Artists of the Year
Every few years an exhausted critic who has run out of story ideas hits upon the notion of writing the perfect non-story, a piece that might be called "In Search of the Sounds of Silence." The premise is enticing in its simplicity. The writer reports feeling afflicted by the volume of information that buffets the body like solar radiation: the coos of boys promising fidelity in two-part harmony; the religious repetition of the day's Dow Jones index on the news channels; the Web-mailings for Samoan correspondence brides over AOL. Fortunately, the solution to this media-induced inebriation is familiar to all of us Americans with unchecked appetites: withdrawal.
And so the writer resolves to shun the mediated experience--the seemingly inescapable universe of celebrity magazines and pagers that flash jai alai box scores in real time--and to live in the world instead. Embrace old friends over six-hour lunches. Take the viola out of the closet. Make wormwood jam. Try a little Walden without leaving town. What we're talking about here is going native without having to give up central air.
It's this same scenario, perhaps, that propels our tittering enthusiasm for millennial disaster. We fear our rebellious machines will leave us marooned; we want very badly to be stuck on that desert island.
This issue of City Pages is devoted to whatever art we'll stubbornly set aside from the burning barrels in our living rooms just a few days hence. Or maybe these are the items we'll toss in right after the back issues of Entertainment Weekly: For most of the stories, songs, and pictures named in the pages that follow have already left the realm of being mere objects or products and have become part of us. These are the novels and movies that we've been screening over and over, for an audience of one, in the back of the brain.
Thanks go out to the few dozen writers, critics, and fellow travelers who have kindly written about the artists who defined the year. In a departure from previous editions of this issue, "Artists of the Year 1999" sets aside a special section for local artists in a range of media--theater, art, dance, music, film, and books--to recognize those who live among us. When the telephone lines go down and the National Guard closes the interstates, we'll still come out to see these talented folks--riding sleds tethered to our housepets.
by Peter Ritter
T.S. Eliot once remarked that no good play offers its secrets upon first viewing. I'm inclined to agree. Especially in this age of instant access, there is something delightful in the coy interplay between artist and audience, neither yielding to the other's expectations nor frustrating the other's purpose. Such was the principal charm of Kira Obolensky's Lobster Alice, which teased its way into my imagination this past September. Though Obolensky has been plying her trade locally as a journalist, playwright, and nonfiction author for some two decades now, she is still adjectivally tagged as an "emerging writer." If Lobster Alice did nothing else, it ought to make us recognize that what we have on our hands is an artist, fully emerged.
From a deliciously ripe scenario--the surrealist painter Salvador Dali visits Walt Disney's California studio to develop an "animated ballet" with the artist responsible for Alice in Wonderland--the playwright orchestrated a pas de trois among people simultaneously bound and isolated by desire. At the same time, Obolensky found a quiet metaphor for the theater itself: the audience, seeking to comprehend, and the artist, seeking to enrapture, must commingle to do the work of imagination. Art, she suggested, is born of this union.
As with all good theater, the joy of Lobster Alice lay not in the particulars of plot or theme, but in the bedeviling details of tone and wit. The accumulation of these nuances, played out onstage, was at once so irresistibly simple and so indelibly effective that, months later, I'm left still thinking and wondering and searching for the words that will pluck the heart of its mystery. There is much pleasure in the pursuit.
Peter Ritter is a staff writer at City Pages.
by Michael Fallon
Imagine you fell asleep, Rip Van Winkle-like, in, say, 1994, and hadn't awakened till yesterday. What would you think of the strange world of today? Of cell phones, SUVs, the Internet, business incubators, day traders, and the rest? Life would probably seem unbalanced and revved up to your antiquated sensibility. Is there nothing, you might ask, that one can count on anymore?
No, there's nothing. Nothing, that is, except for art, which as one of the last real activities in this virtual world, remains a profound source of solace for stick-in-the-muds like you and me. And because of this, artists like the ceramist Warren MacKenzie will always have currency no matter what the world looks like--next year or next century.
MacKenzie, for those who have been asleep for much longer than five years, is Minnesota's premier practitioner of ceramics art, a student of the Japanese folk traditions in pottery who has practiced his craft without regard to fashion and trends since landing a job as a professor in the art department at the University of Minnesota in 1954. Since 1990, when he retired as a Regents Professor Emeritus from the University, MacKenzie has continued to work competently and honestly, selling his work for a fair price from his Stillwater studio without worrying about all the trappings of fame and fortune that could be his. Too, he has generously helped other artists along the way.
Though MacKenzie has been worthy of public adoration for something like half a century, this past year marked a landslide of recognition. He was the second recipient of the McKnight Distinguished Artist award, which honors lifetime achievement. And in 1999 he had work in a solo show at the MCAD Gallery, a two-person show at the Rochester Art Center, and a group show at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
And then there are the objects MacKenzie makes--pots, bowls, vases, plates--in simple, traditional forms. They can best be understood by recalling their folk origin. Each piece is as perfectly imperfect as a living being, with knicks and flaws accepted as part of their beauty. An undated "Vase" in the MCAD show, for instance, was a kind of stocky peasant--rough-edged, ruddy from the sun, round like a large turnip. MacKenzie is fond of awkward, clunky shapes, and of glazes that reflect the colors of real life--the brick red of earth, the violet-black of night, the gray-blue of clouds, the green-indigo of water--applied in gestural and expressionistic splashes.
What a refreshing change from the endless radiation sheen of the glow-boxes that rule our lives!
Michael Fallon is a St. Paul artist and bookmaker and a frequent contributor to City Pages.
by Anders Smith-Lindall
The pedal-steel guitar is a daunting instrument to master. In addition to being notoriously difficult to tune, it requires tremendous dexterity to play: The guitarist must not only pick notes with one hand while fretting the neck with a slide, but also continuously operate foot pedals that control the tone and resonance of each note. The reward for this effort is the guitar's distinctive sound: Usually described by stock adjectives like weeping (that's meant to be positive) or whining (negative), it's a staple of country music.
St. Paul resident Eric Heywood is a virtuoso, capable of both excelling in that musical tradition and broadening the possibilities of the instrument. Heywood's name is known to few, even in the alt-country scene, where he makes his career, but listeners know his sound. Or, more accurately, his many sounds: the sticky-sweet sustain of his solos on Son Volt's "Left Aslide," the treble swells that roll over Freakwater's "When the Leaves Begin to Fall," the rusty fuzz-tones that drive Richard Buckner's otherwise elliptical rocker "Hand @ the Hem."
