REVIEW: Zhang Huan’s Stunning, Ambitious “Semele” at BAM

Photo Credit: Jack Vartoogian/Frontrowphotos

Photo Credit: Jack Vartoogian/Frontrowphotos

See this review published on Flavorpill

Baroque opera meets Buddhism in the Canadian Opera Company’s U.S. premier of “Semele” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In the hands of director Zhang Huan—a Chinese performance artist based in Shanghai—George Handel’s 18th century oratorio takes a turn away from tradition as Chinese and Japanese cultures intervene with the Greek tragedy.

“Semele” is Huan’s directorial debut and first foray into theatrical set design. In his notes on “Semele” Huan stated, “My goal is to allow the opera singers to reenact this classical Western opera on an Eastern stage latent with the tragic emotions of Semele—while at the same time allowing the audience to experience the dramatic beauty and pain common to all human beings.”

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Precarious State of Performance Art



Performance art is moody, finding its power in a volatile vortex of actions and references on the semiotic scale of art. Like an arbitrary signifier that does not lead to any particular end, performance as a medium is menacing in its lack of stable definitions. Performance is that temperamental variable, making it difficult for some to ‘get’ because of its obstinacy to crystal clear meaning. With an inability to foresee a performer’s trails, viewers fly head first through the labyrinthine mind of an artist in action who discounts meaning as the ultimate truth in art. Why propose conclusions when it is the constellation of empty metaphors—the indescribable ride of questions—that is important. Brooklyn-based performance artists Brian Belott and Matthew Thurber—aka Sherlock Holmes Jr. and Court Stenographer—know exactly how to keep audiences guessing in their satirically absurd performances.

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A play without players : Performa 13 and Gabriel Lester “Super-Sargasso Sea (phantom play #1)”

Gabriel Lester at Performa 13

Gabriel Lester at Performa 13

Theater without actors, a play without a plot, a cast only in absence, and action through inanimate light and sound.

Gabriel Lester’s “Super Sargasso-Sea (phantom play #1)” is theater distanced from life to expand its medium-specific conventions: a perverse theater perpetuating its own extinction, only to emerge again as a new “theaterless theater”. No remorse necessary, because Lester fills this actorless void with a sculptural set activated by light and sound.

Lester’s loose plot is printed in the playbill. During this 30-minute play, a scientist, his fiancee, their firstborn, a dog, and a cat together experience great misfortune: the young couple dies in successive fatal accidents, leaving their firstborn (named “Creature”) an orphan. Characters are represented in absence strictly through light and sound interacting on a sculptural stage. Viewers are given authority regarding the plot because without overt actors progressing the scenes through active dialogue, action is regarded on a completely individual level; all will experience this play in different ways because without hard-edged parameters, we have choices.

It is important for art to break through its own parameters. This is reflective of societal flux ever expanding in search of a perfect plateau. Once art is removed from assumptions it enters a space of unknown. To some, this expanse of possibilities is self-affirmative. However, not all want choice when it comes to engaging with entertainment. In the playbill Adam Kleinmen insightfully writes:

“Thinking is hard. The brain links inputs to ideas, but needs to do so quickly. If not, you’ll overload. Snap judgments follow preconceived notions so as to limit processing power to get you through the day.”

Traditionally plays guide us towards meaning through preconceived notions. We know what we will experience from the play’s categorized genre. The meaning in Lester’s play is not so obvious, and it may not even have a symbolic truth value. It may be an exercise in pushing theater to its limits. Read into this play as much as you would like; experience it as a visual metaphor for the paragraph long plot synopsis in the play bill, or, enjoy it on technical grounds as an aesthetic journey through sounds and light. This play expands genre barriers, and it does so enchantingly.

Learn more about Performa 13.

Learn more about Gabriel Lester.

Gabriel Lester "Super-Sargasso Sea (phantom play #1)

Gabriel Lester “Super-Sargasso Sea (phantom play #1)

Whitney Museum of #Art : “Rituals of Rented Island” and “Robert Indiana: Beyond Love”

Jack Smith, Irrational Landlordism of Bagdad (a.k.a. Material Landlordism of Bagdad, a.k.a. The Secret of the Brassiere Factory), Cologne Art Fair, Germany, October 26–31, 1977. All images © Jack Smith Archive, courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

Jack Smith, Irrational Landlordism of Bagdad (a.k.a. Material Landlordism of Bagdad, a.k.a. The Secret of the Brassiere Factory), Cologne Art Fair, Germany, October 26–31, 1977. All images © Jack Smith Archive, courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

See this review in Metro New York, published November 20, 2013 online.

