“If (artists) are any good, they make art because they have to … they don’t do it to please the market … (an Art fair’s) like a free jazz concert in here, with a drunken monkey working the mixing board.” Dealer Jeff Poe, Seven Days in the Art World, Sarah Thornton (W.W. Norton)
“The audience was a tad restless.” Woody Allen, Annie Hall
She leaned slightly toward her single snare drum, and her dark silk robe moved in the shadows over her lean body. She closed her amber eyes, waiting, perhaps listening for sounds beyond the museum walls.
It was the annual fund raising event for The Kitchen, a bright and decorous affair like any art openings in Chelsea, with a few in spring dresses, but some in designer t-shirts, all mingling with wine, Champaign glasses and canapés. I mingled about, purveyed the art on the walls, and above the clamor we heard one of the organizers trying to get the crowd’s attention. “We thank you for coming to our annual fundraiser for The Kitchen, and we want to introduce several of our artists.” A poet began to read, but very few seemed to want to pause and listen to him, or, soon after to the quiet gong percussion of a slight built Asian woman. Even as she started to play her notes, the chatter only increased in the periphery of the large Chelsea museum. We inched closer to her to hear the sound of her music.
She was obviously not playing for the crowd.
I approached her after about ten minutes of performance, shook her slim hand and said, “I’m sorry your beautiful sound was drowned in the chatter.” She seemed rather unfazed by it all. Perhaps she did not even know that only a few of us were listening. I told her I was an artist, too, and gave her my exhibit card for my show coming up in TriBeCa.
I received an email from Susie a few days after The Kitchen event. “You are having an exhibit? I’d like to see it.” At Starbucks at Chambers and West Broadway near my exhibit, we spoke at length for the first time. She was raising funds for a contemporary opera piece she had written called “Shangri-la,” with a poet Yusef Komunyakaa. She explained that the collaborative piece was about raising awareness of the underground sex-trade issue in Thailand. “There’s this character, a ‘metaphysical detective,’ who looks for a missing girl.” She said playfully, inviting me into her creative thoughts. Then she looked at me, quizzically and abruptly, and asked, “I wondered if you would want to participate in the project.” She speaks in the way she plays: with a quiet, nuanced voice, explaining the details of the projects carefully, patiently. But as she did, I sensed also a determination and drive behind her every word. She was a visionary, too, pushing the boundaries of music, art, theatre and dance.
We began to do live painting collaboration after the Shangri-la performance at the Kitchen in 2003. I do not recall the first time we talked about it: it came about as naturally as speaking to each other. I began to “see” the colors of her sound, and she claims that she “hears” the gestures of how I paint. I decided to use mainly gold and platinum powders mixed with hide glue, to narrow down to the gradual spreading of the heavy metallic elements on paper. Paper can buckle and as it dries on the floor. I had a paper maker in Imadate, a village in western Japan, create a particular blend of fibers and dye that would accentuate the subtle hues of thinly spread gold and platinum.
We asked Plywood Pictures to document our collaborations. Our journey culminated in the American Composer’s Orchestra performance at Carnegie Hall and Annenberg Performance Center at the University of Pennsylvania, for which she invited me to participate by live-painting on stage. But the film crew captured two private performances not seen by the public, one at Sara Tecchia Gallery in Chelsea and the other at the International Studio & Curatorial Program residency in Hell’s Kitchen. The extended performance at Brecht Forum, an avant-garde space in Greenwich Village followed. And most recently, her quartet that includes Bridget Kibby, a harpist, invited me to perform together at Le Poisson Rouge, now a renowned venue on Bleecker Street.
In all of these venues, however avant-garde or mainstream the venue, the experience is similar. Very few people in the audience seem to fully take in the performance, or to grasp the breath and depth of what goes into them. It seems we are to perform without much expectation, nor attention. Yes, every time, for me as an artist, there are new discoveries and unraveling of the language of improvisation. In this art form of collaboration, we cannot play to the crowd.