Heywood can play a bell-clear staccato solo that says "honky-tonk" as surely as sawdust on the floor, but he's also been Buckner's right-hand man as that songwriter has stridden boldly away from the more pedestrian West Texas sound of his (Heywood-less) 1995 debut. Heywood has played on Buckner's two subsequent releases, the artful avant-country albums Devotion+Doubt and Since, and has toured with Buckner for the last three years.
1999 was Heywood's first year in five not largely devoted to Son Volt, the band that first gave Heywood his break (until last year he was the alt-country quartet's guitar tech and steel guitarist, adding moments of indelible beauty to the band's first two albums). Yet Heywood only occasionally fell back on his former day job as a carpenter. He rode shotgun on Richard Buckner's relentless tour, traveled with Texas roots-rocker Alejandro Escovedo, and added steel guitar to Normal for Bridgwater, the album that has led the U.K. press to peg singer-songwriter Peter Bruntnell as a rising star. (Bridgwater is scheduled for stateside release in early 2000.)
Heywood's most significant work in the last 12 months has been with Freakwater. Catherine Irwin and Janet Bean, whose moody, ragged vision of Depression-era folk and country has earned them a loyal cult, hired Heywood to help broaden the sound of their new album, End Time. As with Son Volt and Buckner, Heywood's accompaniment--at once ambient and earthy--added depth to what was once a one-dimensional duo. Following End Time's release, Heywood toured with Freakwater, playing both pedal-steel and a significant amount of electric lead guitar. His roadhouse riffs were the equivalent of throwing grease onto a fire--it was the first time Freakwater really rocked.
In all, not a shabby year of work for a native son of Mount Vernon, Iowa, who's not even the most famous musician from his high school class--that's singer-songwriter Dan Bern, who will always remember Heywood with a wince thanks to a phys.-ed. incident involving a wayward badminton racquet. In fact, Heywood might not be the most famous musician in his family: His brother Phil is an award-winning fingerstyle guitarist.
Anders Smith-Lindall is a Chicago-based writer and a contributor to City Pages.
by Caroline Palmer
Kismet is a lovely word. Derived from Turkish and Arabic roots, the term describes the awesome power of destiny and fate--while at the same time sounding melodic, pleasing to the ear. Kismet may also describe the artistic epiphany Danny Buraczeski experienced this year while creating "Ezekiel's Wheel," a career-defining dance work performed at O'Shaughnessy Auditorium that explored the promises of the future by laying waste the sins of the past. In a world still consumed by racism and ethnic hatred, the piece seemed to glance at this sad state of affairs and then turn away, marching toward a state of grace where pure spirituality overwhelms the barriers of dogmatic thought. Throughout, the work never stooped to didactic lectures on the ills of inequality. Instead the performers and audience were haunted by a more nebulous and insidious presence, one profoundly difficult to exorcise.
"Ezekiel's Wheel" succeeded largely because of its vehicle for communication; the stirring words of mid-20th-century writer James Baldwin, captured on a crackling recording, provided counterpoint to vibrant vocals and percussion by Philip Hamilton. At the same time, Buraczeski's wide-ranging interpretation of contemporary jazz movement, as carried out by the fluid performers of his Jazzdance troupe, created a physical embodiment of the text and music. Illuminated by a half-light, the dancers appeared as anxious seekers, guided by the optimistic voices of Hamilton's rhythmically complex score. A hunger for some kind of revelation was palpable, and when it finally arrived, the result was unbridled joy.
There have been many defining moments in dance history where choreography moved beyond the realm of technique to transform culture in ways only successful art can. Alvin Ailey's Revelations, Bill T. Jones's Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the "golden section" from Twyla Tharp's Catherine Wheel immediately come to mind. And now Buraczeski has made his offering, one we gladly accept.
Caroline Palmer is an attorney with the Minnesota Aids Project and a frequent contributor to City Pages.
by Lisa Ganser
Being a film programmer at Intermedia Arts puts me in the position to find films that I like and project them in a roomful of people who are equally interested. I can offer a screening that both suits the artist involved and receives publicity and technical support. The shows are also intimate and personal, with the filmmakers on hand for discussion. It's a cultural exchange that later trickles into the lobby where conversation continues.
In early December I had the privilege of meeting the local writer-director Sayer Frey and exhibiting her film Eileen Is a Spy. Much in the way this film is dynamic and intriguing, so is its maker. Sayer is witty and beams with artistic intelligence. She's got an off-beat speech pattern, too: She thinks before she speaks, and she comes across as strong and determined.
What makes the film so noteworthy is its many levels of being personal. The protagonist (Eileen) has been raised in an oppressive small town and survived the abuse of her father. Eileen's narrative story is intertwined with a documentary voiceover from interviews Sayer conducted with women friends and family. These honest voices speak of sexuality, intimacy (or its lack), and interpersonal relationships. Such brave subject matter invites the viewer to self-reflect, which can be quite therapeutic.
Sayer speaks about her newest project, 39,49,59, with a confident ease while laying out the movie's complicated motives. It's a feature film about different generations of women and how they deal with aging and beauty. It's also about the abuses of polygamy, which will no doubt make for another intriguing and dynamic film. The project is in pre-production and should be completed in 2001.
Eileen Is a Spy is by far one of the most daring, intelligent, and thought-provoking films I've screened in recent years. It's an incredible blend of documentary, narrative, and experiment, and it succeeds as a feature-length film. Even more encouraging is the fact that this is Sayer Frey's first feature. There should be many more on the way.
Lisa Ganser is a Minneapolis-based filmmaker and the curator of "Films First Fridays" at Intermedia Arts.
PATRICIA WEAVER FRANCISCO
by Carolyn Kuebler
During the height of the Christmas-shopping season of 1992, I joined a group of about 15 women from my neighborhood, all wearing costumes and signs, in a parade down Hennepin Avenue toward Calhoun Square. "Protect Yourself," one sign said. "Wear a Strap-On Beard." "Do you live in fear? Do you like it?" The rash of rapes that took place in Minneapolis's Wedge and Whittier neighborhoods in 1991-92 greatly heightened the vigilance of those of us living in the areas, inciting all forms of outrage and fear. But the "serial rapist" is a more common phenomenon in the Cities than we may have imagined. Most rapists commit their crimes more than once, and only when the media gets on board is the more alarming term serial used in place of the police term, professional.
