Never again

6.1942.a-cFrom the Arts Voyager Archives: Max Beckmann (b. Leipzig 1884, d. New York 1950), “Departure,” 1932-1933. Oil on canvas. Central panel: 84 3/4 × 45 3/8 inches (215.3 × 115.3 cm). Left Panel: 84 3/4 × 39 1/4 inches (215.3 × 99.7 cm). Right Panel: 84 3/4 × 39 1/4 inches (215.3 × 99.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Given anonymously (by exchange), 1942. SL.9.2016.18.3. Image courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“What’s Dachau?”: Passing Over With Pilobolus Dance Theater & Sendak

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on April 19, 2000. The principal subject of this Flash — and the question above — is, unfortunately, still relevant today, in the wake of the 13 anti-Semitic terrorist attacks which have taken place in the New York metropolitan area alone over the past several weeks, at least one of them, at a Kosher deli in Jersey City, with deadly results. Today’s publication, in this revised version, is sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance. (As an indication of how the DI primed exploiting the nascent Internet medium to provide our readers with supplementary information with an immediacy print couldn’t provide, we’ve included the original external links. If they no longer work, please address the sources. We also primed overnight “Flash Reviews”; the one below was written on three hours sleep after a midnight train from Jersey to NY, probably for a 7 a.m. deadline before which I — and our redoubtable webmistress Robin Hoffman — also had to edit and post two other Flashes. So to paraphrase Kate Bush: Be kind to my longeur.)

PRINCETON, N.J. — March 16, a gallery opening in Chelsea: I stand before a photograph called “Wall of Death, Dachau.” The middle-aged woman besides me asks her friend: “What’s Dachau?” April 11, a courtroom in London: British “historian” David Irving loses his libel case against U.S. author Deborah Lipstadt, who he accused of falsely portraying him as a Holocaust denier. Irving claims no Jews were gassed at Auschwitz and that Hitler didn’t know about the mass killings of Jews. April 12, the Metropolitan Museum: Museum director Philippe de Montebello releases an extraordinary list of 393 European paintings of “incomplete provenance” from the World War II era. Notwithstanding de Montebello’s statement that “this is not a list of suspect pictures,” the action is in response to recent outings of works in prominent museums alleged to have been stolen from Jews by the Nazis. April 18, 4:30 p.m., Princeton: Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, tells an audience about the “intolerable trauma that occurs when the imagination experiences a chasm without the intellectual… ability to scan it.” 9:10 p.m., Princeton: Pilobolus, Maurice Sendak, and Arthur Yorinks try to give us a language, in dance and drama and pictures, to understand the Holocaust, reprising their 1999 dance “A Selection” at the McCarter Theater.

What makes “A Selection” troubling — and provides its intellectual girth — is that, for much of the dance, anyway, who the villain is is not clear. On the surface, it must be Otis Cook, a slithery, rubbery, twisted, earthy, perverted, deranged figure who enters ominously, a coat over his head, after the rest of the personae, a sort of family, have missed the last train out of the war-torn city indicated by Sendak’s backdrop of a city aflame, evoking the landscape of Chagall’s “White Jesus.” One by one, Cook tries to separate individuals from the group: giving money to Josie Coyoc’s little girl, obsessively trying to shake hands with a suspicious Gaspard Louis, making a move on the personnage who might be the mother of the group, Rebecca Anderson. Only Matt Kent, as a father figure, seems to sense Cook’s evil.

Kent tries to wrestle Coyoc away from Cook, but the rescuing becomes a brutal one. He swings her around by her ankles, which she stops only by — even as he is still swinging her — grafting onto him first with her knees, then grabbing his torso with her arms. He chases her, and she takes refuge, brilliantly, in the huddled group — Cook, Anderson, Louis, and Benjamin Pring. It’s a serious game of hide-and-seek, Pilobolus-style: Kent scurries behind the group; Coyoc’s head sticks out between two legs in front, upside-down. He sticks an arm into the group; his arm, impossibly elongated, juts out the other side. Her hair protrudes out of the top of this circle, but the bald Cook droops the hair over his pate as if it’s his. Then Kent pulls the hair, and Coyoc, out of her hiding place.

Later — or maybe, actually, it was earlier — Kent placed a possibly unconscious Cook on an operating table and, bare-handed, sliced into his abdomen. His arm bore deeper and deeper, until his hand emerged out of Cook’s mouth. Getting nothing, he then sucked –kissed? — Cook’s stomach. When I saw this dance premiere last summer at the Joyce, this is where the ambiguity kicked in; if Cook is the villain and Kent the innocent Jew, then why is Kent carving up Cook, Mengele-style? Other questions emerged, too: If Cook is the villain, then why is he dressed in what looks like the baggy garb of a concentration camp prisoner? If Kent is the victim, then why does his pursuit of Coyoc — which we at first think might be motivated by wanting to get her out of the clutches of Cook — almost turn brutal?

There are other factors that ambiguize whether Cook is victim or persecutor. He seems a mental case and, perhaps, a homosexual — both groups that were also persecuted by the Nazis. He does a goose-step at one point early on, but is it committed or a mockery?

And yet, on last night’s viewing, the ending couldn’t be more clear. Kent and Anderson are stripped naked by Cook who, suddenly, appears above them and upstage, majestically ordering the naked couple into one line, and the other three into another. One line for the gas chamber, one for the work camps is the more than implied. Cook’s groin-gear cinches it: on his front, a jester’s head covers the crotch; on his rear, a bigger clown head mocks us with a flapping tongue. Blackout.

