall)

Throughout his artistic examination of current issues, Gregory de la Haba, has explored the ancient and sacred structure of the totem as theme while taking his love for the sea and the surf culture that surrounds it, as cue to create a new body of work that is primordial yet modern, familiar yet dashingly fresh.

The exhibition TOTEM POEMS that opened on April 18 in the Monegasque gallery META, located on 39 Avenue Princesse Grace, features de la Haba’s new sculpture, assemblage, and photo collage. This art show continues a tradition that began at META in 2018, with the OCEAN ART WEEK, to homage the sea. The gallery also showcased the conceptual and interactive Wailing Reef Project by Gregory de la Haba. This work references the abundance of plastics found in our waterways in the form of two totems reminiscent of bleached coral reefs — when the algae that lives on the coral dies —and all the reef’s magnificent color dies with it — leaving behind lifeless, white limestone beds.

Autumnal Moon _ Horizontal Waves Totem Lune Automnale _ Ondes Horizontales Totem Size_ 8’3” x 2’ x 3” Material_ Foam, Fiberglass, Resin, Paint

Autumnal Moon _ Horizontal Waves Totem Lune Automnale _ Ondes Horizontales Totem Size_ 8’3” x 2’ x 3” Material_ Foam, Fiberglass, Resin, Paint

The Vernal Chorus Totem Installation Le Choeur Vernal Homage to the Legendary LA Artist John Van Hamersveld 3 Panels (Photos) each 8’x2’ One Totem_ 8’3”x 2’ x 3”

The Vernal Chorus Totem Installation Le Choeur Vernal Homage to the Legendary LA Artist John Van Hamersveld 3 Panels (Photos) each 8’x2’ One Totem_ 8’3”x 2’ x 3”

Gregory de la Haba brought his creative pursuit to a higher level, by allowing guests to have a proactive role in the fruition of his artwork. Visitors were invited to scrawl their 'wishes and dreams for and of the sea' on brightly colored Post-it paper and to be like algae, colorful, and to bring their color to the work, to embed their dreams, wishes and light to de la Haba’s unique and masterful Bleached Coral Totems.

The artist’s statement was born out of his metropolitan life, observing the abundant consumption of waste in a big city, as he explains: “New Yorkers throw away on average about 25 pounds of garbage a week. That translates into almost 14 million tons of garbage being generated annually by nearly nine million people. Each day, over seven thousand sanitation workers with their thousands of garbage trucks pick up this waste from homes and offices where its brought to transfer stations around the city before being dispersed––by train and barge––to landfills and recycling plants across the United States and as far away as China. Garbage is big business. It also exacts a great, damaging toll on our environment. According to Oceana, the non-profit organization dedicated to protecting and restoring our oceans, an estimated 17.6 billion pounds of plastics alone find their way into marine ecosystems every year. That's equivalent to one full, plastic-laden garbage truck dumping its contents into the ocean every minute. That’s insane. And little wonder that while taking a stroll on a small stretch of beach in Queens I can fill up a buckets' worth of plastics in ten minutes. And here began the impetus for the 'Wailing Reef Project'.

The META Gallery, couldn’t be a more fitting venue for his inspirational work, since in ancient Greek 'meta' means beyond. This name truly epitomizes the gallery’s intent to serve as a platform of openness, freedom and elevation. TOTEM POEMS is an ode to this quest, as Gregory de la Haba’s artwork is bringing awareness of the damaging effects our societal habits have on our precious oceans and marine life. The power of creativity may lead the way to constructive change, as Gregory de la Haba says: “A collective cry just might help. It sure as hell won't hurt.

Frida at the Brooklyn Museum: Appearances Can Indeed be Deceiving

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Though I love and greatly admire Frida’s work, I’ve never actually seen it in person. When I heard of this exhibit, I was really excited - I love the idea of a more personal engagement with this monument of an artist, especially because it allows a glimpse into work you can’t easily find on the internet.

This latest exploration of Frida’s legacy is currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum. Titled Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving, the show is comprised of more than 300 of Frida’s personal items that were found in a somehow unexplored bathroom (??) in La Casa Azul, the artist’s former home which now operates as one of Mexico’s most popular museums. These items were discovered in 2004 and have been shown in Mexico and London. This, however, is the first time that the items are being shown in the United States. I unfortunately have no pictures of the exhibition as photography was forbidden.

Frida is one of those artists who has been elevated to the realm of myth and near sainthood-- or as we say in late capitalism, Frida has become a brand. You can find her on tote bags and keychains, she’s been immortalized as a much-protested Barbie doll (not enough unibrow), there’s a whole Hollywood biopic about her, and she even cameos in a Disney movie, “Coco.”.