Hamline creative-writing teacher and longtime Minneapolis resident Patricia Weaver Francisco was raped by such a professional in 1981. Now, almost 20 years later, she has written a stunning and terrifying account of her rape and the long years it has taken her to regain both her sense of autonomy and her capacity for joy. As she shows throughout the book, Telling, rape is much more than one night's horror; its effects--in the form of nightmares, paranoia, despair, shame, and myriad other posttraumatic symptoms--last for years, even infinitely, in the mind and body of the one who was raped.
Francisco acknowledges her hesitancy to write about rape, not wanting to give it any more room in her life than it has already demanded. But she finally chose to create the book anyway, partially in answer to Audre Lorde's dictum: "You who see, tell the others." Francisco's description of fear, and its power over rational thinking and behavior, is almost as harrowing as her description of the rape itself. Her inquiry into her own reaction to violence allows the reader to comprehend trauma of all types, and her discussion of the trial of Minneapolis serial rapist Timothy Baugh extends this discussion beyond the purely personal and into broader cultural territory.
More effective than an ad-hoc parade, but never denying such forms of defiant energy, Francisco's book is about the importance of telling true stories, whether through fiction or nonfiction, fairy tale or courtroom testimony. Telling this particular story may not, as Francisco wishes, create a different world, but it does open a window into the effects of violence and offer hope for a way out.
Carolyn Kuebler is a Minneapolis writer and cofounder of the book review Rain Taxi.
THE REST OF THE WORLD
by Peter S. Scholtes
Last season's Buffy the Vampire Slayer prom saw its outsider-heroine named "Class Protector" by her fellow Sunnydale seniors, a bit of geek wish fulfillment no less stirring for being funny. Apparently, giving Carrie a happy ending and finding humor in the alienation that pulsed through My So-Called Life sits just fine with Buffy's young cult. Narcotic doses of reassurance are TV's vampire blood, after all, even if the freshest helpings of network comfort food contain as much boomer poison as ever: the fighting-liberal daddy-prez of The West Wing; the nauseatingly idealized kids of Once and Again.
More than any other recent trash-culture windfall, Buffy respects its fans. Still, as freshman Buff began attending frat parties and dating heartthrobs in the current season, I began to wonder if creator-producer Joss Whedon might trade in his usual unpredictability for Felicity-style pandering. Instead he lured young viewers further than ever into the hellmouth of real-world evil, spinning off a darker version of the Buffy franchise with an even thinner layer of humor and wholesome eros glossing its seamy subtexts.
The title character of Angel is, as the faithful know, Buffy's ex-boyfriend, a conflicted vampire cursed with a conscience who will turn evil again if he ever has an orgasm (...er, make that: achieves a moment of "perfect happiness"). In other words, he's 245 years of pain poured into 25 years of body, with male virtue a given in his dealings with distressed damsels. It doesn't take much imagination to see Angel's supernatural battles--saving "half-breed" demons from genocidal storm troopers, protecting wannabe starlets from predatory monsters, stopping a creature that circulates through the vapid singles-bar scene--as a broader war on the ills of modern capitalism. A far cry from smashing bad apples in Gotham.
In a way, Buffy and Angel are television's first real gift from Generation X to Generation Y, a pop-culture dream/nightmare informed by Nirvana as much as Saved by the Bell, an oddly moral Tarantino spiel tailored to teen desires. Both shows are populated by guys whose insecurities are charming rather than oppressive and young women whose charms lie in discovering their strengths. The series share a sense of wordplay ("How do you get to be renowned? Do you have to be nowned first?") and genre satire (villain: "I gotta get me some better lackeys") that keeps things as light and quick as a fluttering bat.
What effect, I wonder, does a pro-witch, pro-sex, and curiously bi-curious comedy-cheese-horror series have on its legion Web site keepers, who dutifully summarize each episode in detail? Social critic Jerry Mander once wrote in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television that TV amounts to "sleep teaching," a sort of mass self-hypnosis that funnels experience right into the memory bank, bypassing conscious analysis. That might explain why no one talks about Buffy or Angel except to ask, Did you see it?
Whedon's world goes to work on our emotions while using wisecracks to diffuse its fantastic elements in a way that makes The X-Files' humor seem hoary. When Angel's assistant and Buffy's old nemesister Cordelia discovers her beautiful, inexpensive new apartment is haunted, she tries to conceal the fact from her supernatural-savvy friends so she won't lose the place, a comical goof on the show's own paranormalcy as much as on Scooby Doo, the housing crisis, and the character's 90210 arrogance. This is Scream made humane, which is to say, human.
Peter S. Scholtes is music editor at City Pages.
by Leslie Dunlap
In a tight retro frock, legs gapped, sucking on a cigarette, recent Rolling Stone coverboy Brad Pitt embodies millennial masculinity in extremis--a glaring, goateed überbutch bottled up in a doll's dress. "I just couldn't sit there and be pretty guy again," Pitt explains inside, about his choice to cross-dress for his third RS spread. The ambiguous logic is vintage Pitt: In a print dress decorated with dishware, cinema's consummate hottie insists that he's not a sexpot.
If you've seen Fight Club (or read Susan Faludi's Stiffed) it's like déjà vu all over again, with Pitt illustrating a butch backlash against the consumer culture's alienating--some would say emasculating--effects. As Tyler Durden, Fight Club's cocksure alpha male, Pitt struts his naked stuff, suggesting that manhood comes down to physical essentials like bare knuckles, bruises, and brawn. From the way he jabs his smokes to the manner of his swagger, Pitt exquisitely captures the macho--some would say misogynist--temper of the times.
But as the club's magnetic queen bee, Pitt also oozes homoerotic appeal, as he sashays around, modeling suggestively slung seersucker slacks and other flaming fashions. Wearing camos and fuzzy bedroom slippers, Pitt epitomizes gender mayhem. As usual, Pitt is at his chemical best playing off other men, posed as an object of male lust as much as identification. Either way, though, Fight Club's real first rule is, no girls (or girly guys) allowed.
Misogyny is surely no cause for year-end celebration, especially when it's cloaked as revolutionary. But somehow--impossibly--women might take scary pleasure in the sexual threat that Pitt presents. Ever since 1987, when he sauntered onto Dallas (that paean to Reagan-era fat-cat rapacity) and announced, "Hi, I'm Randy," Pitt has positioned himself against big daddies, domestic attachments, and concentrated capital. Memorably, Pitt played the coy lothario who sexually liberates Geena Davis's unhappy housewife midway through Thelma and Louise's feminist roadtrip--then steals her cash. So, too, did Pitt's manic ecoterrorist rage against The Man in 12 Monkeys. Likewise, Fight Club's anarchist brags that by destroying the Narrator's property, he has liberated him from his possessions and thereby realigned his perception. Like the man said, he's not just a pretty guy.