Whitney’s Rituals of Rented Island: A Vast exhibition of 1970s NYC Performance Art

The Whitney Museum of American Art’s new exhibition — “Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama-Manhattan, 1970-1980” — showcases a collection of New York-based performance artists working in alternative spaces meant to radicalize the medium’s potential. Think theater without plot, characters or narratives, and instead artists doing absurdist nonsensical acts.

In ways, this exhibit is more akin to a history museum than to an art museum. Presenting time-based art always has its challenges, a difficulty only heightened by these esoteric performances created to confuse and alienate audiences. “Rituals of Rented Island” is less an accessible introduction to 1970s performance art and more an historical archive.

The show overwhelms, but accolades to the Whitney for presenting rare documentation. Walls are plastered with archival ephemera including photographs, scripts, notes, props, costumes and promotional material. My personal opinion: less is more when it comes to conceptual art, and where this exhibit works is when we can watch video footage of the actual performances.

The art itself is fascinating; I suggest breezing through the show to the actual video footage, specifically of artists Yvonne Rainer, Vito Acconci and Ken Jacobs. Rainer’s this is the story of a woman who…. (1973) is a fusion of dance and performance plotting an intimate relationship and the contradictions between one’s inner thoughts and physical actions. Vito Acconci’s Claim (1971) shows the artist blindfolded at the bottom of a basement stairwell murmuring obscenities while swinging a crowbar at anyone who dared enter the apartment. Ken Jacobs’s “Slow is Beauty” – Rodin (1974) is 3-D shadow play, where young actors backlit by polarized lights behind sheets perform mundane tasks to the accompaniment of ambient noise; it’s a sort of “Gravity” for the Cold War era.

Brave the storm, go to the Whitney at least to see Robert Indiana: Beyond LOVE. This artist exudes Americana through his graphic-design-inspired paintings consumed by bold colors and declarative statements. You have seen Love (1965), and you know you enjoy it, so go experience his other hard-edged, polychromic canvases.

Rituals of Rented Island on view through February 2014

Robert Indiana: Beyond LOVE on view through January 2014

The Whitney Museum, 945 Madison Avenue

Museum hours are Wednesday – Sunday, 11-6

Free Fridays 6-9

Chris Burden #ExtremeMeasures @NewMuseum

View of "Chris Burden: Extreme Measures" Retrospect at the New Museum

View of “Chris Burden: Extreme Measures” Retrospect at the New Museum

See this review in Metro New York, Tuesday, November 12.

Link to magazine online

Living Dangerously at the New Museum’s exhibit “Chris Burden: Extreme Measures”

Imagine witnessing an intruder shoot a bystander with a .22 rifle, and the fear realizing this degenerate’s control over your life during this act of violence. Now picture yourself watching a man corner California artist Chris Burden and shoot him in the arm for his performance Shoot (1971). Terror fades into pleasure, and you are stimulated similarly to playing Grand Theft Auto V. You now live for the danger.

“Chris Burden: Extreme Measures” at the New Museum exhibits the radical performances, super-sized sculptures and installations of this artist’s 5-decade career. We are seduced by Burden’s “bad boy” violence because we desire domination. When it comes to submitting to our impulses, the bigger, the louder, the better.

Burden’s artworks are thrillingly dangerous. To my dismay, actors did not revive Shoot, but the fifth floor exhibits documentation of his body performances. Burden crawls through broken glass in Through the Night Softly (1973), extinguishes his inflamed body in Fire Roll (1973) and crucifies himself to the hood of a Volkswagen Beetle by driving two steel nails through his palms in Trans-Fixed (1974).

The Big Wheel (1979) on the fourth floor is the highlight. A fusion of performance and sculpture, a museum attendant activates a 6,000-pound, eight-foot-diameter flywheel by accelerating a 1968 Benelli 250cc motorcycle. Adjacent is a balancing act between a restored 1974 Porsche 914 and a 365-pound meteorite suspended from a steel frame (Porsche with Meteorite, 2013). On the third floor, two fully operational mortars accompanied with stacks of cannonballs exude an aura of impending doom (Pair of Namur Mortars, 2013). The force and power penetrating these marvels of modern engineering enraptures your senses as they are paraded on display like luxuries for your viewing pleasure.

Burden is a rebel to the core, and through his art we realize how fun it is to live dangerously, even just for a night.

Chris Burden: Extreme Measures 

Through January 12, 2014,

235 Bowery, NYC 10002

Wednesday-Sunday, 11-6pm

Free Admission on Thursdays from 7-9pm

The Big Wheel is activated at 11:30 and 2:30 Wednesday through Sunday and at 7:30 on Thursdays

My Review on Chris Burden in Print for Metro New York