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Francisco Palomares is an emerging artist. His artwork is inspired by urban landscapes of cities and the complex relations within.  He was born and raised in Boyle Heights. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from California State University, Long Beach. He went on to study art in Florence, Italy and Guangzhou, China. Palomares concentration in art, were on the fundamentals of drawing and painting. 

In an interview with artist Palomares he shares the impact that China made on him.  On this trip the question of identity buoyance straight to the epidermis surface of his skin. On several occasions he was asked, why China. His reply was “I did not choose China. It chose me.  At CSULB instructor Yu Ji, a Chinese artist who lived and studied art during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, was offering an opportunity of a lifetime to study in two different art colleges in China. I chose Guangzhou, China. Which is in the south of China, two hours away from Hong Kong on train.”

 

 

Palomares describes the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts as a hub for school activities. It is in a small island with 11 other colleges. Upon arriving in China, it was hot and humid to the point where he thought he was “breathing fire.” As he walked out of the air-conditioned airport he describes being “bombarded by taxi drivers looking to take me somewhere. I can only think this is my life for the next 5 months.” This experience posed a cultural and language challenge.  Being away from his L.A Latino community was a moment of examination. The experience in China “whether it was what I wanted or not,” brought an existential inner dialogue about who he is and what is his purpose.

In the Academy of Fine Arts Palomares was exposed to his fellow artist’s renditions of European Renaissance Masters, he was eager to pursue the quality and skills they had achieved.

In a course of experimental mark making, Palomares explored various techniques and processes. He would soon discover that his instructor Yu Ji, a master at rendering figurative drawing was common practice in China, yet in the United States it was an outdated practice in colleges. 

Back in East LA

Little did Palomares realize not only did he bring East L.A to China, but he brought China to East L.A. Isolated as the only Mexican American/ Latino in the art college his identity was cemented by restoring and retracing his Mexican/Latino roots. He pursued the evaluation of an aesthetics he had been taught.  This would lead him to do a series of paintings that describes his rite of passage titled Caballitos.

A bright colorful Mexican traditional piñata on the foreground of a 17th century European landscape titled ‘Caballito’ (oil on canvas, 54” x 62”) becomes his point of departure. Palomares comes to terms between the European school of training and the break from this classical style of painting. The piñata series becomes his exclamation mark. The juxta position of a piñata among a European landscape shatters to pieces Palomares’s existential struggle. 

The duel in this painting is transferred to the viewer, to question specific style, thought and methodology taught over other means of expressions.  By referencing an ancient Mesoamerican celebration, the piñata, Palomares breaks the confinement of single narratives contained within the four corners of a canvas. The piñata series became his alter ego layered with his cultural memory.

In his recent works described by Palomares as new inspirations a still life bouquet of flowers in a European style is converted outside any novelty way of conceiving something distinctively new. Homage to My Mothers (oil on canvas 36”x48”) pays a visual homage to the many mothers of all ages as domestic workers, housekeepers, hence the working class is a painting that does not dilute a class that navigates many crossroads as women.  It is an extraordinary painting where flowers and laboring tools coincide in unison, dignity. In Clorox (oil on canvas 24”x24”) his second rendition of a bouquet of flowers are no longer held in a vase but a clear plastic container. The background in this painting is set on a marble counter and wall hinting a fluent patron. This piece is a visual anecdote, close to home.

At the end of his journey he realized, China “allowed me to see my ego. It allowed me to go to the bare minimum. I had all I needed no more no less. I learned I could be a Latino artist no matter where in the world I was. Regardless where I am, I do not stop being Latino, brown, different, an artist which comes through my defiance with a bright warm palette in my artwork.”

Palomares is part of a group show, Unending Chapters, viewing at the Vincent Price Art Museum (VPAM) from April 25, 2020 * August 1, 2020 with an opening reception on April 25th

He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

George Orwell 1984

“A generation which ignores history has no past and no future.”

Robert Heinlein

In 1916 Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings launched Café Voltaire and the Dada movement in Zurich in protest to the madness of World War I. Hennings and a number of unrecognized women carried on performing radical visual/sound/text works for decades afterwards. Between 1922 and 1932 Kurt Schwitters constructed and performed the unprecedented sound poem Ursonate using German phonemes in a sonata structure, at the same time he was building the Merzbau in his Hanover home. During the 1950s Merce Cunningham and John Cage redefined what constituted music and dance and profoundly influenced the emerging generation of choreographers, visual artists, composers and filmmakers that formed the experimental laboratory Judson Church Dance Theater in early 1960s New York. Many of the participating artists went on to become the leading innovators of the last half of the twentieth century.  At the same time Fluxus artist/theorist Dick Higgins coined the term intermedia (structural elements from two or more media blended into one to form a new medium) to describe this kind of work.