Leslie Dunlap is a Philadelphia-based writer and a frequent contributor to City Pages.
by Elaine Showalter
"Sweetheart, lady-girl." It's the voice of a wrecked green John Deere 4030 tractor, the wartiest of all frog princes, crooning love to hefty Ottaline Touhey, one of the few female characters in Annie Proulx's spectacular book of Wyoming stories, Close Range. Ottaline suffers from "minstrel problems," she's the size of a propane tank, and she likes a good bull sale, where "scrotal circumference is damn important." But she's also a fairy-tale princess amid the harsh Wyoming cowboys who are Proulx's main subjects. In this collection of short stories, Annie Proulx gets under the skin of the mythic American hero that D.H. Lawrence described as "hard, isolate, stoic and a killer," and writes a series of spiky, Grimm fairy tales about love and death in a "tough, unforgiving place."
The most startling and sensational of the stories, "Brokeback Mountain," was first published in the New Yorker in 1998, and won O. Henry and National Magazine Awards. It's about the explosive sexual passion of two ranch hands herding sheep for the summer to make a few extra bucks. Although the men separate, marry, and meet only infrequently during the rest of their lives, the duo's affair is not only searingly erotic, but also tender, for each "the single moment of artless, charmed happiness in their separate and difficult lives." Its memory sustains one of the men after the other dies in a roadside "accident" he knows was really an anti-gay lynching.
The story was published a year before Matthew Shepard was killed in Laramie, but Proulx had sensed from her contact with the macho world of Wyoming ranches and bars the seething anxiety and potential violence about homosexuality beneath the rough jokes. Ironically, her characters, too, are shepherds--traditionally outcasts from the city and society we only hear about at this season of the year--who are present at the Christian Nativity as a sign of divine love and mercy. "Brokeback Mountain" has been optioned for a movie by director Gus Van Sant, and he may be exactly the right person to capture its mixture of semen, sweat, and poetry.
The oldest of five girls, married three times, and the mother of four, Annie Proulx says, "both sexes are human beings and what falls true for one is probably going to be true for the other." Since she moved on from freelance journalism and how-to books, including a doozy on building fences, she has written a series of stories and novels that have taken her further beyond the stereotyped limits of gender than any other American woman writer. Yet these stories about gritty, violent male experience seem absolutely natural and unforced. For this she's my choice for the artist of the year, and my candidate for the new woman of the millennium.
Elaine Showalter is a professor of humanities at Princeton University and author of Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture.
by Alain de Botton
In 1996 a middle-aged German writer living in Britain, W.G. Sebald, published one of the finest books of recent years: The Emigrants. It told the story of four German Jews affected in different ways by the Holocaust. The writing style was extraordinary: essayistic, learned, and at times almost unbearably moving. The form of the book was highly unusual, too. Though described as a novel, it read more like a work of nonfiction, a mixture of travel writing, memoir, and history. It included photographs of the protagonists and of idiosyncratic items like ticket stubs, alarm clocks, and newspapers. There were echoes of Thomas Bernhardt, Laurence Sterne, and Marcel Proust, but Sebald's voice was essentially unique. The Emigrants became a modern classic.
In 1998 Sebald published The Rings of Saturn, an essayistic account of a journey made by the author around Norfolk and Suffolk (born in Germany, Sebald is a professor of German literature at the University of East Anglia). Again there were idiosyncratic photos (of skulls, trees, clouds, newspaper cuttings, etc.) and digressions into history and literature. It perhaps lacked the intensity of The Emigrants, but it was still a very fine book. And now we have Vertigo, which bears all the hallmarks of Sebald's oeuvre: the photos, the digressions, and the essayistic voice.
Though it is the latest Sebald to appear in translation in English, Vertigo was in fact the first of the three books to be written (it was published in Germany in 1990). It is also the weakest. Nevertheless, second-rate Sebald is still worth reading, if only to witness how the author first developed some of the themes and writing styles that a few years later he brought to perfection in The Emigrants. Vertigo is divided into four parts loosely held together by a narrative voice and certain themes: homelessness, writing, Germany, Kafka, Stendhal, and hotels.
The narrator (who may or may not be Sebald himself) is a melancholic and wry middle-aged man undergoing a life crisis, or, as he puts it in his typically understated way, "a difficult period of my life." He leaves England, where he lives "almost always under grey skies," and starts to wander across Europe in search of relief from his unspecified psychological affliction. He goes to Vienna, crosses into Italy, visits Verona and Milan, and then ends up in the Austrian alps. He is notably hysterical and easily menaced. No sooner has he arrived in a public place than he is liable to feel that others are looking at him or that he is being followed. He imagines that he can recognize unlikely figures from history and literature. In a bus in Italy, he grows convinced that a young man next to him is a reincarnation of the young Franz Kafka, so strong are the facial similarities. He tries to talk to him but is mistaken for a pedophile by his parents and has to get off the bus. He spends whole days alone in hotel rooms, he walks the streets of cities aimlessly, he sits in restaurants taking notes (perhaps for the book we are reading) and following up bizarre interests in the footnotes of art history and literature. He digresses at length on Stendhal's service in the Napoleonic armies and on his theories about love.
It all sounds weird and it is--though in a good way. The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips once praised writers who "allow themselves to be a bit weird," and Sebald is certainly one of these. There seem no logical connections between the various parts of Vertigo, and yet the disunity and digressions add up to a faintly pleasing whole. One is afforded a sense of the unusual correlations that can occur in the mind. Also, Sebald manages never to be boring. He infuses his prose with the tension of a stylish thriller: The narrator is constantly racing from one location to another in an escape from his demons, and this atmosphere of paranoia keeps us turning the pages.
Vertigo is not the book to start with if one has never read any Sebald. But committed fans (of which I am one) will nevertheless find many things to enjoy in Sebald's offering this year.
