Saturday, October 29, 2011

Artist Spotlight: Punchdrunk's Sleep No More

So in planning a trip to NYC, most people try to see a Broadway Show.  In trying to do something new, Paige suggested going to see Punchdrunk's Sleep No More.  I looked it up online, and it looked very interesting, but I did not do any research beyond that.  What I was expecting and what it turned out to be were two drastically different things.  It was hands down , the most unique experience I have ever had. 

Therein lies the problem.  How do you describe something so unique?  Here it goes- if you were to combine Shakespeare's MacBeth (plot), film noir (mood), Stanley Kubrik's Eyes Wide Shut (audience interaction) and the interpretation of modern dance (action), the result would be Sleep No More

 First, let me give you a little bit of history- Punchdrunk is a British immersive theater company that encourages the audience to choose what it sees by allowing them to walk through the space as the action takes place.  The theater company was founded in 2000 and has won many awards for the unique experience it provides it's audiences.  

For the NYC production of Sleep No More, Punchdrunk converted a warehouse that used to be a nightclub space into the "McKittrick Hotel".   And this is the "hotel" we walked into:

The lobby
the dining room

Another room on the main level...I think, it was very dark : )
the telephone booths in the lounge
another view of the lobby (photos by Stu Horvath)

It all started in the lounge where you are asked to mingle and get a drink of champagne or absinthe while you wait.  There was a three piece band and an English man directing groups of people to the hotel doorway, where a lady named "the Countess" would tell us about our "stay" at the McKittrick Hotel.

the lounge
The lounge was the only "warm" place in the hotel.  The lighting in the rest of the hotel was very dim and when the lights would become brighter, the actors were in the room.  Otherwise, you were walking around in the dark.  "The Countess" led us to the elevator where we were given our masks and told "You can not take off your mask.  You can not speak.  The more curious you are, the more you will discover."  And so it began...

Around fifteen people went onto the elevator and we were all dropped off in smaller groups on various floors...except for me...I will get back to that later.

I started out on the top floor which was filled with room after room of "craziness"- a padded room with feathers ripped out of the padding and strewn across the floor, a room with a laid-back patient chair sitting beside a tray full of tools, a room with clotheslines full of white sheets, a room with lots of vintage looking baby dolls with their heads either ripped off or abused in some way.  This is where I saw the room with all of the beds.

I went through a few rooms, before I encountered even one person, and when I finally did see another person, that person had a mask on.  I about jumped out of my skin, before I realized they were probably just like me and had no idea what the hell was going on.

Finally I came upon a room full of eight claw-footed tubs.  One was half-full of water.  Right about then, I heard someone moaning and chanting unrecognizable words.  A woman came around the corner with a nurse guiding her towards one of the tubs.  The nurse proceeded to undress her and put her into the water.  The woman who turns out to be Lady MacBeth started to bathe herself, the whole time mumbling incoherently.  At one point she looked down and realized her hands, arms and legs were smeared with blood.  She became frantic and  tried to remove all evidence of the blood. 

I have to say at that moment, I was completely entranced by what was happening in front of me, and the very next moment was spent looking at this sea of white distorted faces staring at a distraught nude woman bathing.  She seemed so vulnerable- especially when she stood and stepped out of the tub and walked through the crowd of people. Acting as if she did not see even one of us. 

(photo from Daily Front Row)
Once you found an actor, you could follow that person, but every time they met up with someone else and they parted, you would have to make the decision whether you were going to follow the original character, or if you wanted to see what the other person was going to do.  Sometimes, you would try your best to keep up with them and they would seem to disappear around a corner. 

(photo by Thom Kaine)
 If ever you were left alone, the Countess had encouraged us to investigate and see what we could discover.  You could open drawers, read letters, look through a closet, read the registration log.  It felt as if you could be as nosy as you wanted and not feel guilty about it- the anonymity of the mask helped with that.

I thought it was funny how some people in the audience acted as if the mask made them invisible.  They would walk right up to the actors during a scene.  They would lean over them as they were reading a letter, or peer into the tub as Lady MacBeth was bathing MacBeth.