Though her legacy has been explored and exploited in various ways and to various degrees, outside of the pervasiveness of Frida the brand, she remains a compelling artist because of her depth - a queer disabled communist feminist Mexican painter whose work grappled with the complexities of identity.

The thesis of this exhibition is that Frida’s multicultural assemblage of clothing was a revolutionary approach to identity construction. Though the exhibition attempts to contextualize exactly what about Frida’s approach was so revolutionary, it drops a lot of points in this argument without substantively connecting them and leans on Frida’s reputation rather than the strength of curation. In doing so, it inadvertently contributes to indigenous erasure, and completely glosses over the complexities of racial identity in Latin America. I actually found this exhibit quite offensive, especially because Frida is the introduction for many gringos to Latin American racial identity.

I’ll limit my analysis of the problems with this show to two major points. To begin, the exhibit didn’t substantively question and frame how Frida’s identity construction was informed by her elite status.

Guillermo Kahlo, Frida’s German expat father. He changed his name from Wilhelm. Similarly, Frida changed the spelling of her name to make it less German.

Guillermo Kahlo, Frida’s German expat father. He changed his name from Wilhelm. Similarly, Frida changed the spelling of her name to make it less German.

There’s mention of Frida’s German expat father, but no substantive analysis of how Frida’s attempts to formulate herself as Mexican are deeply influenced by the caste systems imposed by the Spanish in the wake of native colonization and genocide. In a nutshell, being mixed, or Mestiza, as Frida was, comes with a fair amount of material and cultural advantages. To be clear, there are class stratifications even in mestizx identity, and Frida was part of the elite. One of these material advantages, which the exhibit completely glosses over, is that Frida had indigenous maids. She acquired a fair amount of the clothing this exhibit celebrates from her maids, yet the exhibit primarily highlights the indigenous clothing and textiles that (elite) friends gifted her from their travels.

Frida’s maids would have been subject to stigma for wearing the same clothes that Frida wore to make a statement of national pride, a statement so authentic and bold it has made her a beloved figure of Mexican identity.

Rosa, a working-class mestiza woman in Puerto Vallarta who made a quesadilla so delicious I ate it three days in a row. Check out her apron - Frida is a beloved figure.

Rosa, a working-class mestiza woman in Puerto Vallarta who made a quesadilla so delicious I ate it three days in a row. Check out her apron - Frida is a beloved figure.

Though the exhibit has films of indigenous women, there is NO analysis or reference to the caste dynamics in Mexico, and this, in turn, makes the function of those films tokenizing. They show and celebrate indigenous women as symbols with no substantive engagement with the social context they existed in. To make this legible to an American racial context, this is almost (but not quite) like celebrating a slave-owning woman for her revolutionary uses of cotton that slaves picked, and then playing cute videos of the slave women to provide context.

My other huge problem with the show was about access to the work. In order to access the exhibit, you must reserve a ticket for a particular time, and you are only allowed to view the show for a limited amount of time. The exhibit then opens into a gift shop. I can’t help but think of how deeply ironic this is and how Frida, the communist, would take this display of her legacy.

My overall take? The curators at the Brooklyn Museum are attempting to make Frida legible to the white gaze, as opposed to challenging the white gaze to reconsider and grapple with the complexities of racial identity in Latin America, which is an incredible opportunity to deepen the racial dialogue in this country.

There are few Americans who make the connection that the brown skin of many (but not all) Latinx people indicates some kind of colonized indigenous ancestry. This is an overall problem with engagements with race in the United States - there is still deep fear with talking about Black/white racial dynamics, so much so that the indigenous genocide that enabled the growth of this country is rarely spoken about. As a result, there is no overarching analysis of how indigenous erasure in the States is connected to indigenous erasure in Latin America.

We are currently in the midst of a border crisis, where racially mixed people of indigenous and African ancestry (there were Black slaves in Latin America too!) are being displaced due to the US’s exploitation of Latin America’s resources. Migrants are literally being rounded into concentration camps in a continuation of the genocide this country is founded on.

Claudia Patricia Gonzales, an indigenous Central American who was shot point blank in the head as she entered the United States in 2018. She was unarmed.

Claudia Patricia Gonzales, an indigenous Central American who was shot point blank in the head as she entered the United States in 2018. She was unarmed.

Beyond this enormous conceptual oversight, which I find utterly depressing, I find this exhibit especially disappointing because the Brooklyn Museum has been making concerted strides in its engagement with the local community, which is seen most tangibly through its First Fridays, when the museum is open in the evening for an all ages party.