Despite what many may think in this amnesiac time of reordered, mediated and inverted realities, history matters, knowledge matters, creativity matters. And yes, aesthetics matter. In this century’s age of repetition, appropriation, spectacle and decadence, it has become easy to forget just how radical and inventive the groundbreaking, cross-disciplinary, time-based arts of the early and middle twentieth century were, and how they have shaped and influenced what has followed. What is even more astonishing is how fresh, how relevant and surprisingly contemporary those intermedia works merging visual, sonic, kinetic and textual elements, remain today.  

In this cultural moment of instant consumption and regurgitation, of imitation and erasure, maintaining the veracity and authenticity, meaning and spirit of an artist’s work, especially when an artist is deceased, matters more than ever.  However it also raises challenging questions about differences between reproduction, homage, interpretation and appropriation. For some works formal issues are paramount, while for others it is a matter of spirit, intent and character. Thus serious issues have arisen about not only the legacy and preservation of works, but the modes and forms of re-presentation. This is of particular concern to those performing artists of the later half of the century who are still living, and must consider how to deal with their own legacies. It is also a matter to be thoughtfully considered by contemporary artists who seek to draw from those histories.

 Over one week three very different performances confronted these issues in different ways, to a varying degree of success. In the first performance – Al Di Là, An Evening of Sound Works by Simone Forti, the artist succeeded in resurrecting her own works from the 1960s in a mini-retrospective, not only honoring her own history but doing so in a manner true to where she is now in the present moment.  A week later Jacqueline Bobak paid homage to three of the unsung women of the Dada era by giving them voice in her opera Dada Divas. Rather than restaging ephemeral works, she used the artists personae to reveal how their struggles and concerns remain eerily prescient today. Finally there was the staging of the misnamed Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate, a contemporary confection directed by Zoe Aja Moore, as part of the L.A Philharmonics Weimar Variations series.  Although a pleasurable entertainment on its own, it bore little resemblance if any to Kurt Schwitters original work. Even the program notes misrepresented Schwitters intent and structure.

Not only was Simone Forti one of the seminal innovators at Judson Church Dance Theater, but her work was solidly anchored in and inspired by the ideas and forms of her history-making avant-garde predecessors. In the vibrant cross-pollinating downtown New York art world of the 1960s and 70s where poets, musicians, dancers, Fluxus, Conceptual and Minimalist artists interacted and collaborated, Forti forged her own unique intermedia language merging improvised movement, spoken text, and sound into a single body, whether it be a solo or group work. No embellishments. Just the body, the voice, and sometimes some found materials or objects engaged in an experiential process. Half a century later Forti performed her early works with new younger players in the same spirit of discovery and invention giving them new life in the present moment.  

White-haired and less agile at eighty-four, Forti nevertheless performed a full-length evening with singers Julia Holter and Jessika Kenney, musicians Corey Fogel and Tashi Wada (son of Fluxus musician Yoshi Wada) making it appear as easy as a stroll in the park. Over the years she has taught her techniques to numerous students, but to bring meaning to simplicity, requires an inner balance and harmony, complete presentness in the moment and in each gesture and interaction, as if it were newly discovered.

PHOTO: STEVEN GUNTHER

Forti is first and foremost a choreographer, thus in Al Di Là, she did not simply attempt to replicate early works, but orchestrated and arranged them from a contemporary perspective. Having bridged the distance between her own past and present, Forti established the groundwork for survival for what is an essentially ephemeral art form. Taking into consideration the process-based, improvisational, open-ended aspects of her oeuvre, her scores function as sets of instructions that leave room for variances in performance. However they are governed by an aesthetic philosophy and attitude, and specific structural concepts that must be fully comprehended and practiced in order for the works to be interpreted and performed by others in the future without losing their “authenticity” or character. For example they might be arranged in a different order, or combined with other movement pieces.

Al Di Là began with a video of cats playing in the outdoors, a reminder of Forti’s decades long involvement with nature and the movement and behavior of animals. What followed were eight short sound works each one exploratory in its use of materials. Forti blows into a U-shaped tub, short notes almost like birdcalls. It is very minimal, spatial. She puts the ends mouth to ear, tries both ends. The silent spaces between sounds make you pay attention, pauses filled with anticipation. Fogel shakes a metal sheet hanging from a dowel. He punches it, slaps it on the ground, steps on it, rolls out strips of gold metallic paper, shaking out a duet of vibrating percussive pitches between the two materials. Forti joins the paper’s tinselly emanations with her tube whistle.  The interaction is playful and utterly unpretentious.