In the famed Joshua Bell experiment at L’Enfant Plaza subway station, The Washington Post had the violin master play as folks rushed to work, to see if anyone would stop and pay attention. Only a few people did (out of 1070), and he “earned” $32.17 in the 43 minutes of experiment, a repertoire that included “Chaconne” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor, and Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” . But one person, a demographer at the Commerce Department, did recognize him:
“It was the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen in Washington,” Furukawa says. “Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn’t do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?”
Joshua Bell regularly plays for concerts in which the best seats go for over $100 (he played at such an event the previous evening), and yet his playing could not slow folks down, rushing to work. What kind of the city do we live in? Well, it’s clear from the experiment that it is not the kind that recognizes beauty, classical or avant-garde, so readily.
So, if Joshua Bell with his 3.5 million dollar Stradivarius cannot stop people, none of us who creates music, art or work in iambic pentameters should expect much. But then what good are the arts? Why would artists spend time collaborating, spending days working on something that would not be well paid, or pay nothing at all, without anyone to stop to take it in? But we should note that this wasteful excess is being exercised in many hidden places, in homes where a child protégé plays his violin, on the canvases of self-taught artists, or on a humble square table filled with poetry. They may or may not turn out to be Joshua Bells, or Grandma Moses or Emily Dickinsons, but the prerequisite for the arts never seem to be a guarantee of an audience, or income. Artists are clearly not driven by mere monetary capital, but they are driven by another form of capital - creative and relational capital, the discovery of new ideas and thoughts and cultural geography.
But it is worthwhile to ask, “is Joshua Bell’s exquisite playing, or Susie’s quiet percussion, useful for society at all?” Is there a utilitarian reason for valuing their art? The heartbeat of the arts resounds with internal significance that quietly pleads for Art to be more than a mere tool. Art is the “organ of human life,” as Tolstoy would have it; co-joined with our deepest humanity. We cannot “use” the arts, any more than we can “use” a human being. This pervasive utilitarian view is a symptom of our greater cultural malaise, a view that can dehumanize the entire river of culture. Artists need to transgress against this truncated reality that views utility above the life of art. Thus, the essence of art needs to be useless, or use-less, because of the intrinsic nature of our excess. What is extravagantly beautiful is a deposit toward a greater fusing of purpose and design of our universe.
The universe is full of hidden mysteries, micro realities that seem extravagant and excessive. Why would a tiny little creature that lives in the deep, dark bottoms of the ocean (try Googling Munidopsis tridentatus, a Squat Lobster! Blind, and yet beautiful) be designed so exquisitely? Why so many stars in the Milky Way, and Hubble photographs (now sadly decommissioned) full of mystery and color? Art pursues, and points to, these use-less realities, or the hidden realities of the universe, and conversely, nature seems to beckon us to generatively create after her. We are inspired by natural phenomena, whether that be a once a year rain that causes a congregation of thousands of birds and beasts in Serengeti feasting in the normally arid, seemingly lifeless earth (see BBC’s upcoming effort,) or simply watching a sunrise over Stonehenge (see Discovery Channel’s Sunrise Earth.)
Nature herself beckons us toward a journey to be misfits in a utilitarian society, inviting us to a strange, silent dance.
But, even if art is use-less, it does not mean that the arts are exempt from our need for a responsible stewardship of our gifts. Our artistic expressions should act as a catalyst, or as a backdrop for the “theatre of God,” or at least the “theatre of Nature,” to mediate our communal experiences. Art taps into the core of our humanity, preserving, invigorating and delighting our cultural memories. Art, like Stonehenge, will become part of the landscape, through which the rays of sunrises see fit to embrace, but without being completely subsumed by nature.
