Friday, January 30, 2015

"Rock of Ages' (on Michael Heizer's Levitated Mass) by Douglas Messerli

rock of ages

by Douglas Messerli

Michael Heizer Leivitated Mass, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2012

Description: other day, with out-of-town friends, we visited Michael Heizer’s “Levitated Mass,” a work of art that is famous in Los Angeles for its long, complicated journey—given local road constrictions throughout the region and the impossibly large machine it took to carry the rock to its location—from quarry to museum. Along the way, in its many daytime pauses (the machine could only travel on late night empty streets), numerous communities came out to greet the oversized manifestation of expensive “art,” celebrating its journey through their streets, and further promoting this over-the-top art manifestation. Although the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and its dynamic director, Michael Govin, insisted that no public money had gone into the support of this multi-expensive project, some people could only wonder, was it worth the hype! Govin insisted it was, declaring the work a piece that would last centuries and would represent the museum into a kind of artistic eternity, alike, perhaps, the very popular Chris Burden piece, “Urban Light” which greets the visitor to the LACMA site which, in location, is now backed, in the opposite museum entry, by the "Heizer" rock. 
     So much publicity aroused public interest, that the museum gracefully invited people from all those neighborhoods through which the “rock” had traveled free visitation to the opening, which Howard—a former curator at the museum—attended; I had another event on that day). The crowd was so intense, that Howard did not even walk “under” the monumental natural force—which is what the whole experience of this earth-works-based piece is all about. 
     I’m delighted, actually, since the installation exists across the street from our condominium, that the “rock” is so appealing to audiences. One hopes for the museum’s success. It defines our neighborhood. But there are some doubts. My intelligent typesetter, Pablo, visited it with great consternation: "I didn’t want to walk under it and it seemed just like a cold concrete tunnel.” Others had had similar responses.
    Indeed, the tunnel under which one needs pass to experience the “intense” feeling of walking under such an expression of the size and power of natural forces, is rather cold, certainly not endearing to the exploration of nature: a long concrete tunnel, even if well-designed, that puts one in an intense opposition to nature itself. The rock stolidly sits on two struts imposed upon the concrete bunker, but one feels in the process of the long trek through the “tunnel,” that at any moment the natural, the “rock,” might crumble into its historical inevitability. On the day we entered, I muttered, “God forbid that a major earthquake were to occur as we walked below,” while the next day temblors shook throughout the nearby Orange Country.   

Description:     Yet, it wasn’t the fear that made this impossibly large project so memorable: I was much more awed by the two (now one) Richard Serra (Band, 2006) sculptures embedded in the basement of the Eli Broad Gallery nearby. This large “rock,” which can never be properly perceived as immense as it truly is, seemed like a place to simply “duck and dodge,” a massive natural image that didn’t quite belong to the space upon which it was impaled. It may be, as director Michael Govin has stated, it is an art piece that shall survive for a very long time, but one can only wonder at the poised rock: will the major earthquake we certainly will suffer in the next several years crack that natural symbol in half? And, if that rock were to survive, we can only ask what it might tell us about its own natural existence, now so carefully positioned into a museum installation. Is nature truly an expression of the large natural manifestation such a constructed situation? What does it mean to be poised there? And, most importantly, we must ask, why has a significant force of nature been brought to be installed there for millions of dollars? The question is not whether or not it is art, but whether it is an expression to capture our pagan need to worship natural images? Can one absurdly transferred rock compare to the millenniums of constructed stone pyramids? The comparison is, of course, ridiculous. As wonderful as Heizer’s rock may be, it is clearly not a rock of ages.

Los Angeles, August 8, 2012

Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (August 2012).

"On Credit" (on Eleanor Antin's performance of Before the Revolution) by Douglas Messerli

on credit

by Douglas Messerli

Eleanor Antin Before the Revolution, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, January 29, 2012 / I saw the matinee performance of this work

Of all of artist Eleanor Antin's numerous personae, Eleanora Antinova, the Black American dancer attempting to be a leading ballerina in Diaghilev's famed Ballets Russes, is the most endearing. Somehow the very idea of the somewhat short, dark complexioned Antin—a woman who makes no claim to being able to dance in "real" life, and certainly has not trained for ballet—joining the tall "all-white machine" of Diaghilev's company goes beyond absurdity into the world of a touching fantasy, when Antin as Antinova plays out again and again her several Eleanora Antinova Plays, performances enacted by the artist from the mid-1970s through the next decade, works that my own Sun & Moon Press collected into a book of 1994.

 Description: Description:     

     Of these works, perhaps the most significant was the 1979 Before the Revolution, in which, performing numerous characters—from Antinova, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, to balletic beings such has Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI—Antin develops her "Historical Prophecy and an Interlude and an Interruption." Although I have seen most of Antin's performances when they first appeared, I did not witness the 1979 premier of Before the Revolution at The Kitchen in New York and its later manifestation at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. So I was delighted to be able to attend what she has described as a  "re-performance" of the piece, this with several actors, on January 29, 2012.

