Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Marina Abramovic – performance art

What I love about a city like New York is that the art world is open-minded, brave and innovative. Artists are prepared to take chances and gallery (or museum) curators as well as art-goers are ready to let them. Right now, performance art is what’s grabbing the headlines. In particular, Marina Abramovic, a 63-year-old – who looks like a dark, sultry 40-something-year-old – originally from Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

Obviously, what any art form tries to elicit from its viewer is an emotional, spiritual or intellectual response. But feelings are evanescent, dissolving into the ether from whence they came. And what concerns Abramovic most is the legacy she will leave behind once she’s passed on. So, with her live performance art, Abramovic hopes to stimulate conversations, discussion, a dialogue that will continue way after she has gone. And the point she makes with her latest exhibition at the MOMA is that her performance pieces can be restaged, using other actors, to evoke the same emotional responses she elicits when she performs them. (And, so, art lives on.)

Abramovic thrives on interaction with her audience; she uses her body to tap into the frisson of energy onlookers give her. But her performance art also depends on endless stillness, mouth-gaping endurance, and testing others’ comfort zones. Once, she and her onetime lover stood, for the entire day, buck naked and motionless on either side of a narrow doorway connecting two galleries, forcing art-goers to squeeze between them. This performance is presently being recreated with different actors in the MOMA exhibition – with interesting results. Some people do, indeed, brush tightly past the naked couple, most turning to face the woman rather than the man. Others choose to find an alternative route into the adjoining gallery.

Another male-female pair sit back to back, completely still, for the duration of gallery opening hours, with their long, lustrous hair braided tightly together. A braver reenactment is that where a couple stands facing each other, she holding firmly onto a large curved bow, he pulling the string tight with the arrow aimed straight at her heart. Gulp. What happens when cramp sets in?

When Abramovic first performed this, she and her partner wore tiny microphones that amplified the beating of their hearts, a dry-mouth, tension-raising touch that seriously heightened the complete and utter trust each had to have in the other.

Also part of the exhibition are black-and-white photos, among them one of Marina Abramovic lying naked beneath a skeleton, at the time trying to convey the impression that the articulated assemblage of bones was breathing.

What creates an enormous sense of wonder for me is the performance artist’s ability to sit so still, for so long, doing absolutely nothing (other than tapping into the energy of bodies restlessly shaping and shifting around her). The stamina, the endurance, the tenacity to hang in without cramping, going numb, needing to eat or drink, needing the bathroom??

The most compelling part of this exhibition, called “The Artist is Present”, is that Abramovic herself will sit silently at a table in the atrium, opposite an empty chair. Anyone from the audience can sink into the seat and take on her frank, direct gaze for as long as they can comfortably handle it, before discomfort, stiff muscles or numb limbs take over. The artist is planning to sit there all day, during museum hours, for the entire run of her show. That’s 716½ hours if she can stick it out – a record, even for her.

Monday, March 22, 2010

new jersey, witty, witty!

The state of New Jersey, separated from Manhattan by the Hudson River, has been very much in the limelight lately, particularly in terms of its (some would say unfortunate) “Reality” shows. Reality TV, in its obsessive search for salaciousness, sensationalism and lowbrow behaviour, knows how to zone in on vapid participants prepared to do anything for their "fifteen minutes of fame". (Thank you, Andy Warhol.) And lately New Jersey’s been way ahead of the pack.

Hot on the heels of Jersey Shore (you remember notorious hell-raiser Snooki?) is a new show, Jerseylicious, featuring characters who are – and I quote journalist Neil Genzlinger’s words – “loud, self-absorbed and not overly bright”. But Genzlinger really deserves a gold star for his suggestion that the TV network could have been a little more creative in choosing a different state in which to base their filming. Definitely my quote of the week are his suggestions, listed below. (For those of you who are not familiar with US states, I’ve helped you along.)

“Texcessive.” (Texas)
“Arizonerous.” (Arizona)
“Illinoispollution.” (Illinois)
“Alabimbos.” (Alabama)
(My favourite) “Colora-doh!”

Witty, Neil. Witty!

zeroing in on Ground Zero 2010

Is anyone wondering what’s happening at Ground Zero??

A superb photo taken of the site last year from the Financial Center's Winter Garden by our good friend Keith Titley (I know, I've divulged his full name; talent should be acknowledged, right?) prompted me to do some sleuthing.