On second viewing, then, I think I can at least hazard a guess about the meaning of the apparent ambiguity. Cook’s main objective, at first, seems to be to touch everyone. At one point he massages his crotch with his hand and then smells it ecstatically before eagerly thrusting the hand at others. My guess is that perhaps what the creators of the piece are saying is that evil is an infection, and can infect even the victims. (Cook also suggests a Capo, the Jewish concentration camp prisoners who collaborated with the Nazis.) How else to explain Kent’s mean-ness, and even some ambiguity in the other characters (when Kent is stripped, Anderson gathers his clothes and stuffs them into a suitcase)?

Choreographically, what stands out here is the troupe’s (in collaboration with Sendak and Yorinks’s) ability to invent still-new combinations with its inventive phrases. At one point, Coyoc stands astride — on deck?! — Cook who, flat, seems to glide across the stage. She also stands on Pring’s stomach as he arches himself London-bridge style.

The great irony in Pilobolus, these days, is that while it continues to find newly evocative ways to use that vocabulary in its serious works which, if anything, are getting even deeper and more complex — the 1997 men’s quartet “Gnomen” being another example — its comic pieces seem to this veteran Pilobolus-watcher, in a word, stale. Retro in a decidedly uncool way, last year’s “Uno, Dos, Tray” concerns two leering sailor types’ pursuit of a sexy (sorry, no other word here for the choreographic conceit), saucy waitress. They fixate on her ass; they feel it with their eyes closed, only to discover that they’re feeling each other’s – hardy-har-har; they go to kiss her only to kiss each other. This is comedy that is neither sophisticated, original, or wacky, and borders on the misogynist, notwithstanding that it was choreographed by a woman, Allison Chase, in collaboration with Coyoc (the woman last night), Anderson, Cook, Kent, Louis, and Pring. (A kudo is in order here, by the way; I think most choreographers create in collaboration with the dancers; Pilobolus and Momix are two of the only companies that officially acknowledge this debt. And while we’re on that subject, the Pilobolus directors who worked on “A Selection” were Robby Barnett, Michael Tracy, and Jonathan Wolken, along with Sendak and Yorinks. All the dancers in the piece, mentioned above, are credited as collaborators on the piece.)

The 1999 solo “Femme Noir,” also choreographed by Chase, in collaboration with Anderson and with Rebecca Stenn, while interestingly lit by Stephen Strawbridge and well-danced by Anderson (you can also see the influence of the droll Stenn, a previous Dance Insider contributor, in some of her inflections), is similarly unremarkable and based on a dated, stereotypical humour. Okay, there’s a large sombrero involved, but its use is only mildly amusing.

But there’s another problem that these works, as well as the spastically veering (Comedy? Nightmare?) 1998 “Apoplexy” have in common: Paul Sullivan’s music. Sullivan’s fantasy scores, the ones that are amalgams of spacey New Age trippy music and comic sounds — “Gnomen” is a good example, and I believe he also did the elegiac 1996 “Aeros” and the ominous and tragic “Land’s Edge” — are wonderful and Pilobolus-appropriate. My understanding of the relationship here is that Sullivan comes in after the work has been set, and creates a sound for it.

But where Sullivan’s scores seem anemic is when he imitates a particular style of music. In “Apoplexy,” for instance, when the work was being created, I’m told, the dancers worked/played to real heavy metal music, something like Metallica. But instead of just using that music, the company then commissioned a heavy metal-like score from Sullivan. (To be fair, the trippy stuff and sound effects are involved too, so maybe they had to have an original score.) Remember those ’70s television shows where they’d use faux-hip “rock-and-roll” to try to seem hip? It’s kind of like that. Or, to employ another analogy, the Latinesque music for “Uno, Dos, Tray” sounds like something you’d create on your Casio. Even the piano on “Femme Noir” is so faux Chopin that one has to ask, why not just use the original?

I press this point because when Pilobolus does set to existing music, its musicality is almost an unrivalled achievement. High praise, but what I mean is that even when creating with an unorthodox vocabulary, the directors and dancers are able to achieve a specific, multi-level musicality; sometimes it’s on the notes, and sometimes it’s to the spirit, but it’s always remarkably musical. Even the choice of music itself often has a deeper significance. “A Selection,” for example, is set to the music of Hans Krasa and Pavel Haas. According to the program notes, both were highly-regarded young composers when, in 1938, the Nazis branded their work “Degenerate Music,” putting them in very good company, but starting them on the road to destruction. They were interned first in Teresienstadt, a so-called model concentration camp (Irving would have loved it) in Terezin, Czechoslovakia used to hold up a sort of false front of concentration camp reality to the international public. (Alongside Sendak’s “The Wild Things” and “Chicken Soup with Rice” in the library with which our parents nourished our imaginations was “I never saw another butterfly,” a book of poems and drawings by children interned in the camp.) Let me just turn it over to the program notes: “There they continued, with varying difficulty, to write music until being deported to Auschwitz. They traveled to their deaths together on October 16, 1944. It would be accurate to say that the setting of this work has been inevitably shaped by a response to their music and their lives.”

The 1992 (’94?) “Women’s Duet” is another example of the Pilobolus choreographers having the chops to find movement that matches the most exotic and evocative of musics. To “Rosenfale,” based on Norwegian songs, arranged by Jan Garbarek and sung by Agnes Buen Garna, they created an erotically, sensuously charged duet in which the relationship of the women is ambiguous: they might be sisters, might be lovers, might be mother and daughter, might be simply friends. Many are the choreographers who are drawn to exotica; few are those with the skill to create dance at the same high level as the music, but Pilobolus can do this.

