Tag: Jenny Holzer

“Money Creates Taste”

On any given day, I’ll plug a series of favorite tags into Tumblr to see what come up. I’m curious to see if there’s anything new, inspiring, or interesting about my favorite topics or people. Something that catches my eye might get a “like” or even a reblog. Tumblr has a pleasing immediacy of visual experience that’s utterly lacking in strict classification (unlike Pinterest), which makes it somehow more visceral and pleasingly jolting than other platforms (if also occasionally challenge to post to – you’re never sure just what’ll blow up, or why). Tonight I plugged in the name of a longtime favorite artist, just to see what came up. I wasn’t prepared for the result.

Jenny Holzer, it appears, has gone high-fashion. Her truisms are appearing in Vogue Italia alongside model/singer/actor Milla Jovovich, carefully posed and poised in a variety of high-end settings. Is this to coincide with the release of Resident Evil: Retribution? Is it making a political point? Is it trying to bridge the worlds of high fashion and art (not that they need help)? My initial reaction was deeply unsettled; I felt dismayed Holzer would sell her talent out to an industry that is so reliant on the ephemeral, the superficial, the temporal and the boringly inauthentic. Her art has always struck me as the precise opposite of those qualities; real, deep, fierce, and deeply, sarcastically challenging of the expected norm, it also possesses a deeply feminist quality that separates it from many other contemporary artworks. Holzer’s work is ferociously female and isn’t afraid to express that through her art, while retaining her sense of being a human being -and human creator- first and foremost. (For an interesting corollary -and contrast – check the work of Cindy Sherman, who recently collaborated with M.A.C.) And there’s something awfully disconcerting about seeing Holzer’s snippy, snide truisms stuck beside super-pricey, high-end frocks most people will never wear, much less be able to afford. What the hell is someone as smart as Holzer doing in the flaky, flimsy, aesthetically-obsessed, surface-worshipping world of high fashion? And why would it be with someone who’s known for being very pretty, but doing very little, outside of (wildly successful, if deeply lowbrow) zombie movies (and games), oodles of posing, a very mediocre album (yes, some of us bought it), and a mysterious Oscar appearance? Why Jenny, why? I’m sure my snobbery’s showing at this point, but… c’est la vie.

In re-examining these images now, an hour or so later, I find myself intrigued, challenged, confused -and rather enjoying that mix of feelings. (Also, Peter Lindbergh’s photography work is truly gorgeous.) I recently told a friend, after she’d viewed the work of Egon Schiele in-person and found it “upsetting,” that art shouldn’t be about making one comfortable, that art isn’t about reassurance, or validating our world view; it’s frequently about riling up feelings of discomfort and challenging our smug, too-cozy preconceptions. I wrote this to her last week, and now I’m being confronted with that very experience. Karma, irony, just-desserts, call it what you will… but I’m glad I plugged Holzer’s name into Tumblr tonight. Maybe it’s about creating a strong contrast – between all that high-end frockery and the raw realness of Holzer’s art. Maybe it’s about confronting women like me with our pre-conceived ideas relating to art, fashion, self-image, and empowerment. Maybe, amidst the shallow parade of lights and finery, there’s some fierce depth going on.

Lesson? Not all art will conform to my definitions and world view -to my experience of being a woman, of being a writer, a culture vulture, a human being -and perhaps some of it -especially the work of favorite artists -shouldn’t.

Thanks for the confusion, Jenny. Thinking too much can only cause problems.

(Note: Title of this blog post is also a Holzer trusim!)

Twenty Zoo

The desire to be accurate with anniversaries and remembrances grows over the years. When you don’t have kids or a partner to mark time for you with loose teeth and grey hairs, odd drawings and fancy diplomas, you have to choose other markers.

Twenty years ago I trundled off to Maple Leaf Gardens, then a rattling old hockey arena for a hard-scrabble team, for a rock concert. There were cars hanging from the ceiling. And screens. Lots of them.

