Oct 25, 2009

I Wanna Be Your Doll



"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."

So wrote Oscar Wilde. It seems fitting, the day after Halloween 2009, to think about this quote. Were the ghouls, goblins, and dead Vegas girls running up porches, ringing doorbells, and dancing at parties really make-believe? Or do they reveal something deeper about the wearers? Maybe masks are, to paraphrase Wilde, the truth that dares not speak its name.

I've thought about the lines that run between, around, and through notions of play, theatre, past, present, and art a lot lately. As a woman in the twenty-first century, my sense of identity should be more fluid than ever, and yet female image -iconography -feels constricted, claustrophobic, and shrunken. The Irish great may have been using "man" in a general sense, but in considering some recently portrayals of women, I'm coming to believe the masks being presented depend entirely on who is is providing the costuming.

Pop star Lady Gaga has provided no end of interest or amusement for the media-hungry masses. Body stockings, planetary rings, masks -Stefani Germanotta is, in many senses, creating her own personal mythology and wider social iconography in a weirdly similar way to her predecessor, Madonna, who did the same thing over two decades ago. Gaga's mum may have christened her ambitious daughter with a similarly funny-sad/flaky-weighty nickname, but both have earned their wider social royalty; the latter is making it abundantly clear she never needed a counterpart Lord to have her own title. The clash between the perceived upper echelon of societal position and the Dadaist impulse of giving nonsense names is what Stephanie seems to be aiming at. Maybe. Similarly so Madge, who replaced the outdated, insincere societal version of holiness (and the saintly female icon image) nearly thirty years ago with her own brand of melted-down, rough-soft Pop Culture Femme-Prayer. 'You may adore me,' her mask implies, 'but you will never really know me.'

And so we haven't, even with babies, charity work, divorce. Madonna is shrewd enough to know that pop culture doesn't care about the deeply personal, that there's power in the unknowable. Gaga knows it too. Her hit song "Poker Face" celebrates the power of sexual power at the same time as it shakes hands with Mr. Invisible. Bearing in mind the rough sexual allusions, there's much to be said for the benefits of maintaining a "pokerface" -it is, after all, another mask. Did we hear Madge respond to ex-husband Guy Ritchie's inane "gristle" comment with any real growl herself? Maintaining the mask at all costs -even in the face of classless accusations related to pat intimacies -seems to be a necessity for the modern woman.

Cindy Sherman has made a career out of donning masks. Within the California girl, the secretary, the socialite, and the sad clown lives an awe-inspiring range of emotion and experience. This isn't just about using ingenious costuming, makeup, and photography to capture a "look" -Sherman's work goes one step further than fashion, turning the "look" into a wider storyline that is frequently disturbing, unnerving, and strangely... real. It's within the artifice that she finds a kind of truth that speaks to our perceptions around women and their relationships to image. Sherman doesn't just put something out there to be merely provocative -that's easy -but to ask questions around ideas of beauty, value, and the hypocritical politics of chauvinistic "inclusion." She does it in a way that in some ways reminds me of Madge around her Sex book days -willful, angry, daring, fearless, celebratory and challenging.

Seeing Sherman profiled recently on Art 21 (on an episode cleverly titled "Transformation"), I was reminded of something a fellow journalist had written about getting the pop culture we deserve. Publicists and managers now, more than ever, sculpt those in the public eye to be utterly envied, relentless talked about (in good or bad terms), and mercilessly duplicated. How much does someone like Lady Gaga actually control what goes out there? How little? The internet age of music and information consumption has meant that the concept of 'instantaneous' has been elevated to an artform. Only yesterday the Globe and Mail featured Halloween costumes that could easily transform you into someone famous. On the cover? Lady Gaga. Duh. Old idea; new ethos. What she is -and I'm still working it out -is somehow far less than what she represents: the colourful, noisy, thighs-splayed busting-open of a modern female identity that is merely an implosion in an old, dirty box marked "hawtness." In their staged SNL catfight, the first thing Madge grabbed, and kept trying to pull off, was Gaga's white-blonde wig. Through that small gesture of playful comedy, something whispered, "redefinition, reset, revolution... but only if I'm pulling the strings." Maybe, as a woman in the twenty-first century, that's both the beginning, and the end, of escaping that dirty little box, while keeping a poker face firmly, squarely, and sadly, in place.

Oct 21, 2009

It's Up To You...


The Guggenheim celebrated its 50th anniversary yesterday by offering free admission to all visitors.