Since the initial design competition in 2002, which mined architectural creative talent for innovative ideas, work at the site has stuttered, stopped and shakily restarted over the eight-plus years following 9/11. Dissension over the design and building constraints, squabbling with the 2001 leaseholder of the World Trade Center (and present site developer) Larry Silverstein, and financial woes between Silverstein and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey have belligerently stymied meaningful progress.

Be that as it may, here’s the ultimate plan: the focus is to be a tall glass skyscraper, One World Trade Center (aka Freedom Tower) – recently pipped to the post by Dubai’s Burj Khalifa for the world’s tallest building. (However hard they try, the US are not always going to get it right.) The site will carry three more high-rise office buildings, staged around a National September 11 Memorial & Museum, with also a museum dedicated to the site’s history.

Construction is staggering on, on the memorial, a pair of skyscrapers and a transit hub. The intention is for One World Trade Center (1WTC) to reach rooftop level by the final three months of 2011. Whether its expected completion in 2013 actually happens remains to be seen.
Although architect Daniel Libeskind’s winning design has been so vastly altered as to be unrecognisable today, the aim is a "monolithic glass structure that reflects the sky”, topped by a central spire that echoes the Empire State and Chrysler buildings. This antenna, possibly some 1000ft (300m) high, will glow as an intense beam of light stabbing into the night sky.

(In his original design, which had an off-centre spire, Libeskind envisaged that, in profile, 1WTC would line up with, and echo, the lines of the Statue of Liberty.)

No matter the internal wrangling that clouds Ground Zero, externally, the site is still enshrouded in a pall of emotion that’s intense and tangible every time you walk by. And every New Yorker has a story of where they were and how they were affected when the towers collapsed in a charred, thick black plume in 2001.

P.S. Just in case you were wondering. . . Among the building's safety features are 3ft-thick reinforced concrete walls in all stairwells, elevator shafts and risers; a set of emergency stairs exclusively for firefighters; and biological and chemical filters throughout the ventilation system.

Friday, March 19, 2010

William Kentridge knocks 'em dead

Well, not literally.


For some time I’ve wanted to mention how brutal I find the New York art, theatre and film critics to be. It always appears to me as if, at the outset, they intentionally aim to pick apart a movie or theatre production, judiciously digging first for the faults before they grudgingly concede to the successful aspects (if any). There’s no doubt about it, they’re a tough bunch. Whether it’s to maintain a sense of superiority and accentuate their own in-depth knowledge of the medium they’re critiqueing, or whether they’re fully justified in their learned opinions, I have yet to decide. Most often I find their judgements a little too harsh and I don’t always agree with their perceived ‘failures’ of a movie or show.

Which is why I was so heartened to read how South African artist William Kentridge is wowing a notoriously critical New York audience at the Metropolitan Opera. Kentridge, well known for his charcoal drawings and animated films – and perhaps even better for his work with the Handspring Puppet Co. (Faustus in Africa!, Ubu and the Truth Commission) – has just directed and co-designed an opera by Dmitri Shostakovich.

The absurdist satirical story titled “The Nose”, about a bureaucrat who one morning wakes up to find himself without a schnoz, allowed Kentridge’s imagination to run wild – which it did, with animated video images and a nose in various guises, including a singer inside a giant-size papier-mâché version dashing around the stage. One critic found the “arresting animated imagery” thrilling, another declared it a little “too arresting” and distracting from his enjoyment of the music. But that same critic perfectly supported my theory of how tough New Yorkers in general can be (although in this case Kentridge wins hands down).

“It has become commonplace at the Metropolitan Opera,” critic Anthony Tommasini writes, “for directors and designers of new productions, especially modernist high-concept ones, to be lustily booed by a sizable contingent of the audience during opening-night ovations.”

Kentridge, luckily, “received the heartiest bravos".
"(He) was clearly the darling of the evening,” Tommasini admits later - although he does manage to get in his own little dig: “For me, the hero was Shostakovich,” he ends his piece.

I say, Way to go, Kentridge!

[P.S. All shows now sold out!]
[Image: artslink.wordpress.com]

antony gormley sculptures

Just a note: I've added a pic in my post below of this British artist's naked men in and around Madison Square Park. Brilliant!

Monday, March 15, 2010

what is it with runners?