I’d been leafing through Orwell, gawking at Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, sitting googie-eyed at the movies of Marlene Dietrich, and enchanted by the music of the Weimar republic. I’d been letting Ziggy Stardust and Kraftwerk lull me to sleep and jotting down strange thoughts and abstract shapes in journals spread across wooden floors alongside plates of half-eaten baguette and unfinished essays.
It’s okay if you don’t have a computer, the teacher had said, not everyone does. Just print neatly and it’ll be fine.
I trudged up the stairs of the Carlton subway stop to be confronted with a choir of rosy-cheeked faces.
‘Tickets! Anyone selling? Anyone? Please?’
I walked through the masses, hands stuffed in deep, smooth winter pockets.
‘You selling?!’ a swarthy, balding, wild-eyed man asked me as I reached the top of the stairs.
No way, I told him.
‘Come on. Give you a hundred bucks.’
No.
I hadn’t even seen the band inside, but something in me said… go.
The lines for the loos were ridiculous. The lines for a bottle of water were ridiculous. Four dollars? Ridiculous. I was used to the concert hall, Lincoln Center, Roy Thompson Hall, Jesus, why was everyone pushing and shouting?
Settling in, I noted my side-view of the stage. The myriad of screens and cars and metallic pieces of spaced-out junk, poked out hither and thither, at all angles, like Picasso came to life via Flash Gordon. Oh. Was this supposed to be art? MOMA did it better.
The Pixies took the stage. I made a face. Who is this? God, that guy’s ugly. I thought about Pavarotti and Ziggy Stardust and the essay I was writing for Classics defending Clytemnestra. Really, she was the victim of historical sexism, and I had to set things straight, between bites of brie and glances at Ginsberg.
The Pixies left, I sighed with relief, my seatmate got popcorn. I doodled in my chip-faced journal. Time passed. I jotted down potential screenplay ideas, and put the journal in my backpack, where a copy of Naked Lunch was tucked away. It made no sense, but it made the clang-clang-clang of the subway easier.
My seatmate and I munched the popcorn, laughed at people’s hairdos, picking our teeth and gossiping, trading ideas and avoiding the yawning reality of graduation. He crumpled up the empty bucket and whipped it under his chair, ever-polite with a jaunty whistle and a bright-eyed grin.
I looked at the stage, and noted a small man wandering onto it. He wore dark over-large sunglasses, tight black leathers. He was looking around, curious, head cocked and smirking. A few people shrieked. Then a few more. I cocked my head back at him. Such a big head he had. Such big dark hair. And such big glasses. The arena was in an uproar. Oh? The show’s starting now?
It’s Jesus, I whispered sarcastically to my companion. He’s gonna save us all.

For the next two hours, I was witness to a marriage of words, music, ideas, art, sound, performance, and sheer theater such as I had never seen before. The snarling menace of “The Fly,” the shimmering sex of “Mysterious Ways,” the barking outrage of “Bullet The Blue Sky,” the shiny grandiosity of “Desire” … it was hard to verbalize what I was seeing… feeling… it was hard to take in, all at once, in one go. Jesus staggered along the outer rim of where the glass would be placed for hockey games, holding hand after hand after hand for support, a tiny smile spread across his lips. He reminded me of Dennis the Menace.
If you twist and turn away…
If you tear yourself in two again…
He was ridiculous -utterly ridiculous – but a very magnetic, theatrical presence. I was transfixed.
In 1992, I had no idea who Jenny Holzer was, or Mark Wojnarowicz, or the Emergency Broadcast Network. I’d vaguely heard of televangelists and had seen pieces of Apocalypse Now. I was months away from graduating high school and had a creative writing teacher who took students outside to a nearby cemetery for inspiration. I’d been to New York a dozen times and had hit all the major museums. I’d seen Pavarotti sing live in a few operas and eaten at top restaurants. But I’d never seen anything like this. Jesus was thrusting around in a silver suit, throwing money at the fawning crowd. Good grief.
ZOO-TV was a sexy, scintillating, stimulating soupcon of pop culture references both contemporary and classical, one that licked the brain cells even as it caressed the heart muscles in a winking, wide, over-friendly love embrace. I felt drawn to a life and way of thinking I’d only glimpsed at in all my trips to New York and Europe: it was full of arts, smarts, sauce, spice, and ever-present sex, wafting and floating above all things, its power only heightened by the intense, naughty mambo it held with a force equally as strong: love. Love for music, art, living, performing, the being-there-ness of the moment. All that stuff I’d been touching on in my Orwell-Burroughs-Kerouac-Ziggy-artsy-fartsy explorations. Authenticity as way of life. Authenticity as mask. Know who the hell you are… then play with it. Fuck up the mainstream.
It’s said this tour re-defined what big bands are, what they could do, who they could be, and how far they could reach. And that’s all true, but such an assessment misses the profound personal connotations. For me, ZOO-TV will always be a bigger thing than a tour, a band, a t-shirt, tons of gear, clever sayings, or flashy effects. It remains a marker, a compass, a talisman, a confusing pregnancy and messy birth, a shocking awakening to a wider world both without and within. It was grand opera and the intimate whisper ever. It was the absolute end of one phase, and the start of something much greater, far wider, unimaginably deeper, and vastly more frightening. And maybe, possibly, more thrilling. Welcome to your life; it’s all up to you now.
I go to encounter for the million time
the reality of experience
and to forge, in the smith of my soul,
To all involved in ZOO-TV, directly and not: thank you, from the bottom of my heart, now and forever more. I remember, I smile, I dance.
I’m dancing barefoot
Heading for a spin
Some strange music drags me in
makes me come up