And then there’s “Sweet Purgatory,” set to a stirring Shostakovich string quartet. Created around the time of Stalin’s purges, this music is powerful, cutting, and melancholic, bespeaking some kind of horror, or Shostakovich’s reaction to horror. When the American Dance Festival brought the piece to Russia a few years ago, audiences wept. Part of this response was due to the music, certainly, and their knowledge of what it meant when it was created; but if the dance had been inadequate, just a surface match to the music, the response would not have been felt so deep.

And again, the brilliance of both the entwined, supportive, inter-dependent choreography and the dancing in “Sweet Pea,” as it’s affectionately referred to by the performers, is that it matches the music specifically and in capturing its overall spirit. So powerfully, in fact, that when I’ve seen others attempt to create to this music — and a couple have tried to in the past couple of years, including David Brown of Monte/Brown Dance — I can’t even see their dance, but can only see and feel “Sweet Pea.”

So where does this leave us? With a company that, I think — talking now on three hours sleep, folks, after having taking the last trains (you take the Dinky at the WaWa to the junction for the big train) from Princeton to Penn Station! — is, simultaneously, an under-achiever in its recent attempts at humour, and the standard-bearer for serious dance work. (For more on this, see my Flash Review of April 3: Getting Piazzolla.) Modern, ballet — no one is creating work at this high level of musical and dramatic achievement. And, most blessedly, COMPLEXITY. Pilobolus is to most seriously-themed narrative dance like foreign films are to American flicks. Sure, the Pils prompt a visceral reaction, but the other part of their uniqueness in dance today is that they make you think — not just about dance, but about life, history, and the human psyche. And that they don’t provide easy answers. More like riddles.

Okay, I’ve found at least a temporary answer to the riddle. It strikes me — having returned from a place, Princeton, that was the site of some of both my own high thinking and undergraduate shenanigans — that this company founded by Dartmouth folks still has in its kernel the heavy and light sides of a college milieu. They can annoy you with their sophomoric hi-jinks one day, and the next astound you with a cerebral achievement that makes you think things you never thought before, and introduces questions that continue to germinate in your mind. And reminds you why you admitted them to your school in the first place!

And we need art like this, so we don’t forget.

…. As well as testimony. Here is one bit of that, a poem called “The Garden” written by Franta Bass, a child who perished in the Holocaust, and who wrote the following while interned in Terezin. It’s collected in a Holocaust classic I referred to above, “I never saw another butterfly: Children’s drawings and poems from Terezin concentration camp, 1942-1944.” (Schocken Books, 1978) Appropriate, I think — as was “A Selection” — for Passover, which starts at sundown today.

A little garden,
Fragrant and full of roses.
The path is narrow
And a little boy walks along it.

A little boy, a sweet boy,
Like that growing blossom.
When the blossom comes to bloom,
The little boy will be no more.

(Pilobolus’s Princeton season concludes tonight, with its signature “Day Two” substituting for “A Selection.” Pilobolus purists take note: Tonight’s a “family program,” meaning no nudity and you’ll have to settle for those dreaded flesh-toned “Esthers,” as the dancers refer to them. For more info on tour dates go to http://www.pilobolus.com.)

(To see the list of paintings released by the Met, go to http://www.metmuseum.org/news/index.htm. To read more about the David Irving case, click here.)

The Futurist Anarchist Funeral is Now

orsay carraFrom the exhibition Félix Fénéon, Les temps nouveaux, de Seurat à Matisse, on view at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris through January 27 before moving to the Museum of Modern Art in the Spring: Carlo Carrà (1881-1966), “Les Funérailles de l’anarchiste Galli (the anarchist Galli’s funeral),” 1910-1911. Oil on canvas, 198.7 x 259.1 cm. New York, Museum of Modern Art, bequest of Lillie P. Bliss (exchange), 1948. Photo ©Paige Knight. In the entry for Angelo Galli (1883-1906), in his “Dictionnaire de l’Anarchie” (Albin Michel, 2008), Michel Ragon writes: “Brother of Alessandro Galli, stabbed to death by a guard at the factory where he’d gone to check on strike-breakers on May 10, 1906. During his funeral procession, joined by an exalted crowd, violent scuffles broke out with the mounted troops. The painter Carlo Carrà, who at the time frequented the anarchist milieus, found himself among the crowd and, moved by the mass demonstration, the violence of the brawls with the police, the black oriflammes being brandished and the shrouds covered with red eyelets, painted in remembrance one of the most astonishing Futurist tableaux…,” of a mammoth scale, exposed to great success in Paris, London, and Berlin in 1912. A contributor to the newspaper Il Tempo upon its founding in 1918, on March 8, 1910 (as Guillaume Apollinaire would note in Le Petit Bleue on February 9, 1912), Carrà joined Umberto Boccioni, the poet Filippo Marinetti, and a handful of others on the stage of the Chiarella theater in Turin to deliver the Futurist Manifesto, in their words “a long cry of revolt against academic art, against museums, against the rule of professors, of archeologists, of …. antique dealers…..” Fist-fights and cane battles immediately broke out, Apollinaire noted, the “great audience tumult” only ending when the police intervened. (Guillaume Apollinaire, “Chroniques d’Art,” Gallimard, Paris,  1960.) For more on anarchists and unionists from Michel Ragon, click here. For more Ragon on art — exclusively on the Dance Insider and Arts Voyager — click here.

