-- A Cyberspace Review Of The Arts

Volume 17.19
June 12, 2010

Dead Flowers

Instead of writing a normal review, I must start by enjoining you to rush right down to Participant, Inc. 253 East Houston Street, New York, in the Lower East Side, to view the video which dominates the show. It's called "99", and it's by Charles Atlas -- not the body- builder in the back of ancient comic books or the rock band, but a video artist and film director. (See this article in PBS's Art:21 for a biography.) The show is up for only another week (until Sunday, June 20) as I am writing this.

In this video (from which I have taken the stills which illustrate this article, which however in no way do justice to the original) the screen is divided into five panels. The subject, a dancer named Johanna, is seen, but only her head, shoulders and arms appear. She turns slowly; she is probably on a turntable of some kind, since the motion is completely smooth. She is wearing a mask and is made up, indeed face- painted, in what has come to be called "tribal" patterns when it's done with tattoos. As she turns, she moves her hands and arms through various gestures which are not like a human imitating a cat or a cat imitating a human, but rather in the spirit of a cat -- the way a cat might gesture if it were given a human body. One hears an audio track which consists of two sounds; one, a steady, sharp, slow percussive beat that might be made by a separate hard taps on a drum or block; and second, the sound of a very large bell. As the video progresses, an interesting thing occurs: the five panels gradually go out of sync, so that now we are seeing not one but five different "times" of the dancer at once. As the video nears its end, the panels come back into sync and then the pictures fades out.

There is a second video, in which the same dancer's head is seen with what are apparently electronic parts, integrated circuits, attached to it; the dancer counts to ten, whereupon (sometimes) the head seems to explode. My take on this was that it was a kind of humorous conflation of "counting to ten", a proverbial expression of barely restrained anger, and counting to ten and other numbers as electronics do -- perhaps our computer are very angry. However, one sees so much exploding electronic merchandise in movies, television and videos that the effect is someone diminished by familiarity.

"99" -- the Cat-woman -- on the other hand was profoundly moving to me because, I think, it recalled traditional or classical dance, especially that of southern and eastern Asia, which is strongly ritualized and stylized. As Verdi is supposed to have said, we go backward in order to go forward; that is, in the arts, we must often revisit decisions made long ago which have dominated practice ever since. Although artists from Lascaux until the latest webcomic have had no objection to simultaneously presenting the same object from different angles or at different times, the Greeks and their Renaissance followers thought that it was more elegant to find the moment at which the past and future, the before and behind, were summed up and balanced in a kind of repose implying (they hoped) a whole temporal, spatial and dramatic universe in a single coherent instant. Thus the figure of the Discobolos is seen at the very moment when his windup ceases and he is about to begin moving forward to throw the discus. But this was actually a rather specialized approach; all over the world, for ages, artists trying to show the passage of time or a variety of viewpoints simply drew the different images side by side or on top of one another. The repute of the Greeks seems to have caused this to have been forgotten in the modern West for awhile. So in the twentieth century, (comics and movies being at first considered too vulgar to worry about) when Duchamp presentedNude Descending A Staircase people were either shocked or derisive; they had forgotten the strategies of their ancestors.

Of course a video or movie is already stretched out in time; in this it is like music. However, the mass-distribution movies which form the default practice of our culture are still generally fixed to one certain point of view at a time, and segments of a single-threaded sequence of events. It is considered rather avant-garde to show two or more image sequences at once, either side by side (Chelsea_Girls) or through very rapid intercutting (The Pawnbroker). (A similar restraint occurs in music, where the polyphony of Palestrina or Bach, the simultaneity of Charles Ives, or the polyrhythms of traditional African music, are rarely acqired tastes, although some popular or garage artists have begun to sneak up on the public with such practices, and classical composers have always used them in the background, at least playing supporting roles.) In the case of our Cat Woman, we see five (and sometimes more) panels showing the dancer at difference stages of her performance. As gestures and views proliferate and collapse, she sometimes becomes multi-faced or multi-armed, like a Hindu goddess; or her disembodied gestures float through the dark background of her surroundings.

Obviously the low-res stills on this page can give only a very reduced idea of the effect of the video when it is showed at full size, at high resolution, and with a performance-sized sound system. It must be seen and heard directly.

And now about the rest of the show.

The show, which is called "Dead Flowers", focuses on avant-garde art which, in contrast to the popular narrative arc, did not come from behind to overwhelm the world and turn its practitioners into fabulously wealthy demigods whose names were known in every household. The words come from a Rolling Stones song, famous long ago, 1969, to be exact:

Take me down, little Susie, take me down,
I know you think you're the queen of the Underground,
And you can send me dead flowers every morning,
Send me dead flowers by the mail,
Send the dead flowers to my wedding,
And I won't forget to put roses on your grave.

But what is, or was, the Underground? There has to be a ground for there to be an underground. Beginning in the early part of the 20th century, popular culture became dominated and informed by the facts of capitalist industrial production. If you listen to the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, you will hear dozens of different style and themes. After about 1925 or 1930, everything "country" sounds like Jimmie Rodgers. That is because the conditions of production in that era made making many copies of a few exemplars more profitable than anything else, indeed, it was just about the only way a music publisher could stay financially viable. As long as only one at a time could speak to the many, whether that one was a publishing company, a record company, or a radio station, these conditions of production remained the same and popular culture revolved around a few genres, a few stars. These conditions, along of course with various social forces like bourgeois respectability and the law, created a "ground" beneath which cultural facts were not generally visible or respectable. Indeed, they were hardly visible in the darkness even to those themselves "underground".

Under such conditions only a few could rise into visibility -- the popular story of such as A Star Is Born or Jailhouse Rock and of many factual narratives as well. A more general pattern is that of the hero who waits in the wings of life for his chance, usually while performing prodigies which for some reason no one notices until the moment of recognition and apotheosis arrives.

But life, including the lives of an artist, isn't always like that. Van Gogh famously toiled in relative obscurity throughout his short, troubled life and died without having sold anything. It was only the very laborious work of his brother's widow over a period of 20 or 30 years that caused people to finally see his work. Who knows what other treasures still lie hidden in the realms of Pluto?

So Persephone may be sending us dead flowers from the Elysian fields. The present show centers around the work of the actor and director Timothy Carey, and consists of a series of screenings of films which are unreleased as of the present, for which the other material is on display as support. Charles Atlas's video, for example, connects with a large sign reading "The World's Most Exciting Dancer" and a photograph of an old-time (1962) roadhouse advertising an exotic (that is, erotic) dancer named "Catgirl" -- thus connecting high and low art as well as the present and the past, the reputable and the disreputable.

A full schedule can be seen on Facebook:

Carey worked in commercial films as a "secondary character actor" and when he got some money, he put it into his own independent projects, some of which will be seen in this series. He did not consider himself to be part of an "underground" (a concept which, in the 1960s, was already going overground as a marketing tool) but did labor in relative obscurity. In the fall, Participant intends to present more of Carey's films.

(To be continued....)

Gordon Fitch


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June 12, 2010