Most of the action in the play was done through dance. One of the craziest things I saw was this girl who kept walking right up to the actors- MacBeth and Lady MacBeth were fighting/angrily spinning and flipping over one another on a bed.  The girl sat at the foot of the bed right in the middle of their choreographed scene and got kicked off and landed on the floor.  She got up and scooted back to the crowd, actors never pausing from their fight.

We had three hours in the hotel, and I can honestly say that the first hour-and-a-half was spent in complete confusion.  I felt as if I was missing something crucial to my understanding of what was going on.  I knew there were all of these things going on throughout the hotel and I was frustrated that I could only be in one place at a time.  Thankfully, the play is run through twice so if you ever come upon a scene you have already seen, you can choose to follow the other person, the second time around.  By the end, I felt as if all of the pieces were finally starting to make sense.  I know that if I went to Sleep No More fifteen times, I would never have the same experience.  That's the magic.

After the finale scene...

I exited the hotel and found myself in the lounge, where there were women singing 1930's songs and the tables were filled with people discussing the experiences they had had in the hotel. 

Not until I found the two friends I went with, and started talking to them, did I realize how unique everyone's experiences were.

This is mine.  Get ready for a lot of words- I have to paint the picture : )

Remember when I said I would get back to the elevator?  When James, the elevator operator, told us he hoped we enjoyed our stay at the hotel, and the elevator stopped moving, he looked at me as the doors opened and said "Ladies first".  I stepped out of the elevator into a darkened hallway, took two steps and heard the doors close.  I could not believe that I was all alone in this dark, empty hallway.  Anyone that knows me, knows that I do not have the personality that takes this kind of thing calmly.  I turned in circles a few times and then realized there was only one way to go.

The walls were white with an occasional locked door along the way .  I could not see the end of the hallway, just a blackness, that I was forced to walk towards.  As I was walking I saw a woman dressed as a nurse pushing an antique wheelchair.  I followed her from a distance and then she rounded a corner.  When I caught up and turned the corner, she was standing there facing me with the wheelchair in front of her.  I stood frozen.  I had heard that you could walk among the actors, but it was my understanding that they generally did not acknowledge your presence.  But, here was this nurse...absolutely....acknowledging me.  I waited and stared, hoping she would walk past or turn and keep going.  Instead, she walked up to me not breaking her stare into my eyes and took my hand.  She pulled me to the wheelchair...I say pulled, because I don't remember being willing to sit in an antique wheelchair being pushed by a demented, creepy 1930's era nurse (that's at least what she looked at at that moment- too many horror movies as I grew up, I think).

I sat down in the creaky chair and she wheeled me backwards into the blackness.  I remember going over the bump of a doorjamb and then it was pitch black.  The chair suddenly was lying down and this woman was rubbing my arms.  There were all kinds of things going through my head...was an evil doctor going to appear with a tray of scalpels...was I going to be strapped down to what used to be a chair, but was now a bed?  As I lay there with the creepy nurse stroking my arms, a dim light shone across the ceiling and a woman started to speak.

I wish I could remember what she was saying, but I couldn't get over the fact that I was getting an arm massage in a wheelchair by a creepy nurse.  On the ceiling was grass and a path leading to a house in the distance and some grave markers.  Bit of a blur really...I did mention that a nurse was rubbing my arms in the dark, didn't I?

After the lady stopped talking, the ceiling went black and I was sat up.  The nurse helped me out of the chair, wrapped an arm around my waist and continued to rub my arm as we walked.  When we stopped, she put her lips against my ear, said something (can't remember, because now, her arm is around my waist and her lips are on my ear) ending with "I will sleep no more" and then she kissed my cheek and lightly shoved me out of the door and then the door slammed behind me.  That is where I found myself, in another hallway with rooms surrounding me filled with headless babies and empty beds and tubs.  It was no Lion King, I can tell you that.

