“Memories are motionless, and the more securely they are fixed in space, the sounder they are. […..] A house constitutes a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability. We are constantly re-imagining its reality. […..] We should have to say how we inhabit our vital space, in accord with all the dialectics of life, how we take root, day after day, in a corner of the world.”
During this past year of political, cultural and environmental crises I have been thinking more and more about the meaning of a sense of place and the nature of presence. How we interact with and/or react to the physical and material environment vs. the virtual one seems to be increasingly significant in relation to our current situation and long-term future.
One of my more troubling observations has been how so many of the people I encounter in public spaces are not where they are, in either space or time. They are elsewhere, absent, disconnected, dislocated, utterly absorbed in the screen in their hand. They have no sensory awareness of place, of the changing landscape, architecture and light, scent in the air, or even their own bodies. The visual and sonic environment and the people and events around them exist in a parallel dimension, or on the periphery like shadows in twilight. This disengagement from the tactile and immediate present is a form of forfeiture of the accumulation of memory. Thus, leaving one without a sense of, or identification with place. Not uprooted but rootless, ungrounded. Until, that is, nature’s wrath strikes home in fire and flood and seismic tremors, and the devices cannot be recharged.
These musings have led me to thinking about the nature of site-specific performance, both past and present, and the position of both makers and viewers in terms of engagement with place. With a resurgence of this moniker I am wondering if and how it has changed. How is the concept and meaning of site-specific presently being interpreted by artists, and responded to by audiences? Two recent performance events have taken place in notably eccentric architectural icons — Sowden House and the Getty Villa – one a private home with a notorious past, and the other a personal museum built to house the private collection of a very rich man. The distinctive “personalities” of both pose sizable challenges as performance locations.
In the past installations and performances deemed site-specific had a direct relationship to location, be it a particular landscape, architectural feature, public or private space. A location provided context, not just visually, but culturally, socially and politically. It existed in both the past and present simultaneously. It was not fixed but temporal, mutable. A year or a decade later it would not be the same. The properties of a site often functioned as content, literally or metaphorically. Every site has its own “story”. The interface or interaction might be physical or material, sonic and/or kinetic, and social. Most importantly the site was not simply a stage for action but an integral part of what transpired there, and thus inseparable from it. The audience, whether stationary or mobile, became both viewer and participant, fully engaged in the immediacy of the event in process and its transitory and temporal nature.
There was an element of risk for both artists and attendees that made going to such events an adventure. Gordon Matta-Clark did not have a permit or insurance when he cut a wedge-shaped hole in the wall of the derelict Pier 52 on the Hudson River in 1975, letting a dance of light and air into the cavernous space. Neither did Lin Hixson when she and Jane Dibbell staged Rockefeller Center, a sprawling outdoor performance set at the old Claremont train station on a chilly late-autumn night in 1982, when a real train announced its approach with a long mournful whistle and stopped at the station. But that was before surveillance cameras and social media, before city-sanctioned outdoor festivals meant to “entertain” and promote commerce. The world has radically changed, and working outside of institutional oversight has become extremely difficult.
Still a new generation of artists have set forth to establish their own alternative contexts. For the past five years choreographer and dancer Rebecca Bruno’s performance project HomeLA has been experimenting with situating performances in the more intimate domain of private rather than public spaces. Most have been modest houses and apartments generously loaned by the people living in them. HomeLA’s mission has been to provide a platform for independent artists making dance, body-based, sound and intermedia works to create one-of-a-kind performances that respond to and engage with the architecture and ambience of a lived-in residential environment. To make a truly site-specific work in such a personal space involves interfacing with the décor, tastes, and psychic energy of the inhabitants who have exposed themselves to a different sort of scrutiny. These additional elements add an even more difficult challenge than just addressing the nature and/or characteristics of place. Add into that mix the size of a free-roaming audience in relatively crowded rooms who become “participants” by virtue of the social nature of the space. As to be expected the degree to which a wide range of pieces have succeeded in being truly site-specific has varied greatly from one site to another. Regardless, the in situ and transactional nature of these gatherings demands that the viewers be fully present and focused on what is happening.
