Saturday, August 10, 2019

Burden of Light

"A figure dressed in white, walks along the white line in the middle of the highway. He becomes visible only when sporadically lit by the headlights of on-coming cars." From a Jack Goldstein performance, 1971.
"A figure dressed in white, walks along the white line in the middle of the highway. He becomes visible only when sporadically lit by the headlights of on-coming cars." From a Jack Goldstein performance, 1971.
I barely remember a time when I didn't know who Yoko Ono was. I specifically discovered Laurie Anderson on the night of March 16, 1984. Aside from these two legends, Chris Burden was one of my earliest performance art crushes.

In college I heard about Shoot and Deadman. Rumors reached me about Trans-Fixed, in which he was "crucified" to a Volkswagen. For years, every time I would see a tarp or a box in the middle of the road, I would say, "There goes Chris Burden." I don't say it out loud any more, but I still think it.

After finishing my undergraduate studies and beginning to study art and art history on my own, I specifically sought out a graduate program where I could study performance art.

Earlier this year I visited Los Angeles, and I came upon his Urban Light. I don't think I was ready to receive its gifts. And when The Modern announced their exhibition Disappearing—California, c. 1970: Bas Jan Ader, Chris Burden, Jack Goldstein, I have to admit that I wasn't all that interested. But I went, and it turned out to be a great exhibit. I've been obsessively reading about Burden since.

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A text mentioned at The Modern was Frazer Ward's No Innocent Bystanders: Performance Art and Audience. He writes about how Burden's work negotiates how the private and personal interpenetrates the public and social. We carry our interiorities and particularities "into" and throughout the field of homogenized sameness and performed versions of publicness.

I wrote something of my own in response to Ward's book and Burden's work in this exhibit that seeks to make legible the artist even as he disappears and is gone forever:
The Subject of Last Resort

Burden's work traces the slippages of shaky ground beneath and among public-audience-community, especially as such slippages necessarily play with a contested field activated by artistic intention on display for any viewer-cum-participant, and of the radical dispersal of subjectivity, that is, a subject deterritorialized across, shot through, and riddled by alterities.
The audience is pro-voked: stimulated, incited, challenged while also called for(th) upon an ever-shifting ground of being. And this pro-vocation reactivates the community participant as by-stander and the site specificity by which one might stand. Such work reimagines the presence of an artist through the provocation of an already late audience comprising those who come to view the remains of what remains by the sheer presence of the artist's name on the wall. California qua literal no-man's land: a marked site of disappearance rendered unmappable and ultimately untraceable. A place, a space, left to operate solely as potentiality.
I think I may need to see this exhibit again before it closes.

Chris Burden's The Reason for the Neutron Bomb, 1979, 50,000 nickels, 50,000 matchsticks, and signage.
Chris Burden's The Reason for the Neutron Bomb, 1979, 50,000 nickels, 50,000 matchsticks, and signage

Friday, August 9, 2019

Three Gems

Here are three literary gems that I've enjoyed immensely over the past few weeks: two slender books and a slender 80-minute film. But don't let their size fool you. These texts offer more than many much heftier tomes.

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First is The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse by Iván Repila, trans. Sophie Hughes, published by Pushkin Press. I’m in awe of this story: two brothers trapped in a pit. Such a glorious book! I forced myself to parcel it out over four days so I could properly think through it. This book begs to be performed, either onstage or animated. It will serve as the most apt metaphor of life in the twenty-first century for a long time. That is, if humans manage to continue to exist for a long time. It’s Beckett, it’s Pinter; it’s Sartre and Camus and Kafka and the Brothers Grimm. Ultimately, it's a story of liberation, both personal and political, and it should be required reading. I can't recommend it enough.

Written and directed by Blitz Bazawule, The Burial of Kojo is a magical realist film from Ghana that deftly maneuvers the grim, tattered edges of allegory and reality. Written in a visual language that is both stark and sumptuous, it too revolves around a man in a pit, and the daughter who travels the necessary distance to set him free. This is great film-making and even greater storytelling and precisely what Hollywood can never seem to master. A feast for the eyes and the heart. In the US you can currently catch it on Netflix.

