Black Rider/Blue Valentine
Remember when you first heard a Tom Waits song? You were having a clumsy affair with a blackjack dealer from Reno who swigged peppermint schnapps and lived in a rooming house with a jukebox in the hall . . .
And if you weren?t, you should have been. That?s the way it is with Waits; he?s a storyteller, and he turns you into one, too. And he keeps you guessing. From Small Change and Blue Valentine to Black Rider and Lost in the Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill, the beatnik-flavored cult hero?s remarkable songwriting and ever-changing musical directions have kept his devoted fans delightfully off balance now for more than a quarter century. His latest works, Blood Money and Alice, are both 10-year-old sound tracks to theatrical works by avant-garde director Robert Wilson that have found their way into album form. Why? Don?t ask Waits. ?I could tell you anything,? he told The Onion in a recent interview. ??Helen Keller made an appearance in the last tune, and it?s sung by her mother.? . . . Your mind will make sense of anything.? Blood Money and Alice (both Epitaph)
Mariko Mori Digital Diva
Mariko Mori can see the future, and it is digital, spiritual, and wearing a miniskirt. This 35-year-old Japanese performance and media artist creates installation pieces and computer-altered self-portraits that have a lot of fun exploring serious themes. A former model and student of fashion design, Mori has a perky, insouciant, yet somehow oddly reverent way of treating religious images. Viewers of her 1997 video Nirvana wear 3-D glasses and watch as a ball of flame, and then the image of Mori herself, dressed as a Japanese deity, descend from the screen and out into the gallery space. Floating overhead, Mori chants a tuneless song while a gaggle of animated characters accompany her on assorted musical instruments. Simultaneously gorgeous and silly, Nirvana finds weight and meaning in its echoes of religious ritual and its reference to the art of Japan?s Heian period (794?1185 CE).
Another work, Birth of a Star, finds Mori gussied up in a plastic miniskirt and giant, techno-blasting headphones that seem to be fused to her head. As she bops along, her vacant smile and glazed eyes reveal a whole new creature, unique to the 21st century; she becomes, as British art critic Richard Dorment puts it, ?a human being . . . whose perception of reality has been permanently altered by machines.? Mori?s comment here is on the inner life of humans in a high-tech age. Is a synthetic inner reality, achieved through the pulsing noise of techno music, really all that different from a state of bliss brought on by rhythmic chants of ?om??
Ambiguities like these make Mori?s work compelling. Hers is a strange new world of high fashion, soul searching, bodhisattvas, and levitating, bongo-playing animals. Going there with her is both delightful and disquieting.
Manhattan-raised and Harvard-educated, Colson Whitehead writes fiction that visits the past, the present, and the surreal with equal effortlessness. His first novel, The Intuitionist, conjures up a Kafkaesque New York, half 1930s, half 1990s, inhabited by elevator inspectors who discuss ?the vertical imperative? and ?the dilemma of the phantom passenger.? A plucky black female inspector struggles hard to ?rise? in this world. In Whitehead?s second novel, John Henry Days, J. Sutter is a hack writer and junketeer who travels to rural West Virginia to cover the John Henry Days festival. Stutter?s humble life overlaps with an
epic retelling of the African American story of John Henry, the heroic hammer-wielder who wins a race with a steam drill, then dies.
In both books, Whitehead finds elegant and sly ways to show how modern Americans, and particularly African Americans, are caught up in a dialogue with the past?with inspiring and stultifying myths, with bits and pieces of old stereotypes and old dreams. And he does it in a literary language that recalls the work of complex literary mythmakers like Ralph Ellison and Thomas Pynchon, adding a nimble, genial wit to the mix. John Henry Days (Doubleday)—LAINE BERGESON
Some of DJ Spooky?s blissed-out fans don?t know their turntable hero is a card-carrying intellectual who can hold his own in a
discussion about double-coded language and neorationalism,
or write dense essays about
performer-photographer Mariko Mori (see p. 48) or video artist Shirin Neshat. They just know he makes remarkable audio collages intermingling hip-hop, jazz, pop, rock, ambient, and dance-club culture in ever-shifting, evocative soundscapes that are as complex as our post-postmodern world. Spooky, a.k.a. Paul D. Miller, is a former French and philosophy student who sees DJing as an art form, a sort of sound sculpture. His tools are laptop computers, turntables, myriad musical instruments, and lots of samples of music, speech, and sounds; his method is to find the aural threads running through culture and weave them into new forms. A swatch of Beethoven, a snippet of dialogue from a Hitchcock film, a blast of Public Enemy: Spooky will layer them into a cohesive whole. Spooky?s not the only one mining this cut-and-paste mother lode, but he?s one of the best, a pioneer in electronica, which he calls ?the folk music of the 21st century.?