After the three hours had passed, and I went into the lounge, sat down with my friends and asked them when they had to sit in the wheelchair, they looked at me like I was crazy.  And then we all exchanged stories of how we had been singled out during the experience.

I walked through Sleep No More feeling creepy at times, curious every minute, shocked often and not really wanting it to end.  It was amazing!

Paige, Suzy and me

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The best NYC discovery: The Highline

Of all the things I saw in New York City, The High Line was the most unexpected and beautiful surprise.

The High Line is a one mile aerial linear park that runs through three of the most well known neighborhoods of Manhattan- the Meat-packing District, West Chelsea and Hell's Kitchen. 

The high Line was built in the 1930's, to elevate dangerous freight traffic from the streets of NYC's  largest industrial district.  The last train ran in 1980- soon thereafter a group of developers wanted to demolish the High Line in favor of more construction/buildings.  Thankfully, community activists united to save the abandoned rail line and lobbied for it to be used as a public space. 

And, here it is today: a perfect combination of modern design and natural beauty.

I loved how the original train tracks sometimes ran through the plant beds and then would become part of the walkway.  It was always a seamless transition, but a constant reminder of the historical contradiction of this tranquil place.

There were parts of the High Line that you would never guess existed in a city, especially New York City- the "concrete jungle".  The High Line does it's part in combating the negative connotation of that term.

Seeing water on the High Line was a wonderful surprise as well. It was integrated in a very modern way, but added the essential "oasis" factor. It was peaceful and beautiful and reflected the surrounding city. 

I loved how the rusted metal plant borders helped incorporate the original train tracks- rusted metal was a continuous design element that blended the modern design with the history of the rail line.

 I thought that having these diagonal cut-outs in the path was a great way for the plants to enter the space softly instead of butting up against a solid concrete barrier.  It really felt more natural than it would have been had this design element been left out.

There are wonderful seating options throughout the mile walk.  There are chaise/benches that are not only beautifully designed, but surprisingly comfortable.

This same stacked horizontal board look has been used in a "stadium seating" format.  Some have been turned into observation "decks", where the seating is positioned towards the street, so you can watch the traffic below.

And there are simple linear benches that are placed in the water and among the plants.

The surrounding city is the perfect backdrop for this modern oasis- it made me realize how beautiful all of the intersections of people, steel, concrete and glass become when seen from a tranquil and "live" space

The High Line has become an amazing place for installation artists to display their artwork. The artwork is rotated out throughout the year.  You can see the schedule of upcoming commissions on the official High Line website-  While I was there, there were three amazing pieces on display. 

Landscape With Path
Darren Almond, fullmoon@thenorthsea
Monday, October 3rd- Monday, October 31st
Installed on a billboard east of the High Line at West 18th Street

The final work in Joel Sternfeld's Landscape with Path series shows an image of Huangshan mountain range shot in moonlight.

 Still Life With Landscape (Model for a Habitat)
Sarah Sze
June 2011- June 2012
On the High Line between West 20th and West 21st streets 

Sarah Sze presents a an elaborate architectural sculpture that allows park visitors to physically enter and pass through the space it outlines, while also attracting birds, butterflies, and insects with perches, feeding spots, and birdbaths

 Alive-Nesses: Proposal for Adaptation
Charles Mary Kubricht
Debuted Saturday, September 24th, 2011
High Line at the Rail Yards

High Line storage containers are camouflaged with a paint scheme used to disguise World War I warships from the enemy.

I was so grateful to see this little part of the city- not exactly off the beaten path, more like above it.  The High Line is a perfect example of how nature can humanize a city- it adds creation back into the world of innovation.  Beautiful!

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Friday, October 21, 2011

Friday Favorites: Experiencing art in person

One of my "have-to's" while in New York City was to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  It has been my experience, that you can't truly know what makes a "masterpiece" a masterpiece without seeing it in person.  I love looking at a brushstroke and envisioning the artist putting it there.  Looking at a drawing and seeing where the artist corrected his/her vision on paper- a process that is often left out of photos.