HomeLA’s latest endeavor Passages, a two-day immersive performance, installation, and ﬁlm event at Sowden House, presented a whole new level of challenges due to the imposing character of the architecture and its history. Built in 1926 by Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright) at the commission of painter and photographer John Sowden, the house has since passed through the hands of a number of owners who have left their imprint on it. Constructed of concrete Mayan-themed textile blocks, the cave-like labyrinthian house with its pyramidal facade looms high above Franklin Avenue like a resurrected Mayan temple in a landscaped jungle, a mysterious otherworldly apparition from another time and place. Simultaneously enshrouded in the aura of old Hollywood, this elaborately ornamented, heavily-gated fortress was the site of many celebrity-filled parties across the decades. But it also harbors a dark past as the alleged site of the infamous Black Dahlia murder, and perrhaps others, by Dr. George Hodel who owned the house from 1945-50. Hodel, who catered to and entertained many elite Angelenos at Sowden House, as well as members of the creative community, was never convicted. However in his 2003 book Hodel’s homicide detective son argued that Elizabeth Short was actually tortured, murdered and dissected by his father in the basement of the Sowden House in January 1947. The house’s interior was restored and remodeled in 2003 and it was a hip celebrity showcase for a decade. It was subsequently sold several more times until 2017, when it was purchased by the current owners, Dan Goldfarb and Jenny Landers, who invited HomeLA to create an event.
But Sowden House is no ordinary home, and its occupants are not ordinary people. Making site-specific work in such a place requires a certain level of submission to the dominant personality of the building and accepting it as a leading “character” in the performance. The architecture and its history dictate a narrative of mystery and ritual, money and power. Theatrically speaking it demands an auteur, a single guiding vision strong enough to both immerse itself in the site and encompass it. However HomeLA’s curatorial mission has been to present a group of separate pieces, each with their own aesthetic and conceptual concerns, under one roof, allowing a roving audience to partake at their own pace. In modest environments such diverse works are held together by the intimacy of the house and scale of audience.
Not so at Sowden House. Scattered throughout this eccentric architectural “monument” over several hours, the fifteen ongoing and intermittent installation, video and live performances in Passages did not fare as well, in part because the majority did not contend with the overpowering presence of both the house and the social situation of the event. Instead, most of the works were absorbed into the site, becoming anecdotes on the margins, or background décor. Sowden House was the event, and the audience became guests congregating in its courtyard and surrounding spaces, ambling through its corridors, passageways, stairwells and intimate rooms, drinks and phones in hand.
As the day turned to dusk an eerie nostalgia ensued. The house slipped back in time, and it felt as if we should all be wearing evening gowns and dinner jackets, and slipping cocktails as in an elegant Hollywood films circa 1940. The house also suggested an exclusive boutique hotel set in the tropics. All those little rooms along the passageways filled with covert assignations and intrigue, like in a Graham Greene novel. One piece that superficially picked up on the period ambiance was Inservient choreographed by Cheng-Chieh Yu. Three young women wearing 1920’s inspired dresses and make-up, like party girls from another era, engaged in a stationary dance tableau of stylized movement in a cozy, dimly lit front room with a fireplace and deep sofa. They also appeared in other locations where their “poses” blended in with the crowd
Two works stood out as being truly site-specific. The first being a starkly arresting solo called Rest choreographed by Zaquia Mahler Salinas. Performed by Lauren Christie as if no other course of action was possible, the performance gave rise to an ominous sense of foreboding that culminated in a breathtaking image. A pale-skinned young woman in a simple black dress, Christie appeared on the indoor stage at the far end of the courtyard with a reflecting pool down the middle. Her movements were elegant and restrained, each gesture, each extension of legs, reach of arms, bend of torso, spare, direct, and at the same time fluid. No excess, no flourishes, as she carefully navigated the narrow contained space along the length of the pool working her way around it, with the audience pressed tightly between the massive carved columns, and in the passageways alongside,
A man in a pale blue suit (Jonny Tarr) played the saxophone on one side, a soulful tune by James Carter, adding a melancholy note to the darkening sky above. Slowly but purposefully Christie traversed the distance to the deeper second pool at the stage end and took off her dress. Never flinching as she stepped into the ice-cold water, she slowly sank into the pool, floating on her back, eyes closed, hair and limbs splayed, metaphorically evoking the ghost of Elizabeth Short. She lay there just long enough to send a silent shiver through the air.
The second piece D E U X by Rebecca Bruno was a far more complicated situation. It took place in the bathroom — a large open room with Japanese design influences, most likely the result of a relatively recent renovation. Certainly not part of Lloyd Wright’s original design. At one end was a narrow rectangular, overstocked koi pond the width of the gray stone wall rising above it. Built-in cabinet doors and drawers covered the opposite wall at the far end of the room. In the center stood a massive bathing tub adorned with a spectacular arrangement of richly colored flora (by Emily Marchand). Projected on the wall behind the koi pond was a looped video (by Delaram Pourábdi) of Bruno performing a dance piece in which she interacted with the doors and drawers on the wall at the opposite end of the room. Unfortunately due to the light over the pond and the crowds of people walking in front of the projector, the images were barely visible. In the moments when they were discernable they had an eerie ghost-like presence. On a countertop on the side of the room an open laptop played the video in all its clarity allowing us to see how Bruno had interpreted the site.
It was a beautifully articulated performance that managed to appear both carefully thought out and improvised at the same time. Her movements were precise and yet they seemed utterly natural and uncontrived. She was centered, grounded, completely in her body and fully aware of her surroundings as she physically interacted with the furnishings. At the same time pedestrian actions such as opening and closing drawers took on a dreamlike quality and a sense of urgency, as if she were searching for something missing, lost or forgotten. When her image doubled she appeared as an apparition of herself projected backward and forward in time, like an energy body. There but not there, present and absent. It brought to mind Maya Deren’s surrealist film Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) without the Freudian symbolism. But how much more powerful D E U X would have been as a site-specific work if Bruno had performed live with a real-time video projection mirroring her actions on the far wall. And perhaps allowing only twenty or thirty people in at one time standing at attention on the sides, instead of crowds milling around the bathtub, snapping selfies, and gazing at the fish crowded in the pond like in a tank at a Chinese restaurant.
“Drawers, chests and wardrobes. What psychology lies behind their locks and keys! They bear within themselves a kind of esthetics of hidden things.” Gaston Bachelard
I am left wondering what the result would have been if Bruno had conceptually and theatrically taken on Sowden House as an artist/dancer herself, and staged a major full-length performance work of her own that grappled with all the possibilities of the site visually, sonically, kinetically. The potential is there. For any artist with the imagination and daring to fully engage with it — not as someone’s home but as a resonant architectural site – Sowden House offers the opportunity and the challenge to do something unprecedented, maybe even illuminating.
* * * *
Unlike Sowden House, the Getty Villa is a museum open to the public. But it is also a “house.” Not one that has ever been lived in, but a re-creation of an ancient Roman country house, a seaside estate complete with Ionic columns and four interior gardens, perched high above the Pacific Coast Highway on the edge of Malibu. Built by J. Paul Getty to house his collection of Greek and Roman art, and Etruscan antiquities dating from 6,500 BC to 400 AD, it is a near replica of the Villa dei Papiri, a luxurious Roman residence in Herculaneum, Italy that had been buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. In other words it is a “simulacrum.” Nevertheless, it is an imposing and evocative architectural replica filled with authentic art and a wealth of historical narratives.
When it comes to presenting performances, be they theatrical and/or musical, there is an already established criteria to be adhered to by the invited artists. While the form the work takes may be experimental, the subject matter must draw upon and reflect the culture of the ancient Mediterranean world. How an artist interprets those themes and uses the available spaces is entirely up to them.
When the Four Larks (Mat Sweeney and Sebastian Peters-Lazaro) were invited to stage a new site-specific work to be based on and inspired by the exhibition Underworld: Imagining the Afterlife, the Villa presented not just an ideal setting, but an opportunity to maximize its creative potential in terms of scale. The anxieties of the ancient Greeks about what happens to you after death, where you go, how you get there and what awaits you upon arrival is not only the perfect subject matter for an opera, but appropriately contemporary in this time of darkness, political discord and cultural angst when greed, the dominant sin of our era, is admired, and the soul of the nation is in question. Is there redemption in Hades? And what do we have to do before we die to merit it?
With all this in mind, the Four Larks production Katabasis (descent to the underworld) took the audience on a ritual journey through the realm of death into an underworld of multiple possibilities and a few unanticipated surprises. There were ceremonies at each stage and instructions that offered the potential for enlightenment. It was not just a journey through space but one that stretched across time. This was made tangible by the eclecticism of the music that incorporated a range of influences and styles ranging from ancient to classical, to modern jazz and minimalism.
As a site-specific work every aspect of the staging was perfectly integrated into the museum’s many levels and outdoor spaces, descending from the staircases to each of the four gardens, to a central atrium, the arena, and back. Katabasis fully utilized the architectural features as the setting for sequences of stunning visual imagery, costuming, props (designed by Sebastian Peters-Lazaro) and dramatic performances by a stellar cast of sixteen musicians and singers. It did not really matter that much of the sung libretto was difficult to understand. As the drama unfolded in a visually captivating rite of passage, occasional poetic phrases spoken by our guides as they led us from scene to scene sufficed. “Onward, pilgrim, for the spirit to be freed from the body, for the soul to return to divinity.”