The online world got in the spirit, with "#Gugg50" hashtags popping up on related tweets; the physical world celebrated too, with the Empire State being bathed in red to celebrate this most beautiful of cultural anniversaries. For fifty years, the Guggenheim has contributed to the international dialogue on art, culture, life, and the connections therein. It's inspired millions, and confused just about as many too. Over on my Facebook wall, there's a comment beneath the link of the Guggenheim news story reminding those who weren't aware (me) that Saturday evenings are pay-what-you-can at the Gugg; the poster has also added that he didn't think the museum was "worth" the $18 admission price. No, I wanted to respond, because what's in there is priceless.

Just like religion, we want a revelation from culture -a lightning bolt of genius, a flash of pizazz, something to wake us up and give us a knock in the knickers. At the same time, however, there's a push-pull between the known and the known; we're hungering after a purely transcendental experience, but in so doing, we don't want to be confronted with things we don't understand -things that might be bigger, wider, stronger and more formless than we're comfortable with. We want culture to conform to our very individualized, and very personal, notions around art. But this isn't what culture is about -sometimes it takes patience, persistence, and a change in perception to really see the value of something -and to recognize what's priceless to us may be worthless to another, or, more frequently, vice-versa.

HERB & DOROTHY Trailer from Herb & Dorothy on Vimeo.


I was reminded of this watching Herb and Dorothy on PBS recently. The documentary, done via Independent Lens, is a fascinating look at Herb and Dorothy Vogel, two unassuming New Yorkers who wound up amassing one of the most important collections of modern art in history. Some of the pieces they collected were indeed, quite unusual. The documentary includes a hilarious old clip from 60 Minutes, featuring a befuddled Mike Wallace staring at one work (by Richard Tuttle), and exclaiming, in exaggeratedly serious-journo tones, "But it's a piece of rope..." Dorothy and Herb patiently, excitedly, explain their love of the work -they're not patronizing, but equally they're unapologetic in their passion. They don't justify why they love the work, or why they amassed so much of what many might consider to be idiotic, meaningless canvases filled with blobs, streaks, scribbles, or indeed, nothing at all. They love what they love, and for them, art doesn't have a worth past their own personal experience; it, and their passion, requires no justification to anyone. That, to me, mirrors the spiritual experience versus the religious one; it's what Karen Armstrong is on about in her new work, and it's something many thinkers (and artists) through the ages have sought to grasp, even as it slips away: a vast, bigger-than-us unknowability that requires neither justification nor classification, only acceptance. The intersection between the profound and the profane is fine; the one between art and religion even finer. We hate accepting what we can't understand, and we hate ascribing value to something we deem has none.


It was through their massive, near-obsessive collecting that the Vogels not only experienced and participated in a truly gargantuate cultural moment (however accidentally), they also formed meaningful relationships with the artists they bought from. This connectivity enlivens the collection, and indeed, changes our perception of it. The canvases, installations, and all else becomes a living body of relating and sharing; just as "the word is God," so is, it would appear, whole collections that express cultural moments and impulses. Their value is past our reckoning. It's perhaps for this reason that The Vogels eventually gave much of their work away. Yes, gave. They didn't (don't) believe in profiting from what they love, and wouldn't take money for their own personal experiences with both the art and the person who made it. Worthless? Priceless? Go to the National Gallery and find out for yourself. And while you're at it, start engaging -with dancers, singers, poets, painters, writers, performers -the ones whose work you don't understand or may not even like. Start thinking. Start asking. And, to quote a past post of mine, start embracing the questions. The next time you're at the Gugg (Saturday night or otherwise) remember those questions, and thank God you -and they -are there.

Oct 19, 2009

The Nightingale: Fluttering Simplicity

Igor Stravinsky has never endeared those who crave traditional melodic lines. His music is raucous, rough, and challenging –not the kind of thing you can hum or whistle to.

So it was with a mix of trepidation and curiosity that I took my traditional-opera-loving mum to see the new production of his 1908 opera The Nightingale, an adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fable. She's always thought of Stravinsky as "weird" (you might too, if your favourite music is grand Italian opera) and I know she was never a fan of the Russian's challenging, difficult, definitely non-hummable music. His infamous statement, that “music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all,” has been assessed and analyzed, criticized and derided, and yet I suspect he may've been onto the same kinds of thing as Marcel Duchamp, or even later, Brian Eno. Stravinsky's work isn't about making you feel comfortable, and indeed, that isn’t the point of what I'd consider good art. Spoon-feeding is atrocious; it takes a keen director, respectful of the material but strong in their own sense of individualism and craft to bring a vision that might express something through the myriad of sounds and effects Stravinsky laid throughout his scores.