But First, a Bullfight: The Eisenstein Connection–Que Viva Kirstein! (& Mekas)

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 3019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on February 11, 2000, grace of my father Edward Winer, who passed away  this past December 7.

NEW YORK — One evening in 1933, a young man was thrown out of the New School auditorium in Manhattan after he rose to protest a showing of Sergei Eisenstein’s “Thunder Over Mexico.” The man was Lincoln Kirstein, who would later co-found the New York City Ballet with George Balanchine, and he was objecting because he knew that this copy of the film, a much-truncated extract from over 200 reels Eisenstein shot in Mexico, totally went against the legendary Russian filmmaker’s plan for “Que Viva Mexico!,” his panoramic history of Mexican civilization.

Kirstein had sat in a small projection room in New York with Eisenstein and his colleagues, Alexandrov and Tisse, a year earlier and listened as the three watched and commented upon 30 of these reels. In an article in the April 1932 issue of Arts Weekly (included in “By, With, To, & From: a Lincoln Kirstein Reader,” edited by Nicholas Jenkins), Kirstein had warned, “If anything should happen to ‘Que Viva Mexico!’ between now and the time it is cut and shown to rob it of Eisenstein’s final fingering, it would be a loss of staggering dimensions. There are no catalogues of the Alexandrian Library which Caesar’s fire ignited, and we have only the Rubens copy to show us what Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari may have been. For us their loss would have been less crippling than this film of the heart of a consciousness, this testimony of extreme distinction.”

By early 1932, Eisenstein’s backers had pulled out, and his stop in New York, where he would try to edit the rushes, was one last attempt — as Jenkins tells it — “to retain control of his film.” From the wreckage, some smaller films were created, pale shadows of the master’s intentions. This is what had broken Kirstein’s heart. He would have been heartened, then, to be in the audience at Anthology Film Archives Thursday, for a generous four-hour showing of raw “Que Viva Mexico!” footage, assembled 45 years ago by the Museum of Modern Art’s Jay Leyda and Manfred Kirchheimer. (The footage had been donated to the museum by Upton Sinclair, who with his wife had brought together the film’s original backers.)

I should pause here to explain what Kirstein means to folks like me — i.e., the non-dancers in the dance field. If dancers have their Nijinskys and Pavlovas, their Nureyevs and Fonteyns as role models, we in the dance auxiliary identify with people like Serge Diaghilev, producer of the Ballet Russes; Kirstein; and, today, Charles Reinhart, the co-director of the American Dance Festival. As someone who was drawn to dance, and particularly ballet, not because I’m a dancer but, in part, because I love good art, Diaghilev and Kirstein have a particular appeal because of their demonstrated interest in, and support of, not just dance but the visual arts. Diaghilev not only used the leading Cubist painters in the ballets he produced; he also started his own art magazine, “The World of Art,” just before the turn-of-the-last-century. Kirstein’s interest in visual art, and particularly sculpture, is widely known. But I had no idea until my dad gave me the reader, and I learned of Kirstein’s closeness to the promotion of the Eisenstein film, of how passionate he was about this medium as well.

Last Saturday, I stumbled into a showing at the Drawing Center in Soho of a hundred or so original DRAWINGS by Eisenstein (including one of a sinuous “Harlem snake dancer”). While there, I learned that Anthology would be showing the ‘Que Viva’ footage, which Leyda assembled to summarize Eisenstein’s intentions for the epic.

So I hied myself to Jonas Mekas’s treasure of an ongoing, public film archive in the East Village to look for Kirstein. I thought that if it was important to him, it had to be important to me. What I didn’t figure on was that this material would be so obviously a matter of movement.

Much of the first half of what I saw (I only stayed for part one — hey, I’ve been Flashing three nights straight!) was almost ALL about movement. (Confession: The film was also screened without a soundtrack, testing my ADHD-challenged concentration capability.) One section is a study of a Via Delarosa march by Indians that is subtly intertwined with indigenous tradition. Hundreds of Indian men retrace Christ’s arduous road, all but the few Christ enactors within their ranks walking on their haunches; that’s right, hunched. The road, the climb seem unending. There is definitely a rhythm here. Like “Serenade” — the first ballet Balanchine created in America — there is also a story, with rites. And canon!

“Serenade” ends with the ballerina being hoisted on the shoulders of her comrades and carried offstage. The prologue of “Que Viva Mexico!”, at least what we saw, is mostly taken up with bare-chested Indian males carrying the casket of a fallen compatriot down a mountain.

But the heart of what I saw last night –and the most dancey material — deals with bull-fighting, gruesomely real and hokily imagined.

First we are shown actual footage of a real bullfight. A picador gores a bull; a bull gores a picador’s horse. The matadors (? I get the human sadists in the bull-ring mixed up) then poke the bull with banderoles (these have flowers on one end, and hooked blades on the other), which stick out of his skin as he continues to try to fight them. Then we are treated to many takes of each of various aspects of the bullfight recreated by Eisenstein. We get a bull’s eye perspective, as we view the matador from atop an obviously phony bull’s head, seeing the matador from between his horns. Truly comic fodder, as is a surprisingly modern sequence in which a dapper and obviously older, and light-skinned, male spectator, dallies with a dark-skinned younger man.