Modern Mantra (Shadow Instinct Records)
Shigeru Ban Mr. ingenuity
Shigeru Ban is that rarity, a socially conscious architect with a keen eye for innovation. The 45-year-old Japanese designer is equally at home at Museum of Modern Art openings and meetings of the United Nations Commission for Refugees. His Curtain Wall house, a Tokyo residence whose exterior walls are two-story white curtains that ripple in the wind, was the poster image for ?Un-Private Houses,? a 1999 MoMA exhibition on radical housing. Even more radical were his instant temporary homes for refugees?Ban spent years on the muddy roads of refugee camps around the world developing the concept. Made of industrial paper tubes, beer crates, and other common materials, they have lent both shelter and dignity to untold hundreds left homeless by the devastation of war in Rwanda and by natural disasters in Japan, Turkey, and India. His Paper Church, designed in the wake of a 1995 Kobe earthquake and built by local parishioners, has wavy walls of paper tubing lit from within. It?s become such a beacon of hope in the community that a movement is afoot to make it permanent.
www.dnp.co.jp/millennium/SB/cover_e.html —JULIE IOVINE
Dave Douglas jazz renaissance man
Calling Dave Douglas a trumpeter is like calling Duke Ellington a piano player. Douglas is a brilliant horn player, but his roles as composer, bandleader, thinker, multimedia collaborator, and all-around creative force are what make him a bright light in today?s jazz world.
He can?t be pinned down, which is just the way he likes it. He plays arty Jewish avant-jazz with John Zorn?s group Masada, Indian-influenced music with his new group Satya, something akin to chamber music with his Charms of the Night Sky band, and he composes for and leads at least half a dozen other ensembles. Since 1993, Douglas has released 19 CDs with eight different groups, and his head continues to spill over with good ideas.
An edgier, more versatile alternative to the Wynton Marsalis?Ken Burns school of classic American jazz, Douglas has plenty of grants and awards (if not widespread public acclaim) to show for his efforts. As long as he keeps blowing his horn, though, he?s certain to attract audiences for his stunningly ambitious work. The Infinite (Bluebird/RCA)
A student of anthropology as well as theater, director-designer Julie Taymor has long explored the religious and shamanic roots of drama. In her 20s, she spent four years in Asia studying stagecraft and the accompanying spiritual traditions in places like Bali and Java. Since then, in a career that has included ?downtown? experimental theater, Broadway, opera, and film (her biopic of artist Frida Kahlo, Frida, premiered this fall), her goal has always been to give audiences a taste of the mysterious, sacred depths beyond the immediate experience of the performing arts.
This point of view prepared Taymor well to take on her best-known project, the reconceiving of Disney?s The Lion King for the stage. The show, currently touring the country, transformed the kitschy animated film into a profound experience of theater poetry, with its puppet animals, its simple, powerful stage effects, and its deep-dyed African sensibility.
In 1993 Whitfield Lovell sought respite from New York City at an artist?s retreat in an old Italian villa. But when he arrived, Lovell, an African American, was horrified to discover grotesque caricatures of black men and women decorating the building?s interior. Turns out the villa had been built by a prominent Italian slave trader with unusual tastes. Taking a personal and artistic risk, he began expressing his reaction in charcoal directly on the villa?s walls.
Since then, in half a dozen installation projects and many ?tableaux? he constructs from wood and found objects, Lovell has continued to explore the themes of history and ancestral power. Using charcoal on the bare surfaces of pine boards, Lovell makes realistic drawings of old photographs?portraits from the 1920s and 1930s of black men and women stiffly posed and formally dressed. Then he adds artifacts his subjects might have used. In ?Whispers from the Walls,? a full-gallery installation commissioned by the University of North Texas in Denton, Lovell built an entire shack, peopled with his ghostly ancestor drawings.
The effect of these constructions is strangely raw and disorienting, in part because Lovell?s art combines seemingly contradictory impulses: Drawing on a wall suggests graffiti?but his portraits are tender and ghostly. His subject is the enduring legacy of slavery, but his charcoal medium is ephemeral. Equally influenced by folk art traditions and his formal art-school training, Lovell?s work is on the cool cutting edge of the art world, where installation work and the use of ephemeral media are marks of sophistication, but it is also nakedly emotional in its exploration of the black American experience. ?Whispers from the Walls? will travel to Virginia, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina, Los Angeles, and Oregon in 2003. The Art of Whitfield Lovell, ed. by Diana Block (University of North Texas Press)
Matthew Barney delirious dreamer Two Goodyear blimps hover over a football field; inside them, stewardesses in model-perfect makeup and 1930s uniforms yawn and preen while another stylish woman, hiding under a table, pulls grapes through a hole she?s made in its surface. Some grapes fall to the floor and form a geometrical pattern?which is immediately repeated on the football field by a corps of chorus girls. In another film, this one a bizarre biopic, murderer Gary Gilmore?s parents appear as tightly corseted creatures, half-human half-bees (the symbol of Gilmore?s native Utah is the beehive), and his execution is staged as a rodeo.