(Quotes: James Joyce; Patti Smith)

Photo credits: Top, via cinesonic; middle via Democratic Underground; bottom, artwork by Jenny Holzer via Walk With The Crustaceans.

Here And Not

This being both Midsummer as well as World Refugee Day, considering concepts of new and old – and how they relate to the passage of time – seems particularly apt. I’ve been considering these ideas a lot since moving to New York, especially how they relate to one’s physical presence (and simultaneous perceived social absence) in a large urban setting. It’s easy to get lost in the crowd in a big city; it’s even easier to fit entirely, utterly alone amidst the never-ending seas of people.
As a teenager, one of my very-favorite songs was ‘Lonely Town’, specifically Frank Sinatra’s mournful, majestically sad recording from 1957. It so inspired me, in fact, that I wrote an entire story around it, one that later transformed into a screenplay for my university film writing class. Filled with youthful romanticism, it nonetheless reflected my wide-eyed fascination of the mysterious divide between the busy, buzzing world of urban life, and the weird, disorienting position of being completely alone in that environment.
A recent concert I attended beautifully captured this dynamic. The Aventa Ensemble‘s concert, appropriately called Voluptuous Panic, saw four American premieres, and took place at Scandinavia House, a gorgeously designed building with predictably lovely decor and an intimate performance space, the Victor Borge Hall. The concert captured the absence/presence dialectic I’ve been experiencing lately, and writing about madly in my beloved moleskine journal. Something about the mix of cacophony and stillness tapped into the heart of this mystery. Do Nordic composers have a better grasp of emptiness because of the insufferably long winters their respective countries bear? Is there a deeper connection to ideas around nothingness and absence, and their clash with populated areas, because much of Scandinavia is so dark and cold for several months at a time? Per Norgard’s …gennem torne… (…through thorns…) was haunting and morose, but gained some sprightly accompaniment from the impressive harp work of Maria Boelskov Sorenson.Canadian Paul Frehner‘s work, which titled the concert, was playful and boisterous, while the final work, Poul RudersKaf Kapriccio, was based on the work of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, and was suitably haunting, with tons of percussive elements like bells and drums and whistles.
The concert forced a series of questions as to what emotions music, and indeed, art, are meant to evoke: a simple escape from the everyday? An acknowledgement of darkness? An embrace of the void? What is art, if it doesn’t force us into the traffic jams of going to and from that inner void, amidst the honking horns of every day life? The Aventa Ensemble, small yet mighty, captured the confusing, awesomely overwhelming contradiction of alone-ness amidst busy-ness, forcing me to look at not only my situation, but that of many people in a new way. Starting out isn’t easy; sticking with the journey is harder, especially when it feels like “the day that never ends.”
As Gabriel Byrne remarked in his chat with Edna O’Brien, there comes a point where you won’t be at home in either place – back where you came from, or in your new place of residence -and, either way, you’re going to be alone in some sense, whether it be mentally, spiritually, creatively, intellectually, physically, or all of the above. What to do? Maybe Jenny Holzer was right: contradiction is balance. Maybe I should’ve gone to the Abrons Art Center this weekend to get tips from Phillipe Petit on that one. As it is, I think I’ll keep trying to see as much cultural stuff as I can, walking as much as I can, and enjoying the glorious heat — solo, curious, with water bottle and journal in tow.
Photos from my Flickr photostream.

Fine, Actually.

