Monday, July 16, 2012

Artistic Consumption Log, July 9, 2012 - July 15, 2012

NEW YORK—Honestly, I think the best thing I experienced this past week wasn't any of the films/albums/concerts/art exhibits/dance performances below, but the 105 minutes I sat through of The Clock on Saturday night. I'll have more to say about this in a separate post, but for those who haven't heard of Christian Marclay's epic video installation...well, Lincoln Center's event page for it will give you a reasonable idea of what it is. I've omitted it from the log below because I technically didn't watch the whole thing—but who knows? Maybe, if I plan things well enough, I'll eventually get to see all 24 hours in bits and pieces. seems this past week in artistic consumption was mostly dominated by music rather than film. The discovery that excited me most, however, came in the form of polka dots on canvases at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Yayoi Kusama's polka dots at the Whitney Museum of American Art


New York Asian Film Festival 2012/Japan Cuts 2012, all films seen at Japan Society in New York
Tokyo Playboy Club (2012, Yosuke Okuda) 
Chips (2012, Yoshihiro Nakamura)
These last two films that I watched as part of this year's now-ended New York Asian Film Festival offer case studies of directors boldly mixing tones in order to achieve moments of intriguing emotional complexity. Tokyo Playboy Club, for instance, features a lot of moments of pitch-black humor, but underlying its darkly comic sensibility is an awareness of the ugliness not only of the crime-dominated lifestyle from which the main characters are all trying to escape, but of those characters' essential natures which ultimately prevent them from being able to make that escape. Consider Yosuke Okuda's film a nihilistic Tokyo-underworld riff on that famous line from The Godfather, Part III: "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in," with a dose of "damned if you do, damned if you don't" fatalism. 

Chips is far lighter in tone, and it ends with an outpouring of hope instead of the human cries from a bottomless personal abyss that end Tokyo Playboy Club. But, in telling this slender (70-minute) fable about a naive professional thief with an odd obsession with a down-in-the-skids baseball player, Nakamura isn't afraid to suggest ironic undercurrents to occasionally undercut the surface whimsy. There's no denying that the main characters in the film, to put it simply, are deeply, deeply weird. The thief, Imamura (Gaku Hamada), is a naif who sometimes can't help but come across as a bit of a retard, if a well-meaning one; on the other end of the spectrum is an older thief-friend of his, Kurosawa (Nao Omori, who is also in Tokyo Playboy Club as a far more volatile character) who professes to have nothing resembling human empathy (he's the Japanese equivalent of the dispassionate detective Takeshi Kaneshiro played in Peter Chan's Wu xia, which also played at this year's New York Asian Film Festival). They're eccentric, but eccentric in specific-enough ways that their loopy behavior taps into more recognizable human impulses. Though Chips at first threatened to hit my whimsy gag reflex hard, the film eventually won me over, even if my jaded self couldn't help but think of those aforementioned ironic undercurrents even as Nakamura seemed to work overtime to deny them and end his film on an uplifting note. (Also, is there significance between naming the impassioned thief Imamura— as in legendary Japanese filmmaker Shohei Imamura—and the stoic one Kurosawa—as in Akira? I still haven't seen anything by the former, so I'm not entirely sure what to make of that, if anything.)

Thus ends this year's New York Asian Film Festival. I'm pretty sure I saw less this year than I did last year, but most of what I saw this year was pretty solid—bursting with invigorating creative energy and rife with intriguingly personal visions. As always, I look forward to next year.


The Young Mods' Forgotten Story (1969, The Impressions)
Check Out Your Mind! (1970, The Impressions)
Curtis (1970, Curtis Mayfield)
Roots (1971, Curtis Mayfield)
More preparation for the Curtis Mayfield tribute concert I'm seeing on Friday. Boy, Mayfield really let it all go when he went solo, huh? Curtis has nine-minute songs, lengthy instrumental jams, more explicit gestures toward social awareness, and so on. He sure set quite the high bar for himself as a solo artist. Does his Superfly soundtrack album trump it? (Roots certainly doesn't, though it's still quite good.) I shall see.