These images from 35-year-old sculptor and filmmaker Matthew Barney perfectly capture the movement of dreams. But his dreams aren?t just personal; his recently completed five-film Cremaster series (named for the muscle that pulls the testicles upward in response to cold or fright) teems with sideways allusions to contemporary concerns: genetic engineering, the cult of celebrity, and the many questions surrounding maleness in modern culture. His sleek, professional-quality film work is typical of a new breed of avant-garde artists who have passed beyond the rough-edged, anti-storytelling aesthetic of earlier experimental film and video. Barney, whom curator Richard Flood of Minneapolis? Walker Art Center calls ?increasingly, the dominant artist of our era,? had his first major show at 24 and has fascinated the art world ever since with his vast ambition and his air of personal glamour (he?s dating the rock star Bjork). All five Cremaster films will be on view for the first time in the United States?along with photos, drawings, and bizarre sculptural objects in plastic that repeat themes from the movies?at New York?s Guggenheim Museum beginning on February 14, 2003.
A hip-deep groove, a strong voice, and a folk-funk sound bearing traces of African, Appalachian, Celtic, and Middle Eastern music are among Laura Love?s musical lures. The clincher is her live show, where she inevitably wows new listeners in venues ranging from women?s music festivals to honky-tonks. She?s that rare artist who can slip from sensitive folk to hip-hop without skipping a beat. Her cover song choices are equally broad, spanning Hank Williams, Laura Nyro, Nirvana, and Sly Stone.
Love, whose electric bass anchors her mostly acoustic band, is brassy enough to celebrate her ample form in ?Mahbootay,? sing the story of her pot bust, and boast about ?putting the ?yo!? back in back in yodel?(yes, she does yodel), but she?s also a down-to-earth type who took to the streets to protest the World Trade Organization and sponsors an environmental group that works to preserve a creek near her Seattle home. In and out of the spotlight, she?s making her voice heard loud and clear. Fourteen Days (Zoe Records)
American poetry divides into two hostile camps. On one side stand the ?innovative? poets, who trace their lineage to Charles Olson (the poet who probably coined the term postmodernism) and who like to experiment radically?and often rather dryly?with language. On the other are the ?mainstreamers,? who are more interested in emotional connection than theoretical savvy or linguistic play. Innovatives claim that mainstreamers don?t think; mainstreamers claim that innovatives don?t feel.
But this quarrel is beside the point in the work of some of our best young poets. Take Joyelle McSweeney, a 26-year-old with a Harvard degree, two years at Oxford, and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa?s elite Writers? Workshop. Her language is innovative, charged with wit, energy, and surprise, but underneath the surface runs a mysterious current of real emotion:
In dialogue with the resonant fabric,
lettuce, I embrace you, and I admit
that internal suffering is difficult to photograph.
Lost roads, I call for you
In the back yard, I toe over the leaves
McSweeney?s voice is childlike and knowing, edgy and tender, and her play with words and ideas is nimble?as when she toys with the game of golf at the end of this poem (?Afterlives?):
Forsythia opens its bright palm
And the woman pushes her stroller out of it.
This festive littleness of food.
The color of glass, disappear
Into what they?re poured into.
This festive littleness of air.
But to walk out into August?s
speedy, undulating greens.
To be fast in the green of that fairway.
If it isn?t always clear exactly what?s going on in her poems, they have so much glamour and charm that we?re led further and further into them?and into poetry itself, which always has been, and always should be, something of a mystery. The Red Bird (Fence Books) —JON SPAYDE
Lila Downs Playful Mixmistress
Lila Downs conveys the sound of cultures meshing, both in her multilingual lyrics about the immigrant experience and in the folk, jazz, spoken word, and indigenous Mexican strains she weaves into her songs. Like Woody Guthrie, whose songs she often performs, Downs gets deep into the hearts and minds of common people.
The daughter of a Scottish-American father and Mixtec Indian mother, Downs grew up crossing freely between Mexico and the United States, but identifies strongly with those who cannot. Anyone who?s ever been uprooted or alienated will find solace in her music, which celebrates the grit and endurance of immigrants both legal and illegal, and chides the faceless power wielders who hide behind acronyms like INS and NAFTA. All this message-making could of course lead to leaden art, but Downs is a playful mixmistress; reggae or jazz will spice a Mexican ballad, while saxophones mingle with turtle shells and borders melt away. Border (Narada)—KEITH GOETZMAN
The Be Good Tanyas homey hipsters
These three Canadian songbirds are fond of old-timey string instruments and twangy folk songs, but as savvy products of the Vancouver busking scene, they are anything but northern-latitude Dixie Chicks. Listening to the Tanyas, you hear echoes of the down-home quality of the Carter Family, the loose phrasing of Rickie Lee Jones, the earthy power of Bessie Smith. This resonance only reinforces the notion that the best artists connect past and present, this place and that place, British Columbia and the bayou. In the Be Good Tanyas? arrangements, traditional songs like ?Lakes of Pontchartrain? and ?Oh Susanna? take on a languid, front-porch feel. Their rusticness doesn?t feel contrived, and neither does the occasional electric guitar riff or cuss word in their original songs. They aren?t trying to live in the past?they?re just taking the best parts of it and singing them into the present. Blue Horse (Nettwerk Records) —Keith Goetzman
Soul?s Old Soul
A sometime preacher and undertaker, Burke signed with Atlantic in the early ?60s and became one of the original titans of soul. Shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, and Joe Tex, Burke defined the soul sound. (He also tried to organize his fellow musicians to recoup royalties lost to their record companies.) Ten years later, when soul got handed off to the oldies stations, ?the King of Rock and Soul? soldiered on in a stage revue (featuring an oversized throne), belting out his hits to smaller and smaller crowds. By the time he was picked up by indie blues label Fat Possum Records, Burke was all but forgotten.