The most purely balletic section is the lengthy footage of the paso mariposa (or butterfly pass) to which, a subtitle explains, Eisenstein “planned to give…special attention,” perhaps “for its resemblance to ballet.” One can see why: The bullfighter, facing his quarry, splays his cape behind him so that he appears to have wings on either side. He flits back and forth with lots of fancy footwork, moving backwards as the bull charges, then whips the cape over the head of the animal — who also dances. It’s total ballet. (Eisenstein’s plan was to have Dmitri Shostakovich score this film, to Indian and Latin themes. One can imagine how splendidly the Russian composer would have treated this intense section.)

Indeed, in a very human sense, the footage I saw indicates that much of this film is very balletic. Prior to seeing it, I wasn’t necessarily expecting a dance film; even such a ballet monument as Lincoln Kirstein has a right to have other interests, after all. And, as a non-dancer involved in dance, it’s Kirstein’s very catholicity of passionate pursuits that appeals to me. But I don’t think it’s too much of an extrapolation to guess that, as he sat with Eisenstein and his colleagues in that small projection room in 1932, at least one of the reasons Kirstein found “Que Viva Mexico!” “an absorbing experience” was Eisenstein’s capturing of how movement expresses culture. This same belief, I would guess, would seventeen years later help convince Kirstein of the need for a New York City Ballet — for U.S. American culture to be expressed through movement as well.

Warhol’s showdown with triple Elvis

warhol elvisFrom the exhibition Andy Warhol—From A to B and Back Again, on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through January 26: Andy Warhol, “Triple Elvis [Ferus Type],” 1963. The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. ©2019 the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Fear and Loathing in New York: Mrs. Grundy Rears Her Head at the Times

“Here is nothing, we are sorry to say, but the desire to attract attention at any price.”
— Theophile Gautier, critiquing Edouard Manet’s “Olympia” in the Moniteur Universel, June 24, 1865, cited by Jacques Letheve in ARTnews Annual, 1959

“…what an idiotic project…. A night in the slammer probably caused him at least as much fear as he caused straphangers.”
— Michael Kimmelman, critiquing Clinton Boisvert’s site-specific project for the School of Visual Arts in the New York Times, December 18, 2002

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
– Franklin D. Roosevelt

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

(First published on the DI on December 19, 2002. To learn how you can obtain your own copy of our archive of more than 2,000 reviews by 150 artist-critics of performances, films, exhibitions, and books from five continents published on the DI /AV since 1998, as well as PB-I’s Buzz column, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com .)

As alumnus Eugene O’Neill once wrote, Princeton University is a tradition-bound place. It was still that when I arrived about 70 years after O’Neill, and I frequently felt the need to overtly demonstrate that I was a non-conformist. One afternoon in 1984, this took the form of deciding to wear a white cowboy mask for the day. My rounds included a visit to the bank and, well, you can guess what happened. The police were very nice about it, simply advising me that it’s not a good idea to wear a mask into a bank. My classmates put it more bluntly: How could I be so stupid?

In my case, it was I who was not thinking, and it was the bank employees who were reacting as they should to a customer wearing a mask. However, the case of Clinton Boisvert, a freshman at the School of Visual Arts, is another matter altogether. Responding to an assignment for his Foundations of Sculpture class that he create a site-specific work, Mr. Boisvert (whose last name would translate in French as “Green wood”) last week reportedly painted 37 Fed Ex boxes black, scrawled the word “Fear” on them, and attached them to girders and walls in the Union Square subway station. Not having seen the work, I can’t say with 100 percent certainty that it taps into the post 9/11 NYC zeitgeist. But from reading numerous reports in the local media, I see nothing that warrants a) the charge of reckless endangerment with which, if one can believe the New York Times — a big if — the district attorney intends to prosecute young Boisvert, or b) the condescending crucifixion with which Times critic Michael Kimmelman attempted to lacerate the courageous artist in yesterday’s paper. But then, it wouldn’t be the first time in history that an artist was working beyond the ability of a critic to comprehend.

“As the saying goes, art this bad ought to be a crime,” Mr. Kimmelman writes. Is this the best ‘criticism’ the chief art critic of the New York Times can come up with? Well… no! He then goes on to cite, approvingly, an even higher critical authority: the NYPD. (This would be the same NYPD who busted an artist of an earlier era, tapping into an earlier cultural zeitgeist, when Anna Halprin’s troupe was arrested for dancing nude at Hunter College in the 1960s.) “‘The kid is clueless, basically,’ a police official said on Monday,” Mr. Kimmelman continues, referring to the policeman’s quip, “demonstrating remarkable acumen as an art critic.” Well, actually — no. At best, what the police demonstrated, in responding to Mr. Boisvert’s installation by closing off the subway station for several hours and calling in the bomb squad, was a circumspection understandable from law enforcement in a post-9/11 New York. Never mind that, as even Kimmelman acknowledges, many New Yorkers had already guessed that the 37 boxes were an art project and not a security threat; a reasonable argument could be made that it is law enforcement’s job to err on the side of caution. One might also argue that it is their training to recognize even the slightest possible threat to public safety, and that they are not trained to recognize art projects.

An art critic, however, should be able to make this distinction. However, it seems to elude Mr. Kimmelman, who writes of Mr. Boisvert:

“Trying to imagine what he intended, I can only guess that he might say the boxes bearing ‘fear’ were meant to make tangible, as sculpture, what New Yorkers have felt since 9/11 — to give physical form to prevalent emotion. But that’s art mumbo jumbo. By provoking fear, the work trafficked in emotional violence.”