     The work is divided into six sections: I. The Lesson, II. The Argument, III. The Vision, IV. The Rehearsal, V. The Interruption, and VI. The Truth, each loosely connected with the actions conveyed in their titles. The overall arc of this disjunctive narrative is Antinova's insistence that she dance a major role in the Ballet Russes instead of playing merely ancillary and exotic figures such as Pocahontas, etc., her arguments with Diaghilev, Stravinsky, and others about permitting her these roles, her insistence on choreographing her own ballet—wherein she plays a ridiculously overstated Marie Antoinette—her rehearsals for that performance, and her personal relationships with other figures of the company, particularly the disturbed Nijinsky.
     At the heart of this work, however, is Antin's personal "Interruption," wherein Antin states the major themes of her piece, and argues for an art that not only "borrows" or builds upon the past, but, in a Brechtian manner, creates a space between the artist and the figure she portrays, that must be joined through the imaginations of the audience. Beginning with a discussion of Diaghilev, accused by several as being a borrower, Antin brings several of these issues together in a monologue that might almost be stated as a kind of manifesto of her art:


And who is not a borrower? Didn't we get our face and our name from our parents, the words in our mouths from our country, the way we say them from the children on our block, our dreams and images from the books and pictures other people wrote, painted, filmed? We take from here, from there and give back—whatever we give back. And we cover what we give back with our name: John Smith, Eleanora Antinova, Tamara Karasavina, Sergei Pavlovitch Diaghilev, and somewhere each one of us stands behind that name, sort of.
     Sometimes there is a space between a person and her name. I can't always reach my name. Between me and Eleanor Antin sometimes there is a space. No, that's not true. Between me and Eleanor Antin there is always a space. I act as if there isn't. I make believe it isn't there. Recently, the Bank of America refused to cash one of my checks. My signature was unreadable, the bank manager said. "It is the signature of an important person," I shouted. "You do not read the signature of an important person, you recognize it." That's as close as I can get to my name. And I was right, too. Because the bank continues to cash my checks. That idiosyncratic and illegible scrawl has credit there. This space between me and my name has to be filled with credit. 
     What of me and Antinova? I borrow her dark skin, her reputation, her name, which is very much like mine anyway. She borrowed the name from the Russians, from Diaghilev. I borrow her aspirations to be a classical ballerina. She wants to dance the white ballets. What an impossible eccentric! A Black ballerina dancing Les Sylphides, Giselle, Swan Lake. She would be a "black face in a snow bank!" The classical ballet is a white machine. Nobody must be noticed out of turn. The slightest eccentricity stands out and Grigoriev hands out stiff fines to the luckless leg higher than the rest. So Antinova designs her own classical ballet. She will dance the white queen Marie-Antoinette. She invests the space between herself and the white queen with faith...."


Description: Description: profound statement of the separation of art and artist who must be given credit by both the artist herself and the viewer to make meaning, is at the heart of Antin's oeuvre, which, like a Kiekegaardian leap into faith, transforms simple desire into an almost sacramental act.

     The "Interruption" was even more poignant at the Hammer Museum performance I witnessed because Antin read these words on a small I-pad whose images disappeared as she spoke them, forcing her to ask her son Blaise to help her recover the message she was attempting to repeat.
     It was also interesting to have Eleanor Antinova played throughout by a Black actress (Daniele Watts), who certainly frees Antin from being seen as a white actress in Black face which some critics accused her of being the first time round.
     Actor Jonathan Le Billion was also very effective as the slightly mad Nijinsky railing against  Diaghilev, as the great dancer did in real life. But overall, the acting was mixed, with some figures unable to completely realize their roles. In part, that is simply due to the fact that in life these personalities were exaggerated and that Antin's work is not, at heart, a drama. To say what Before the Revolution is, exactly, is difficult. Perhaps it is easier to say what it isn't: it is not truly a play, an historical performance, a monological statement, a ballet-in-the-making, a personal encounter with a Black ballerina. It is all of these, but in its radical genre-bending elements, it is so much more!

Description: Description:    Although, as I mentioned previously, I did not see the original, it seems to me it is essentially a work for one person. Eleanor may not have been a greatest of actresses in that original, but given the "credit" we must grant to bring her art into life, the slightly mad ramblings of a single person, sometimes hiding behind cut-outs of her characters, seems the most appropriate rendering of this fascinating performance. Despite the separation of name and character, Antin becomes Antinova, becomes even the figures inhabiting Antinova's imagination in the original, and that, it seems to me, is the true miracle of this art. What we witness is a kind of madness, a madness, like Nijinsky's, that becomes transformed into something of significance. The artist in this work is almost like a child, a child so intent upon imagining other existences, that she truly creates them, bringing viable others into that envelope between the creator and the creation. If that act demands credit, it reflects back upon the audience for their commitment to the creative act, coming as a kind of unexpected reward for their faith. Art, for Antin, is almost always—despite its seeming focus on the various aspects of self—a communal act. Her King of Solana Beach could never have been a king without willing (even if unknowing) subjects. Antin's Nurse Eleanor Nightingale could not have survived the Crimean War without her imaginary patients, just as Eleanora Antinova is nothing without her willing claque. So too did the audience of Before the Revolution enthusiastically applaud this dramatic presentation of the dilemmas of Antinova's life.
     I was at Eleanor Antin's side after the 1981 performance, Recollections of My Life with Diaghilev at the Museum of Modern Art, when an enthusiastic attendee, with great reverence and respect, gushed, "Tell me, being so close to Diaghilev, what was it really like?" Eleanor was a bit abashed; she would have had to be in her mid-70s (she was currently in her 40s) to have actually performed with Diaghilev's company. Yet I perceived that never before had "credit" been so innocently and completely proffered!

Los Angeles, March 15, 2012
Reprinted from USTheater (March 2012).