Tuesday, 10 May 2011

New York - The Center of the Universe

Once upon a time, New York was the center of the universe.  It was all happening in Gotham.  Art, theatre, dance, high and low culture sparking each other everywhere.  Artists flooding abandoned buildings to create lofts and retune neighborhoods to their avant-garde key.  Like drugs, art became epidemic, saturating a time, a sensibility, a geography, and a generation.

No - this was not the 80's, 90's or 00's.  It was the outer edge of the Beatnik turned to Hippie culture - the latest of the 60's to the very small bud of the 70's.

Recently poet warrior goddess Patti Smith has been quoted as saying:
Just Kids

New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling. But there are other cities. Detroit. Poughkeepsie. New York City has been taken away from you. So my advice is: Find a new city.
Her comments are apt - but perhaps a generation or more behind.  NY has not truly been incubating art and artists since it became a non-stop cocaine and dance-fueled party for the famous, adjacent, and investment banking crew.  The Club Kids were a nail in an already closed coffin.  Mass consumer consumption of an I <3 NY counterculture had already begun as Koch was closing Plato's Retreat.  Experimentation, in every form, was best undertaken elsewhere.  Today's Manhattan is solidified in its own concrete, constantly in pursuit of the next new best thing, but having little patience for the anything experimental that doesn't have a pre-approved credit card offer in the mail.

What inspired artists to continue flooding to New York City and to try their absolute hardest to make art and careers in there had come earlier - and this is the moment explored in the excellent  Pioneers of the Downtown Scene - Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown and Gordon Matta-Clark at the Barbican Centre which I saw this past weekend (you have til the 22nd!).

Back in the day, Paola and I used to sneak into Trisha Brown
performances.  We were too poor to afford tickets, so we'd show up outside the theatre at around 9pm - hopefully just in time for the intermission.  We'd blend in with the showgoers, she'd smoke a cigarette and then we'd go back inside for the 2nd half.    We could see half of the program each time we did it.  I was never very good at this kind of thing, but there were invariably empty seats, people always moved closer and filled in the seats after the intermission and they never checked ticket stubs.  This is how I first became famliar with Brown's experiments with momentum and bodies in motion.

Much of what I found troubling about Trisha Brown as a choreographer came from being a dancer who wanted to express.  Her dancers were only expressions of motion.  This idea is explored so beautifully in the exhibit.  You can see where the ideas started, with simple, yet risky pieces like Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, to how they solidified into her highly identifiable style.

In this exhibit, what are most intriguing are her drawings and notes.  Many choreographers note nothing, and now it is so easy to videotape everything.  Brown was making diagrams and drawings which in some cases were actual notes on dances and in some cases are fascinating charts of energy flow in contained spaces.   That she was working to an evolving theory is evident, as well as that she was committed to her art all the way to the minutiae of it.

It's not news that Laurie Anderson is genius.  What I was so happily reminded of here is just how incredibly funny she is.  The ironic vocal distance which has developed as her signature storytelling style masks a youthful enjoyment of just how silly life and people are.  Her early cartoons for the Columbia Spectator through her holographic performance onto a miniature clay figurine bring out the playfulness of her process, revealing her as someone in complete command of her worldview.

Matta-Clark was the revelation for me here - I was not familiar with his work, but from his sweetly reductive drawings to his loving portraits of landscapes in decay, I was struck with how poignantly he captured the textures of this New York.  One photograph of tags in the Bronx thrilled me - dated 1972, it was ages before anyone was identifying graffiti culture for what it was - the colorful overlay of urban decay demanding vitality in a dying landscape.

The frequent dance performances brought home the active nature of all the work - everything here is essentially performance or real-time based - this is not a time capsule and exploration is meant to be an eternal process.

Looking at the very early work of these influential artists is inspiring in the extreme.  The exhibit shows more than brilliant conceptualization and follow-through - it shows the arduous nature of creation and the diligence artists must possess in order to manifest work.  Though it often appears so, art is not responsive to laziness, weakness, or timidity.  Art requires commitment on a cellular level.  Imagine being young Laurie Anderson installing yourself asleep in public spaces in a crime and poverty riddled Manhattan.  The over-riding takeaway from this exhibit:

Don't fear your art - inhabit it.

As if all of this wasn't completely lovely and overwhelming, my companion and I joined a few other friends to watch Wim Wender's new 3D movie Pina.  The experience of it was altogether saturating.  The meticulousness of the process of the filmmaking, the redolence of each image, the more than total immersion into this creative journey were indelibly moving.  This film is landmark.  It far surpasses my two previous favorites in this genre, Rivers and Tides and Touch the Sound - A Sound Journey With Evelyn Glennie, both by Thomas Riedelsheimer, which in some ways seems impossible, as they are both such elegant and engrossing films.  It is also a stunning example of how 3D is truly going to change our lives and the medium.

Pina Bausch
Whether you are familiar with the work of Pina Bausch or not, this performance, and I write that because it feels so spontaneous and real from the audience perspective, is completely accessible and a masterful tribute to a consummate artist.  Both the art and the process are revealed by Wenders' champion cinematic eye.  Each frame feels precision-painted and completely new and evolving as a collaboration between these dancers, Pina's spirit, and Wenders journey as a filmmaker.

I felt as though I wanted to cry during the whole film - the grief she explores in her work is so fundamental, and yet, also elated, as the work itself is so full of jubilance.  Reminded again how hard dancers work and how thankless the profession is, we were all thrilled to see dancers in her company who had been there decades - well past the age they'd have been put out to pasture by other choreographers.

But Pina was more than a choreographer. She was a creator of a more vivid life than life as art.  Each moment of each piece gets complete fulfilment with all of the knowledge all of the players can bring to bear and all of the expression their bodies and faces can hold and all of the love she can use to support it.

We talk a lot about meta in a twitter world, but her art is truly meta - it exists on a plane that floats above real life, yet represents it in a fuller, more beautiful and much more devastating way.  Wenders' 3D movie version just drives it home - we are absolutely creating our own realities now; the only question is:  what do we want them to look like?

Go.  See.  This.  Film.

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