Channel Orange (2012, Frank Ocean)
This debut album from R&B singer/songwriter Frank Ocean also has an epic-length cut on it: "Pyramids," a 10-minute two-part song with a first half that wraps lyrics speaking of ancient Egypt, Cleopatra and unrequited love in glittering synthesizer arrangements and an infectious dance groove, and a second half that brings a high-flying musical fantasy crashing back to reality. "Pyramids" is, in many ways, an encapsulation of this fascinating beast of an album, one in which Ocean has a lot to say and isn't afraid to let it all hang out, however uneven the results may be. It helps that he has such a great voice and a way with evocative imagery as a lyricist. Channel Orange is currently riding on a wave of publicity thanks in part to Ocean's public admission of his homosexuality; thankfully, the album itself generally lives up to the hype. (As of now, the album is only available as a download on iTunes and on Ocean's site as a streaming link; the physical album hits stores Tuesday.)

"City Noir"—Ottorino Respighi: Feste Romane (1929-31) / Maurice Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major (1928) / John Adams: City Noir (2009), performed live by Imogen Cooper (piano), John Adams (conductor) and the Orchestra of The Juilliard School and the Royal Academy of Music
John Adams's City Noir is akin to trying to locate bits of a musical noir story amidst the cacophony of, well, life in a hustling, bustling metropolis. Thus, Adams includes bluesy saxophone riffs and things like that, and you can certainly hear them, but they are merely parts of a larger symphonic mosaic. It's a pretty cool piece...and the rest of this particular program that I saw on Wednesday night offered apt musical precursors: Respighi's Feste Romane for its sometimes surprisingly atonal evocations of Rome (surprising especially for those who only know Respighi through the generally tonal idiom of his two previous musical portraits of the Italian city, Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome), Ravel's G major Piano Concerto for its Gershwin-inspired jazz elements. As a conductor, Adams drew vivid performances from the combined forces of the Juilliard and Royal Academy of Music orchestras, and they offered solid accompaniment to Imogen Cooper, who brought the expected fireworks to the more high-wire passages of the Ravel concerto but also fully brought out the lyricism of its ever-gorgeous second movement. The best thing about this concert, though? I got to see it for free. Yay for culture on a budget! (The catch, though: I had to buy tickets for other Lincoln Center Festival events in order to get those free tickets, so it didn't necessarily come cheap.)

Visual Art

Yayoi Kusama, seen at Whitney Museum of American Art in New York
Apparently, the Japanese multimedia artist Yayoi Kusama is allowed to have a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art because her career essentially took off while she was in the U.S.from 1957 to 1972. Whatever. This is still a compelling exhibition; polka dots and all, one can sense, seeing the various photographs, canvases, sculptures and even letters and magazine articles, that one is in the presence of an artist with a distinctive, generous vision (both aesthetically and politically) and an endless penchant for experimentation and reinvention. Each decade seems to show Kusama going in a different direction; her more recent whimsical canvases hardly look like her more surreal, abstract works of the '50s or her more directly confrontational performance- and video-art stunts of the '60s and '70s. The Whitney is also showcasing a new work by Kusama, an installation called Fireflies on the Water. It's basically a soundproof room with lights hanging from a ceiling and water surrounding a platform on which visitors are allowed to stand for all of one minute. I think it's quite beautiful, at least if you allow yourself to allow a sense of eternal calm to simply wash over you as you stand on that platform.


Astral Converted (1991, Trisha Brown), performed by the Trisha Brown Dance Company live at Park Avenue Armory 
The word "astral" suggests something suspended in outer space, and that's what this 55-minute dance work essentially feels like. It's not just a matter of Robert Rauschenberg's set designs—eight towers in a relatively small space, each of them housing all manner of mechanical gewgaws, including sensors that turned on lights whenever a dancer passed by them—or the mostly bathed-in-darkness lighting scheme. That lost-in-space feeling is also evoked by the seemingly random noises that constitute John Cage's score, which, in its distinctly Cage-ian sense of play, seems to have dictated Brown's approach. This is basically 55 minutes of coldly abstracted physicality. Dancers enter and exit the stage at will; brooms are turned into dance partners; patterns emerge, break up and form into other patterns—there's no larger context to the choreography; the pleasure lies chiefly in the seemingly ceaseless flow of invention. Fitting, then, that Astral Converted essentially just comes to a full stop at the end; theoretically, a piece like this could go on forever, with Brown coming up with even more wonders of physical movement for her amazingly skillful dancers to pull off. As airless and oppressive as I occasionally found this deliberately plotless, emotionless work to be, once the lights from those eight towers suddenly shut off, I found myself thinking that perhaps I could have kept on watching this kind of thing after all. As I suggested in my write-ups of Tokyo Playboy Club and Chips above, funny how art can sometimes evoke such multifaceted reactions.

No comments: