THE CYNEPHILE

"The cinema is cruel like a miracle." -Frank O'Hara

Ming Wong’s Persona Performa


Death, from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, makes a cameo.

Ming Wong’s Persona Performa at the Museum of the Moving Image was one of the highlights of 2011 for me, in part because it synthesized the genres I’m most passionate about: cinema, art, and live performance. Ming Wong, a multimedia artist whose name deserves to be better known in the art and film worlds, created a fluid experience that morphed from a museum-installation to a theater piece to a dance sequence, to culminate in a screening-cum-performance. These different segments bled into one another quite seamlessly, emphasizing the protean nature of live performance as the audience moved throughout various spaces in the museum.

The catalyst for Wong’s piece—or perhaps the navel—is Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, one of director’s most austerely experimental works and the film that Susan Sontag deemed his masterpiece. Persona is centered on the relationship between two women: an actress who has suffered a nervous breakdown (Liv Ullmann) and the nurse who is assigned to take care of her (Bibi Andersson). The film is most renowned for an iconic sequence in which the same conversation is shown from both characters’ perspectives. The final scene will make you gasp.

Wong’s piece fleshes out the central motifs of the film, that of communication and doubling. Actors and actresses in blond wigs performed continuous configurations, deconstructions and reconfigurations of the film’s gestures, pairing up at the finale to mimic moments from the film in different languages with their images projected on the screen behind them. The performers were a diverse group of women and men, reflecting the diversity of the surrounding neighborhood, Astoria (which a narrator refers to cheekily as “Actoria”), and adding a layer of variation and defamiliarization. Here’s glimpse of what the performance looked like, but please don’t mistake the copy for the real thing—the actual event was immersive in a way that a YouTube video can never be.

Ming Wong’s practice reminds me a bit of Yasumasa Morimura, the Japanese visual artist who alters famous paintings to include his own image. For his video installations, Wong often impersonates characters from the movies—enacting his cine-obsessions as well as subverting expectations of gender and race. Wong (who is from Singapore originally but resides in Berlin) has drawn inspiration from auteurs such as Wong Kar-Wai, Fassbinder, Pasolini, Visconti, and Sirk, as well as exploring classic cinema from Singapore and Malaysia. Almost all of his pieces deal with language barriers, in juxtaposition to the obstensible universality of film-image. Though originally he was both the director and star of his films, his recent productions have become larger in scope, with several cast members, more elaborate sets and costumes, and numerous locations. For his next project, I’d love to see him take on a film that explicitly engages in multilingual wordplay (Godard, anyone?) collaborate with a well-known auteur (maybe that master of genre satire Tsai Ming-Liang) or re-construct an epic film—his artistic capacity to speak through the medium of cinema comes through loud and clear.

Persona Performa Panorama is on view at the Museum of the Moving Image until April 1.

In addition, many of Ming Wong’s pieces can be previewed on his website.

Big Art Group

Big Art Group, which has a show now at Abrons Arts Center, is one of the most interesting art collectives working today. Going to a B.A.G. performance is not for the faint-of-heart — they’re loud, fast, in-your-face multimedia extravaganzas. The group’s work is something like a combination of a theater performance, concert, and several film projections, all at once. What I love about the group is the way in which they hyperbolize our consumerist, technophilic and simulacrum-laden existence, transforming it into camp spectacle. (Sontag: Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.) The group’s founder, Caden Manson, describes it as such in an interview: “In the U.S. we are working from within the Image Spectacle; subverting the message and scrambling the codes.” Their invention of what they call “real-time cinema” is the equivalent of strapping an Errol Morris Interrotron to the performers’ chests, allowing the performer to be projected onto one of many screens. This is incredibly striking visually and provides viewers with an interesting choice: do I look at the body of the performer right in front of me, or the enormous close-up across the room? Which feels more dramatic, more immediate, more real?

I’ve seen three performances of the group so far: S.O.S., The Imitation, and Cinema Fury. Above is an excerpt from Cinema Fury to give you an idea of what they do. This show was perhaps the most raw of the three, and it did include that cliché inulgence of performance art, covering oneself with chocolate sauce (B.A.G. added glitter to the mix). But while I wasn’t always impressed, I was never, ever bored. Unlike most contemporary art, Big Art Group’s theater of cinematic attractions actually can compete with mainstream entertainment. Like so-bad-it’s-good television, you just can’t look away.

Imponderabilia [Marina Abramović at MoMA]

Forgive me for beginning with beginning with an insidious Kantian claim: good performance art is marked by an air of imponderability. Its most salient feature is its presence — its aliveness and unpredictability in the here and now. Its power is not conceptual but visceral, and though it can be parsed, talked about and chewed over after the fact, if it’s any good, what you will remember will not be abstractions of thought and meaning but the unforeseen sensations and emotions that made that-thing-there-that-you-see-and-hear stand apart from everyday life.

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Imponderabilia is a 1977 performance in which Marina Abramović and her partner Ulay stood on opposite sides of a doorway, forcing visitors to squeeze between them in order to pass through. I first saw a video of this piece at ShContemporary and while I appreciated that it was projected near the entrance, it felt a bit dated to me, stuck in the Body Art Moment. The “choice” forced by those who transverse the narrow passageway — to face the man or woman — felt disingenuous. On another level, I feel dissatisfied with just footage of performances: drained of the aura that emanates from live bodies, the initial provocation becomes an object of historical interest — nothing more, nothing less. In other words, watching videos of 1970’s performance art takes me straight back to endless discussions of gender at Bryn Mawr [cue Indigo Girls soundtrack here] which — let’s face it — gets old pretty quickly.

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WHAT!? (Shut up, Bryn Mawr.)

Marina Abramović’s retrospective and performance at MoMA doesn’t resemble so much school, but rather boot camp for performance artists. Scattered throughout the exhibition are “re-performances” (Abramović’s term) of her most famous pieces. Some of these are rather tame, such as a man and a woman joined together by their hair. Others look downright excruciating: for the piece entitled Luminosity, a woman balances precariously on bicycle seat mounted high upon a wall. The oft-talked-about re-performance of Imponderabilia is participatory, and you too can brush up against the unclothed body of your choosing, albeit under the eye of an exceedingly nervous guard who stands an arm’s length away.

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What I was surprised to discover was that Abramović’s performances still retain a bit of their sensory violence, even thirty years later. By violence I mean not merely the potential to shock but a latent or prospective violence, the violence of a potential reaction or expression. I have to admit my heart raced a bit faster passing through the two naked strangers (and since you asked, I faced the woman). And Luminosity snatched my breath away when I realized that it was a real nude outstretched on the wall and not a projected image.

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But the most chilling performer is of course Marina Abramović herself. John Perreault is right in that none of these performance art rookies can match her level of charisma, and in person, she struck me as a peculiar synthesis of a Buddhist monk and a witch. For her performance at MoMA, she will sit in silence at a table for the length of the exhibition — more than three months. You can sit in the empty chair across from her, but she won’t speak to anyone during the entire duration of the piece. The performance is called “The Artist is Present” and it as simple as it is profound.

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Marina Abramović sitting across from Tehching Hsieh, another master of endurance.

Except when she isn’t present. In this edition of Marina Abramović 2.0, the performance is webcast via a live feed from MoMA’s website. You can check in with Marina when the museum is open, and check out whoever is sitting opposite the diva at that very moment. Part JenniCam, part Andy-Warhol’s Empire, the webcast hangs onto the liveness but subtracts the presence. One hopes that people will not forgo seeing Abramović in person.

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In addition to the webcast, Abramović’s (and perhap’s MoMA’s) obsession with documenting her work is more than evident here, with three cameras, light reflectors, and a photographer that will snap the picture of every person who sits across from her. This is nothing if not a movie set, with Marina as its star.

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Except when she isn’t. When I visited the museum, a performance artist named Anya Liftig came dressed as Marina in a royal blue dress, her hair braided over her shoulder. On that day, I would say Marina and Anya shared equal billing, as everyone was entranced by this spectacle of look-alikes looking at each other. Here’s what Anya wrote on Jerry Saltz’s facebook page about her experience:

I went through so many transformations as I sat there. Initially, I wanted some rise out of her, some acknowledgement of my gesture. Then I wanted to confess, as if I had been a bad child. Then, I felt myself get so angry that I almost started to cry. Why was she so special and why was I so small and weak? The glory of the venue wore off rather quickly. At a certain point, I felt like we were locking horns. She leaned forward and so did I. I started aping her every little movement and I kept hearing myself say, “move over bacon, here comes sausage.” Then I would crack again. She’s so strong. I was intimidated. She is like a mountain. She is my hero. But I knew I could make it through the day. I was hallucinating all over the place. She looked like a baby to me at one point. I thought about how hard it is to let myself be loved, I wondered if she felt that way too. I asked her with my mind. I wondered what I wanted out of her, why approval from anyone was so important. I wondered if I really just wanted all of the people in the atrium to loathe me so I sat there and let them loathe me. I thought about my parents and that one day they will die and I will be devastated. I thought I was hallucinating the whole thing. I thought that performance art is a more wonderful experience than any drug ever. I wanted to pee really badly. I wanted a way in. I wanted my contacts to stop falling out of my eyes. Every time I thought about leaving the chair, I got pissed at myself. I got pissed at her. I got pissed at the museum. I just got pissed. And damn it felt GOOD.

Getting pissed is pretty imponderable, if you ask me. And though some have criticized “The Artist is Present” for being highly scripted, Anya’s performance proves that there’s space for unforeseen and unpredictable circumstances to arouse viewers (and potential performers) alike.

John Perreault’s Artopia review

A post-performance interview with Anya Liftig from No Smarties

A Pot-pourri of Links

art + video
It’s Armory Week, and the number of openings, events and parties in the next few days makes my head spin. Aside from the usual mainstays, the new kid on the block this year is the Independent. Born out the ashes of X-initiative, it offers an alternative to the inescapable shopping mall ambiance of the art fair — there’s even a panel on gluttony! And a film program too. Check it out here.

Scope also has a video program, with work by Martha Colburn, George Kuchar and fashion-y films. Sashay!

design
Check out the next generation of Polish film poster design.

fashion
Look who’s copying a page from the Vezzoli playbook: Agyness Deyn deigns to appear in a McDermott and McGough film.

film reviews
Andrew Grant (nom de blog: filmbrain) reviews The Ghost Writer, and thinks it’s pretty good.
You should see it, especially since all proceeds from the film go to the Roman Polanski legal defense fund. (Kidding!)

mystery flavor
My favorite posthuman Andrei Codrescu is anti-Avatar, and pro-zombie. Deliciously brainy as always.

zombie_vampire_hybrid
My friend Ziyan and I as zombie-vampire hybrids. Kristen Stewart, eat your heart out.

new york
Movie program ephemera from the 8th street Playhouse, which I remember going to as a little girl. Thanks to reader Jack for the tip.

photography
Andy Warhol: Unexposed Exposures just opened at Steven Kashar.
If the Factory had had a facebook page, these would be the pictures that they would post to their wall. Lots o’ pics online too.

watch online
The first and only truly Beat film Pull My Daisy (Frank and Leslie, 1959) is on Google Video.

Pieter Hugo’s Nollywood at Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Nollywood, Nigeria’s grassroots independent film industry, produces over 2,000 feature-length movies per year. This makes it the third* largest in the world, behind Bollywood and the United States in terms of the number of movies made, with profits ringing in at around $250 million dollars. Working with digital cameras and near-zero budgets, these films are a rare instance of autonomous film production in a third world country, and are wildly popular throughout West Africa.

Pieter Hugo’s striking photographs reveal, in a highly stylized form, the characters and subject matter of Nollywood cinema. Horror dominates as characteristically low-budget genre that appeals to audiences and filmmakers alike, and there are a profusion of stories about zombies, black magic and the occult as a result. But there are also stories about poverty, teenage pregnancy, tribal conflicts, HIV/AIDS and other contemporary realities that haunt daily life.

Not surprisingly, Hugo’s work is controversial, and he has been accused of sensationalism and spreading racial stereotypes (for these photos as well as for an earlier series, The Hyena & Other Men). But I think the sheer force of his images combined with the artifice-upon-artifice presentation make these photographs more performative than anything else. They actively seek to disturb the viewer — much like the films themselves.

And how do you get your hands on some Nollywood films? Format-wise, the films are mostly distributed on VCDs, making them hard to view in the United States. I have asked friends (and a few cab drivers) to recommend some popular titles, but it seems like there isn’t any equivalent (as of yet) to a Nollywood Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, the universally beloved Bollywood classic. You can watch full-length films at this website, but I was enraged by excessive pop-ups. The best solution for New Yorkers? Go to Harlem, find a vendor, and ask what his favorites are. Festival fare it isn’t, but for those truly interested in developments in world cinema, the Nollywood film industry is too revolutionary to ignore.

*Some estimates actually place the Nollywood film industry ahead of the U.S.

Pieter Hugo’s photographs are on view at Yossi Milo Gallery until April 10. There is also a photobook available via Amazon — the reviews indicate  just how polarizing these photos are.

Fish Tank [Andrea Arnold, 2009]

Fish Tank (which won the 2009 Jury Prize at Cannes) is a skillfully wrought and emotionally tense coming-of-age drama. Much fuss is being made over the acting debut of Kate Jarvis and deservedly so: her performance carries the entire film. Her real-life story is straight out of a fairy-tale; she was discovered having a fight with her boyfriend on train platform.

From time to time a film will remind us of the advantages of using non-professional actors; Fish Tank is such a film. Bazin writes of actors “who play on the screen the roles of their daily lives” and Kate Jarvis certainly comes from a similar background as her character Mia, an abrasive adolescent who dances to hip-hop music and dreams of escaping her impoverished milieu.

kate_jarvis_fish_tank_profile

The expert Michael Fassbender (Hunger, Inglourious Basterds) plays her mother’s boyfriend Connor, who turns his eye toward Mia while simultaneously filling in for her absent father. In one provocative sequence, he offers an injured Mia a piggyback ride that can be viewed as a protective as well as an erotic gesture.

fassbender_jarvis_fish_tank_piggyback_ride

What most critics have overlooked is that the dynamic between Jarvis and Fassbender, between a non-professional and a professional, mimics the power dynamic in the film. This makes their interactions work on several levels: when Mia watches Connor, her gaze is tinged with curiosity, fascination and a longing to connect; when Jarvis watches Fassbender as an actor, she is studying him with that same curiosity, fascination and desire. Similarly when Conner challenges Mia to perform for him, the actor Fassbender can be viewed as asking Jarvis to demonstrate her acting chops—in effect, to bring everything she can to the table. Bazin would approve of this parallel to their real-life relationship: in fact, he didn’t advocate solely for the use of non-professional actors but for a “casual mixing of professionals and those who act just occasionally”—what he terms an amalgam of players. It is precisely this amalgam that generates an on-screen relationship worth watching.

Read an interview with Kate Jarvis here from Little White Lies