Enter Robert Lepage. The Nightingale marks his return to the Canadian Opera Company after a sixteen-year absence. Just as he brought a bold, striking vision to the 1993 production of Bluebeard's Castle and Erwartung so he brings a playful, if equally visionary sense to this latest work. Stravinsky was the musical revolutionary of his time; LePage is his contemporary theatrical equivalent. Neither artist has ever taken the safe road with regards to their respective arts, so it came as no surprise when it was announced last year that the Quebec born, multi-award-winning theatre director would be filling the orchestra pit of The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts with 67,000 litres of water as part of his vision for the piece. That's a whole lotta water, and people like my mother (a longtime COC subscriber) wondered if it was also a whole lotta waste-of-time.

But the idea -in its audacity, grandeur, and sheer weirdness -intrigued her, and I would imagine, many of those in attendance at Saturday's opening. Opera is meant to be big and bold and ballsy; there's no such thing as subtle opera in the larger scheme of things. The adjective "grand" is attached to opera (or at least some styles) for a reason, and it's always this sense of "the big" that pervades popular notions around the artform. I've sat through more than one production of Aida that featured live animals, including elephants, horses, and even -once -a zebra. So why not fill up the orchestra pit? Why not have puppets? Why not embrace the grand-opera mystique and majesty?

But even majesty is best used when it's done with simplicity, class, and most of all, awareness. To be big just for the sake of it smacks of narcissism; to go large without an overriding artistic idea feels simplistic. And the line between "simple" and "simplistic" is fine but it's important. Too often in the arts world -of high culture and low culture equally -the "large" aspect is blindly presented and unquestioningly embraced. Lepage doesn't offer any solutions for this modern artistic conundrum but he does have the visionary mindset to look behind and around him for clues as to how to solve it. In the program notes, he offers his theory theatre's origins: “Man was sitting around a bonfire in a cave telling stories and one day he stood up and used his shadow to illustrate his tale. Theatre was born using nothing more than light and imagination.” It's this sense of childlike play that the director transfers onto the complex musicality of Stravinsky, making for a unique opera-going experience that both pays homage to the roots (or suspected roots) of theatrical performance, and opens the door to a new way of seeing an old, frequently-stodgy artform. In other words, he reinvents the way we perceive opera and its relevance to theatre, performance, and music itself. he also make it personal, by injecting elements many of us recognize from childhood. They're simple elements, but not simplistic. Lepage trusts and respects his audience -their capacity for creation, imagination, comprehension and invention -and this abiding love of humanity shines through every aspect of the production. Clever, creative use of light, shadow, water, and the human form tease out the the complexities of Stravinsky’s work, revealing its inherent playfulness and its gentle parody of the foibles and follies of human nature.

In so doing, the composer's seemingly-barren, cold modern music is infused with a new richness. In The Fox, a Russian folk tale based on Russian Folk Tales by the writer Aleksandr Afanasyev, he creates a world where we see folk tales being literally shared -told, re-told, re-interpreted and recycled -with choruses of singers dressed in traditional Russian garb standing on side platforms. Fables about wily foxes, proud roosters, crying babies, and curious cats are shared, expressed, and laughed over. Another layer of theatre is literally grafted on top of this via a large, cinematically-shaped screen running the length of the stage, over top of the orchestra. Using shadows made by hands and later bodies (thanks to puppeteers), we see a cat’s tail swishing about, a rabbit’s eyes dancing to and fro, a rooster guarding his hens; each movement matches and accentuates elements in Stravinsky’s score. Here is a whole new way of experiencing the Russian composer -as well as the operatic form itself : as mischievous, theatrical, imaginative, perhaps even fun. Opera? Fun? Hell yeah. Even my mother said as much at intermission.

For The Nightingale, Lepage has taken Andersen’s fable about the golden-throated bird and the Chinese Emperor who covets her and turned it into a magical metaphor about the relationship of man and nature. As the singers control their puppets, with the aid of five talented puppeteers, I couldn't help but notice the near-identical dress between the performers and their doll-like counterparts. Puppet designer Michael Curry has fashioned a series of creations that gorgeously complement their human counterparts in both appearance, and, thanks to choreographer Martin Genest, movement. Each puppet is like a child, with a larger grown-up version of itself controlling, manipulating, sounding, and speaking for it. It reminded me a bit of when my own mother would take me to the opera when I was very young, in fact. There was something sentimental and touching about the way each singer cradled and carefully controlled their smaller, ornately-dressed selves.

