Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Waffle Iron Stripped Bare

Welcome Prince of Petworth readers. Apart from occasional blogcritics reviews, I've been neglecting this blog in favor of my tumblr, but it behooves me to produce content of a more personal nature here, being that my work blog has lately been more fun than my so-called personal blog. But before I tell you about how I was born, and what makes me cry, and how my experiments with butterscotch pie turned out, I'd like to wish everyone in the Greater Washington Area and all across this great solar system of ours ... a Happy International Waffle Day! The picture at left is from the web presentation Washington As It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959, where you can also find a series of views of the old Waffle House on 10th Street, across from Ford's Theatre. You missed a spot!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Seven Uneasy Pieces

Marina Abramovic performing "Entering the other side."

Marina Abramovic, "Entering the other side." Courtesty of Microcinema.

This post first appeared in a slightly different form on

Belgrade-born Marina Abramovic, the subject of a recent New Yorker profile, is the first performance artist to be honored with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. To coincide with "The Artist is Present," Microcinema has released Seven Easy Pieces, a document of Abramovic's week-long residence at the Guggenheim in 2005, in which the artist spent seven hours a day performing one of five landmark performance art pieces by other artists and two of her own.

Performance art is by nature ephemeral - documentation may exist only in photographs or perhaps no more than the memory of an audience. Abramovic seeks to remedy this institutional loss - but is anything lost in translation? Seven Easy Pieces, directed by Babette Mangolte, condenses forty-nine hours of performance into a ninety minute video. Abbreviated as it is, the time given to each work conveys a sense of the passage of time: a summary of gestures is introduced and cycled through and repeated, and the gestures are cumulative. So for Bruce Nauman's "Body pressure," as the artist presses herself repeatedly against a Plexiglas divider, you see the traces of skin grease accrue over time, obscuring the view of the artist as she steps back from the wall.

The pieces run from the sublime to the ridiculous, the funny to the self-indulgent, the simply uncomfortable to the frankly disturbing. A re-interpretation of Vito Acconci's infamous "Seedboard" is a case in point for any number of these. In 1972, Acconci spent nine days masturbating for eight hours in the crawlspace under a ramp in Sonnabend Gallery in New York, fantasizing about those walking over him and murmuring explicit thoughts through an amplifier. Ambramovic, despite a repertoire that includes generous amounts of self-flagellation and other varieties of pain, seems in this piece less self-contemptuous than Acconci. She invites her audience, sitting in an intimate circle above her, to interact and tell her their fantasies; in one shot an excited male spectator is seen lying face down, caressing the plywood and gently humping it.

In 1969, a black-leather jacketed Valie Export cut the crotch out of her trousers and trained a machine gun on a movie theater audience. [Ed. - it was a pron theater, and she addressed the men in the audience to "deal with a real woman."] "Action Pants, Genital Panic" dripped Punk Rock at the time, but lost some balls, as it were, in the institutional confines of the Guggenheim. A heckler can he heard telling Abramovic, "Put down that gun or use it!" This may be fodder for those who believe that a work of performance art belongs to its own time: an event that once subverted expectations of passivity has become, if not passive, inert.

Gina Pane's "The Conditioning" is tailor-made for the ascetic element in Ambramovic's work (for her current show, she asked the young performers participating with her to adhere to a strict program of fasting). A jump-suited Abramovic lays on a steel bed atop an array of lit candles, which she switches out as they melt down.

Joseph Beuys, "How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare" may be the strangest of the pieces, and this is coming from someone with a very high bar for the strange indeed. The artist's face is sloppily plastered with gold leaf, fragments of which dangle from her face and fall to the stage (she sweeps up the detritus during the piece). She's accompanied by a taxidermied hare, which she alternately cradles in her arms, walks along the stage with and holds with its floppy ears dangling from her mouth.

"Lips of Thomas" is one of Ambramovic's own pieces, from 1975. Originally performed over the course of two hours, this piece was expanded for the Guggenheim. It is uncomfortable watching at any length. The artist sits naked at a tale, eating honey from a jar and drinking wine as a metronome slowly keeps time. She gets up from the table to stand fully naked before the audience, revealing a five-pointed star drawn on her stomach. She takes a razor blade and cuts along one line of the star, then proceeds to lie on a cross made of ice (underneath a space heater aimed at her stomach), and then sits up to flagellate herself. She puts on boots and a military cap, and waves a flag, lined with the blotted stains from her razored belly, while a Russian folk song plays. Repeat, for an excruciating seven hours.

The seventh day must have come as a relief to both audience and artist. In "Entering the Other Side," Abramovic simply stands in a giant blue dress in the center of the Guggenheim rotunda.

Abramovic said, "I do not want the public to feel that they are spending time with the performances, I simply want them to forget about time." For ninety minutes of at times taxing performance - albeit not nearly as taxing as the seven-hour iterations - I was largely compelled, if not entirely convinced. Seven Easy Pieces is a frequently uneasy time, and may not win the artist any converts. Nor will it answer the questions of purists who may argue whether performance art should be recreated at all. But as a well-produced document, fans of the artist will find it essential viewing.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

No thumbs for A Behanding

This post first appeared, in a slightly different form, on

What do you get when you blend violence-as-humor, ironic use of racial and other epithets, casual misogyny, and the kind of relentless profanity that's the sure sign of a lazy writer who can't be bothered to come up with original verbal shock tactics? A Behanding in Spokane is what you get, and, in the case of this critic, eyes rolled all the way into the back of my fucking head.

Irish playwright Martin McDonagh followed his acclaimed Aran Islands Trilogy with a foray into Hollywood. He wrote the the screenplay for In Bruges, one of my favorite films of 2008. But, back on Broadway for the first time in four years, he has taken a major misstep with A Behanding in Spokane, his first work set in America. And what did the celebrated playwright pick up in the New World? A bad case of the affliction that saddles too many writers these days: actue Tarantino-itis.

Don't get me wrong - I enjoy Tarantino's writing and directing, but his example has begat so many wannabees who believe that Attitude is all you need for success.

Christopher Walken stars as the behanded Carmichael (affected much?), a man who lost his left hand forty-seven years ago to a gang of cruel hillbillies in a railroad yard. He has been seeking his missing digits ever since, and meets with a pair who claim to have in their possession that long lost hand. If you're eyes aren't rolling already I can't help you. In Bruges worked so well because despite the seeming leading with what appear to be the standard-issue assassins-on-the-run type, there's a lot of heart and emotion behind the characters' motives. It was more than just a po-mo gangster black comedy: it was a moving character study. But Walken plays Christopher Walken, and the self-consciousness of the writing is met by Walken's own self-consciousness - his delivery is forced, his timing mannered, as if instead of putting his signature voice and timing into a well-drawn character, he's competing with the writer's own notion of what a Christopher Walken character ought to be like. Sam Rockwell does somewhat better as the hotel clerk/receptionist; he seems to have walked off the set of a particularly violent episode of the Andy Griffith Show, and that's as good as angle as any to take with this material, but the material really favors for no one - least of all the would-be hand dealing couple, an African American (Toby, played by Anthony Mackie, who gets some laughs mostly at his expense) and a blonde (Marilyn, natch, played by Zoe Kazan) who are subject to nearly all of the aforementioned ironic epithets.

Admittedly I saw the play in previews, but barely a week before it opens in earnest, I can't see the producers coming in to make any major changes. And why should they - the audience I saw it with, despite skewing heavily to the Golden Girl set, laughed at all the right places. There's no accounting for taste, but if you do like A Behanding in Spokane, maybe we shouldn't get the early-bird special together.