Luckily, some of today?s greatest songwriters not only remember Burke, but revere him, and when they were approached by Fat Possum to contribute songs for a new album, they happily volunteered. The result is Burke?s new CD, Don?t Give Up on Me, a stripped-down set that brings his flexible, sensuous vocals to the foreground. Gone are the brass crescendos of old-time soul. Instead, Burke sings live in the studio backed by a simple combo?doing songs by Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and Van Morrison, among others. The result is a fascinating blend of an old vocal style with new material that favors exploration over glossy showmanship; it?s soul that?s worthy of the name. Don?t Give Up on Me (Fat Possum, 2002)
Vija Celmins artist of the eternal
Vija Celmins, a child of World War II, left her native Riga, Latvia, and immigrated with her family to Indianapolis in 1949, when she was 11. Critics have suggested that her history of displacement has a lot to do with why she paints and draws things that are both impersonal and permanent: clouds, water, stars.
There?s mysterious power in one of her small-scale views of a vast and starry sky?it?s both cosmic and strangely intimate. Her gentle and transcendent ripples of water and banks of clouds draw on the austerity and simplicity of minimalist art as a way of avoiding the all-too-familiar sentimentality of traditional land- and seascapes. Perhaps because of the quietness of her visual message, Celmins has long been immune to fame; a big show of her prints at New York?s Metropolitan Museum this fall may change all that. The Prints of Vija Celmins, by Samantha Rippner (Yale University Press)
De La Vega
James De La Vega has appropriated the pavement in El Barrio as a canvas for his chalk drawings, treating passersby to a surprising and ever-changing gallery of images: a skeleton on a bicycle, Christ on the cross, a Picasso, or a tribute to Jose Torres, the barrio-born boxing champion. So when diabetes prevention specialists at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Spanish Harlem wanted to conduct a public education campaign, they looked no further than the neighborhood sidewalks. Commissioned to spread the public health message, De La Vega chose to depict his mother, a diabetic former two-pack-a-day smoker, with a cigarette in one hand and an apple in the other. Exhortations to stop smoking, eat good food, and get eyes, kidneys, and blood checked accompanied the drawing.
The 30-year-old Cornell graduate has used the power of chalk to denounce domestic violence and celebrate Puerto Rican history. He often adds text to his images, usually Bible verses or his own maxims, such as ?Beauty magazines make my
girlfriend feel ugly? or ?Become your dream.? And De La Vega?s mother appears so often in his work that he calls her ?my tag.?
Gabrielle Roth ECSTATIC DANCER
Imagine a collection of bodies swooping and swaying to a staccato drumbeat. Then imagine that these same moving bodies are not dancing, but meditating. Welcome to the Lower East Side Manhattan studio of ecstatic dancer and composer Gabrielle Roth. In her 35 years of teaching movement classes, Roth has developed a series of rhythms through which she leads her students on a dancing path of self-realization.
Roth?s version of ecstatic dance is equal parts trance, experimental theater, and primal movement. How does it work? ?When you move the body, the heart starts to move,? she says. ?All our emotional energies start to move. If we?re physically stuck, movement unleashes that. If we?re emotionally stuck, or mentally stuck, stuck in our beliefs about ourselves or others in the world, well, movement unleashes that.? To hear samples of Roth?s trance music, visit her record company Web site at www.ravenrecording.com.
