Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 in Review: My Most Memorable (Non-Film) Artistic Discoveries

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—It's that time of year again: time for all of us to think back on the year that was and look ahead to the year to come.

For me, at least here at My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second, that means taking stock of all that I consumed artistically—because you all know me: always on the prowl for enjoyment and illumination, culturally or otherwise!

As usual, though I put a special emphasis on film when it comes to these year-end retrospectives, I'd be remiss if I didn't devote some time to looking back on some of the most memorable things I experienced in other artistic disciplines. So that is what I will do with this post.

Without further ado: my favorite (non-film) artistic discoveries of the year!


Photo credit: Solve Sundsbo
Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, exhibition at Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York
I don't go to as many art exhibitions as I should, so this was an easy choice, considering that I didn't really have much to choose from as far as art discoveries go. But...let me put it this way: Going into this blockbuster exhibition of the late fashion designer's work, I didn't really think all that much of fashion as a vehicle for personal artistic expression. As I weaved through McQueen's gloriously dark and impassioned designs, I could feel my own conception of the possibilities of fashion infinitely expanding. None of the other handful of exhibitions could quite match the boundary-pushing power of this exhibition.

Other memorable artistic discoveries:
  • the transfinite: Ryoji Ikeda's multimedia installation at the Park Avenue Armory was deceptively simple—a big monolith along with a few smaller monitors—but powerfully evocative of our digital age. (I wrote about it here and even took some video of the experience.)
  • Primitive: Those who thrilled to Apichatpong Weerasethakul's environmental evocation of history and memory in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives earlier this year found an extension and deepening of those themes in this multimedia installation at the New Museum, combining artwork and videos to paint a complex, vivid portrait of Thai life as he perceived it in the 1960s and '70s.


Photo credit: Stephanie Berger
Shen Wei Dance Arts, seen at Park Avenue Armory
This is an even easier call, my knowledge of dance being even more rudimentary than my knowledge of visual art. I wonder if I ever will be able to appreciate dance as an art form. I went to three American Ballet Theater productions over the summer, and frankly found myself having trouble working up much emotional engagement with what I was seeing. If seeing Shen Wei's fascinatingly abstract choreography recently at the Park Avenue Armory tells me anything, it's that maybe modern dance is more my speed than traditional "story" ballets. I shall persevere next year. Until then, I will fondly remember the thrill of experiencing the Chinese choreographer's new work, Undivided Divided—a work that divided Park Avenue Armory's Thompson Drill Hall into squares and literally invited us spectators to wander around the dancers.


This is the kind of volume that has the power to inspire an aspiring film critic like myself to step up one's game. Dave Kehr offers up insight after insight in this anthology of his work for the Chicago Reader during the '70s and '80s—but the most admirable thing about Kehr's approach is how humble and subservient he is to the films he reviews and the artists he champions. Those who think they know Kehr only through his Chicago Reader capsules and weekly New York Times DVD column owe it to themselves to pick up this book and see new sides not only of him as a writer and critic, but of the films he writes so accessibly about.
Other memorable literary discoveries:
  • Howl and Other Poems (1956, Allen Ginsberg): On a whim, I picked up a copy of this while visiting the landmark City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco in October (fitting, since it was through the obscenity trial that resulted from its publication of this slim volume that the bookstore itself became famous). Having never read it before, I proceeded to be wholly blown away by the urgency and passion in Ginsberg's language, beautiful in its own angry way.
  • Jane Eyre (1847, Charlotte Brontë): Here's another one I somehow avoided reading in high school/college until this year. Jane Eyre's journey to independence and maturity is still as inspiring as it ever was. (I still haven't seen Cary Fukunaga's recent film adaptation, released this year.)
  • Miss Lonelyhearts (1933, Nathanael West): a fascinating irony-drenched black comedy about a man who seemingly bears the weight of the world on his shoulders, whether he really ought to or not
  • The Sun Also Rises (1926, Ernest Hemingway): Gorgeous and heartbreaking, this Hemingway classic offers a corrective to the half-hearted critique of fantasy nostalgia Woody Allen offered up in Midnight in Paris (I tried to explain my thinking on that point here).
  • The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956, Yukio Mishima): one of the most vivid and unsettling portraits of neurotic madness I've ever read


Follies (1971, Stephen Sondheim), seen at Marquis Theater in New York
There were more adventurous works of theater I saw this year, but none of them delivered the kind of emotional insight Eric Schaeffer's revival of Stephen Sondheim's 1971 musical offered up in spades. It's the kind of brilliant revival that may well have you saying "They don't make them like they used to"—rather fitting for a musical about aging and the compromises in life.