Alain de Botton is the author of How Proust Can Change Your Life and On Love; his new book, The Consolations of Philosophy, comes out in April. He lives in London.
by Amy Taubin
The Gilbert and Sullivan biopic Topsy-Turvy is such a fabulous ensemble piece that I'm loath to single out any one participant on either side of the camera. It tops my best of 1999 lists in many categories: best English-language picture; best director (Mike Leigh); best screenplay (Mike Leigh); best leading male actor (Jim Broadbent); best supporting male actor (Timothy Spaull); best supporting female actor (Lesley Manville). Still, what transforms Topsy-Turvy from a witty, detailed, and buoyant costume picture about the collaboration of two dedicated lightweights into something more bittersweet, if not quite tragic, is Leigh's decision to hand its final ten minutes to three female characters who, until this point, have remained in the background: Gilbert's wife, Sullivan's mistress, and the D'Oyly Carte opera company's alcoholic soubrette. Suddenly, an entirely different film opens before our eyes, one that has been suppressed in the interest of telling the story of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of two male artists.
The actor who bears the burden of this turnabout is Lesley Manville. A respected British character actor of the same generation as Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, Manville has never before played a role that tested her skill and emotional resources as fully as this one. Her "Kitty" Gilbert seems to be a perfect wren of a woman with a chirpy voice and a slightly flighty, unchallenging demeanor. But in fact it's she who gets Gilbert back on track by taking him to the Japanese exhibition that inspires him to write the libretto for The Mikado. Gilbert never acknowledges Kitty's part in his success. And credit is not what she wants. What she wants is a baby, and Gilbert, for reasons left unstated in the film, is unwilling to enter into the collaboration that would make that possible.
The audience is still applauding the premiere of The Mikado when Leigh cuts to Kitty in her bed in a starched white Victorian nightgown, and Gilbert in evening clothes, sitting at the edge. They are talking about the performance when Kitty takes her husband aback by announcing that she would rather like to be an actor on the stage. "Wouldn't it be wondrous," she continues, "if perfectly commonplace people gave each other a round of applause at the end of the day? Well done, Kitty, well done," she trills, clapping her hands so quickly that they seem like bird wings beating. The effort to still a mounting hysteria has sent her voice into an even higher register than usual. The more pleasant she tries to be, the more we sense her complete despair. It's as if all the artifice of the world of Gilbert and Sullivan drops away and we're left with this terrible, naked anguish and loss. And it's Manville's performance that conjures up this other film that's been there all along. It's the greatest piece of screen acting I've ever seen.
by Casey Stangl
My vote for artist of the year goes to Alan Ball: for sheer artistry in the form of his screenplay for American Beauty; and prolific bulk, as he's also executive producer and head writer for the new ABC sitcom Oh Grow Up. I admit I'm biased: My theater company produced some of Ball's early work--hilarious one-acts called Your Mother's Butt and Power Lunch, which remain among our biggest hits--when he was still an aspiring playwright living in Brooklyn and writing copy for an ad agency. Ball is one of those rare, talented nice guys who really deserves fame and fortune.
Ball's work is always good--clever, witty, sharp, sometimes glib--but with American Beauty he achieves depth and compassion, two qualities in short supply in our millennial moment of cynicism. The night I saw the movie, I waited in line--in the first cold rain of the season--with about 200 Edina suburbanites looking for fun. I wondered if they knew the movie was about them, and it struck me how curious it is that people crave seeing themselves reflected, even in unflattering lights. I knew I would like the movie--after all it was Ball, some great actors, and a cool British director, Sam Mendes. But I was hoping to love it and fearful I wouldn't. God knows we've seen plenty of suburban angst/let's-laugh-at-their-expense films.
When I watched the scene with the plastic bag blowing in the wind and listened to the wonder in that lonely boy's voice describing its beauty, I cried. And watching Annette Bening chant "I will sell this house today" and then scream and hit herself when she didn't eerily recalled my workaholic self. My fellow audience members, who upon closer inspection were a more diverse group than I had first thought, were also riveted, and we shared that fantastic communal experience of witnessing Art. And Beauty. Without sentiment or sensationalism, we watched something brave and insightful and had a good time doing it. When the movie ended, my husband and I turned to each other and said, "Wow. Right on, Alan."
Casey Stangl is artistic director of Eye of the Storm.
by Michael Tortorello
Michael Glawogger's documentary Megacities is practically nothing but trouble--starting with the projection itself. When this Austrian-made chronicle of the urban wastelands of the world screened as part of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival in April, the projectionist showed the reels in the wrong order. Yet it must be said that Glawogger's film almost begs to be jumbled, being a kind of episodic, unguided travelogue through the hells of Bombay, Moscow, Mexico City, and New York. Is one vast and infected field of rubbish, one cramped shantytown different from any other?
This bruising and problematic film is evidence that every infernal slum is, in fact, unique, and it is the accomplishment of Megacities to animate these universes with frighteningly vivid detail. And so in Mexico City we visit with a plump mother of two in her small apartment over breakfast, then follow her into a dim theater where she crawls naked across the stage. There men paw, grab, and suck her without interference (and without leaving money). The event seems to occur in slow motion, excruciating motion, the woman rolling like a punch-drunk boxer at the edge of a battle royal, absorbing the blows with her whole body, then moving into the grasp of the next opponent.
Later (or is that earlier?), we follow a Mexican garbage hauler riding in a horse-drawn wooden box through a dump that stretches endlessly in the distance--a place that makes our own Fresh Kills look like Yosemite. He rumbles down the rutted streets like a Roman charioteer--the Mexican Ben-Hur--collecting pesos for each pickup, and moving higher above his mount as the garbage accumulates beneath his feet.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, a rigid team of policemen strap single, defeated-looking men down to beds in a detox unit. There, the men plead, wheedle, threaten, beg, cajole--anything to avoid a night in the clink. And when that fails--and it apparently always does--they howl as if they were being vivisected without anesthetic.
Survival in these scenes is both a competitive sport and a ceremony of squalor, a theme that carries over into the segments set in Bombay. In one sequence, an assembly line of young butchers in a dirty room cut the heads off squawking chickens, then toss their frantic and fluttering bodies into a metal drum--the spray of blood everywhere, the drum thumping with spurts of life.
Megacities is a nature film, a highly staged and manipulated documentary that has been made to reveal the ghastly beauty of the species' adaptability. There is something complicated and offensive in the relationship between the viewer, the camera, and the subjects--as is the case with many powerful movies.
Yet ultimately, the documentary is not dehumanizing. The filmmaker repeatedly finds the ravaged metropolitans looking for fraternity, for sport, for art. The sanitation charioteer plays soccer in a stiff rain with his jersey-clad coworkers. An older Mexican couple leaves their tortilla stand and dances close together to the urgent merriment of trumpets and an accordion. And in a somewhat eerie reverie, an Indian busker shows children ten-second film loops through the aperture of a battered machine he totes on his back from slum to slum. It's a gleeful moment of Bollywood magic: The traveling projectionist thrilling the kids with snippets of our world, Glawogger's camera drawing us ineluctably into theirs.