Tristan Foster's Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father (Transmission Press) is a tightly coiled viper of a book. Some of the stories are mere whispers in the dark under weighted blankets with all the lights turned off. There are tales of memory and how memory can track you down. There are tales of the devil and how he is always willing to offer a finger to a crying child. There are lost loves, lost family members, and loves that have finally walked out and moved on. There are the dead who people our dreams and the literary, artistic geniuses who teach us how to see in the dark. This collection is easily one of my favorite contemporary books of fiction this year.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

FIT 2019

The 21st annual Festival of Independent Theatres wraps up this weekend at Dallas' Bath House Cultural Center on the shore of White Rock Lake. It's maybe only the third or fourth time I've attended since moving (back) to Dallas, but I managed to see every show this year. Here is my ranking, from worst to best, with a few comments for each show. If you're in the area, I highly recommend this festival.

"Dirty Dirty Night Squirrel" - Imprint Theatre Works - Imprint has just closed their second season, and I've seen a couple of their productions, which were at least interesting and well done. This one-act play is all over the place. I didn't care about any of the characters, and the plot doesn't really go anywhere.

"Sky's the Limit: A Very Queer Fairy Tale" - Flexible Grey Theatre Company - Flexible Grey is doing some interesting work. I've seen 4 of their productions since they formed last year, and I always find something that is missing from many other theater companies. This work is far too short for FIT; with some more development, it would be something really special.

"Marilyn, Pursued by a Bear" - Lily & Joan Theatre Co. - An interesting script with far too many characters. I wonder what this could've been with only three or four actors. Or even as a solo performance. The ending seems tacked on in the worst way, although the impression of Marilyn is uncanny.

"Nerve" - Bootstraps Comedy Theater - A funny first-date comedy that focuses on the tragedy of seeking love and acceptance. The female character's role isn't as developed or as funny, though both actors are strong. Read my complete review at TheaterJones.

"The Beast of Hyperborea" - Audacity Theatre Lab - Brad McEntire is a talented performer and a staunch supporter of solo performers in the area. This play wraps an interesting adventure story in a great retro aura. The slideshow at the end of the performance feels tacked on; I think it'd be more effective if it were used throughout the show.

"small hours" - Leos Ensemble - This work is more experimental theater or even performance art. I wish I would've known that going in. A harrowing look at postpartum depression that effectively makes time stand still during the performance.

"The 1st Annual Gay Show" - Very Good Dance Theatre - Outstanding, thoughtful, and funny look at what a beauty contest for queer/non-binary people might be, especially under the ever-present specter and ugliness of homophobia, transphobia, and (trans-)misogyny. I'd want to see this developed a bit more, doing away with the audience participation/confessional element. Read my full review at TheaterJones.

"Jo & Louisa" - WingSpan Theatre Co. - WingSpan is a daring theater, and I've been blown away from previous productions. This script is really incredible. But the actors needed much more voice work for their characters. Pacing was a problem, and they seemed to speak in only one range. With the right actors, this would've easily been a sensational show, but the quality of the text makes this easily the best of the Festival.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Peking Man

The best writing sends you down random rabbit holes toward other great writing. Such was the case with a 1940 play by Cao Yu entitled Peking Man, which I first read about almost a year ago in Sergio Pitol's The Magician of Vienna, translated by George Henson. In all, Pitol writes less than a page about Cao:
I also saw the dramas of Cao Yu, celebrated since the 30s, with the reputation of a mischievous child, a perennial nonconformist, and I saw one of his plays, Thunderstorm ...  set totally in China, not in the nineteenth but the twentieth century, and not in a hamlet but rather in an urban setting. On one occasion, I don't recall who invited me, perhaps a devotee of the theater, or an Italian translator who was spending periods of time in Peking, to see another work by Cao Yu, Peking Man, which was produced in a modest hall of the conservatory of dramatic art (65). 
Pitol calls it "the best of all the plays I was able to see" during his stay in China. His final assessment of Peking Man: "the most intense, the most modest, and the most poignant" (66).