While at the Met, I tried to take pictures of some of the details that are lost when you back away and take art all in.  Just as in everything else in life, the details are what makes it amazing.

Self-portrait with two pupils, Mademoiselle Marie Gabrielle Capet and 
Mademoisells Carreaux de Rosemond   Adelaide Labille-Guiard 1785

What I love about this painting and the paintings of this time period is the amazing skill the artist had when painting textiles- in person, the taffeta in this painting looks as if you could grab it and it would wrinkle in your grasp.   There is no build-up of paint, no falter in her brushstrokes. 

Some of the back-story of this painting- Adelaide was just one of four women accepted to the French Royal Academy in 1783.  This painting, one of her earliest oil paintings, asserts her femininity, but clearly shows her claiming her right as an artist- almost daring the viewer to doubt her role as a woman and artist.  Feminism at it's finest : )

detail of the taffeta
I love the cracks and even the bristles from the paintbrush caught in the paint

 Latona and Her Children, Apollo and Diana
William Henry Rinehart
1874  Marble

I absolutely loved this sculpture.  It could have been the lighting, the placement (it was located in a darkened alcove of a hallway), the subject matter- a mother staring lovingly at her two sleeping children.  It could have been any of those things, but I think most of all, I loved how the artist was able to convey the softness of the children, the draping of Latona's dress, the  relaxed poses of the children laying cradled against their mother's body.  The children even had dimple on their chubby knuckles! To be able to convey softness in marble is amazing.  I wanted to reach out and touch those chubby arms...I didn't of course, but that is what is so beautiful about this sculpture in person.  You want to reach out and confirm it's marble- Amazing!

detail of Apollo and Diana

Sunflowers   Vincent van Gogh   oil on canvas 1887

I just talked to a group of boy scouts about art, and within the discussion, I asked them what artists they were familiar with.  One boy held up his hand and said "Van Gogh- he cut off his ear!" and then the group chimed in "Yeah, he cut off his ear", "Yeah, that's so gross!"

Self-portrait With Bandaged Ear 1890
Poor van Gogh.  Had he only known that until high school, or maybe even later, the only thing that would be associated with his name, would be that he mutilated himself...maybe he would have reconsidered the self-portrait with the bandaged ear.

No matter how many times I see his work, I am always struck, not by the subject matter or the colors he used...he is great because of the texture within his paintings.  His compositions are no longer two-dimensional under his paintbrush.  I love that you can see his every brushstroke-  you can see where he went over and over the composition...adding more and more paint, until the sunflowers have such mass, they look as if they are actual objects frozen in time.  Love, Love Love Van spite and because of his missing ear.  He died at the age of 37 from a self-inflicted gunshot would to the chest.  The possible mental illnesses he may have been suffering from have been debated for years.  No matter what the diagnosis could have been, I am grateful he picked up a paintbrush when he did- tortured, and knowing he was losing control, he produced over 2000 works of art within a decade, some of his most famous, being produced the last two years of his life. 
detail of Sunflowers

Dancers, Pink and Green
1890   Oil on canvas
Edgar Degas
 Degas.  Why I love him- he painted women.  He painted them at the ballet, he painted them ironing, he painted them bathing, he painted them downtrodden,loaded down with all their finery drinking absinthe.  Ballerinas were the subject of hundreds of his drawings and paintings, but there are very few showing them actually dancing.  They are preparing, practicing, stretching, yawning.  He seemed to appreciate the movements and actions of women before all of the pomp and circumstance of the time period.

When I see his artwork in person, I love how he uses these pops of color within a very muddled color palette.  You can also see his drawing techniques used within his paintings- the outlines of the arms and legs define the women within the smudged surroundings. 

The Massacre of the Innocents
Oil on canvas   1824
Francois-Joseph Navez

I had seen this painting in books and on-line.  Those instances can not compare to seeing it with my own eyes.  The artist has done what I consider to be one of the hardest things to accomplish.  When looking at this painting, you can feel the pain of the mother who has just lost her child, and you can feel the pain of the child who has just been murdered.  A story we have all heard before, the massacre of the innocents, becomes an emotional reality for the people who have been affected.  How many times do you have to hear a an account of an event before the reality of it disappears and you no longer empathize with the victims. 