What a stunningly ignorant (“Mike, you ignorant slut!”) statement for a supposed art critic to make! Not all, but much art is MEANT to provoke emotional response. And not just of safe emotions. It is meant to hit us where we live. Cutting the NYPD the slack for actually removing the boxes — unlike Mr. Kimmelman, it’s not the cops’ job to recognize art — where, exactly, is the basis for charging Boisvert with ‘reckless endangerment’? Was there something inside the boxes they’re not telling us about?

And speaking of boxes: Also at Princeton, I had a professor of Russian literature named Ellen Chances. With her raven hair, pallid complexion and taste for old-fashioned dresses, Professor Chances looked like a heroine straight out of Tolstoy. Every session, she would write on the chalkboard elaborate charts explaining the literary and social context of that week’s assignment. One afternoon, Professor Chances did not show up for the beginning of class. When she strolled in 20 minutes late, she was wearing, for the first time ever, pants — blue jeans. She commenced to talk about boxes: The boxes we put things in, literal and figurative — she even pointed to the iron frames of the bright classroom’s windows as evidence. And when she was done, with 15 minutes left to go before the class normally concluded, she abruptly left.

In the United States right now, there is a big, huge box labelled FEAR. Can you see it? The Bush Administration grabs Iraq’s declaration on weapons before anyone else can see it not, of course, to edit out references to the numerous U.S. corporations and government agencies alleged (according to a German newspaper which claims to have obtained copies of some of the deleted pages) to have aided Iraq’s weapons programs over the years, but because the excised portions might help others construct weapons of mass destruction. Yup, put that one over in the FEAR box, my fellow Americans. Trust us. We know what you should fear.

Much of the coverage of Mr. Boisvert’s project has emphasized that he just arrived in New York three months ago, the inference being that he’s just a rube from the Midwest. I would draw a different lesson here: Plopped down in an alien mileau, Mr. Boisvert is, perhaps, able to see things — big picture things — that New Yorkers (or many, anyway) cannot see about themselves, captive as they are to the post-9/11 neurosis — how else explain Mr. Kimmelman’s exagerated response to a college art project? I could WRITE a thesis about this, but in painting that one word and those 37 boxes and placing them in a subway station, Mr. Boisvert has made much a more eloquent and communicative statement. I encourage his professors at SVA to affirm that he has a special gift. He didn’t “cause” the fear, as Mr. Kimmelman would have us believe; he identified it, as only an artist can. Mr. Kimmelman didn’t have to like the results, but he could have at least have had the eye to recognize the intention, and to reveal it to his readers, instead of abdicating his critical responsibility to law enforcement. But it’s not the first time in history a visionary artist has been pilloried by a tunnel-visioned critic. Mr. Boisvert, you have arrived

Chantal Akerman, Pere Lachaise: Was filmmaker-artist’s suicide an indictment of indifference and a Pop Culture universe that had no room for her?

akerman 2

Chantal Akerman. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery & copyright Chantal Akerman.

“Most of the time when people like a film, they say, ‘I didn’t even feel the time pass.’ I want the film-goer to feel the time pass.”

— Chantal Akerman, who killed herself in Paris October 5, 2015

“Comparable in force and originality to Godard or Fassbinder, Chantal Akerman is arguably the most important European director of her generation.”

— J. Hoberman

By Paul Ben-Itzak  
Text copyright 2015 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the DI/AV on November 6, 2015. Interested in reading more about famous artists who killed themselves? Click here to read our recently updated (and lavishly illustrated)  article “L’éclat de Stael — When Nicolas flew too close to the Sun”on our sister magazine the Maison de Traduction. For more images of Akerman’s work and a review with translated excerpts of Corinne Rondeau’s “Chantal Akerman passer la nuit,” click here.

PARIS — Exiting an artist’s atelier off the rue de Couronnes while touring the Open Studios of Belleville last Spring, I almost came face to face with three teenaged marines wielding AK47s, guarding a low building on the edge of the hilly Parc Belleville. When I quipped later to a French pal that it was nice to see the government finally doing something to protect artists and told her the location, my friend observed, “That’s around where Chantal Akerman lives.” While it’s not inconceivable that a renowned Jewish film-maker might be considered as needing of protection as Jewish schools (usually unmarked here, as if the spectre of the Deportation still makes French Jews discrete), in the end it might be tempting to conclude that for the Brussels-born film director and installation artist, who killed herself here in Belleville (from where I write you) October 5 at the age of 65, the biggest enemy was herself. But this would be letting off too easy a pop-centered public and media which supports less and less artists who march to their own drummer and who are more interested in giving us awareness than diversion.

Years ago, alarmed that I had used the term ‘slow suicides’ in a story for her Princeton creative writing class, my professor, Joyce Carol Oates, handed me an essay she’d written critiquing suicides, notably Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. The suicide, she wrote (employing the term as a noun), can’t actually desire to kill herself, because death is a negative, and one can’t wish for a negative. The death wish is thus a surrogate for another desire, e.g. “I want you to love me,” “I want to hurt you,” “I want you to stop hurting me,” “I want to be recognized.” As if it weren’t enough that the suicide had taken her life, Oates would also deny her the franchise of her choice, simultaneously insulating society from being indicted by her death.