PHOTOS: STEVEN GUNTHER

In Fire on the Mountain and Lullaby to an Ant, two pieces Forti refers to as “Hippie Gospel Songs” from 1969-70, the two singers first offer up simple melodic tunes with lovely harmonies. The second song evolves into an extended vocal excursion with animal-like howls and calls, evoking the sounds of the night in the woods. To further enhance the environmental allusions the performers ascend and descend the stairs on either side of the audience singing wowowa, woo wo oh waa. Rapid trilling beckons, followed by lots of vibrato in response, and the long low warning notes of a cat – eeeh yoowww oooo — that ends in a high screech and a yowl. 

PHOTOS: STEVEN GUNTHER

The hippy gospel songs interfaced with the pieces involving the use of objects, intersections of movement and sound through space, the body and voice in intimate duets, resonant full-bodied silences and stillness. Forti quietly circles in space, walks on all fours, is joined by the others. She twirls Wada standing in a looped rope, sits in a chair watching it unfurl, sings in a thin plaintive voice “Did we fly to earth or will we fly away?” She runs a vacuum cleaner as Fogel beats on a drum boom ba   boom ba boom ba.  Images of landscapes and grazing animals are projected joined by extended overlapping vocal tones and harmonic vibrations, and the amplified humming of Forti’s vacuum cleaner motor. Despite Forti’s low-key yet distinctive presence, these works do not depend on her persona, but on her spirit of inquiry and trust.

PHOTOS: STEVEN GUNTHER

* * *

To leave a legacy you must first speak to the time you are in. That of course does not assure that your work will survive either the vagaries of historical selection, or the politics of recognition and preservation. Especially if you are a woman!  If your work does not fit easily into an established category and/or economic value system it can fade into obscurity, while your male counterparts claim the territory of primary innovators. This is just one of the themes of Jacqueline Bobak’s riotous and sometimes fittingly unruly opera Dada Divas as it pays homage to three such women who were pioneers in the Dada movement, two of whom I had never heard of. Bobak, who is both a composer and a scholar, wisely did not attempt to reconstruct their individual works. Instead she channeled their spirit and personal aesthetics in order to articulate their life experiences and creative output. The result was a cacophonous assemblage of sound, text and imagery, drawn from archival and biographical material, as well as the artists’ own writings that illustrated the status and position of women in art and society. Their struggle as women artists to achieve autonomy and recognition from the early 20th century through following decades still resonates today a century later, be it in running for President, composing an opera, conducting an orchestra, directing a major film, or having your art garner million dollar investments. 

All of these women were involved with poetry, performance, feminism, and visual art often made with found objects. Although highly regarded by many of their peer artists and writers with whom they shared a similar revulsion for war, scorn for bourgeois values, and a desire to overthrow the past, they were left behind, overlooked by history despite their influential roles and early renown. Bobak, played by Meltem Ege in the role of the Scholar/Narrator, establishes the theme in rhyming verse, naming names and roles —“Individualists, Experimentalists, Nonconformists, idealists, Feminist satirists, artists, Poets, painters and freelancers, Pacifist performers, prancers,…… It’s a shame and insane, That these dames have no name, In the catalog of fame. My campaign: to gain their acclaim!

The stage was strewn with piles of cardboard boxes referencing composer Bobak’s meticulous archival research, extracting stored away texts, old photos and objects and reconstituting them.  The furniture, props and costumes capture the mood of an artist’s atelier, a boudoir, and the cafés and cabarets they habituated where an androgynous Rose Selavy, (Marcel Duchamp’s alter ego in drag —  Juris Žvīkovs), plays popular tunes on an old upright piano. The three divas — Emmy Hennings (Bobak), Mina Loy (Micaela Tobin), and Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (Sharon Chohi Kim) —perform in a fast-paced series of  short vignettes showcasing their artistic exploits and frustrations with their circumstances. Despite illness, addiction, rejection, loss and poverty they defiantly prevailed, and did so with great panache. The costumes and props function as metaphors for the complexities and contradictions in their roles as women and artists.

PHOTOS: STEVEN GUNTHER

Baroness Elsa displayed her exhibitionism clad in a black bra, green sarong adorned with clanging soup cans, and various headdresses including a birdcage. The Scholar read from a letter written by Elsa to Djuna Barnes, that illuminates her extravagant parody of female sexuality as a delectable commodity simultaneously enticing and dangerous. 