Other memorable theatrical discoveries:
  • Gatz (2005, Elevator Repair Service), seen at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J.: This word-for-word, six-and-a-half-hour stage adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is as much a meditation on the act of adaptation as it is a singular experimental theater piece by its own right. (Not too far behind this: The Select (The Sun Also Rises), Elevator Repair Service's adaptation of the aforementioned Hemingway novel—less daring, perhaps, but just as inventive and perhaps even more affecting. Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't give a shout-out to another accomplished feat of book-to-stage adaptation, Amon Miyamoto's Japanese-language stage version of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.)
  • Krapp's Last Tape (1958, Samuel Beckett), seen at Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn, N.Y.: In a mere 55 minutes, John Hurt managed to suggest a whole lifetime of bitter experience in Samuel Beckett's typically stripped-down, one-act, one-man drama.
  • The Normal Heart (1985, Larry Kramer), seen at the Golden Theatre in New York: This revival of Larry Kramer's chronicle of the stirrings of AIDS awareness in the early '80s unexpectedly hit the zeitgeist when New York officially legalized gay marriage earlier this year. Thankfully, The Normal Heart—at least in this deeply moving production—plays surprisingly well as character drama, not just as polemic. 
  • Satyagraha (1979, Philip Glass), seen at Metropolitan Opera House in New York: Less a conventional opera than a philosophical meditation on the intersection of the political and the personal, Philip Glass's opera—given a fascinating and moving production by the Metropolitan Opera—still packs a mighty punch today, especially in the shadow of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
  • Sleep No More (2011, Punchdrunk), seen at the McKittrick Hotel in New York: To wander around the various floors and hallways of this "immersive" adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet is to not only find yourself ensconced in a whole new world, but to feel the possibilities of theater expand right before your very eyes. Love it or hate it, there was certainly nothing else quite like it.


Inuksuit (2011, John Luther Adams), seen at Park Avenue Armory in New York
No album I listened to, or concert that I went to, was quite as mind-blowing as John Luther Adams's astonishing feat of musical daring: a work that literally created a whole environment of sounds from the bottom up and asked us listeners to wander around and create our own musical experience from it. It is, I daresay, the closest to a musical equivalent of Playtime as I've ever come across. (I wrote more about it here.)

Other memorable musical discoveries:
  • Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998, Lucinda Williams): still the alt-country rocker's finest collection of songs. That tender grit in her voice never fails to slay me.
  • Egypt (2004, Youssou N'Dour): an act of cross-cultural empathy on a par with Paul Simon's classic Graceland, courtesy of an amazing Senegalese singer
  • How I Got Over (2010, The Roots): This may be my favorite Roots album, brimming with a lyricism and thematic ambition that makes it stand out among the rest of this hip-hop group's post-Things Fall Apart outlook. It's too bad it took me 'til this year's release of their latest (and very fine) album, Undun, to finally get around to listening to Black Thought, ?uestlove & co.
  • Nine Types of Light (2011, TV on the Radio): Their 2008 album Dear Science was my breakthrough with this much-acclaimed Brooklyn-based band, and their latest album continues the gorgeous melodies and joyous experimentation of that one.
  • Station to Station (1976, David Bowie): I had never listened to much of Bowie's music before seeing the Bowie-led Nicolas Roeg film The Man Who Fell to Earth for the first time this year. Eventually, I got around to delving into this famous glam rocker's catalog...and of all the records he cut during his prime (late '60s/'70s/early '80s, roughly), this is the one I return to the most, the one with arguably his most daring cuts (the 10-minute title track, for one) and his most soulful (for him) vocals. (His follow-up, Low, runs a close second.)
  • Vespertine (2001, Björk): my favorite album from the Icelandic pop songstress, lush, whimsical and beautiful. (Her most recent album, Biophilia, is...okay, I guess.)
  • W H O K I L L (2011, tUnE-yArDs): Actually, I think I like both this and BiRd-BrAiNs about the same, but W H O K I L L announces its greater ambition straight away with its first cut, "My Country." Either way, though, Merrill Garbus's bracingly low-fi music scintillates and engages.
  • 劉美君 (1986, 劉美君): I wasn't as vigilant with Chinese-pop explorations as I have been in previous years, so my usual C-pop discovery of the year automatically goes to this one, the debut album of Prudence Liew, a singer who somehow makes her lack of vocal grace an asset rather than a drawback.

Tomorrow, on New Year's Day: the film-related lists you've surely all been waiting for. Stay tuned!

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