Saturday, November 10, 2007

Performa '07 Report I: Part I: Isaac Julien & Russell Maliphant's Cast No Shadow BAMTalk

Is Mercury in retrograde or what? Today on my way to Brooklyn I overheard mid-way moments in various conversations about personal relationships or communication dynamics, e.g. "well, that's because you're not open, you're afraid," and "No, that's what you heard, that's not what I said" and these were folks of African descent caught in moments the popular press usually reserves for a Woody Allen film, or maybe Edward Burns on a good day. One was a young, tall, suited gentleman on a cell phone in Penn Station, and the other the female half of a straight, seemingly middle-class, couple gesturing towards their late model mid-sized sedan near Lafayette Avenue (they may have been talking about the car, but the intonation implied something a bit deeper).

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I'm tempted to link those moments in some way to the Performa '07 events, but that would be too simplistic. Of course, these were mini-cinemas, but neither filmmakers Isaac Julien (right) or Shirin Neshat (below left), both of whom participated in the pre-screening BAMTalk employ those kinds of explicit characterizations in their current work--Neshat never has. People move through their spaces, but often don't speak. If they do vocalize, in Neshat's work it's to sing or chant, in Julien's work it's often non-diagetic, e.g. a monologue from off-screen even if the voice is meant to be that of the character currently on-screen.

OK, but a little background, the New York-based Performa is "a non-profit interdisciplinary arts organization committed to the research, development, and presentation of performance by visual artists from around the world." Two years ago Performa launched a "new biennial for New York City" focused on visual art performance. This year they ten new Performa Commissions as a facet of the biennial, and co-hosted the Performance Studies International Conference No.13 with New York University in conjunction with the biennial (smart move that). Performa's founding director and curator is RoseLee Goldberg who moderated the BAMTalk with Julien, choreographer/dancer Russell Maliphant, and Neshat (choreographer/director Ralph Lemon was also slated to appear but was absent). According to the online description the dialogue was meant to explore questions of "geographic exploration and individual identity within a globalized world culture--this panel will discuss art's ability to convey complex narratives as well as social and political shifts within an entirely seductive aesthetic milieu." This was all brought to us courtesy of Altria, aka Philip Morris, a major sponsor of Performa '07 (Morris changed their name a few years back because research revealed a negative public association with the name "Philip Morris," gee, really? Evidently Altria means everything--altruistic, alternative, trio, command-alt for those PC users--and nothing at the same time.). I have huge mixed feelings about tobacco sponsorship, and talked with another African American artist today who got a major career advance through a Philip Morris artist fellowship. It's a complicated issue, especially for African Americans who constitute a disproportionate number of the annual tobacco related mortalities. But that's another conversation...

I got to BAM after the discussion had started and curator LeeAnne Goldberg was in the middle of simultaneously asking Neshat a question, and setting up the screening of her film Passage (2001) which was commissioned by composer Philip Glass (right, still from Passage). The film explores grief through images of a funeral procession and the preparation of a grave. Kneeling women clothed entirely in black chant in a huddled circle on a desert landscape as a plume of ochre rises from their repeatedly inclining forms. Neshat has a crane shot enter that circle and the screen is swallowed in black as the scene moves to a procession of men, also clothed in black, but with their heads exposed, carrying a body on a pallet above their heads. A girl child in the distance builds a fortress out of small stones. A fire starts behind her, forming a partial circle around the men who have halted in front of the chanting women whom the camera has finally revealed to be digging a grave with their bare hands. Words really aren't necessary.

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•Nation, Geography, Identity•
Neshat's video work is always marked by her use of space through the ways her characters move through it, the beautiful cinematography that accompanies those camera movements, that camera tracking which employs technology such as cranes to further emphasize the expansiveness of the landscape.

An Iranian-born artist who, depending on the current state of Iranian national and geopolitics, lives in a revolving state of exile/displacement and markedly less-encumbered homeland return, Neshat has never been able to film in Iran although she has been able to visit since moving to the US 24 years ago. Goldberg's question addressed Neshat's having shot her films in numerous locations--is she interested in different cultures and identities? Neshat's motivation, far from a citizen of the world construct, is her nostalgia-driven search for a landscape with a lone tree that reminds her of one the places she lived as a child, and she looked all over Mexíco for that site, and used it for her installation Tooba (left, still from Tooba) which dealt with the story of a woman who goes to the tree for refuge and then becomes the tree which becomes a refuge for both men and women who gather around its trunk. Desert is the primary setting for her work and towards that end she has also shot film in Morocco and Arizona in the United States. She's always searching for a reflection of her own country's geography in that of other nations. For Neshat the political, the artistic, and the personal cannot be separated, particularly after the events of September 11, 2001 and their aftermath.

Julien, on the other hand, spoke of how he came through a more circuitous route to examine questions of his familial geography and personal politics. He mined questions of black British identity and queer male blackness in his work with the explicitly political and aesthetically-focused Sankofa film collective, and in his own first feature, Young Soul Rebels (1991) as well as the classic, Looking for Langston (1989). However, his relationship to questions of diaspora, exile, and migration in relation to London and his parent's homeland of St. Lucia was a more ambivalent exploration marked by an earnest desire to avoid "falling back into" what he called "the exile cliché." His way through this was a collaboration with St. Lucian-born poet Derek Walcott that resulted in the film installation, Paradise Omeros (2002) "loosely based on some of Derek Walcott's poems from Omeros." (left, still from the installation) Not surprisingly, Walcott's work also shows up as part of a call-and-response epigraph in Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao which ends, as Edwidge Danticat pointed out in a discussion/interview the two writers shared in the pages of the Fall 2007 BOMB Magazine, "...either I'm a nobody, or I'm a nation." Julien's realization of a non-nostalgic return is in part made up a Rorschach test of departures and arrivals with waves combing backwards into the sea in an inverted "V" formation. Two screen halves anchored on the diagonal in such a way that the seam between the two was not apparent and then views of lush bisected leaves, a jump cut to the retreating form of a fleeing man, and then back to the leaves where the now apparent seam draws the viewers eye into the absent/missing spaces. Having witnessed his mother's return to St. Lucia as well as having visited the island with his partner Julien had different images and perspectives from which to draw.

Russell Maliphant, speaking as a choreographer and dancer, located his geography as "space," specifically the stage. Further he identified the collaboration with Julien as a process whereby they were discovering another space, another geography, another way to consider space. Goldberg pointed out that that discovery was still having its realization played out on the "stage." Maliphant agreed, but also pointed to the way those discoveries--which emerged over the course of numerous rehearsals and performances--were altering how that stage operated.

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Endnote:
More about Shirin Neshat's installation Tooba(2006)
More about Shirin Neshat's installation Turbulent (1998)
Sussan Deyhim and Neshat's CD for Turbulent and other work (1998)
Video of Russell Maliphant dancing solo(year unknown)

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