Lo? Jo tribe of troubadors
Listening to Lo? Jo is like discovering the ultimate nightclub band in an exotic yet vaguely familiar city. Rustic French sounds, gypsy airs, whiffs of Arabia, and hints of Africa come from the bandstand, while the night is thick with the mingling accents of the whole world. Not surprising, since Lo? Jo is a French-based collective that once traveled Europe with a street theater ensemble. After three decades together, they retain a tribal vibe evident in their easy, joyous interplay: Denis P?an?s husky lead vocals are sweetened by backup singers Nadia and Yamina Nid El Mourid amid darting flute, saxophone, accordion, and congas. It?s a world-music mix that goes beyond the trendy to the transcendent. Au Cabaret Sauvage (World Village) —KEITH GOETZMAN
A New Lens
Best known as the editor of The Writer on Her Work (rev. ed, 2000), a pioneering two-volume anthology of essays by women writers, and author of a memoir, Phantom Limb (2002), Janet Sternburg was on holiday from her writing in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, when the rich visual texture of her surroundings startled her into photography. She bought a disposable camera in a tourist shop and began taking pictures of the Mexican cityscape.
Sternburg?s simple, direct approach to becoming a photographer worked. The photos, which she then blew up to gallery size, are remarkably complex. Often shooting through windows, she manages to show what?s reflected in the glass on top of what?s behind it, and the images have a dreamy abstraction, becoming, as she puts it, ?pictures of what happens when one suspends conventional seeing.? ?A Writer?s Need to See,? an article by Janet Sternburg, in Art Journal (Spring 2002) —JOSEPH HART
Portrait of the artist as a young cartoonist
Medical illustrator Phoebe Gloeckner started drawing comics in her mid-teens, about the time she discovered cartoonist R. Crumb and began an affair with her mother?s boyfriend. In underground publications like Wimmin?s Comix and Weirdo she told unflinching stories of her troubled life bouncing back and forth between a chaotic home and the streets of San Francisco?s seedy Tenderloin district. A Child?s Life and Other Stories (Frog Ltd., 1998) reprints her work from this era.
Gloeckner?s new book, The Diary of a Teenage Girl,(North Atlantic/Frog, 2002), a novel about teen life set in the mid-1970s, continues her semi-autobiography in an innovative blend of regular print, comics episodes, and spot illustrations. What?s unusual and wonderful about Gloeckner?s work is its unflinching engagement with messy truths. ?If I censor myself, I feel sick,? she?s said. The Diary of a Teenage Girl is shockingly?and refreshingly?frank, strongly conveying what it?s like to be a sexual girl in a confusing world.
www.ravenblond.com/pgloeckner —CHRIS DODGE
Cinema?s soul man
With subjects that range from the life of the Dalai Lama to the fate of planet Earth, Mickey Lemle?s 30-year career making feature films, television series, and documentary specials has been a spiritual journey in and of itself. And his credentials as a former U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal and current director of the Tibet Fund only reinforce the degree to which his personal passions infuse his work.
Lemle?s most recent film, Ram Dass: Fierce Grace is a gentle and generous addition to his oeuvre. Going beyond the former Richard Alpert?s LSD proselytizing in the 1960s and the success that greeted his trippy meditation guide, Be Here Now, Lemle pieces together a surprisingly earthbound portrait of the American guru. (When he recalls the 1997 stroke that nearly killed him, Ram Dass tells the camera: ?Here I am, Mr. Spiritual, and in my own head I didn?t orient toward the spirit.?) Lemle?s humanistic approach celebrates such contradictions and allows for an unpretentious and often humorous grace. www.lemlepictures.com
Dancers in the Air
Since 1980, San Francisco?based choreographer Joanna Haigood and her company, Zaccho, have combined elements of film, theater, and installation art with an acrobatic style of dance that literally goes over the heads of its audience. In 1995, for instance, Zaccho dancers performed Haigood?s Noon, leaping and bouncing on tether lines across the massive clock face of San Francisco?s Ferry Building.
Most of Haigood?s choreography explores the features of a particular place: a trail in the woods, an old canning factory, historical building sites. Her latest and perhaps most ambitious work, Picture . . ., focuses on three inner-city neighborhoods?San Francisco?s Bayview/Hunter?s Point, Brooklyn?s Red Hook, and Minneapolis? Powderhorn. Haigood and her collaborators (including local teens) have collected stories, photographs, and video footage of the neighborhoods. But the result is a lot more exciting than most up-with-community art projects: During the performance, 100-foot collages of the collected images are projected on buildings while suspended dancers leap and float 12 stories in the air. www.zaccho.org
System of a Down
Heavy Metal messengers
In four years, this L.A. band has shot from obscurity to stardom as headliners on the 2002 heavy-metal uber-tour, Ozzfest. But this is metal with a twist; soad?s jagged guitar riffs and punk-rock rhythms are seasoned with strong Middle Eastern flavors (two members of the lineup were born in Lebanon, one in Armenia).
The band also stands out for its hard-core politics, which inject a refreshing dose of activism into metal?s escapist world. soad raises funds for official recognition of the Armenian genocide of 1915?1923, and its Web site features extensive ?global action? links encouraging fans to join radical causes. On tour with Ozzfest, soad co-sponsored an information booth for the Axis of Justice?a ?freedom school? that aims to counter racism among some Ozzfest metalheads and ?provide a fair balance to commercial marketing that is usually associated with any tour,? according to soad frontman Serj Tankian. Now that?s heavy. Toxicity (Sony) —JOSEPH HART
The pillow-shaped necklace ocarina. The polyglobular flute, with its ball-shaped swellings between tubular sections. Chamberduct howler flutes, which look like pregnant clarinets. These and many more strange and beautiful handmade ceramic wind instruments create the otherworldly soundscapes of composer-
performer Susan Rawcliffe.
