Mass MoCA: all utopias fell and Phoenix

all utopias fell, 2010
Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art
Through October 27, 2013

Humanity's last gasp?

The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) is often a challenging place. Housed in a sprawling repurposed factory complex in North Adams that from was headquarters to Sprague Electric 1942 to 1985 and a paycheck for some 4,100 workers, Mass MoCA presents the kind of art a lot of people don’t “get” and provides open space for installations that are too large for traditional art museums to touch.

One of the best ways to enjoy Mass MoCA is to follow filmmaker Jonathan Demme’s advice: stop making sense. It’s a place in which the visual is often its own reward. Suspend your narrative dreams. Give up the need for the representational. Don’t ask, “What is it?” Just enjoy what it is. Go ahead and read the artists’ statements if you must, but don’t be surprised if you’re no more enlightened than if you hadn’t bothered. Two current exhibits that demonstrate the fascination possible if you don’t insist on objective reality are Michael Oatman’s all utopias fell, 2010 and Xu Bing’s Phoenix. Hit Mass MoCA before the end of October to catch each exhibit–Oatman’s fantasy is in the courtyard and closes for the season sometime around Halloween; Xu Bing’s assemblage comes down after October 27.

Oatman’s project began with a fascination for the ruins of the Sprague buildings and the pragmatic and artistic possibilities a postindustrial canvass provides. You enter all utopias fell, 2010 through the remnants of the Sprague boiler room. (See “Sprague in Black and White” in the photo albums section of my Facebook site.) It’s like walking through a geometric graveyard constructed from iron and rust, and is the perfect welcome mat to part one of Oatman’s construction, The Shining. Oatman imagines a post apocalyptic world in which humankind has been conquered by an unseen alien force. He takes an old Airstream trailer and rigs it to look like a makeshift spacecraft that force landed by the Mass MoCA boiler room. Taking his cue from everything from the work of Giotto to Buck Rogers and Jules Verne, Oatman leaves resolution to the eye of the beholder. Are we seeing humanity’s final outpost, or the possible seeds of a new society?

What's going on in here?
The inside of the “ship” won’t enlighten you. It’s called The Library of the Sun and it’s a cross between living quarters, an ongoing chronicle, and an improvised laboratory. We don’t know where its occupant might be–hidden, taken by aliens, long dead…. There are cryptic references to the sun and other symbols that defy logic. Equally baffling is the stained glass window in the back of the trailer. Salvaged materials? A nostalgic attempt at simulating banal domesticity? 
A touch of home, or something else?

And from the trailer we also see part three, Codex Solis, an array of solar panels that is visually interesting and quite practical–they work and generate about 3% of Mass MoCA’s power needs. So maybe a slice of utopia after all?

In the belly of the beast
If this isn’t enough eye candy for you, check out Xu Bing’s Phoenix in about the only building that could house such gigantisms. Xu Bing is Chinese, but lived in the United States for two decades. He returned to Beijing in 2007 and, as anyone who has been there knows, he returned to a city obsessed with obliterating the past and building anew. For an artist working with found materials, it’s a trove akin to living inside a junkyard. Xu Bing’s vision was to marry the past with the future, which he has done by fashioning two massive dragons from materials salvaged from demolition and construction sites. Each of his two “dragons”–wires, machine parts, LED lights, steel rods, and broken tools–is nearly one hundred feet long. They are, at once, familiar looking and so alien that we might imagine them as Oatman’s bringers of the apocalypse. And like Oatman’s assemblage, Phoenix is so breathtaking that it’s best if you merely experience it, not try to comprehend it. 

Scales of the Dragon

Mass MoCA road trip? You bet! And while you’re there, check out what Tom Phillips and Johnny Carrera did with the written word (Life’s Work) and Mark Dion’s eccentric musing on preservation shelters (The Octagon Room). Rob Weir


Lee Daniels' The Butler Offers Lousy Service

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013)
Directed by Lee Butler
Follow Through Productions, 132 minutes, PG-13
* *

It’s seldom a good sign when a director slaps his name in front of a well-worn title. Consider that a metaphor for this half-realized film that could have used a strict editor in the green room and a team of historians on the set.

The Butler is the story of Cecil Gaines, whose improbable tale is based on the biography of Eugene Allen, whose story is much more interesting than the fictionalized account we see on the screen. The film follows Gaines from a Georgia boyhood on a cotton plantation in the 1920s, where he witnesses a white overseer murder his father for daring to protest his wife’s rape. In what passes for pity, the family matriarch, Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave), takes Cecil into the house and teaches him to become a servant.

Cecil is very good at his job–so good that by the 1950s he’s part of the White House servants’ staff. The Butler chronicles Gaines’ time in the White House from the Eisenhower administration through that of Ronald Reagan. The film also follows Gaines into retirement. Much of the script appears to have been cribbed from another Gaines– novelist Ernest Gaines and his magnificent Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. In the latter work, Jane Pittman, a former slave, lives to see the salad days of the civil rights movement. The Butler takes us from sharecropping, Jim Crow, and the KKK to Rosa Parks, MLK, and the election of Barack Obama. Right away we have a problem. Instead telling part of the drama in poignant detail, Daniels seeks to tell it all through snapshots and vignettes that have the weight of butterfly wings and the depth of a sheet of paper.