My phone died yesterday afternoon. The main source of my communication with friends and family and the outside world overall, not to mention my camera… gone. *Poof*

Words can’t begin to convey the outright sense of panic this created, followed by the hours of self-denigration. “I used to be fine here without a camera,” I told myself, “why does it matter now? Why should it? Can’t you see the world without wanting to share something every single minute?”
Ah, how life and the world have moved on since my days of wandering New York City as a wide-eyed teenager. Yet looking at -experiencing -New York was a much more visceral experience in the last twenty-four hours of being camera and phone-less. Colors were brighter, noises were louder. I was forced to be fully present in every single thing, and look at curiosities and small shards of beauty -graffiti, flyers, people’s expressions, subway murals -in a very different way. “Subtlety” isn’t a word most people would associate with this city, and yet that’s exactly the quality I managed to somehow tune into (amidst the ego howls of “Go buy a phone… right now!”). I’ve always been a photography enthusiast, but stripped of my equipment, it was as if I was -am -in a living kind of gallery, noting the shadows, fine lines, tones, and expressions. I’ve struck up more conversations with people as a result of not hiding in text messages and emails. I’ve met some kind, helpful people with their own interesting tales to tell -this is unquestionably a city made up of dedicated, hard-working immigrants proud to call themselves both American, and New Yorkers -and I’ve even made friends with a few local fuzzy four-legged creatures who wag tails and chase away my blues at missing my own little pup. I am part of the divine noise of the city, and I sense that connection more keenly as a result of being receptive to it.

Lastnight I took a trip to Brooklyn to see Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, and Lindsay Duncan in the Abbey Theatre’s fine production of Borkman by Henrik Ibsen. I loved the humanity Duncan brought to her role as Ella, the title character’s long-suffering love; played against Shaw’s stern, stiff-as-cardboard wife, it was a beautiful kind of yin-and-yang energy that came together in a beautiful poetic moment by the play’s end. Alan Rickman, was, as ever, masterful, authoritative, and mesmerizing. He has one of the best voices in theater, and is such a powerful presence onstage, that seeing him alone, groping in the dark or standing awkwardly on a stage snowbank, became a masterclass in the art of being fully present -a task that any actor will tell you isn’t always easy. Not having a phone made experiencing Borkman somehow more cutting, its struggles more real, its characters more immediate. I couldn’t get on my Palm Pre at intermission or after the show and tap out “great!” or “you must see this!” I had to sit there, with the salty-sweet taste of Ibsen’s work, working out tone, texture, and timbre of the production I’d witnessed. Going back to Manhattan, I looked out on the lit-up Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan skyline, and found, in the reflection, that I had a huge smile on my face.

That same feeling -of masterful, joyful, alive presence -was with me as I took a stroll through Times Square tonight. The place has a masterful kind of gaudy majesty at night, lit up brighter than Vegas, as ads for retail everything compete with lit up theatre marquees; it was a strange, if inspiring sight, to see Diddy’s vodka ad beamed next to scenes from The Lion King. As Jenny Holzer noted, contradiction equals balance.
And maybe that’s how it should be in approaching this new-ish world for me -finding the balance amidst the seemingly-impossible, the seemingly-opposite, the mad, the bad, the brave and the fooish. I’ve felt all of those things to varying degrees in the three days I’ve been here. And I want to return -for good -more than ever. One of the sights in Times Square features a gigantic live feed of people below -watching themselves. Would-be New Yorkers are their own entertainment, whether they’re walking, stopping, staring, dancing, laughing, or simply standing and watching the world go by. It was a beautiful reminder for me, and a powerful symbol.
Next stop, work-visa office. Oh, but maybe an iPhone first… maybe.

This Is What I Mean By “Play”

The key word for the inaugural New Waves Festival (running as part of Luminato) at the Young Centre this past weekend? Playful. Yeah, “play” as in theatre and performing -but “play”also, equally, as in playing-around. Comme un enfant.

Take the Artists in the Closet series. A limited number of people were invited into a weensy little space –okay, a bathroom –to sit and chat with an upcoming Canadian artist for five to ten minutes. My friend and I had the pleasure of being part of Toronto rapper Theo3’s little ‘crib’ –he introduced us to the artists who influenced him growing up (vinyl album covers lined the small perimeter of the loo) and talked about how being in such an intimate environment made him feel both inspired and intimidated. Ha. Says you, I thought, perched on a little makeshift bench (apparently the real “throne” was off limits, with a big ‘DON’T SIT HERE’ scrawl written across the bowl in red sharpie. Art? You decide.).