The L.A.?based Rawcliffe, whose music is born of a unique combination of ceramic artistry, musical acumen, and fine-tuned knowledge of acoustics, is also a published expert on the clay wind instruments of pre-Conquest Latin America, which inspire many of her creations. She performs in venues ranging from
the folkish (Minneapolis? Cedar Cultural Center) to the avant-garde (the Audio Arts Festival in Krakow, Poland), and her eerie, buzzing, breathy music can be heard on the sound tracks for the films The Island of Doctor Moreau, Coming Home, and Drug Store Cowboy. A compelling 1999 Rawcliffe CD called Many Axes is available from her Web site, www.artawakening.com.
Mistress of History
Susan Griffin has penned 19 books, all of which read like installments in a deep, lively conversation between the personal and the political, the past and the present. Her 1978 book Woman and Nature is a meditation on the strikingly similar ways Western culture has dominated (and devastated) its females and its landscape. A Chorus of Stones, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, explores the mind-set of men who create weapons of mass destruction and connects these public issues with violence and silence in her own family. With an Emmy for her play Voices, and a MacArthur Grant for Peace and International Cooperation under her belt, Griffin recently published The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues, which controversially argues that courtesans?the great mistresses and ?kept women? of the premodern era?were often the most brilliant and influential women of their day. In everything she touches, Griffin makes history vivid and personal, while casting a powerful light on contemporary issues that are usually treated in sound bites and position papers. The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues (Broadway Books) —LAINE BERGESON
John Porcellino zen zine-ster
John Porcellino likes to pay attention to little things, like sidewalk cracks and caddis fly larvae; and big things, like the meaning of life. In his poignant King-Cat Comics and Stories, which he?s been self-publishing the old-fashioned way (photocopying, folding, and stapling it himself) since 1989, Porcellino draws and tells exquisitely simple and charming stories of his quiet life and lively mind.
While some King-Cat stories have been included in a commercial collection, Perfect Example (Highwater Books, 2000), Porcellino prefers crafting his own work. ?Making your own zine or drawing your own comic and putting it together yourself in this day and age really is a revolutionary act,? he says in a recent Comics Journal interview.
Over the course of 60 issues, the 31-year-old Porcellino has perfected an ability to convey essentials with perfect simplicity. A panel depicting rain may contain just a few diagonal dashes; he may suggest a landscape with a few simple half circles and straight lines. Entire stories appear with no words at all. King-Cat also moves seamlessly from physical details to philosophy. In what other comic does a description of a day?s work as a mosquito abatement technician turn into a reflection on the question ?What is this world?? www.king-cat.net —CHRIS DODGE
Fran?ois Ozon French Tease
Combine Alfred Hitchcock?s mastery of composition with Rainer Werner Fassbinder?s campy inventiveness, then add the eerie quality of David Cronenberg and you have French cinema?s current enfant terrible, Fran?ois Ozon?a provocative 35-year-old director who turns out films faster than you can say ?Voil?!??14 short films between 1991 and 1997; one feature film per year since 1998.
He?s fast, yes?but thoughtful, too. ?From movies, I don?t expect answers as much as questions,? Ozon says, and among the questions his films pose is, What kind of movie is this, anyway? He mixes and matches many forms in a single film?tragedy, melodrama, farce, thriller?while keeping his wry and subversive sense of humor intact.
Whether it?s a ?gay, S&M fantasy based on Hansel and Gretel??as one critic described his film, Criminal Lovers?the anti-bourgeois satire Sitcom, or his latest film, Eight Women, a murder mystery starring a veritable who?s who of French actresses, one never knows quite what to expect from Ozon?and he seems to like it that way. www.francois-ozon.com —ANJULA RAZDAN
The Yes Men merry global pranksters
These anonymous jokers elevate political protest to an art. They?ve constructed a Web site that looks just like the World Trade Organization?s, and it attracts unsuspecting speaking invitations and media inquiries?engagements the impostors happily accept. Once they?re on stage at, say, an international legal conference in Germany, or a textiles convention in Finland, the Yes Men deliver a free-market parody presentation that slowly spirals into the absurd.