Michael Tortorello is arts editor of City Pages.
by Jim Walsh]
On December 2 WCCO-TV's 10:00 p.m. newscast led with a story called "Holidazzle Grinches." The Grinches in question were animal-rights activists, who, during the parade, walked down the Nicollet Mall sidewalk with signs and painted furs. By all accounts, it was a peaceful demonstration against the selling of fur at Dayton's. But given the Hometown Team's scolding tone, you'd think that these people had just marched down the aisle of the Basilica of St. Mary's and defecated on the baby Jesus.
But that is not what they did. What they did is practice their First Amendment rights by getting off their butts, taking a stand, and embracing an art form that has been around since the American Revolution. This year, the protester was everywhere: in downtown Seattle and by the Minnehaha Parkway; in front of a Brooklyn art museum and at baseball-stadium rallies; outside movie theaters, Marilyn Manson concerts, abortion clinics, and the governor's office. All fighting to have their voices heard.
And in the case of the "Grinches," they rankled two of Minnesota's most sacred cash cows--Dayton's and Holidazzle. But since the age-old journalistic credo "afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted" has, in some circles, deteriorated into "comfort the comfortable," it has been left to the citizenry to ask most of the tough questions. For their efforts, protesters are too often dismissed as trendy and/or flaky. But be honest: If you were in a fight, and you needed someone to get your back, whom would you call? Don and Amelia, or Marv Davidov and Clyde Bellecourt?
Jim Walsh is the pop music columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
by Richard Flood
Chris Ofili was this year's classic example of the art world's victim of circumstance. Once mayor Rudy Giuliani decided that he wanted to strengthen his conservative constituency in New York State, he needed a target and he found Chris Ofili, a young, first-generation British citizen of Nigerian descent. Ofili's paintings were part of a huge survey of contemporary art from Great Britain called Sensation that was booked at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Giuliani used one of Ofili's paintings to unleash a firestorm that is still raging in the New York courts and seems destined to spread into his senatorial fight against Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The painting in question is a depiction of the Madonna with one breast made out of elephant dung, and Giuliani used it as a platform to assert his aggressive piety to churchgoing voters. Never mind that Ofili is a Catholic and that, for him, the painting is devotional, that the use of the dung is about the complexity of interweaving his own African heritage with traditional Eurocentric interpretations of Mary. For a mayor whose regime has set New York's communities of color adrift and racked up one of that city's worst records of police brutality against African Americans in memory, Ofili was disposable. That Ofili is an important artist who believes that his blackness needs to be expressed in his art is of no importance to politicians like Giuliani, whose need to win at all costs continues to foster minority exclusion while paving the road to prejudicial populism.
For sustaining Giuliani's attack with dignity and, more important, for being a necessary creative force, Chris Ofili is my choice for artist of the year.
Richard Flood is chief curator at Walker Art Center.
by Keith Harris
Across our purportedly boundless political spectrum there are, in fact, few pigeonholes officially designated for culture critics. I count, in fact, three. You can splash into a stream of market-driven smugness that mistakes cynicism for irony. You can slump into a weary realism that views any stance other than status-quo compromise as pie-eyed idealism. Or you can rebel against a supposed "conventional wisdom" few people in fact endorse, touting a knee-jerk "provocative" stance as an end in itself. Not much room in that club for an independent voice powered by a nimble brain. Maybe that's why Ellen Willis's byline is so scarce these days.
Once a high-profile paragon of alternative journalism, Willis now teaches at NYU. She's just the latest of our public intellectuals to be cordoned off in academia, for reasons outlined in her essay "Intellectual Work in the Culture of Austerity." When her former home base the Village Voice abandoned its groundbreaking commitment to the exploratory essay in favor of a bland gruel of "editor-driven and idea-free journalism," Willis laments, it degenerated "from an editorial vision seeking an audience to a marketing vehicle seeking a formula." And so Willis headed back to school.
That essay is one of the six concise volleys launched in Don't Think, Smile!, Willis's terse, triumphant return to the public arena. If you'd vowed to never think again about such hoary public controversies as The Bell Curve or Bill and Monica or (oh, no! not) O.J., your resolution came one polemic too soon. Willis's "Decade of Denial" pinpoints how the public debate over such symbolic controversies has consistently missed the point because of stringent limitations on the political imagination. This way of controlling discourse reminds her of those smug urban signs that sneer, "Don't even think about parking here." The injunction not to think (or talk) about anything is offensive to Willis--to both her Marcusian heritage and her working-class roots. And, she states calmly but firmly, it should offend you, too.
Her demand that leftism reconcile itself with her appetites ("Anti-consumerism is the puritanism of the left") does justice to her past as a rock critic. While her demand that ideology reconcile itself to her personal perspective ("[I] suspect, in my desire for a freer, saner, more pleasurable way of life, I am not so different from most people...as it might presently appear") fits with her New Journalism pedigree. In less than 200 pages, Willis makes her uncompromising politics seem less like idealism than plain, democratic common sense.
Too bad about the dreadful (and misleading) title, then. After all, in Willis's politics of pleasure, thinking and smiling should never be mutually exclusive.
Keith Harris is a Minneapolis writer and a frequent contributor to City Pages.
by Eric Lorberer
We live in censorious times. If there are skirmishes here and there over blasphemous museum shows or government funding, there is an outright war raging in the subconscious of the culture, a war over whether "art" is necessary at all. And though we need all kinds of artists--"diversity," after all, being a buzzword with some backbone--it seems to me that more than ever we need artists who will pitch their talents toward this battle. The growing body of work of writer Rikki Ducornet reveals her to be one such artist, and the double-barreled assault she unleashed this year on the forces of fin-de-siècle censorship wins her my vote for artist of the year.
This is not to say that her work should be taken as a political manifesto, but rather as a pointed demonstration of the powers of imagination. In The Monstrous and the Marvelous, a volume of essays, Ducornet playfully investigates works of literature, art, and film that create ruptures in our sense of normality. Whether comparing the poetry of Cesar Vallejo to the "little memory theaters" of Joseph Cornell, confronting the anatomical aberrations in the wunderkammern of Russia's Peter the Great, or analyzing the image of "the death cunt" in works by David Lynch and the Brothers Quay, Ducornet shows how the road of excess indeed leads to the palace of wisdom. Most important, however, her ability to transfix and communicate her sense of wonder becomes wondrous in itself, making these essays read with the same quirky delight as her fiction.