With lights from the orchestra musician’s music stands reflected in the water, I found myself musing, amidst the swirling raucousness of the music: art is reflected in nature; nature shows art what is truly is; nature reflects but has its own qualities one can't totally control -and that is a good way of approaching (if not describing) the best sort of art. All this, from filling up an orchestra pit, though the genius was in the design. The reflections (intensified at the opera's end by Diwali-eque floating candles) were not incidental; Etienne Boucher's specific, focused lighting strongly recalled the work of Bill Viola, with all of its spiritual, simple-meets-challenging aspects, encompassed within a live performance presentation.

The Nightingale involves so much more than mere, simplistic effect; it is a wonderous, child-like vision of an eternal dance between the natural world and the constructed one. Via the shadowplay of the first half, and the waterplay/puppeteering of the second, we're reminded again and again to re-connect with our own playful instincts –ones, it must be said, that are as ancient as those first stories he refers to in the notes. Sometimes it’s via the most unexpected and challenging means that we come to find our own common humanity, and come to recognize our own nightingale, singing, flying, just waiting to be heard.

As to my mum? She's still not a Stravinsky fan. But she adores Lepage. Bien sur.

All photographs from The Nightingale And Other Short Fables courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company, photographer Michael Cooper.

Oct 16, 2009

Slow / Now

A current, entirely-wonderful program at New York's Museum of Modern Art takes the basic ideas of slow food and applies them to art. "Could you spend one hour looking at just one painting?" its Twitter feed asks. Actually, yes. I have done, and it's an intensely enjoyable experience.

When I lived in London, I used to go to the National Portrait Gallery on my lunch breaks and visit the beautiful series of poet portraits that hung in the Romantics section. I recall a good forty-five minutes vanishing as I'd sit gazing at Byron, Shelley, and Blake.

Later when I moved back to Toronto, I'd take advantage of the Art Gallery of Ontario's free Wednesday evenings (it was and remains a bit of a shock to me to pay admission, so utterly spoiled was I by London's free galleries and museums). I would go directly to the small but lovely collection of Monet paintings, where I would sit and gaze silently, worshipping shape, colour, texture, the magic of the rich, gooey shades changing form and implication with my own positioning, the gallery's lighting, and even how many people were or were not crowding around the painting with me. I loved spending this slow, meditative time with art. I don't do it enough anymore. There's always another event to get to, another work to see. My leaning toward Pop and abstract art, with its sometimes-bouncy, breezy energies and kinetic shapes and sparky ideas, frequently mocks and milks the 'faster-stronger-higher' ethos of contemporary society, but such works demand equal amounts of care, contemplation, and stillness.


It's hard for me to say if one form of art or era lends itself better than another to slow art, or if it should. I'm sure it's personal. But in this world of instant gratification and simple solutions, it's nice to find the slow-down-and-smell-the-flowers ethos being applied to so many facets of culture. I'm reminded of a line I heard in a production of Sholom Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears, on now in Toronto. Sholom Aleichem (real name Sholom Yakov Rabinovitz) was a Yiddish writer from Eastern Europe who wrote numerous stories focusing on the day-to-day live of his fellow Jews in the late 19th century. From these tales sprang the beloved character of Tevye the Milkman who populates many of Aleichem's stories, and is the protective father in Fiddler on the Roof; it's no irony that Theodore Bikel, who has played Tevye thousands of times, is performing as Aleichem. The production is a slow if loving meditation on the nature of writing, and performing, taking into account the importance of culture, community, and family. Aleichem comes from a world where concepts of "instant" and "faster" are unknown; things are steeped and brewed in the long, slow-moving stream of cultural lore long before they fully ripen. The line, delivered towards the end of the show, invites us to embrace the idea of accepting "fewer answers in life, and more questions." How wonderful. And how very exemplary of the Slow Movement.



It's an old idea, but it still resonates: it isn't the destination, it's the footsteps; it isn't the result, it's the journey. In trying times, we all want to cling to the familiar, the knowable, the easy and yes, the fast. But these aren't the things that are going to feed us. Just as deep hunger is not satiated with greasy fast food, our spiritual, emotional, and cultural needs (I'd argue they're all one in the same) aren't satisfied with simple answers. And so it behooves us to accept the questions -and perhaps, us exemplifying those questions. The Museum of Modern Art seems to understand this; we're not only looking, we're in the process of becoming. Nothing can be more timely, or timeless.

Oct 7, 2009

When Culture is Delicious

"F*ck Nuit Blanche."

So said by a good friend of mine, when asked about whether she had partaken of the all-night "art thing" that takes Toronto by storm every autumn. We both smiled. I knew what she meant.