“I went to the consulate with a large—sugarcoated birthday cake upon my head with 50 flaming candles lit—I felt just so spunky and affluent—! In my ears I wore sugar plumes or matchboxes—I forget which. Also I had put on several stamps as beauty spots on my emerald painted cheeks and my eyelashes were made of guilded porcupine quills—rustling coquettishly—at the consul—with several ropes of dried figs dangling around my neck to give him a suck once and again—to entrance him. I should have liked to wear gaudy colored rubber boots up to my hips with a ballet skirt of genuine goldpaper white lacepaper covering it [to match the cake] but I couldn’t afford that.”

PHOTOS: STEVEN GUNTHER

If the Baroness is in turn sassy and sultry in her resistance to convention, a bold seductress and rebellious feminist warrior, Emmy Hennings takes on “masculinity” with cool satirical aplomb attired in tuxedo and tails. She musically challenges Duchamp’s feminine parody Rose Selavy. They alternate No! and Yah! tossing sheet music about and ripping it up, all the while singing art songs in German.  She triumphs by attaching the discards to her jacket with clothespins. Mina, on the other hand, is the image of femininity in corseted Victorian undergarments, raging against the “cages” that restrain her gender. These include offenses committed against her body and mind, a struggle with a bustle with a lamp inside it, and extended vocal antics, including bird trills, guttural sounds, deep sighs, melodramatic operatic outbursts, choking and gagging, and a range of vocal utterances.  She knocks over boxes, and at one point Emmy and Elsa tie her up in an elaborate web of yarn, trapping her like a fly in a spider web, from which she breaks free.

PHOTOS: STEVEN GUNTHER

Very much in the spirit of Dada, the music was collage of Dada babbling, warbling and singing in nonsense language, numerous wordless operatic solo arias, poetic recitations, declamations and manifestos, and recorded sound effects. The operatic passages were not melodic, but heady insistent high octave exhortations mixing resolve with resignation, undertones of complaint with overtones of emotive strain. The recitations/declamations flaunted bawdy humor, alongside Mina’s litany of abuses, and outbursts of indignation. Various vignettes visualized Dada aesthetic stances that demonstrated the women’s rebellious spirit. They also offered critical commentary applicable to conditions in our current culture.  When Duchamp dressed all in black carries out a miniature pink toilet (rather than the male urinal) the Baroness challenges the supremacy of the famous man, declaring — “I will redesign the sublime and will sign a shrine.” The women set up a canvas on an easel, stick all sorts of refuse and detritus on it in an assemblage painting that the Baroness auctions off at ridiculously low prices.  At the same time they play a collaged tape of radio ads for remedies for the common cold, the merits of toothpaste and cigarettes, and offers of instant money. An adept commentary on our consumer culture, it reminded me of the satirical 1991 media critiques by radio artists — Donald Swearingen’s Salvation at 1 AM and the late Don Joyce’s Advertising Secrets

PHOTOS: STEVEN GUNTHER

At more than ninety minutes long Dada Divas is a work-progress in need of disciplined editing. True to its Dada spirit, structure and subject matter it is open to any numbers of variations of sequencing, deletions, rearrangements and additions, and even diverse performance contexts as the material grows and evolves.  After all, the Baroness engaged in street performances and cabarets. Other women of the era may yet emerge, and perhaps even their more recent progeny in the equally male-dominated neo-Dadist Fluxus movement of the 1960s. This integral flexibility of form is central to the success of Bobak’s artistic mission and a key to how it maintains its authenticity and significance in the future.

*  * *  *

If by chance you were unfamiliar with the work and philosophy of Kurt Schwitters and had no idea what the Ursonate was, you would have found this latest production directed by Zoe Aja Moore to have been a delightfully engaging, energetic forty-five minutes of highly entertaining performance. If on the other hand you were cognizant of Schwitters’ concept, structure and intent, you might have been taken aback at the very idea of using both Schwitters’ title and his name. In fact Schwitters would have been appalled at this misrepresentation of his seminal masterpiece. Titling this work Ursonate was misleading and it would have been more appropriate to have subtitled it (inspired by the Ursonate). Out of respect for Kurt Schwitters’ legacy it is important to set the record straight before talking about this latest performance as something in its own right.

