Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Trust the public

So I'm reading Movement Research Performance Journal on the M15 crosstown to Chelsea. There's an interview with Bill T. Jones about how professional dance absolutely must change to survive. I'm staring down into that strange, typical soup of words, intense energy, blunt provocation and frustrating lack of specificity--and, yes, I do mean typical for both BTJ and MRPJ. But just before the bus pulls into its 18th Street terminus, I get to this passage from Jones:
Are you clear about what you believe and what you make and how you make it? Are you so clear about it that you could actually invite the most stupid person in there and give that person just a little taste of something that's human in what you do and that is not superior. This whiff of arrogance and superiority--believe me honey I have it, big time. And I'm telling you something, I've had to learn, because it sneaks through, that we actually feel, and this is the history of alienation, that somehow we are entitled because we are a privileged and long-suffering elite that is wandering in the wilderness of mediocrity which is the whole world. Now if that doesn't sound like a load of shit, then you tell me. (MRPJ #38, February 2011, p. 5)
I don't care for the descriptive "stupid," but I think I begin to get what he's getting at despite the fragments and tangents.

Jones is impatient for contemporary dance to break out of its cocoon and make both pragmatic and creative connections out there in the hell of other people. That's what he has in mind for New York Live Arts--the new entity formed from the merger of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and Dance Theater Workshop--and it begins with the individual artist deciding that he or she respects and can trust the public.

Detail of Sarah Sze's STILL LIFE WITH LANDSCAPE (MODEL FOR A HABITAT), High Line Park (c)2011, Eva Yaa Asantewaa

A few steps, a few stairs, and I'm surrounded by the gorgeous, lush greenery and wildflowers of High Line Park, walking its new section. I take photos of a mourning dove alight on an elaborate wildlife sanctuary by artist Sarah Sze. The sculpture provides watering holes, seed feeders and places for resting and nesting. "It's like a mansion for birds," one visitor exclaimed. Yes, now even birdies, butterflies and ladybugs can find an upscale perch in Chelsea!

Detail of Sze sculpture (c)2011, Eva Yaa Asantewaa
Above and below: Mourning dove (c)2011, Eva Yaa Asantewaa

Above and below: Seen from High Line Park (c)2011, Eva Yaa Asantewaa

I stroll to 30th Street. Though reluctant to leave the flowers, the butterflies, the breeze, the views across this cityscape, I ride the elevator down to 10th Avenue. I'm off to the Sean Kelly Gallery for Robert Mapplethorpe: 50 Americans: fifty photographs "selected by fifty Americans of diverse occupations, ages, races and from each state in the Union...invited to select a single artwork from over 2,000 images in Mapplethorpe's collection that resonated with them personally." Portraits, still lifes, a wintry landscape...the range of these selections is broad and lovely.

Right away, I stumble upon, like a secret wink meant just for me, a 1985 portrait of--yes--Bill T. Jones chosen by a 32-year-old woman from Birmingham, Alabama, a children's author and storyteller. Jones jumps straight up, his body breaching the frame, rendered headless, and as my mind helplessly starts to read something into this that the white Alabama native might not have considered, I move along.

A 66-year-old grandmom from Vermont enjoyed working through the photo collection with her granddaughter. She chose Horse #5 (1982) and wrote, "I was drawn to all the images of animals. I love animals. These horses reminded me of my farm....Lots of memories and stories came to life through his work."

Her response is fairly common: Lots of these folks found that they could relate to aspects of Mapplethorpe's diverse imagery on a personal level. They share their experiences here. Reading the plaques that accompany the photos and bear the selectors' words and a thumbnail picture of each, I find my heart going out to many of them.

Prior to getting involved in the gallery's project, most of the participants knew little, if anything, about the photographer and his work. Some knew just enough about Mapplethorpe's reputation for homoerotic imagery to be a little nervous about having to view it. Some clearly avoided the erotica when making their choices from among the collection's variety of subjects. Yet these non-experts crowd-curated a beautiful, instructive show, and their reflections on this work demonstrate remarkable perception and insight as well as appreciation for Mapplethorpe's sensitivity and brilliance.

I was moved by the capacity people have to meet art with open minds when given a chance to really look at it and allow it to draw close to them, to search their lives for common ground. No wonder repressive social orders seek to manipulate or destroy art. I was touched, too, by this gallery's trust of the American public, and that brought me back to Bill T. Jones.

I stopped for dinner on the way home and, once again, took out my now-rumpled copy of MRPJ. This time, I turned to "New York's Alright," an editorial by dance artist Eleanor Hullihan and was amazed to read this passage, including her reference to Mapplethorpe's great soul mate, Patti Smith:
Phyllis Lamhut and Patti Smith are two women I admire who in different ways have encourage people to get out of New York and either make work where they came from or where they can afford to live more easily.  We could benefit from decentralizing dance in the states. We can't keep talking about the rest of the country like it is full of idiots who don't understand us if they don't have the opportunity to see what we do. I recently had one of the most positive audience responses from a show I did with John Jasperse in Helena, Montana. Montana? Hell yes. It was not a dance audience but they came and enjoyed and wanted to talk afterwards. This may be a mission for our generation of makers. It may also be a mission for people younger than ourselves. (MRPJ #38, February 2011, p. 6)

Okay, Universe, I get it. Trust the people. Just get the work out there. Spread it around, that "little taste of something that's human in what you do and that is not superior." Just trust. Good for artists to remember. Good for people who write about art to remember, too.

Robert Mapplethorpe: 50 Americans ends Saturday, June 18.

Sean Kelly Gallery
528 West 29th Street (between 10th and 11th Avenues), Manhattan 212-239-1181

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