Her newest work in this category, meanwhile, resounds with the uncomfortable echo of truth. The Fan-Maker's Inquisition is subtitled "a novel of the Marquis de Sade," but it is much more: a reverie on eroticism and art; an investigation into the politics of cruelty; a challenge to those who would censor books and yet create or condone elaborate justifications for murder. Ducornet's reclamation of Sade, redefining him from the monster named in everyday speech to an ordinary human, is itself a sophisticated and courageous move. That she deploys this fictional representation to turn our gaze toward the true monsters--the moralizers who'd guillotine anyone, even a fan maker, for having a thought in her head, and the religious armada that, upon "discovering" what they so presumptuously called "the new world," massacred its native people--is extraordinary.
Already hailed by the Los Angeles Times as one of the ten best books of the year (and with more kudos to come, I predict), Ducornet's novel reminds us that Sade was, after all, just a writer; the theaters of cruelty that have actually been staged throughout human history are far more horrific. Such reminders are the kind of art we need to take into the coming millennium if we are to understand and evolve beyond what we've done in this one.
Eric Lorberer is a Minneapolis poet and editor of the book review Rain Taxi.
by Katherine Lanpher
Albie Sachs is a South African supreme-court justice who helped write the country's new constitution and who lost his left arm to a car bomb meant to disrupt his work against apartheid. He's also a great storyteller and writer: When he went into exile in the 1960s after twice being held without a trial, he wrote The Jail Diary of Albie Sachs, which was later made into a play. After the car-bomb attack in Mozambique, he wrote another memoir, The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter, which told of his struggle to recover his life.
Today he speaks around the world about his experiences and the new South Africa, and he can speak achingly about that society's Truth and Reconciliation hearings. He did so twice this year in Minnesota, at the University of Minnesota and at William Mitchell College of Law.
So why is he my artist of the year? It is for one particular moment in the booth at Minnesota Public Radio, when I was interviewing him about his time in solitary confinement. With no visual or human stimuli, he recounted, you become very attuned to sound. One day he heard someone whistling--another prisoner, he suspected, and so he whistled back. No response. He tried songs from the antiapartheid movement. No response. He tried a folk song. No response. Then, he said, he tried "Coming Home'' by Dvorák.
He whistled a few bridges--and got an answer, the next few bridges of the song.
He later met the whistler; she was a teacher, imprisoned also. When they were both free, she went to work as his assistant.
I felt a little shy about my next question in the interview--after all, how many times do you ask a freedom fighter and supreme-court justice to whistle?--but he was quick in his assent. He closed his eyes and pursed his lips and, quite movingly, whistled the bars that became a bridge for him in prison, music that went from our booth to around the region.
You'd whistle back, too, if you had heard it.
It's not easy to get a copy of his memoir, but that should change next spring when an American edition is being reissued. He's due back in the States then--and, likely, Minnesota--so if you have a chance to hear him speak, do so. You might even ask him to whistle.
Katherine Lanpher is the host of Midmorning on Minnesota Public Radio.
by Jim Niland
On December 1, at the Dakota Bar and Grill, I witnessed perhaps the finest jazz set I will ever see. Abdullah Ibrahim and his trio played at a level of musicianship that was awe-inspiring. Spiritual is not too strong a word for the communion of the musicians. I never saw John Coltrane perform with his classic A Love Supreme quartet, but I can only imagine it must have been like this.
Ibrahim and his trio played a seamless, 90-minute suite of involving, inventive, and at times intense music. At certain moments one could hear the inspiration of chamber music, township jazz, Steve Reich, Ibrahim's legendary Cape Town Fringe album, and many other musical currents. For the entire hour-and-a-half the whole audience sat silently enraptured.
I have never experienced a finer pianist than Ibrahim. His technical command was incredible--whether it was a whisper-soft passage or a thundering chord cluster. But he was also a generous bandleader, showcasing the excellent stand-up bassist Belden Bullock and drummer George Gray.
The concert was particularly memorable as it was an unexpected delight. I had been a fan of Abdullah Ibrahim (formerly Dollar Brand) since being mesmerized by the album side-long track "Cape Town Fringe" when I got turned on to jazz in college. But I hadn't followed him closely in a while, and was unaware what a musical presence he had become. The surprise of that made the performance especially powerful.
Then, too, there is always something special about seeing a national treasure. Abdullah Ibrahim is a black South African who played at Nelson Mandela's inauguration after the pianist returned home from an exile brought on by his antiapartheid activities. At a time when so much of what passes for culture or music is devoid of political (or other) significance it gives me hope to see a musician like Ibrahim with spiritual discipline and integrity. We all need a little more of that.
Abdullah Ibrahim may never play here again--he had not been here for about a dozen years. But if he does come, you must go see him while you still can. Free jazz and free South Africa!
Jim Niland is a Minneapolis City Council member and the booker at Lee's Liquor Lounge.
MY ASS IN CORDUROY
by Jim Taylor
As I walked by the exit of a parking lot in Los Angeles early this year, a long-haired man rolled his shiny car toward me, fumbling with his money, not seeing me. I shouted, he hit his brakes and looked up. The moppet behind the wheel was Kato Kaelin, history's most famous houseguest, the accidental pop-culture superstar who had the great career fortune to be in the proximity of a brutal double murder. I should have let him hit me. Had I allowed O.J.'s flunky to roll his Lexus into me at three miles an hour, I might have parlayed that mild scrape into talk-show appearances, profitable litigation, and, most important of all, the kind of gratuitous, accidental fame that builds fortunes, elevates careers, and liberates schmucks like me from the tedium of obscurity.
Unearned fame is everywhere in America. Linda Tripp becomes famous for making Monica Lewinsky famous for servicing a famous man. Ivana and Marla are famous for marrying Donald Trump, whose own fame is built exclusively on being an obnoxious rich guy. Talent-free popsters like Britney Spears and Ricky Martin prove the supremacy of marketing over substance. The accidental fame that befalls these people is a transformational force majeure, turning inconsequential lives into crass, unconscious performance art. Yet they remain safely devoid of content, using their celebrity only to further their own celebrity. And for the working class, a will to give in to self-humiliation buys 15 minutes of fame on trash talk shows.