In her program notes Moore mistakenly cites the Ursonate as a “Dada sound poem” which it is not.  In fact the Dada artists threw Schwitters out of the group because he wore a bowler hat and owned property in Hanover, and thus was considered too bourgeois. Moore describes her production as “an assembly of bodies and voices to celebrate the primal, the intuitive, the absurd. A group incantation for immediacy, destruction and possible euphoria (in dark times). An experiment in indeterminacy (in the spirit of Dada). “ And indeed it was! But the Ursonate is none of those things. There is nothing either intuitive or indeterminate about it. Quite the opposite! Schwitters worked on the performance of the Ursonate over that same ten years (1922 -1932) he was building his constructivist Merzbau installation in his Hanover home. It is a precisely and meticulously structured sonata that is simultaneously a phonetic sound poem and a musical work, linguistically and sonically constructed of German phonemes. Thus it must be performed in German! The fact that Moore’s version was performed in English is admittedly a Dada gesture in its irreverent disregard for either the legacy, or authenticity of the original. Replacing the German with English (and in some renditions English with what resembled Spanish and Italian accents) is a cheeky rejection of the work’s established formal concerns. It embraces the Dada idea of dismantling the past, and disrupting established rules of legitimacy.

In addition to the intonations, accents and rhythms of English, Moore added emotive content to the vocalizations giving different performers individual expressive attitudes, variations in volume, timbre, vocal delivery and even musical style.  This was amplified by gestures, postures, poses, stances and dances, costumes and choreography out of which emerged characters and narrative. It began with a solo of very slow, evenly spaced, carefully articulated syllables with long pauses between them, then a fast rhythmic duet accompanied by sharp angular arm movements. The vocalizations included questioning and conversational tones, assertive ones of an argumentative child, repetitive utterances that changed in volume, syllables spit out like a punch. Then belted out like a rock singer. Another woman sang in a high soprano. Someone else tap danced in a black sequin jacket while bee bee bee oka oka were given dramatic emphasis. Another vocal rendition sounded like a nursery rhyme, and a duet took on pop song beats. The ten-person ensemble added playful sing-song recitations, and the rhythms of school cheers and chants, marching songs, and camp songs to the phonetic texts.  A mocking tone made me think of rebellious teenagers all banging their spoons on the cafeteria tables. Very Dada indeed! It culminated in a raucous noisy crowd scene sounding like a disruptive schoolyard protest march that ends with something resembling a classroom recitation of one’s ABCs.

PHOTOS: ROB BLUM

The entire performance had a contemporary pop musical, art cabaret flair, with lots of Dada choreographic and costume references, spirited performers and lively visually engaging staging. Unfortunately none of it had anything to do with Schwitters’ conception or score that was merely appropriated and collaged onto it. They might just as well have invented their own phonetic text in tribute to Schwitters’ masterwork.

I am not suggesting that Schwitters’ sound poem should be frozen in time which would in fact deny it its legacy, or that it cannot be translated and performed in a fresh contemporary mode that is true to its character and structure. For a brilliantly innovative example one has only to look at Jack Ox and Kristen Loree’s visual and sonic intermedia performance in which Ox’s projected visualization of the fourth movement of Schwitters’ Ursonate was simultaneously accompanied by Loree’s in-sync vocalization. This inventive translation was presented at the Digital dome theater at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico in 2015. A video of the third movement of the sonata with Ox’s hand-painted syllabic images mapped to the “z” axis of Loree’s body movements can be viewed on Ox’s website at https://intermediaprojects.org/pages/ProjectInfo2.html

A fifteen minute film ursonate/URSONATE about her visualization concept and process, includes a soundtrack with both Schwitters’ own original recorded performance and Loree’s contemporary interpretation can be viewed at https://intermediaprojects.org/pages/UrFilmVimeo.html  Ox’s work demonstrates the real meaning of an artist’s legacy. She has opened up new ways to perceive, experience and understand Schwitters’ work by expanding its form into a different realm while retaining its original concept and intent. Loree, who spent ten years researching and developing her performance, brought fresh new life and meaning to the vocal music. Together, their presentation was not only transformative but intellectually and sensually elevating.   