I need you all to know I’m mad. (A descent into madness surely can’t pass unrecorded, don’t you think?) I’ve been gritting my teeth as, unbeknownst to me, H has entered me in a string of races, more, I suspect, to keep him on the road during his second bid for the NY Marathon than to keep me taut and trim (well, sort of).

On a weekend when New York had more rain in two days than last year’s total for the entire month, I was out at 7:00am, leaning into the needle-sharp sleet and wind (gusts of up to 70mph, the weather channel said). That’s just over 100km. On Monday, crushed houses, totalled power line poles and flattened cars all around New York City were testament to it.

The lengths I go to, to support H. (Sigh) As I cringed in bed listening to the driving rain and howling wind lashing the glass at 3:00am, I threatened to pull out. H made me wild promises of champagne, smoked salmon and bagels after the race, but I vowed not to let even that lure me from under the covers.

But, somehow … well, I do still like a challenge… When, the next morning, H’s running cousin, D, who always generously picks us up right outside our apartment building, hadn’t text-messaged any cancellation, there was nothing left to do but face the music. I couldn’t let the women’s side down. So into the leaden grey skies we ran, buffeted by wind and pelted by rain.

And you know what? It wasn’t half bad.

You’ve got to give it to the volunteers, too, who were up in the pitch black at an even ungodlier hour to set up the route and man the water tables. Not only that, there were runners in Central Park who were not part of the race and who’d chosen to get up and run in such ghastly conditions! Yes, runners are stark, raving mad.

In the end, though, running always comes down to the absolute euphoria I feel after it’s over. A body that’s been physically tested, the sense of achievement, the feel-good endorphins that have kicked in.

This is why I run.

quote of the week

“In the game of capitalism, buyer - beware!
The whole point of capitalism is to turn a profit. So long as this mentality remains, we the people must be skeptical of all monetary transactions.”
–– Nick Coleman, Queens

This was the comment of one New Yorker in response to a news report that some 35,000 cab drivers had cheated their passengers on fares by surreptitiously clicking their meters onto out-of-city rates – twice the amount of a cab fare within the five boroughs of New York City.

This meant that over a specific period of time, many passengers were being charged $4–5 extra each time they got into a cab. The sum total that trickled its way into cab drivers’ pockets over a 26-month span? (Cough) $8.3 million.

Ah … so, deviance, dishonesty, a lack of moral principle … this can all be blamed on capitalism, then? What a relief.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

don’t you just love this city?

Okay, that’s an ambivalent question … because I’ve just returned from a fleeting visit to the city that still holds half of my heart – Cape Town – her enduring beauty unblemished, Table Mountain’s protective curve still gently hugging the city bowl.

(Hence, too, the temporary neglect of my blog.)

Aah, yes, as we stepped onto the airport tarmac, already it was as if we’d never left. So easy to slip into the familiarity of the well-worn patterns of an old life. And what fun to reunite with such good friends and family, the hugs, the laughter, the re-sharing of experiences new and old.

What wonder, too, at the infrastructural changes that have taken place in preparation for the 2010 World Cup. Expanding highways, swooping flyovers, rows of futuristic street lamps – and the giant circular rise and dip of the new sports stadium, like a diaphanous white spaceship. I was struck all over again by how sophisticated Cape Town really is.

But then, again, my heart soared at the sight of the New York skyline as my taxi cab hurtled across the Robert F Kennedy bridge linking Queens and upper Manhattan. And when I walked into our apartment – where H., kind, sweet man that he is, was waiting to welcome me – I was overwhelmed by the airiness, the high ceilings, the lightness and brightness of home. (And sunshine-yellow tulips in a vase were the first promise of Spring.) I’d forgotten how sweet it felt.

So … to the city that holds the other half of my heart. And the title of this blog post. As part of a public art exhibition, 27 anatomically correct, six-foot, naked male statues (some iron, some fibreglass) are being randomly placed on rooftops and building ledges around midtown Manhattan. (Howz this image by New York Times photographer Todd Heisler?) Modelled after London artist Antony Gormley, the purpose is to “play with the city’s and people’s perceptions”.

When the Police Department was notified, it immediately issued a statement to reassure the public that these were not suicidal individuals preparing to leap into oblivion. But, yes, they would still respond to panicked 911 calls … just in case.

Don’t you just love this city?