I interacted with this exhibit twice. The first time, I got a ticket and walked through during my allotted time slot. The second, I went to the Brooklyn museum’s First Friday with a couple of friends. I love First Friday because it’s an opportunity to interact with art in a non pretentious way, and because it attracts a much more relaxed and all ages crowd. We were slightly tipsy and running up and down the stairs, giggling and taking selfies and moving from room to room, concocting elaborate conspiracy theories about the why the Egypt ward was next to the Jaden Smith exhibit. We tried to go into the Frida exhibit, but all the doors were locked (you can at least watch Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico, which complements the show).

When writing this review, I spoke to a few people who saw this show at La Casa Azul and had nothing but praise. Not having seen the show in Mexico, I can’t help but think that Frida being curated by people who have more understanding of the cultural context from which she emerged would create a better show.

As this exhibit stands, I can’t really see it doing much other than validating the wanderlust and appropriative impulses of culturally confused and conflicted spectators. And for all her faults, I still think that Frida is an important figure with a lot to offer. Frida is so well-known and regarded that the curators could have used this show to challenge casual art viewers. This is a tremendously wasted opportunity. The title of the exhibit is honest, at least.

Next Steps for Bigger Thomas: A Review of Native Son

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This is not your Richard Wright’s Native Son. In a sampling and remix world, director Rashid
Johnson and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks jacked the novel for some beats to spin out an HBO
special. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. You take great, ready-made source material
whenever you can find it. Goethe did it with Faust, Faulkner with Light in August, and Lerner
and Loewe with My Fair Lady. Norman Loftis drew liberally on Wright’s novel to frame his gritty
film Small Time. Of course, these artists did not choose to title their adaptations The Book of
Job, The Gospel of John, Pygmalion, or Native Son, respectively. But Johnson and Parks, in a
fairly bold move, drastically alter the material yet retain the tag. Is the result a bowdlerized
artifact or an admirable departure? Probably both. And the tension will just have to do.

Although set in contemporary Chicago, the outline of the first two-thirds of Wright’s novel remains clear. Bigger Thomas, mostly called Big (Ashton Sanders), is a disgruntled youth who lands a job as a chauffeur with the Dalton family. He experiences shame when forced to hang out in the ‘hood with Mary Dalton (Margaret Qualley) and her boyfriend Jan (Nick Robinson), accidentally smothers Mary to death with a pillow, places the corpse in the furnace, and eventually goes on the run from the law, dragging his girlfriend, Bessie, along in the process. But this fugitive is not the racially overdetermined, inarticulate victim of Wright’s novel. In fact, he quotes Du Bois regarding double consciousness, reads Harold Cruse on black intellectuals, and peruses Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. He listens passionately to Bad Brains and Beethoven, uses words like stereotypical, understands what Luddite means, and diagnoses certain people as having a slave mentality. He even quotes the Roman poet Juvenal, panem et circenses (bread and circuses, the means to control the masses), which he says is the only thing he remembers from school. Big has received the Baldwin-Ellison makeover. He has loads of dimensionality and charm, what both critics wished he possessed. Yet, for all his cerebral qualities, seventy-nine years after the novel, he flubs a pivotal scene. He can’t say to Mrs. Dalton, “Come get your drunken daughter, yo. I helped her up the stairs, but I’m out.” Instead, he pitifully implores Mary to be quiet and explains that he doesn’t want to lose his job. Of course, jobs are crucial, but the drama pales in comparison to the novel. In that text, Bigger fears for his life. The 1940 scene that Old Bigger acts in doesn’t work in Big’s 2019 world.

The killing of Mary Dalton begins the “Flight” phase of the film, which ends with an unarmed Big, not a threat and at a standstill, being gunned down by policemen---surely a nod to tragic and all-too-familiar contemporary scenarios. Viewers will notice that the film’s demarcations---“Fate,” “Fear,” “Flight”---are a shuffled version of the sequence in the novel---“Fear, “Flight,” “Fate.” Ironically, this suggests that modern Bigger is doomed from the start. His beginning is his end, and he provides some garbled commentary on fatalism along the way. In contrast, it is in the “Fate” section of the novel, which he journeys through fear and flight to arrive at, that Bigger expresses self-discovery. It’s a horrible revelation: “But what I killed for, I am!” As a product of Wright’s existentialist questioning, Bigger embraces murder as a positive act. This links Wright’s novel to works such as Albert Camus’s The Stranger and Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. It is a long and winding road to Bigger’s conclusion. We have to put up with some lengthy speeches by a lawyer and the prosecutor as well as discourse concerning religion. These are features of the novel that often are criticized. But Big has patience for the philosophical unfolding, though the filmmakers do not.