The mythology and philosophy of ancient Greece represented in their theater and art raises profound questions about the consequences of the wrongs we perpetrate in life, and the price to be paid. Whether or not you believe in an afterlife, or in karmic retribution, Mat Sweeney and Jesse Rasmussen’s libretto drawn from Greek texts, re-enforced the contemporary relevance of the message through visual pageantry and staging. A statuesque Persephone (Sheila Brown Ellis) carrying a glowing white globe began the procession. She was followed by a silent obedient audience. We looked down on the Three Fates weaving their web like a game of “cat’s cradle.” We descended long stairways taking us to the “underworld,” led by black-clad guides with painted faces. Along the way chanting Greek choruses, haunting extended vocals, a harp, a flute and a string trio amplified the visual narrative.
Three headed beast who guards the gate / you now must pass to meet your fate.”
We became not merely viewers but witnesses. We looked down on one scenario, up at another, were surrounded in others. We kneeled on the ground, or stood in lines, mingled with the statuary, or were herded into groups, as we proceeded from one garden to another. Some performers wore extravagant animal headdresses – bulls, rams, dogs, snakes, chimera – with vocals to match. Others wore masks.
“Carry the water / Spill the blood
It’s all the same anyway
Daughters of Danus / Sisters three
Eternal penance to pay.”
One scene set in the atrium took on contemporary meaning. Three women – the Danaids – knelt in the shallow pool scooping up water in mesh-like containers. The water flowed right through. A senseless task, for not only were they are unable to fill the water jar, but it too was nothing more than a linear outline of a vase equally unable to hold water. It is a subtle metaphoric reminder of our current untenable solutions to water conservation and climate change.
In another scene we stood along the edge of the arena and watched Sisyphus work to push his “boulder” (one of the globes) up the steps to the top only to have it break free and go tumbling down. A timeless tale of life’s never-ending struggles, it may also be seen as an analogy of our nation’s struggle to overcome the sins of racism and discrimination, passed down from one generation to the next. For every time we seem to reach the top of Martin Luther King’s “mountain” and get a momentary glimpse of “the other side,” we stumble and slip down and have to start over.
Can you bear the weight of the deeds you’ve done?
Are the wrongs you have wrought, heavy as a stone?
What awaits at the top for us down below?”
Indeed we will all be judged for our deeds, whether in this life or beyond. The point was brought home by the Three Judges “keepers of order and truth” looming high above, their voices reminding us that they “see all.”
Perhaps your life was only / grey smoke on a horizon
Perceive fully! Foul and holy! You may cross through!”
Katabasis concluded in “the garden of the skeleton tree…” where “the final breath / last song of death / welcomes all initiates…” The music brought us into the mid-twentieth century — minimalist polyrhythmic repetitions, and the entire ensemble with Sheila Brown Ellis as Persephone at the center. Ellis’s voice rose above everything. It is a jazz singer’s voice filled with emotional nuances and deep blue undertones. In the finale we were asked to “Arise, Remember and Return” as Ellis ascended the staircase, bidding us to follow.
from the wound where the seed does bloom
to suffer sweet immortal gladness / mortal gladness / mortal gladness”
No cameras were allowed, and all phones had been silenced and put away. A mostly older audience did not protest, perhaps relieved to have this time to immerse themselves in the experience with all of their senses awake and alert, and totally present. As a site-specific opera Katabasis fulfilled its mandate, and more. It held up a mirror for us to see the present in, leaving us to contemplate not only the state of our own souls, but matters of justice and moral responsibility, for there are many kinds of deaths, and the underworld is alive and well in the here and now. Is the future a question of destiny, or what we make it to be? Can the art of the past and the present provide us with prophesies, warnings, and/or guideposts to a better place?
Cover photo: Gema Galian (Katabasis)
Passages presented by homeLA, Paradeux and Sowden Houuse
January 12 & 13, 2019
Katabasis by The Four Larks
Created, staged and composed by Mat Sweeney
Set, prop design and choreography by Sebastian Peters-Lazaro
Lyrics co-written by Mat Sweeney and Jesse Rasmussen
Presented by the Villa Theater Lab at the Getty Villa
January 24-26, 2019