I have to admit, the past years I've attended have been wonderful examples of community colliding with curiosity. Everyone is out and about, pointing, looking, chatty, silent, laughing, and having a rambling nice time. Then again, there are also whacks of drunken people stumbling along in bad outfits posing as serious artistes. There's also dreadful lines. And rampant pretentiousness. And gimmicky aplenty. And as Lynn Crosbie pointed out, there's also the annoying kid-factor. Eeek.

I didn't attend this year's Nuit Blanche. It wasn't out of any malice so much as the strictures of gut instinct telling me to save my energy. Not only have I been sick more often this year than in any other, but I had what I consider a higher calling: I was attending the Brickworks Picnic the following day. It's no surprise to followers of this blog that food is a passion for me; it's also art, and so it follows that I put my arty Nuit Blanche-esque, curious-arty energy into meeting chefs, sampling cuisine, and contemplating flavours, colours, textures and shapes. I wanted to engage in a person-to-person-to-soil-to-mouth-to-person connection -otherwise known as, yes, culture.

The Brickworks Picnic is all about creating awareness of local food issues and linking local food sources with chefs, and, in turn connecting that with consumers, who become, in the process, more involved in the entire symbiotic relationship between production and consumption. Intended as a benefit for Evergreen and Slow Food Toronto, the Picnic boasted an impressive array of beautiful food, gorgeous wines, and curious attendees. With 1300 people, the affair was anything but intimate, and yet, in meeting and shaking hands with such wonderful, talented people as Brad Livergant (of Veritas Local Fare), Ezra Title (of Chez Vous Dining), and Olivia Bolano (of All The Best), I felt an immediate connection with the arts of both cooking and growing.


One of the trends I noticed at the picnic was the theme of Latin and South American-influenced dishes. There were empanadas, tongue dishes, salsas, and beef, all infused with the gorgeous, rich flavours of afar -and yet made with ingredients that were local. How wondrous. Same goes for the many Persian and Middle Eastern nibbles, including yummy stews, spreads, kabobs, and delectable Eastern European treats (including delicate plum dumplings, above, courtesy of Hungarian-born David Kokai of Loic Gourmet -Köszönöm, David!). Again, the incredible richness of my own home province was made clear to me through this magical melange of flavours. The riotous meeting of colour, texture, shape and flavour with each and every station I encountered made for a beautiful, memorable afternoon.

The time at the Brickworks Picnic was even more enhanced by the beverage education I received courtesy of the many wineries on-site for the event. Reps at each were truly friendly and happy to pair dishes being consumed -or ready to be consumed -with their offerings. Owing to a chilly, rainy afternoon, I stuck to warming red selections. My favourites included Malivoire, Rosehall Run, Frogpond Farm, and FlatRock Cellars. After that, I headed over to Merchants of Green Coffee, where I gleefully roasted coffee beans in a metal pan with a lid over a high gas flame ("Think of Jiffy Pop!" I was told). Following a thorough education in the terroir of coffee beans and the proper methods of brewing, I enjoyed a gorgeous, rich cup of the resulting brew. With a syrup-meets-molasses flavour countered by a nice bitter astringency, it was coffee that made Timmy's look like the Naked Emperor it truly is.

Merchants of Green Coffee was ideally situated between two of my favourite items at the Picnic: Jamie Kennedy's scrumptious bean pakoras and Oiko's warming, satisfying Orange Pekoe tea. With dampness abounding through the Brickworks' environs, it was a relief to be afforded (make that saved by) so many cups of gorgeous, delicately-brewed tea, and a few crunchy-soft, flavourful (and deeply satisfying) bean pakoras with either roasted pureed eggplant or tomato raita toppings.

In watching the chefs and producers pack up as the Picnic drew to a close, I was reminded of the incredible work that goes into event such as these, and, in a wider sense, of the awesome work it takes to produce the very things we need to survive. And yet food has become too easy for us. It is something that surrounds us, but we continually take it for granted. The Brickworks Picnic is a magical event for so many reasons, but one stands out in my mind, in retrospect: it balances the connecting, life-giving force of food with the more rooted reality of its centrality to culture. And that culture means growing, producing, sustaining, supporting and educating. It's not about the quick fix anymore; it's about the process. It's not about impressing with a final product; it's about educating for a more rewarding and sustainable journey. Everyone who took part in the Picnic seemed to have an inherent understanding of these realities.

Nuit Blanche? Whatever. I think I may have found where the real art in Toronto was this weekend. I was so artistically inspired, I went home and... cooked.