COVER PHOTO BY STEVEN GUNTHER 

Al Di Là: An Evening of Sound Works by Simone Forti
REDCAT, Los Angeles.  February 1, 2020

Jacqueline Bobak: Dada Divas
REDCAT, Los Angeles. February 8, 2020
Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate  Directed by Zoe Aja Moore
REDCAT in conjunction with the L.A. Philharmonic’s Weimar Variations
February 6, 2020

Additional images, sound and information on Jack Ox’s Ursonate see her website at

https://www.jackox.net/pages/Ursonate/ur_MAINindex.html
https://www.jackox.net/pages/Ursonate/UrPaintMv1.html
https://www.jackox.net/pages/Ursonate/UrPaintMv2.html
https://www.jackox.net/pages/Ursonate/UrPaintMv3.html
https://www.jackox.net/pages/Ursonate/UrPaintMv4.html

https://intermediaprojects.org/pages/UrFilmVimeo.html
https://intermediaprojects.org/pages/ProjectInfo2.html

For information on Simone Forti’s CD Al Di Là, a full-length collection of recordings from Saltern 2018 see https://simoneforti.bandcamp.com/album/al-di-l

Mexican conceptual artist Tania Candiani’s presentation of “Camouflage” at the Freize Projects February 14 -16 2020 in the city of Los Angeles charts the historical narrative of the forced Japanese labor encampments in California during WWII by simulating the fabrication of giant protective covers to camouflage military equipment.  

Her installation at first sight seems friendly, inoffensive, nonthreatening, and distant from any inhumane connotation. Candiani is moved by American photographer Dorothy Lange’s documentation of the Japanese internment camps. In particular, one specific image titled Making camouflage nets for the War Department (1942).

The size of her installation draws you to approach what might seem to be an apolitical form of expression.  Not until you read the description of the installation that you reach the significance of her project to engage in conversation with the history of forced labor.  Speaking with Candiani she makes references to the Maquiladoras along the Mexican U.S. border, and the prison industrial complex as another form of labor exploitation. Although, Maquiladoras are not associated as direct forced labor like the Japanese encampments, however the condition that directs mostly young women to work in Maquilas today can be said to be somewhat a version of forced labor.1

By reenacting this installation Candiani reminds us of the inherited abuse of workers built into a system that is ready at any moment to incarcerate and deprive the liberty of its own citizens given they are not of European descendants. This abuse is not a casual outcome, but a variable. The hysteria that brought about WWII enabled the US government to draft laws that singled out a nonwhite group, the Japanese Americans, to be treated as the enemy within. The same can be said today of immigrants. 

Without a doubt, Candiani links two geographies the US and Latin America with this installation. She expresses a universal reality of what has often stood in the way of justice in today’s globalized world.  She points to a world where the market stands to profit from exploited workers confined in inhumane conditions with no right to improve their circumstances unless they are fought for. Candiani reveals the connection between human labor and the social relations of today’s modern society. Her installation in essence is a critique not just the stealing of someone’s labor and the value it produces but the instrumental rational behind all justifications to minimize the dignity of humanity.

 


1 Maquiladoras are foreign-owned, controlled or subcontracted manufacturing plants that process or assemble imported components for export. This concept of manufacturing goods in the global south, in this case the border between Mexico and US reveals the abuse by the Global North that takes advantage of weak labor and environmental laws with trade agreements unable to guarantee a dignified wage.

Opening at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center March 1st 2020.

Reception and book reading from 12 pm to 4pm

www.themuck.org

 

Storytelling Beyond Any Singular Form

Essay By Moses Kilolo, February 2020.

Fables have been written for many generations. The writers who created such little wonders must have hoped that a child, a young person, an adult from somewhere in the world beyond his or her knowing, would be enthralled by the words, images, experiences and the lessons their fables evoke. Some of these fables, such as ‘The Tortoise and The Hare,’ go on to become legend. They become a part of human traditions of storytelling. The journey of these fables, from language to language, culture to culture and sometimes from one medium to another, facilitates the flow of the moral and expands beyond its origin to create universality in storytelling. 

Originally written in Gikuyu under the title ‘Ituĩka Rĩa Mũrũngarũ: Kana Kĩrĩa Gĩtũmaga Andũ Mathiĩ Marũngiĩ,’ Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s famous fable, ‘The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright,’ is now available in 92 languages from 5 continents. Depending on how the represented cultures tell stories, this fable can be dramatized, made into a musical, or become the basis of visual translations. In these many ways, the fable finds a life of its own across nations, cultures, languages and mediums.

 

 

Jimmy Centeno curates the current exhibition as an imagination of the fable’s ability to travel from the medium of text to visual art. He brings together Latin-American artists and a Nigerian painter to a form a collective visual interpretation not witnessed before in relation to this fable. Each painter comes to the work with a different aesthetic approach and from a different artistic background. However, one is moved by the communal desire among them to stay true to the message of the story even as their interpretations vary in form, shape and color. With their different perspectives, they look at the fable from varying points of view that allow them to offer deeply felt visual interpretations.

The concept of unity runs as a single unifying thread in all the interpretations. In this, the artists want us to see that despite the chaos and human struggle to dominate, true progress can only be achieved by the human race if they are united. The fable gives this message and suggests that the strength of one part of the body, no matter how advanced, cannot be sufficient to make it exist as an independent entity. For instance, Laura Vazquez Rodriguez, in her painting, ‘Enlightened or Awakening or Rise up 20” x 20” Acrylic on canvas,’ captures the power, and powerless, of a body which when any parts are disconnected and crumbling, it cannot function. This is true of the human race, the more disconnected our cultures are, the less we can become a global force for unity, love and equality. Yaneli Delgado’s piece, which draws from the source culture, Gikuyu by focusing on water, fertility, and nature, reimagines and demonstrates the ways in which the world has a shared human heritage. 

Perhaps this shared struggle for a more functional world united by the will to overcome disaster, disconnectedness, and terrible pasts is best illustrated through the contribution of Mario Avila. His creation of art is borne from his first language, much like Ngũgĩ’s. But beyond this, they are connected by a shared history that though experienced in different times and in very distant places, affected their lives in very similar ways. Both men were imprisoned by governments that did not wish for them the space to fully exists as human in the conscious manner in which they wanted. The creation of his pieces for this visual interpretation was a moment of reflection and unity of memory with Ngũgĩ. For a Jalada Africa publication, he wrote a moving letter to remember his 1967 imprisonment in Guatemala during the military junta. About 10 years in that continuum, Ngũgĩ’ would be arrested and detained by the Moi dictatorial regime in Kenya and send to the Kamĩtĩ Maximum Security Prison in Nairobi for close to a year. Beyond the fable, the visual interpretations became a process of remembering, of sharing in the continued cry for those around the world that face a similar fate. 

When Jimmy Centeno first exhibited at the Jean Deleage Art Gallery, Los Angeles in May of 2019, one of his esteemed guests was Prof Ngũgĩ himself. Ngũgĩ has since severally spoken to me of how special each of the artists imaginative but very personal interpretation of the story was. To him, this work put Africa and Latin America in conversation through ‘deeply felt and carefully crafted visual interpretations in the form of paintings and sculpture.’ In this exhibition, I see a collective interpretation that says that we can imagine storytelling beyond any single form, and with incredible results that call for the unity of imagination in liberating ourselves as the human race from divisions that tie us down.

 

“We have changed the atmosphere, and that will change the weather. The temperature and rainfall are no longer to be entirely the work of some separate, uncivilized force, but instead in part a product of our habits, our economies, our ways of life.”

Bill McKibben, The End of Nature(1989)

For those of us living in Los Angeles the hot winds, the red sky just over the hills, and the stench of smoke have made the consequences of the climate crisis a terrifying reality lurking just over the horizon. And still for many people how we got to this place is not always apparent, obscured by media, politics, commerce and our own habits and assumptions.

Although we have seen the photos many times over, the reflex is to distance ourselves from the meaning of these events and the future they predict.  The raging hurricanes, each more devastating than the one before leaving a destroyed landscape in their wake, uncontrollable fires consuming forests and towns, and even a whole continent in flames. Millions of dying animals, fleeing people waiting on beaches to be evacuated by boat, massive floods, melting glaciers, Venice under water, floating islands of plastic, oil spills, droughts, the list is long. Because each is framed in its own time and place, for many people the connections between events are not made. The map of cause and effect, of actions and consequences is missing. Scientists and environmentalists fill in the facts if you take the time to read the books. For a more immediate immersive experience it is left for intermedia artists to juxtapose and assemble the images into a coherent narrative that illuminates how the separate parts are actually a series of interlocking four-dimensional, evolving global processes.  

In her newest work Infinitely Yours, Los Angeles animator, designer, and performer Miwa Matreyek has taken on the climate catastrophe in the Anthropocene, our current era in which human actions in the name of technological progress, and economic enrichment have irrevocably affected and altered all realms of the earth’s natural systems. Combining live performance with her signature multi-layered animated projections she has created an emotionally effective representation of the ways creator, destroyer, and destroyed are bound together in a complex co-dependent system in which we are all participants.  As humans we are both perpetrators and recipients of environmental abuses, trapped in the grip of what we have created and the lifestyles it has afforded us..