In my pursuit of the American presidency, I've tried to procure this kind of fame in order to promote a real political agenda. But my fatal mistake has been my serious purpose. Only by ridding myself of content and throwing myself in the path of celebrity vehicles do I stand a chance of winning the fame I need to become your president. So don't expect me to talk about national health care, a living wage, or a 30-hour work week anymore. I will now seek fame for the sole purpose of showing the world how great my ass looks in corduroy.
Jim Taylor is a presidential candidate and the director of the documentary films Subdue the Universe and the forthcoming Run Some Idiot.
by Mark Mallman
It is imperative that as our backward-thinking culture punches forward into the next 1,000 years, we remember to Keep on Dancing. Dancing is fun, and it's important to do fun things (otherwise you will get uptight, and probably turn into your boss someday). And what better icon to keep you grooving than a DJ in a gold lamé suit--totally bald.
Moby was rejected early on by certain members of the techno community for apparently making music that was too "mainstream" (whatever that means). I think it was because he started breaking preconceived rules, which some people hate. What's cool about his music is that it cannot be easily categorized. So many electronic records come out that are wallpaper from start to finish, and that can get very boring. By contrast, 1994's critically acclaimed Everything Is Wrong starts out like a Philip Glass overture, then suddenly it's this pretty straight-up dance record. Later he sings the blues through what sounds like a distortion pedal, and then the album ends in a kind of emotional and sad way with a track called "When it's Cold I Like to Die." The stuff is totally eclectic. Life is like that, too, you know: One minute you're stuck in line at a grocery store somewhere, and 45 minutes later you're on a plane to Vegas with 35 Norwegian tourists...or at least I am.
Stringent veganism and active environmentalism spawned the 1996 release Animal Rights, which the critics panned...so nobody bought it, I guess. "Consumers" aren't friendly to change; some people just want the same Aerosmith album over and over.
This year's Moby release, Play, is sweet for its unconventional use of samples. But what I like most is that it's interactive, it's physical, and it's meant to make you dance. Dancing keeps you in shape, and when you do it with other people, it usually leads to other fun things that keep people in shape (nudge, nudge)! To dance is to reaffirm that human, organic part of yourself, to breathe heavy and to sweat. If you're just sitting at home doing those two things in front of your computer, chances are: a) you're really lonely; or b) it's illegal.
So if the party you're at plays Moby on New Year's Eve, and for some unfathomable reason the Y2K conspiracy actually happens, and the lights all go out, and the music breaks into silence, in this case I think probably the best thing we can do--all people, everywhere--is KEEP ON DANCING!
Mark Mallman is a Minneapolis musician who recently played a 26.2-hour concert without interruption; his latest album is The Tourist.
If you have to pick a best artist of 1999, the most sensible thing might be to opt for Pavement, Beck, or Cornelius, and explain how Pavement recorded their masterpiece in 1999, Beck is the personification of 1999, or Cornelius is the only person who can make the world ready for the next millennium. Very simple. Almost as simple as explaining why all Danish Dogma filmmakers should be artists of the year. Or the makers of The Blair Witch Project. I could go on naming actors, or even come up with some well-known writers that are probably very 1999. That would be the obvious thing to do, right? This year, however, the media should have paid attention to a rather unknown Dutch photographer named Hans Tak.
Why Tak? Apart from the fact that he is only five feet tall, and has this Mediterranean look, which are both not typical Dutch features, his age doesn't show. He could be 36 years old, but he might also be 18. This whole age thing is very essential to the work of Hans Tak. In real life, he forges documents to conceal his age and usually lies to girls about it. Last year I read an article about his most recent birthday in which people stated that nobody at the party knew the actual birth year of Tak.
Weird? The reason for lying (or merely not talking) about his age--apart from his liking of young girlfriends--is that it helps him to get work. He likes to be seen as the new kid on the block, the young generation--the hip guy. And it succeeds, because he seems to be doing pretty well. In his free works, which are often self-portraits, he depicts himself as a tall, young god. He is a master at retouching and Photoshop.
I got to know him awhile ago at a venue in Amsterdam. There was a band playing, and Tak was standing next to the entrance, taking pictures. He had one of those small cameras. He asked me, like he'd already asked all the girls that were inside the club, if I wanted to be in a picture with him. Then he wrapped his left arm around my shoulder and with his right hand he took the picture. Some time later his work was at an exhibition and there was this new piece, "With Tak in a Picture," of a thousand photos taped together. On all thousand pics, there was Tak--dressed the same way, and standing in the same spot on every picture!--with a (young) woman.
Later he told me that the only reason he made this piece of art was because it was a great way to meet girls. And if I may speak for all those girls: It is a great way to meet Hans Tak.
Solex (a.k.a. Elisabeth Esselink) is a musician whose recordings include Solex vs. the Hitmeister and Pick Up. She lives in Amsterdam.
by Bruce Jenkins
The coincidence of the openings this fall of the Sensation show in Brooklyn and of 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II in Minneapolis serves to remind us of just what genuine radicality looks like in these increasingly timid times. The sensation at the former was caused by Chris Ofili's mixed-media portrait of the Madonna, which married painting, collaged pornographic imagery, and elephant dung. As the latter exhibition amply demonstrates, Bruce Conner has been coupling and uncoupling the sacred and the profane for the better part of the past four decades.
In 1999, at the age of 65, Bruce Conner is being discovered. The aware were always aware of his work. In the late 1960s, John Lennon sent him a fan letter, and Dennis Hopper consulted him before shooting Easy Rider. In the early 1980s, David Byrne and Brian Eno commissioned him to do music videos. But like many visionary artists, Conner is less known for his own work than for the staggering amount of bad art his work has spawned. His obsessively intricate collages, drawings, and graphic designs were bastardized and marketed as psychedelia. The innovative use of pop music and kinetic cutting and camerawork in his films of the 1960s mutated into MTV in the 1980s.
While Conner may well have been the most formally creative artist of his generation, the enduring force of his work stems from the emotional impact it delivers and from the sense we get of the artist's passionate belief in the transformative power of art. Of equal significance is Conner's lifelong disaffection for the institutions of art. (His blistering attack on the NEA published several years ago in Canyon News almost convinced me to ask for my 64 cents back from the tax coffers.) In an era when "alternative" and "independent" are nothing more than canny marketing niches, such a position may seem strange. Yet it's precisely this integrity, coursing through each collage and drawing, film and photogram, assemblage and sculpture, that has kept his work out of the art-world spotlight.
Finally, in 1999, it was time for the real Bruce Conner to appear. And I, for one, am grateful to have witnessed that blessed event.
Bruce Jenkins is curator of the Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the former film/v
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