And while art is not a mere tool, art creates useful tools like brush, camera or pencil to shape our expressions. “We are human beings, not human doings” states Nigel Goodwin. Our doings shapes our tools, but it is our beings that often leaving indelible marks of our exiled journeys. Art uses these instruments (often beautiful in themselves) to translate from experiential gestalt; art should not a translation of a pre-set ideology. Good art is not a one-to-one transaction, but a journey that sends us toward the possibility of one-to-many. Thus, each translation is unique to the context, and the language of the cultural reality, but at the same time refracting into the greater, enduring reality. Therefore, created art (or the praxis of art) is rarely repeatable or transferable.
Art, thus, just like the woman in Shangri-la, is also caught in a metaphysical maze, or at least a labyrinth. Like the detective in Shangri-La, we find ourselves confounded, even lost, in our post-Ground Zero haze. How do we, as exiled citizens, journey in our labyrinth?
As Plywood documentation rolls on, a viewer may see something rarely seen in avant-garde circles. Susie and her husband Roberto, also a superb percussionist, were expecting a child. During our process of collaboration over time, Susie became painfully aware of the difficulty of being a musician who is also an expectant mother. Many avant-garde settings are not set up, either in social acceptability or in slight gestures, to embrace a performer expecting a baby. As soon as one tries to have a family, we become a misfit to the highly regimented, rugged individualized world of the avant-garde. I’ve often had to explain to folks in these settings that I do have three kids, and am happily married and that reality seems to shock, and transgress, as much as any shock art of the 90’s. It seems that being a father or a mother is transgressive in today’s art world.
Thus, at the performance at The Brecht Forum, the epicenter of avant-garde, progressive space, she decided, without telling anyone except me, to start the performance with the heartbeat of her baby inside her womb. She had just recorded it at her recent doctor’s visit. As we quieted ourselves, the sound began in the background…Ta,ta, ta,ta,ta,ta,ta…As she began to build her sound upon the heart beat, I began to paint, first by dripping platinum and gold, and then with yellow malachite, and purple lapis pigments, poured over dark, wine colored paper. The pigments spread, and I could feel the weight of the pigments on top of the paper, cascading as I lifted the paper. The Plywood team set up cameras shooting Susie’s movements, and they set up my own video camera to project onto the wall, so I could video the surface of the paintings, and then have Susie’s face reflect in the puddles of water.
The resulting film/documentary is not a typical film that would be “released,” but meant to be part of future installations at galleries and museums. It is a “self-aware” piece that is used to birth more documentations (see the recent Tokyo installation/perfomance), of a documentation within a documentation; an ongoing reflective piece that will incarnate itself in various settings. There will also be unique art editions created using pieces of paper drawings used in actual performances, packaged with the dvd, in a specifically made Japanese gift box. We will begin to release this set at the Space 38|39 collaboration in the fall of 2009.
Susie and I did a live performance to open my exhibit in Tokyo. This performance was done as an offertory to generate a “gift economy” in gratitude to those who helped me to get my career in Japan started. The performance included live painting, but with a surprise ending that “gave away” art at the end. I was influenced, in part, by Yoko Ono’s performance of cutting up a map, distributing the pieces and asking the recipients to come back later to re-connect. It was also an homage to Sen no Rikyu, the 16th century tea master, whose art redefined communication in a war-torn, strife filled Japan.
After Japan, Susie was on her way to the Philippines, where she is working on a project to preserve the heritage arts of Philippino Kulintang gongs, creating a documentary overlapping the disappearance of heritage crafts and traditions with the endangered King Eagle, the national bird of the Philippines. She has asked me to participate in the project, to add animated images to the footage. The preservation of culture and nature thus can lead to the creation of new art.
Thus refracting in the pools of water in the avant-garde venues of New York, the Philippines and Tokyo, Susie’s drumbeat resonates humanity, continuing to draw those who are willing to listen to the quiet heartbeat from the womb of progressive art. Every time we collaborate, the sound of her gongs grows within me, pointing me to an invisible reality, to what the Celts called “Thin Spaces,” a space between heaven and earth. I am glad I stopped to listen to the slender Asian woman at the Chelsea Gallery. I am moved to be lead by the heartbeat of the unborn to collaborate.
And they named their baby Emanuel (God with us).