Forest Whitaker is very good as the adult Cecil Gaines, but he really can’t do more than skate across Daniels’ thin surfaces. The biographical timeframe alone is daunting, but Daniels also wants to play out the entire civil rights drama, take us inside Cecil’s family life, make a point about the dignity of black servants, and take detours involving the Vietnam War, the Black Panthers, black politics in the 1980s, and South Africa. Each of these is a valid topic, but each also deserves more than a wink, a nod, and a grainy film clip or two. The lesson that black men in service quietly undermine racism through their very competence–allegedly delivered to Cecil’s eldest son by none other than Dr. King himself–is certainly an important one. It has been made, for instance, by numerous academics studying the dynamics of the Pullman Brotherhood. The Butler might have been a better film had moral witness been its sole center. Daniels doesn’t trust his audience enough to assume they have any knowledge of the civil rights movement; hence he tries to make sure he mentions everything. He may be right about American historical amnesia, but his cram-it-in filmmaking can’t even be called painting with broad strokes–it’s more like using a spray gun.
Still, Daniels’s truncated civil rights overview seems positively obese compared to the skeletal coverage given to presidential politics. I wish he would have asked Saturday Night Live to supply the presidents as Daniels’ take on presidents is every bit the caricature for which SNL is noted, but without capturing the essence of any of them. Robin Williams as Eisenhower? James Marsden as a rail-thin JFK? Ouch! Okay, so Liev Schreiber does a credible LBJ cameo and Alan Rickman is pretty good as Reagan, but nothing–and I mean nothing–redeems John Cusak’s embarrassing Nixon. He sports such a horrendous prosthetic nose that it looks as if he just rushed over from a production of Pinocchio. (One inspired casting choice: Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan!)

You’ve probably heard buzz that Oprah Winfrey will get a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her boozy, bossy, bored role as Gloria Gaines. She probably will because, well, she’s Oprah, but she doesn’t deserve one. David Oyelowo would be a better choice for his supporting role as eldest son Louis Gaines, but really, there’s just nothing here that warrants thinking of this film as more than an afterschool special for the Lifetime channel. Sloppy filmmaking aside, any point Daniels might have made about African-American struggle is lost in an unforgivably schmaltzy ending involving Barack Obama’s election. It’s as if all of the horrors of the past dissipated when Obama assumed the White House. We know better, don’t we? And I sure as hell recognize American triumphalism when I see it–that teleological pipe dream that deceptively casts the past as an unfortunate prelude to a redeemed present. It’s bad enough when we see this from Stephen Spielberg or Ron Howard; it’s doubly sad when it comes from a black director. --Rob Weir


Six Questions for Shannon Carey of Luray

Shannon Carey is the ethereal lead singer and banjo picker for Luray, a new presence on the bluegrass scene. Make that post-bluegrass, as Luray’s sound is an ambient mix of grass, country, indie folk, and splashes of lots of other things–a bit like the kind of stuff her brother Sean plays in Bon Inver. Luray have just released The Wilder, the band’s debut recording.

Your PR material mentions that your past has involved a lot of wanderlust. How has this affected your music?

SC: I grew up in Wisconsin and Arizona, but I’ve moved around a lot. I picked up country music from my dad, who was in bands that played at country fairs. I also lived in New Orleans for a year, where there’s so much street music. I learned about bluegrass in the Bay Area of California, where amazing musicians are creating new versions of it. When I moved to the Washington, D.C. area I decided to see how what I could meld together.

Were there specific musical influences you picked up in your travels?

SC: Well, you try not to sound like anyone else, but I love the singing of Patty Griffin and Emmylou Harris. You also hear things you have to learn on your own. Bluegrass singing has a kind of yodel thing going on. I had to teach myself how to do that.

I don’t have specific influences for the banjo, though Alison Brown has been a strong role model for women for many years. Of course, I love Béla Fleck. But I also like a lot of the banjo that’s been in recent Indigo Girls records. Mainly I liked melodic banjo.

I like to ask musicians how they describe their sound and you’ve just released your debut record, so what’s it sound like to you?

SC: (Laughs) Well… I wrote a lot of the promo material, so I don’t want to repeat myself! The sound of the record is supposed to be textural and comforting. It has earthy, natural sounds, but also layers of banjo picking and vocal lines. I wanted it to be transporting and ambient, but with the sense of joy we get from country and bluegrass music.

I want to ask you, in turn, about my three favorite songs on the album, beginning with the title track “The Wilder.” Tell me about it.

SC: It was actually the song that inspired the entire project, which is how it ended up as the title track. It’s about trusting the universe and stepping into an unknown space both spiritually and physically. It came as I was turning toward music to reinvent myself after a career in social work. I had to step into that unknown space and trust that things would work out.
How about “Crying,” a sweet little song I really like?

SC: I wanted to see if I could write a country song. It’s about getting in touch with my feelings, even though the story is told from the perspective of a man trying not to cry. It also came out of my social work job that involved families and children. You try not to let it happen, but that kind of job can shut you down emotionally. I had to relearn how to be sad and cry. As it happened, my dog died and I cried for months!

Kalorama is bouncy and unlike a lot of the other tracks.

That’s actually the name of the D.C. neighborhood where my husband (Luray guitarist and Greenpeace employee Gary Wisniewski) and I lived. It’s in the northwest of the city and we had an apartment on the corner of Kolorama and Columbia. It was all new, including trying out apartment living, which we had never done before.

The song tries to capture the experience of being a newcomer and feeling like you don’t belong in the first place. The neighborhood is next to Adams Morgan (a historically black neighborhood in the process of gentrification), but it’s also a mixture of college kids, embassies, and middle and upper class people, all living near Kalorama Park. It often felt like being an alien. We live on a farm in Maryland now, which makes for a longer commute into the city, but it suits us better.

NOTE: Those living near Northampton, MA can catch Luray at the Parlor Room on September 6. Others can hear tracks (or order the CD) from www.luraymusic.com