At the textile conference, for instance, faux-WTO pundit ?Hank Hardy Unruh? tore off his business suit to reveal a superhero leotard with a silky golden phallus fitted with a video screen: He claimed it was a device to monitor and control worker productivity. At another engagement, ?Kinnithrung Sprat? announced a joint venture with McDonald?s to feed the Third World with ?recycled? (that is, previously eaten) Big Macs. The real humor? The corporate types in the audience are usually slow to get the joke. www.theyesmen.org —JOSEPH HART
Victory Gardens Theater is a tiny, cramped storefront, like scores of other nonprofit theaters scattered throughout Chicago. But VG, as it?s known, packs a Broadway-size punch. Presenting only original plays by local playwrights, it has established a national and even international reputation. Winner of the 2001 Tony as the best regional theater in America, it?s one of the favorite stages of Julie Harris, queen of American actresses, with six Tonys to her credit.
Artistic director Dennis Zacek, along with and managing director Marcelle McVay, (his wife), have defined VG as a playwright?s theater, maintaining a resident company of writers and premiering work like Steven Carter?s Pecong (which was later done in San Francisco and London) and James Sherman?s Beau Jest, which had a record-breaking New York run and productions in eight foreign countries. In an age of gimmicky megaproductions of yesterday?s hits, Zacek keeps his minuscule Midwestern stage lively with the best work of new voices. www.victorygardens.org —JON SPAYDE
Karelia, a region of southeastern Finland mostly gobbled by the Soviets during World War II, is about as far off the pop music map as you can get. But it?s the point of departure for one of the world?s
most dynamic vocal groups, V?rttin??a Helsinki-based group that adapts folk songs and chants of Karelian village women and other Finns into an enchanting musical experience. In rousing harmony with touches of ancient dissonance, the women of Varttina belt out these tunes (many of which recount and relish the foibles of men) along with equally exciting original material. You don?t need to know a lick of Finnish to feel the power of these old musical traditions made fresh again. Seleniko (North Side)
Mark Napier Web Wonder
Images from the official White House Web site fragment and mix themselves up with pieces of a site about ocean coral. A virtual collage workshop gives you funny and grotesque body parts to arrange into your own version of a human being. Click your mouse on potatoland.org, the online studio of New York?based Internet artist Mark Napier, and enter a playful paradox. In a virtual world where there is no physical object to touch, Napier creates art works that offer the viewer intimate interaction?art that responds to us with almost infinite changes. A software designer by profession and painter by passion, Napier marries his artistic impulses with his bread and butter to create electronic art. Included in the Web art section of the prestigious Whitney Biennial art show last year, Napier is one of the most enjoyable and accessible practitioners in an art subculture that has a tendency to be super-serious and hypertechnical. Another is Ben Benjamin, whose fantastically rich site?www.superbad.com?is a bottomless well of graphic design high jinks. You can find a whole galaxy of Web art sites, arranged by type and by the date they were first put up, at www.whitney.org/
artport/commissions/idealine/Idealine.html. —ELIZABETH LARSEN
For many authors of both fiction and nonfiction, writing about the past has become a way of understanding our fractured present. It?s more than just contrasting a simple past that ?made sense? with messy modern times; the best writers realize that the past is ungraspable as the past?it must somehow be reinvented if it is to be retold in a way that creates meaning for us today.
Australian author Richard Flanagan?s Gould?s Book of Fish is a fascinating example. His novel rises from a footnote in the history of his native Tasmania: the life and times of William Buelow Gould, a convict sentenced in 1825 to a term on a dismal island penal colony. While he was imprisoned, Gould painted watercolors of fish, which Flanagan discovered collected in a book at the State Library of Tasmania. Flanagan has imagined himself into Gould?s head and told, from the prisoner?s perspective, the history of Tasmania. It?s a brutal tale, and Flanagan never shies away from the truth: torture, the dirty details of convict life, the inescapable ?effluvium of death.?
As his narrator unfolds this troubled history in a series of long digressions, Flanagan exhibits a prose style that is both lush and surprising. Here is Gould narrating his first glimpse of the penal colony: ?We saw that the island was both something more & something less than the marvel we had first supposed it to be, as if it was unsure whether it was to be the Commandant?s dream or the convict?s nightmare.? Even the book?s design is unusual: each section is printed in a different color to represent Gould?s various homemade inks (made of blood, powdered seashell, feces, and so on).
On yet another level, this is a book about the art
of seeing and telling. Flanagan?s Gould is a writer-philosopher who realizes what a complex business these activities are: ?At best,? he says, ?a picture, a book are only open doors inviting you into an empty house, & once inside you just have to make up the rest as well as you can.? What separates Flanagan?s novel from the average postmodern exercise in hyper-self-consciousness is his honest interest in human history in all its harsh and gentle fullness. Gould?s Book of Fish (Grove/Atlantic)
Silvia Nakkach vocalizing healer
Because New Age musicians make so much of the calming, healing extra-musical qualities of their work, it often seems more therapeutic than artistic. But for Silvia Nakkach, an Argentine-born, California-based vocal healer, musical sophistication is part of the recipe for feeling good. A student of the great Indian religious singer Ali Akbar Khan, Nakkach has a glistening, gliding vocal technique that adds an Asian vibrancy to music she composes and performs with talented players ranging from multi-instrumentalist Eduardo Laguilla, a mainstay of the Spanish progressive jazz scene, to New York avant-gardist and instrument designer Miguel Frasconi. All of this heavy-duty talent makes for music that at times recalls the ?mystical minimalism? of modern composers like Arvo P?rt, at other times ranges through Latin and Indian sonorities, but always feels ambitious.