While it’s true that no one can look so deeply into the soul of another as to divine why they decided to hasten their reunion with the Divine, given that Akerman took her life on the same day the French legislature had resumed debating the right to choose to end one’s life, given her proclivity to provoke, and given that by the accounts of her colleagues she seems to have suffered when her films didn’t get enough attention, it seems fair to consider her suicide not just as an act of personal desperation by a perennial ‘manic-depressive’ but as a rebuke. The French media’s very reluctance to address why or how she chose to end her own life (initial reports here referred simply to her sudden death or ‘disparition,’ and even once the suicide was acknowledged, no details were reported and there was no probing of the ‘why,’ normally a fundamental question for any journalist) suggests the troubling questions of culpability her action raises. If anything, the media’s scant coverage of her death — Akerman didn’t even get her 15 minutes — confirms that she didn’t get the attention she deserved, and raises the question of whether things would have been different if she had a penis. During the week of her death that I monitored coverage on the cultural radio programs, the commentators and critics seemed anxious to move on to discussing Woody Allen’s latest remake of the same film he’s been making for the past 30 years and the ‘new’ Warhol exhibition at the city’s Museum of Modern Art, while the Cinematheque Francaise could hardly be expected to intrude on its umpteenth homage to a popular American film-maker — in this case Martin Scorcese — with a mini-homage to Akerman. After all, they’d feted her in… 2000, and so a one-off screening of her latest film, “No Home Movie,” November 16 would surely be sufficient. (The Cinematheque Toulouse will do better by her, programming a week-long homage March 2 – 9.)

akerman 2aChantal Akerman, “No Home Movie,” 2015. HD video Film, 115 min, color, sound. Direction: Chantal Akerman. Editing: Claire Atherton. Production: Liaison Cinematographique, Paradise Films, Centre du Cinema et de l’Audiovisuel de la Federation Wallonie- Bruxelles. Copyright Chantal Akerman, courtesy Doc & Film International.

No one has even posed the question of why Akerman might take this drastic action on the eve of an anticipated grand success, in this case the first large-scale English-language exhibition of her installation work, being presented October 30 – December 6 at the Ambika P3 gallery by Ambika P3, a Nos Amours (which organized the complete Akerman retrospective in the UK from 2013 through this year), and the Marian Goodman Gallery, and the opening of “No Home Movie.” She was even scheduled to give a master’s class last week-end.

It seems only fair, then — to Chantal Akerman — to at least try to interpret her suicide, even if we can’t ultimately ‘understand’ it.

The easy answers include that suicide is not uncommon for children of Holocaust survivors (Akerman’s mom, who died in 2014, survived Auschwitz, while her grandparents did not); and that she was headed there anyway, given that her first film, “Saute ma ville,” shot in 1968 when she was 18, ends with the director/star opening the gas valves, putting her head in the oven, and blowing up her whole apartment. French commentators haven’t been shy about pointing to this as an early telegraphing, but having recently seen the film, what I remember most is Akerman’s absolute ebullience. Practically still teen-aged Chantal ecstatically hum-singing (the sole soundtrack), gleefully tossing things out of the cupboard onto the floor and then sweeping them into a corner, boiling spaghetti then rapaciously but matter-of-factly wolfing it down without savoring it, scotch-taping over the crevices of the doors and windows. Her early and greatest triumph (spoiler alert), the 1975 “Jeanne Dielmann, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” ends with the heroine, a middle-aged woman (the normally glamorous Delphine Seyrig, uglied-down) who prostitutes herself to pay for her indifferent late teen-aged son’s schooling, stabbing to death a client, but that doesn’t mean Akerman was destined to inflict that fate on, say, an indifferent journalist.

akerman 3Chantal Akerman, “No Home Movie,” 2015. HD video Film, 115 min, color, sound. Direction: Chantal Akerman. Editing: Claire Atherton. Production: Liaison Cinematographique, Paradise Films, Centre du Cinema et de l’Audiovisuel de la Federation Wallonie-Bruxelles. Copyright Chantal Akerman, courtesy Doc & Film International.

Broadcast interviews with some of those colleagues closest to her suggest Akerman’s determination to follow her own path — both in the stories of her films and her balancing between categories, whether fiction and documentary, or installation artist and cineaste — didn’t square with her desire to be loved, or at least to have a larger and more appreciative audience.

“I think she had a hard time making films today,” suggested the French film-maker Claire Denis, interviewed on France Culture radio. “Not because she was in bad shape or depressed, but because the cinema no longer offers the means to people like her, and I find that 37 films, it’s not enough. To see a film by Chantal Akerman…. Chantal was a warrior. One day we went to London together, to the British Film Institute, and Chantal said that we needed to reflect together, we had to find a way of financing tunnels to rescue Jews stuck in Russia who can’t go to Israel.”

The director Roman Goupil, who like Akerman gives voice to the voiceless and who assisted her on “Rendez-vous avec Anna,” recalled her clear eyes, her sense of humour, and her virulance: While they were scouting locations in Germany, “She systematically started fights in all the bars and night clubs” they frequented. For Akerman, “All Germans were suspect.” But the key quality — in understanding her suicide — may be what Goupil called her “Exaltedness.” Considering whether “Saute ma ville” was a predictor of her final act, Goupil noted Akerman’s telling him, “It’s not what you think it is. I would have adored Charlot,” putting her heroine more in the line of Chaplin’s tragi-comic tramp, although, Goupil added, “There’s an immense wound behind, and that comes back in permanence in our discussions, of the Holocaust, of the Marxist dogma that she doesn’t understand.” While Denis lamented that her death means “We will get no more films from Chantal,” Goupil consoled her that, “We miss her, but her films are there. ‘Jeanne Dielmann’ is something absolutely magnificent, and which is a benchmark in the cinema.”

akerman 1Chantal Akerman, “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” 1975, featuring Delphine Seyrig. 35 mm film, 200 min., color, sound. Production: Paradise Films, Bruxelles, Unite trois, Paris. Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. Copyright Chantal Akerman.