In this new work the progression of her metamorphic imagery takes on an historical, evolutionary narrative interfacing the human-made landscape with the human body, other living species, and the earth itself. The images that embody the familiar media reportage have been syntactically reordered to create different relationships between subject and object, action and effect, as one thing transforms into another. The result is a multi-dimensional “mapping” seen from above and below and at eye-level, cross-sections under ground, and under water, inside the body and outside.  At the same time Matreyek’s live silhouette interacts with the projected film like a shadow puppet moving through a dream. Burnt trees are outlined against an orange sky. She struggles through flames and falling branches, sparks flying through the air. A fault line opens in the ground, buildings rise up from the chasm. Power lines race across the desert. Cranes carve out oil fields. 

What is different in Matreyek’s message is that she makes it personal by employing the everyday objects that populate our lives as signifiers of our role as insatiable consumers littering the planet with indestructible trash. Images of mass production, animal carcasses hanging in the slaughterhouse, plastic water bottles racing down conveyer belts, sewing machines whirring, turn into heaps of garbage, landfills of plastic waste.  The perspective shifts as Matreyek interacts with her environment. Swimming underwater she picks up a passing plastic water bottle, encounters schools of fish trapped in nets, masses of dying and dead sea creatures. She traverses the mundane industrial landscape where brown water spews from a cement mixer, and air tainted with pollution hangs over a gas station, traffic-clogged highways, and overdeveloped suburban sprawl. The consequences are felt in the body, in images of damaged lungs overlaid on Matreyek’s silhouette. And when she struggles through a torrential downpour and river’s rising waters. Falling trees are caught in rushing currents that sweep over buildings, flood houses. Waves of the ordinary plastic objects that populate our lives swell into a dense mass that engulfs us like an ocean.

But this is not the end of the story for Matreyek believes in nature’s transcendent cycle of creation, destruction and rebirth, and in its ability to recover. It is an optimistic hopeful view in keeping with the whimsical aspects of her earlier work.  Thus she enters the earth’s core. Networks of new tree roots spread out underground, vegetables take root, and seeds sprout and blossom. In the womb of the Earth a newborn baby is cradled in a bed of greenery surrounded by mushrooms and butterflies. Unfortunately the entire cycle repeats again and again. Oil rigs pump. Tires fall. Planes fly. Flames and smoke rise above forests and towers on the planet’s rim. It culminates in an exploding mushroom cloud, and we come full circle to the fire at the beginning.  

This is a warning and a plea. Humanity’s stubborn resistance to the facts and our unwillingness to change the way we live and the system that perpetuates that life style endangers the entire planet and all its life forms including us. Entire species may have been wiped out by the inferno that still rages across Australia. It can happen anywhere, anytime.

Extinction is not limited to any one species, but each and every loss leads to our own demise. No one is exempt. Thus Matreyek’s usually lyrical movement and gestures in this work take the form of protest. Grace and wonder turn to sorrow and indignation. Fluidity is replaced by angularity, even awkwardness.

The power of this work is in the poetry of its juxtapositions and the complexity of its visual analogies. The ways Matreyek builds, unravels, and reconstructs the world exemplifies the ways in which each part is connected and interdependent in a unified ecological system. Every action has a reaction. If the planet is a complex and intelligent living organism, we have become a virus in its body, poisoning it and devouring it. Thus the question is – can we cure ourselves before mother earth’s own antibodies destroy us.

This is ironically represented by Matreyek’s unfortunate choice of music for this presentation. Performed live on stage by Sorne, it was not only excessively loud and abrasive, but it competed rather than supported her imagery and performance.  As a dominating presence it became an increasingly irritating distraction. The heavily processed, overdubbed percussion with too much reverb sounded synthetic (like plastic music), and the piercing falsetto pitch of his vocals was as unbearable as an amplified screaming baby. Some might argue that that was the whole point, that the music with its techno-industrial pounding and screeching was a sonic representation of what we have done to the planet in the past century.  Maybe so, but the problem with that is that it undercuts the inherent “tenderness“ of Matreyek’s aesthetic, as well as both her sorrow and her spiritual appeal. Matreyek’s work stands on its own, and her message is too important to be overshadowed. Hopefully in future presentations she will consider a more compatible cinematic soundtrack reflective of her perspective and vision. She asks us to awaken and see the world through new eyes, with love for the earth and all living things.  

The title Infinitely Yours suggests that humanity will survive, or at least that Matreyek believes in the human capacity to redeem ourselves, restore the garden and the wilderness, and live in it harmoniously. But before that dream can be fulfilled, we will have to have a profound awakening, a willingness to radically change how we see the world and our place in it, and the courage to act on it politically.  Can a work of art move you in that direction? Or does it require another cataclysmic act of nature?

All photos courtesy of REDCAT

Miwa Matreyek – Infinitely Yours
January 16-18, 2020
REDCAT, downtown Los Angeles