The rapper also presented his own unique take on Coldplay’s monster-hit “Clocks.” Love them or loathe them, you have to admit, the tune has a good, catchy intro. Theo used it to full effect, playing a loop of it on a boombox as he launched into a rap about his background and interest in rap. Kind of neat to hear him smoothly integrate the past with the present, even introducing his girlfriend, standing shyly around the corner from the entrance with a big, proud grin. Aw.

Equally affecting was the Bedtime Stories feature, in which a violinist/singer serenaded a roomful of strangers, all of us laid out on cots.

“This is like something out of the Hurricane Katrina relief effort,” remarked my friend as the harsh, flourescent-lit room transformed into a dark cave with swirling projections of stars and galaxies overhead.

The scene reminded me of having sleepovers with my childhood buddy, who had a veritable galaxy stuck up on his own bedroom ceiling. We’d hit the lights and walk around with light sabers (okay, empty wrapping paper rolls) as the stars twinkled overhead. Yup, playful, and a direct route back to childhood.

One of the most interesting activities was Seven Singing Structures, featuring, among others, Canadian singer (and YC Resident Artist) Patricia O’Callaghan. The seven entertained onlookers in the Young Centre’s palatial lobby by singing in harmony, with huge, architectural headgear balanced precariously on the performers’ lids. Huh? One singer had the Eiffel Tower balanced atop his head. Talk about your overbearing culture. No matter. Everyone seemed to be enjoying it, and the singing was damn beautiful.

Once the Towering-Headgear Singers finished, fellow YC Resident Artist David Buchbinder played his trademark mix of klezmer-meets-Cuban sounds with a quartet at the other end of the lobby. To quote Jenny Holzer, contradiction is balance.

Outside the Young Centre, Cellular was being presented by actor/director David Ferry and a troupe of Canadian playwrights and performers including Maja Ardal], Florence Gibson, Catherine Hernandez, Kate Hewlett, and Daniel Karasik. the art machine, one of the works under the Cellular banner, and written by Marjorie Chan, involved dialing a number with a cell phone, before following a series of commandments by a disembodied voice (the “Jump up and down” bit seemed to really amuse passers-by, natch).

The voice also queried participants with questions like, “Have you ever stolen anything?“, “Have you ever lied?” and required a public show of hands. You think I’m going to reveal this stuff in public? Ha.

The last question was for the participants to reveal a secret they’d never told anyone before. Ooooh, what a dandy. After a long, awkward pause, one brave participant revealed he’d once … (drumroll)… pinched a baby.

My own mobile unfortunately died midway through (irony, perhaps?) and one of the hosts for the mini-show loaned me his. What my dead-mobile did allow was to note the reactions of participants –glancing at each other for validation, laughing awkwardly, and being generally involved in communicating with a machine, as opposed to one another -which, all told, was (is) probably the point of Cellular itself. It was an interesting juxtaposition of modern communicating and theatre community.

Walking around the Young Centre Saturday, it was hard to believe this was the same building that had housed (and produced, via Soulpepper Theatre) such serious works as Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Shakespeare’s King Lear, and Marsha Norman’s ‘Night Mother. The Centre’s resident artists have created something that allows for participating as well as communicating, juxtaposing, and –perhaps most importantly –playing. Play, what it means and how it’s perceived, is what’s being examined -an celebrated. Hell yeah. Play on.

Addendum: For more photos from the New Waves Fest, check out my Flickr photostream.

Reason #3 I need to go to New York

Jenny Holzer is at the Whitney. But only until May 31st. Eeek.

Little did I realize, all those years ago as a teenager I was witnessing a wonderous marriage between high art and pop culture courtesy of Jenny Holzer and a little tour called ZOO-TV. There I stood, pie-eyed and mute and entirely overwhelmed, as thunderous drums and crashing guitar lines rumbled through my consciousness, and my eyes attempted to absorb messages like CONTRADICTION IS BALANCE and EVERYTHING YOU KNOW IS WRONG and ART IS MANIPULATION and (still my favourite) TASTE IS THE ENEMY OF ART. I don’t recall if it was by accident or design that I discovered Holzer’s work that very year, but it was then I started keeping journals of my own observed Truisms -a strange kind of poetic observation that was, depending on my mood, one-part snide to two-parts smirk, or some combination therein.

Years later, I wasn’t a bit surprised when Holzer’s work was chosen to be displayed at the site of the World Trade Center. Looking over the exhibition now on, she seems more relevant than ever.

That’s it. I need to go to New York. Soon.

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