Artists of the Year

Iraq. SARS. Jay Leno, Still on television practically every night. Yeah, 2003 was about as much fun as a social disease.

The evening was at its most energetic, however, in the large-scale efforts, including "Spirit: Lady," an ode to South Africa set to the uplifting vocals of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. More than a dozen dancers swept through the space in a celebration that threatened to explode out of the modest black box theater onto Riverside Avenue. The piece represented that most elusive of experiences for this sometimes jaded dancegoer: a rare moment of shared transcendence when the movement was all that really mattered.

Caroline Palmer is an attorney with the Minnesota AIDS Project and dance critic for City Pages.


Aaron Horkey

Alec Soth

Two pictures give a good idea of what Minneapolis photographer Alec Soth is all about. The first, called "Cemetery, Fountain City, WI", is a frigid, blue-and-white winter landscape. A steep and hairy hill rises in the background behind a convenience store gas-pump awning. The awning's eerie lights glow crystalline white and draw our attention away from the beast-like hill. The cemetery appears almost as an afterthought, three-quarters of the way down the hill beneath dark scraggly trees. With his large 8" x 10" camera, Soth is a patient vulture, coaxing the perfect light and carefully composing the elements of the image to bring strange and hesitant life to this otherwise unremarkable scene.

The second photo, "Kym, Polish Palace, Minneapolis, MN," is nearly the opposite of that outdoor scene. It is a quiet bar portrait of a solitary woman in a red and pink setting. She sits in a red vinyl bar booth. The walls glow red from the reflection off the vinyl. Cutout red and pink Valentine's Day hearts are pasted on the wall over her shoulder. Even the two drinks in front of the woman fit the theme--one is red, one pink. You just know nothing is here by accident.

In images like these, the 33-year-old Soth tells a story in the manner of documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, who is known for manipulating every aspect of his films. Soth works a similar magic with the incidental by taking care to control it--either through his mastery of light and composition, or by physical means. His latest series of works, called Sleeping by the Mississippi, has been heralded far and wide this past year for the visual poetry it finds at spots along the titular river from Minnesota to Louisiana. So successful has been Soth that last year alone he won the 2003 Santa Fe Prize for Photography, mounted a solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, received a book contract from Steidl, won acceptance to the Whitney Biennial, and scored a New York solo show at the Yossi Milo Gallery in Chelsea. At least there's one thing to look forward to in 2004: more happy accidents from Soth.

Michael Fallon is a St. Paul-based visual arts writer and a frequent contributor to City Pages.


Mark Wojahn

Traveling by bus and car and train from New York to Los Angeles, filmmaker Mark Wojahn discovered the eclectic heart beating steadily against the din of Dittoheads. His film What America Needs: From Sea to Shining Sea is a road movie and a reality check, a documentary that boldly contradicts the pervasive depiction of Americans as wealthy celebrities, dysfunctional welfare recipients, and jingoistic warmongers.

What we have in America is what we have in America: cabbies, cooks, students, artists, immigrants, punks, mall-shoppers, gay Halloween celebrants, tourists in D.C. and at Ground Zero, and homeless people all around. There are plenty of women here, and people of color--a welcome antidote to nightly news coverage of middle-aged white men magically anointed to speak for everyone. Wojahn asked these folks, "What does America need?" and found some surprising answers, from the silly to the sublime. Of the 500 people he interviewed in rural towns, suburbs, and cities, only four claimed to be in favor of war in Iraq. There's truth in those numbers, though we won't be seeing it on CNN anytime soon.

With What America Needs, Wojahn seizes America from the corporate culture, with its hucksters and pundits, and reveals us to ourselves. Propelled by an exhilarating sense of forward momentum, but anchored by a provocative thoughtfulness, his filmmaking is infused with the same democratic spirit exemplified by resolutely American artists from Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg to Marge Piercy and Jimi Hendrix. Like them, Wojahn reconnects us to the transcendent possibilities of this nation's great experiment. His film left me feeling more damn hopeful than I've felt in a long time.

Lydia Howell is a Twin Cities-based poet and journalist whose radio show Catalyst airs weekly on KFAI.


Jeffrey Wright

He enters in a shower of stardust, an orange feather boa tossed around his bull-like neck. In the HBO production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, directed by Mike Nichols, Jeffrey Wright plays Belize, the butch-queen earth-angel who works as an AIDS nurse, employing caustic wit and empathy to inspire his patients to rise to the occasion of their death. He has a similarly inspirational effect on his fellow actors. The three stars of the piece--Al Pacino, Justin Kirk, and Ben Shenkman--are strong throughout, but they do their finest work in their scenes with Wright. Indeed, anyone wanting to understand what great acting is has only to look at the scene in the diner between Wright and Shenkman toward the end of Part One.

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