In all of the times I had seen this painting, I had related it back to all the other portrayals I had seen by Rubens, Van Haarlenm, Tintoretto and Poussin. 

I stood there in front of this painting, a pain in my chest, feeling as if  I was witness to insurmountable tragedy and grief.  The tear falling from the mother's eye and the vacant expression in the dead child's eyes can not be seen when you back away and observe the whole painting. 

As you move into modern art- the artistry is lost in the photograph.  The dimensions, medium, artist can all be listed, but sometimes, it looks as if you are looking at a splatter of paint or a blue square.  Modern art has experimented greatly with scale.  To appreciate this, you have to see it in person.

Mark  (1978-79)      Acrylic on canvas       Chuck Close

This is Mark.  To say that I love him, would be foolish.  The word is used with rampant abandon- the true meaning of the sentiment is lost.  But I LOVE him- everything about him.  I love his big tortoise glasses, his almost uni-brow, his receding hairline, the wrinkles in his forehead, the reflections on his lenses, his overly large pores, the whiskers starting to grow back, in spite of him shaving this morning, his lined lips that look like he could use some chap-stick and especially his slightly yellowed reflective teeth.

It's easy to not be impressed by Mark when you believe you are staring at a bigger than life photo of a man's head.  But when you realize that Mark is acrylic paint on canvas, it's hard to not be impressed.  Every whisker, every pore, every strand of hair is treated with deference.  Standing in front of him, there is not one indication that he is a painting.  The size itself is brilliant, but Chuck Close's subject choice was genius.  Mark is so interesting, because he is not classically attractive.  Because his features are so blown out of proportion, you can appreciate all of the details that make this painting more interesting than if the artist had chosen a more attractive subject. Mark took Close fourteen months to create.  I could stare at Mark all day and not get bored.   

Lucas   (1986-1987)  oil and pencil on canvas          Chuck Close

Chuck Close, the artist who painted Mark,  also painted Lucas.  Both paintings reside in the modern art gallery of the Met.  I loved the fact that I could see one of Chuck Close's "pre-event" and "post-event" paintings in the same space. 

In 1988, Chuck Close suffered from a spinal artery collapse which left him paralyzed from the neck down.  He refers to this moment in his life as "the event".  He went through months and months of rehabilitation, regained limited movement in his arms and legs and has been confined to a wheelchair since.  Close was a prolific painter before his disability, but he has continued to paint by strapping a paintbrush onto his wrist with tape.  The change in technique can be seen when comparing the two paintings.  He began painting within a pencil grid his assistant would draw on the canvas.  Each square had shapes in it, such as circles or triangles, but from afar the shapes would blend into a larger image of a face.  Mark and Lucas are each amazing in their own ways.  Impressive in books, absolutely astonishing in person.

Two Women (1992)    Lucian Freud     oil on canvas

Lucian Freud's paintings are thought-provoking because of the inherent sexuality in each of them, but also he conveys a certain "dirtiness" and "taboo" connotation in each.  The colors he used are muted and somewhat washed out.  The bodies are more often than not, laid out or seated awkwardly. 
More than anything else, the way he used the paint, built it up to form a "crust" on the surface made me feel a certain amount of voyeurism and discomfort when looking at his artwork.  He said "I paint people, not because of what they are like, not exactly in spite of what they are like, but how they happen to be."  I certainly think this is true, but the relationship of the artist to his models is on display in the later works in his life.  Many artists choose to draw or paint their models, somewhat respectfully.  In Freud's paintings, you have to ask the question, "Is this the artist's observation or is this his conception?"  

Nothing compares to seeing artwork within an arm's length- to see the textures, the proof of a master's touch,  finding value when you found none before.  I never leave a museum feeling the same way as when I went in.