Nakkach holds degrees in psychology and music therapy, gives workshops worldwide, and maintains a school?Vox Mundi?devoted to global vocal arts. But she really stands out as one of the few New Age musicians who could probably hold a tough New York club audience spellbound. Ah: The Healing Voice (Relaxation Company) —JON SPAYDE
Human Beans Bogus brandmasters
The Web site of this two-man London design team showcases products that (one hopes) we will never see on our store shelves: Mr. Germy, a teething ring saturated with bacteria (?Exposure to the right bacteria can naturally strengthen your child?s immune system?); Release, ?easy-swallow tablets? that clean skin and clothing from the inside, by bubbling up through the bloodstream and the pores; and a chocolate cell phone?too inexpensive to attract thieves, and a good snack, too!
The Human Beans?Mickael Charbonnel and Chris Vanstone, both 24-year-old graduates of London?s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design?are among the wittiest and most astute of a worldwide corps of designers who spend part of their time satirizing their profession?and exploring society?s deepest obsessions, hopes, and phobias. Charbonnel and Vanstone?s fictional products?which they have so far only created digitally for exhibitions in art galleries?are particularly good at needling our fears of contagion, contamination, and disease. Their next series of ?products,? still in development, include wacked-out versions of what they call ?well-being? products. Look for, among other things, extremely strange vitamin supplements. www.humanbeans.co.uk —JON SPAYDE
Architect and theorist Christopher Alexander is a populist who believes our built environment ought to serve and please regular folks. That?s why he?s full of practical ideas: Automobiles shouldn?t intimidate pedestrians, children need their own living space at home, porches ought to be big enough so we can sit back and relax. But Alexander, trained in mathematics, also takes wacky and interesting mental flights. He uses mathematics, for example to quantify the beauty of Oriental rugs. Software designers have adopted his ideas to help them identify and categorize types of code problems and find common fixes for them
Alexander?s magnum opus is The Nature of Order, a four-volume treatise, three decades in the making. In it, he argues that all human-made structures should meet standards of beauty set by the natural world?standards that boil down to a handful of simple properties concerning shape, scale, texture, and so on. Universal measures of beauty? Those are fighting words to postmodernists, with their penchant for seeing all aesthetic standards as time-and culture-bound. And sure enough, the controversy began even before the book was published this fall. William Saunders, writing in Harvard Design Magazine, called it ?self-deceptive? and ?full of pitiable delusions of grandeur.? (Meanwhile, code crunchers have already begun trying to apply Alexander?s new theories to software.) Only time will tell if Alexander?s ideas succeed in implanting the impersonal beauties of nature in the highly style-conscious?
and ego-driven?world of architecture. The Nature of Order (Oxford)
Atmosphere street poets
Minneapolis? Atmosphere?a variable crew led by rapper Slug (Sean Daley)?is one outfit that appeals not just to b-boys and suburban kids, but to poetry lovers. Like other independent hip-hoppers?El-P, DoseOne, Sage Francis?Atmosphere creates street poetry with a human face. On their latest album, God Loves Ugly, Ant (Anthony Davis) handles the dense, catchy beats, while word-man Slug makes assertions of love, hate, and human fallibility: ?Riding the public transit, I study the blank stares to answer my questions / of how and why I got so many gray hairs,? he muses, in an urgent voice like no other rapper?s.
Slug?s paradoxical persona is the real key to Atmosphere?s appeal. In the midst of introspection, he?ll suddenly snap into tough-guy mode??Work for food, rent, sex, money, or water / I don?t know what else you have to offer / Your first-born daughter? No need, already got her??as if warning us not to assume we?ve figured him out. God Loves Ugly (Rhymesayers Entertainment)
Paul Hillier Vocal advocate
Modern ?trance? music would be hard-pressed to match the hypnotic power of the human voice as Paul Hillier presents it. The singer and master choral director has spent his life exploring the voice?s profound expressiveness, turning exhalation into exultation in the process.
Forgoing the fusty airs of some early-music devotees, the British-born Hillier champions the work of contemporary composers such as Steve Reich and Arvo P?rt, even while resurrecting the great a cappella hits of the 13th century. Having made a mark as co-founder and director of the large-scale Hilliard Ensemble, he now funnels his considerable energies into directing the more intimate Theatre of Voices, running the Early Music Institute at Indiana University?s famous School of Music, writing and editing scholarly music tomes, and generally reminding the world of choral music?s richness and wonder. Theater of Voices, Fragments (Harmonia Mundi)