Well, that was enough for me to want to read it.

I studied theater/drama as an undergraduate and continued to act while in graduate school for the MA. Something else I studied as an undergrad was Russian literature, which, of course, consisted of a unit on the plays of Anton Chekhov. I've been a fan of Chekhov since then, and I try to catch as many productions of his work as I can still to this day. For the past several months I've also been a Contributing Theater Writer for a local online performing arts journal, so not only is theater something I was already interested in, but Pitol's recommendation meant that my education would've been in vain if I wouldn't have taken the opportunity to find a copy. Thankfully, my library owns Leslie Nai-Kwai Lo's 1986 translation.

Cao reminds me of Chekhov: the intimacy of the unsaid, the family, and its fortune, collapsing in on itself as the world becomes smaller, more narrow, until even the illusions of love are abandoned. More remarkable is that Cao wrote this play during the Japanese occupation with not the slightest mention of those events. Instead, there are piercing details about the sky, the weather, the passing of the seasons and the clouds overhead, the posture of a caged pigeon, and the sound of a noodle vendor pushing his one-wheeled cart down the nearby alleys.

The patriarch's coffin, lacquered layer by layer over the past fifteen years, had the same force, the same impact, the same cogency, as the whale in Moby-Dick. And like that whale, it shatters everything in its path.

I know reading scripts isn't for everyone, but I highly recommend trying to catch a performance of this play, in whatever language you can understand, if an opportunity presents itself, particularly if you're a fan of Chekhov or Ibsen. And as always, everyone should read Pitol.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Hiram Arnold

For this Memorial Day, instead of visiting the grave of my Uncle Frank, who was killed in Vietnam three days before his twentieth birthday, or of my grandfather, whose body was still expelling shrapnel from WWII on his deathbed in 2006, I visited Great-Great-Grandpa Arnold’s grave.

Hiram Arnold (Great-Great-Grandfather)
Hiram Arnold came to Texas from Ohio in his early twenties. When he was 23 he married Thirza Birchfield. After losing their first child, twins were born in 1861: Jefferson Davis Arnold and John Baylor Arnold.

(If you're not familiar with Confederate leaders or the Civil War, Jefferson Davis was the President of the Confederate States of America; John Baylor was a US Indian agent, publisher and editor, politician, a senior officer of the Confederate States Army (CSA), and all-around piece of human garbage keen on murder and genocide. Thankfully, we don't have many more lackluster namesakes in our family.)

When I was researching this branch of my family I found someone online who had speculated that Hiram must have been a die-hard Confederate since he named his sons after Davis and Baylor. That assumption is simplistic at best. It’s not as if he owned a plantation and slaves.

It’s far more likely that Hiram, because of his well-documented poverty, had been working alongside slaves in the cotton fields of Texas. It’s also likely he fought against family members and childhood friends who served in the Union from his home state of Ohio, where his parents and siblings are buried. I think poverty and being a newly-arrived settler in the South are sorely under-analyzed dimensions in understanding the race ideology of the Confederacy.

The following year, in 1862, Hiram enlisted in the CSA. He served in Company I, 30th Texas Cavalry for about two years, then served with Company A, 29th Texas Cavalry until the end of the War. He fought in the Battle of Mansfield and the Battle of Pleasant Hill, both in Louisiana, under Major General John G. Walker's command. His company surrendered at Galveston in June of 1865 at the close of the War.

In 1881, when he was 45, my Great-Grandma Thirza Garrett, née Arnold, was born. My family used to visit her at the old folks home on weekends after we moved back to east Texas. She always had one of those giant, thick two-pound peppermint sticks that us kids could chip off pieces of. She died when I was 6. Hers is the first funeral I remember.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I learned about her father Hiram. I’m still amazed that I knew someone whose father fought in the Civil War, albeit on the losing side.

In January 1911, at the age of 73, Hiram applied for and was granted a Confederate Pension. On his application, he listed a handful of blacksmith tools in a country shop as his only assets. As attested by the county judge, he lived in his shop and did his own cooking, "with no property other than his tools." He died of stomach cancer in 1917 at the age of 80.