The premature conclusion also omits the brutalization of Bessie (Kiki Layne). The Jerrold Freedman version in 1986, starring Oprah Winfrey, made the same omission. In the novel, to free himself of his girlfriend and now coerced fellow fugitive, Bigger bashes her with a brick and throws her down an airshaft. This is the key scene because it is the one that casts Bigger beyond redemption in the eyes of many readers and accomplishes Wright’s goal to transcend the sentimental feel of his earlier work. It also clinches his thesis: oppression will breed inexplicable eruptions. Violence against Mary is accidental. Murder against Bessie is intentional, not to mention the rape. She is a blues figure, and we don’t miss the significance of her name. Moreover, critic Edward Watson extracted some of Bessie’s dialogue in the novel and demonstrated how it breaks down into blues lyrics. He argued, “Native Son is one extended blues the spirit of which is particularized in Bessie. Wright chose Bessie, perhaps because of another soulful Bessie, and, perhaps, because she is the only black woman in the novel who could sing of broken hearts and broken dreams, of Fear and Flight and Fate; of a life full of ‘just plain black trouble.’” Naturally, it’s understandable if the filmmakers don’t want to get as tragically blue with Bessie as Wright does. She’s practically helpless in the novel. But to erase her suffering or minimize it---she’s a striving college student in the film---misses an opportunity to explore deeply the effects of oppression through her eyes or song. The film also minimizes a leftist critique in general as well as Wright’s criticism of “do-good” liberals. Jan refers fleetingly to “one percenters,” but is more serious about getting high than doing political work. This is certainly not the committed Jan Erlone of the novel. Furthermore, it is implied in the film that Mr. Dalton could own the Thomas dwelling, but the novel is explicit that Dalton is a slumlord who owns the building on Indiana Avenue in which Bigger lives at the same time that Dalton is giving him “a chance” on the other side of town.

With all the ideological losses, then, that one can associate with the film, what recommends it? I assume there is much because the most frequent summation that I have encountered is that the movie is interesting. This is the most non-descriptive description in the English language, so I take the comments to mean that the film draws interest or, in business terms, adds interest. This makes sense. The cultural text Native Son, which includes the novel, previous screen versions, theater renditions, and assorted scholarship, has been commendably expanded by a deft, visually stunning, well-acted portrayal of modern times. The film does things that Wright could not do: explain the relevance of his work in 2019, capture a poignant twenty-first-century encounter with racism, and mediate current (to us) conversations about black identity. You don’t come across much postmodern blackness in Wright; the green-haired, punk-attired, disdainful-of-hip-hop Big drips with it. One of his cronies, who had previously called Big a clown, judges him to be not a “real nigga” but a “pussy oreo.” This prompts Big to thrash him and then ask heatedly, “Am I Black enough for you now.” What he wears, listens to, and kicks ass for, he is---at least in part.

Unlike the novel Native Son, which barely makes mention of any, music, as suggested, is central to the film both as subject matter and, of course, as soundtrack. Big, whose mother describes him as a special boy who always did things his own way, constructs much of his identity through heavy metal and classical, some of which we hear. In the car, Mary asks him what kind of music he likes; he promptly turns to a radio channel playing rock and then quickly to a channel broadcasting classical. Shortly thereafter, he attends with Mary and Jan a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which he describes as a “true fucking masterpiece.” None of the musical transitions seem jarring. They match the images of an unfolding life: Beethoven in the concert hall, popular music in the longue, party music at the party. Perhaps the most marvelous musical moment occurs at the end. We hear “Cristo Redentor,” trumpeter Donald Byrd’s 1964 classic, playing from the moment the police arrive through the closing credits. This is a crucifixion-to-ascension sequence, the spirit of the Christ-like Big now hovering above us.

As indicated, Big’s complexity makes him an anti-Bigger. But he also paradoxically and essentially still is Bigger. He was born with “black guilt,” that peculiar donation of white supremacists: We hold it in our minds about you and thus it is so. Big then gets physically convicted, welcomed by bullets to the end that he had coming. But he lived among a new generation of talkers and critics, and that, with all said and done, is a good development. Johnson and Parks have not adapted the novel Native Son so much as they have elongated it. Big did not need to be awakened by an alarm clock at the top of the morning, as Bigger needed in the novel. Big was mainly awake and astute, though experiencing lapses in judgment, as he took us on an important tour of some of the repetitions that occur in Old Bigger’s afterlife.

- Keith Gilyard