While this piece is not meant to be a recapitulative of her oeuvre, it’s worth pausing on “Jeanne Dielmann…” As too often happens with artists who address the plight of women of all classes, the film is sometimes praised for championing the feminist cause by focusing on a heroine essentially at the mercy of men, supporting her egotistic son by prostituting herself to men who don’t see her as more than a sex object. While this may be true, and laudable, it ignores her larger, filmic achievement. In “Jeanne Dielmann,” Akerman tinkered with the mechanism of the medium itself; if film is largely about time, Akerman messed with the timing and managed to give the illusion in 3.5 hours of about 48 hours conveyed in real time. I found a copy not in a European cinematheque but my local library in a Latino neighborhood of Fort Worth, Texas. When I recommended it to the librarian, a woman of about my and the heroine’s age, I was afraid that if it bored her to death — because of the length and because on the surface, nothing much ‘happens’ until the end — she’d no longer take my suggestions seriously. But she came back to me and stated simply, “It’s about routine, and what happens when you get trapped in it. And the importance of ritual, and what happens when that gets disturbed.” There’s a segment in which Jeanne patiently makes her morning latte — precious because it’s a moment just for her — tastes it, and, scowling, throws the whole thing out and starts over again; the milk has perhaps turned rancid. In the extraordinary ‘making of’ documentary by Sami Frey — he of Akerman idol Jean-Luc Godard’s “Bande a part” (his “Pierrot le fou” inspired her to make films) — Akerman’s seen making Seyrig repeat the scene again and again until she slows down enough.

During the 2004 Akerman retrospective at the Centre Pompidou, the film-maker took questions after a screening of her 1996 “A divan in New York,” shown that night in a rare French dubbed version, but which I’d also seen at New York’s Anthology Film Archives (a prime source for Akerman when she was learning her trade). The story concerns a dour Manhattan psychologist (William Hurt) who exchanges apartments with a carefree Belleville Bohemian (Juliette Binoche, of course). When his clients mistake her for his replacement, she goes with the program, with improved results; he no sooner hits Belleville than the hammering by construction workers starts on his roof. (I can relate.) He heads back early, discovers her masquerade, they quarrel, she returns to Paris, he loosens up and follows her back. I loved the film — I hadn’t yet seen “Jeanne Dielmann” and realized that this was really what she was about — and thought Akerman would be pleased when I told her so. She, it turns out, hated it — no doubt because it was commercial — even complaining about spoiled stars insisting on their limousines. (She didn’t specify which.) In the same festival, when I took a fellow American to see Akerman’s film about racism in the south, my gal pal pointed to one of the white trash male characters and said, “I know that guy,” meaning that this director born in Belgium had succeeded in authentically capturing (without judging) an American archetype.

Reviewing the Ambika P3 exhibition in the November 4 edition of the Guardian, Adrian Sarle writes: “Akerman said she felt that the kind of films that sweep you up and make you forget yourself were robbing you of your time and of life itself. She wants you to feel every passing second. Watch or don’t watch, stay or leave. She makes me feel the world pulse through me, with all its urgency and all its stalled moments.”

I wonder — speculate, really — whether Akerman felt those seconds at an accelerated rate. I wonder if, sitting in her Belleville apartment with the trees just outside the window, she got trapped in her hyper-awareness. I wonder if she ventured out enough to the top of the parc Belleville, from the belvedere of which you can see the sun seting over the Eiffel tower at twilight and the changing colors of the foliage. I wonder if seeing three to five or, at times, even a platoon of marines guarding an unmarked Jewish school (in a neighborhood which used to be dominated by Jews, and is now the most multi-cultural in Paris) made her feel (rightly or wrongly) that after all these years, she was not safe from the anti-Semitism which took most of her family, even in Paris, with its hyper-protection of its Jewish residents. (When I see those guards, while I’m grateful for their service, the perceived threat that their presence represents makes me feel more anxious than assured. And I wonder how it makes those school-children feel about the world that surrounds them. They may not have to wear yellow stars, but do they feel, even if not accurately, just as marked?) I wonder how she felt about the fact that the operators of so many Jewish schools and synagogues still feel, 70 years after the Deportation and Shoah, the need to hide who they are. These are not my sentiments, so I am not projecting here but rather considering Akerman’s strong ties with her Holocaust survivor mother and her strong feelings for Israel. But mostly, I wonder about the responsibility of myself and my cultural gatekeeper colleagues in directing a cultural diet that doesn’t have room for a Chantal Akerman. (And not just in France; in the U.S., following her death, Turner Classic Movies broadcast “Jeanne Dielmann”… at 3h30 in the morning. Who can stay up until 3:30 in the morning to watch a three-and-a-half hour film, unless it’s with the goal of being put to sleep?) And I can’t help concluding that while she was providing us, uniquely, with a reminder of the preciousness of time, we failed to hold her precious.

 Chantal Akerman is interred at the Pere Lachaise cemetery. Special thanks to M.E..

akerman 4Chantal Akerman, “Tombe de nuit sur Shanghai” (Nightfall in Shanghai), 2007-2009. Installation video, color, sound, 14 minutes, in loop, with two Chinese light boxes. Production: LX Filmes / Fundacao Gulbenkian. Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. Copyright Chantal Akerman. Photo copyright Marc Domage.