Monday, November 19, 2007

Kara Walker at The Whitney

"I often compare my method of working to that of a well-meaning freed woman in a Northern state who is attempting to delineate the horrors of Southern slavery but with next to no resources, other than some paper and a pen-knife and some people she'd like to kill."

I first came across the work of Kara Walker on the cover of The New Yorker about two years ago. Last summer (of '06) I ran into her installations face to face at The Metropolitan Museum, in their very small space for contemporary art exhibits in the Modern art wing. While I was blown away by what I saw that day, Walker's retrospective at The Whitney is a far superior exhibit. The Whitney has finally given her work the attention and the space that it deserves.

Perhaps you've heard of Kara Walker. There was a piece about her in The New Yorker several weeks ago, by Hilton Als. Kara Walker was raised mostly in Atlanta and went to school there. She completed an MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design, and was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant at the age of 28 (she was, at the time, one of the youngest people to receive the grant). Her art, in the simplest terms, deals with racism mostly through depictions of antebellum slave scenes in silhouette cuts. Her work has a demonic violence and sexuality to it. The images, while black and white, are anything but.

The show at the Whitney is called "My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love," and it incorporates Walker's larger works, which are full scale (by full scale I mean full wall) slavery scenes and pages of what appear to be Walker's sketchbook/diary, and drawings and collage. The exhibit also features video art, with smaller silhouette cuts functioning as marionettes. All of these videos are set to music; some feature silent film plates.

I find Walker's art fascinating not only because of its commentary on racism and southern history in general, but because of its violent sexuality and its depiction of women. The slave girls are seen morphing into lizards. Women give birth to monsters, men have dangerously overgrown phalluses, boys are raped, people are missing limbs and a man who looks very similar to George Washington, the father of this country, is being fellated by a young female slave. There is a lot going on in the work of Kara Walker. Maybe even too much to talk about here.

As I watched a video installation of a young slave boy being raped presumably by his master or some other white man, the person who was standing next to me (who was a young black man) started to laugh. Standing in the exhibit was a difficult experience in itself. It was Friday night (pay what you will from 6-9 at the Whitney) and almost everyone in the exhibit was under fifty and white. I felt a strange pull between feelings of guilt (for being Southern and white) and other feelings of vindication (for being female, for being "wronged" by men)---Walker opens the exhibit with a virulent letter to an ex-lover, one who treated her like a "slave," when she gave him everything. My favorite line of the letter:

"Before, when there was a before, an upon a time I was a blank space defined in contrast to your POSITIVE, concrete avowal. now, a blank space in the void and I have to thank you for forgetting to stick your neck out for me after I craned my neck so often in your arms."

In the The New Yorker piece (I would link you to it but it's too new to be included on their website) Hilton Als discusses the fact that many black artists and critics have called Walker's art "racist." Many critics and writers make a similar comment about Sylvia Plath's work by calling it "misogynist." All I have to say to them is: just by using the methods and means of the system to create art does not mean that the artist herself gives credence to these systems as truth. Plath's (and Walker's) language is indeed violent, but it is a very specifically feminized violence. Plath takes her cues from the Greeks, featuring Medea and Clytemnestra as characters in her poems. For Walker it is the Slave Girl: the bottom of the totem pole: female and black. It is about rape. And, often, it is about revenge: in some of the murals, one girl is being tortured, while another wields an axe. The installations become works of beauty because they are rewriting history even as they recount it.

Walking down Madison Avenue, I concluded that, for Walker, history, whether it be that of this country, or the history of a relationship, reinforces the fact that intense connections are made through and by abuse. The aforementioned letter, whether it be "personal" or not, says to me, as the opener to the exhibit, that none of this work would be possible, none of this violent, disgusting, but true work would be possible without pain and rejection and despair. And that even if at the end we are alone, we are alone to create and make a criticism that can scream in its clearly cut and colored intentions. The South, and this country in general, can't be confronted enough with these images. In fact, instead of celebrating Lincoln's birthday with a beer, I think perhaps everyone should make a point to go see some Kara Walker.

The Whitney exhibit runs through February 3rd, New Yorkers.
I whole-heartedly encourage you to take a look.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Do you, dear reader, believe in second chances?

Friday, November 09, 2007

I Love Mormons, Part 2

"Under the Banner of Heaven" is a In Cold Blood type non-fiction book about the murder of Brenda Lafferty and her baby daughter by her brothers-in-law, Dan and Ron. The Lafferty family belong to the church of Latter Day Saints. The cut and dry of it is Ron claimed he had received a revelation from God saying that Brenda, a young headstrong woman who persistently resisted her husband and her brothers-in-law in their growing conviction to a Fundamentalist belief system, needed to be "removed" as she was an impediment to God's work. Her daughter also needed to be "removed," because, in the words of Ron Lafferty, she would, "just like her mother, grow up to be bitch." Ron and Dan Lafferty arrived at Brenda's apartment one morning, beat her until she was unconscious, and tied a vaccum cord around her neck. Dan went upstairs where he killed the baby by slitting her throat, then returned downstairs to exact the same on Brenda. Both men are now in jail, Dan for life, Ron is on death row. Brenda was 24; her baby was 15 months old.

This disgusting and disturbing story is enough to make any reader turn against the Mormon church and its beliefs. And I don't deny that several of the tenets of Mormonism, especially the idea that any person can receive "divine revelations," is just asking for crazy people like the Laffertys to take their religion down a very dark path. Joseph Smith revealed that God intended to send "one mighty and strong," who would avenge all the persecution Mormons have endured since the genesis of their faith and lead the church, and several men have stepped up to the plate. The Laffertys consider themselves this person. Brigham Young, no doubt, considered himself this person, and more recently, Brian David Mitchell, the abductor of Elizabeth Smart, considered himself the "one mighty and strong." There's no doubt here that this is a very dangerous religion.

But, what religion isn't?

There are fundamentalist Christians and there are fundamentalist Muslims. We all know what scale of atrocities these religions are capable of. When life on earth is considered merely a stepping stone to heaven, people will do anything to secure a place next to the Almighty. What interests me about Jon Krakauer's book, ultimately, is that he's chosen to tell the history of Mormonism as a whole in juxtaposition with these horrible murders. I was skeptical, at first: not all Mormons are fundamentalists. And in fact, most Mormons (at least the ones I'm friendly with) are some of the gentlest, kindest, most reasonable people I know.

But, the subtitle of Krakauer's book is "A History of Violent Faith," and goodness me, it is indeed a violent one. Assassinations, Massacres, Paranoia, Sacrifices, you name it. Mormonism is the first American born religion, and it carries a very bloody trail behind it.

But again, what religion doesn't? Couple that thought with the fact that not only were Mormons trying to build a religion, they were also trying to build a home, in the very wild west, mind you, with hostile denziens (rightly so) in the desert, basically, completely exposed to the elements. After the leader of their church had been assassinated, they just assumed anyone coming through their territory was coming to kill them. Yes, it's rash, but it's not completely unreasonable.

In no way am I defending the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints. They are responsible for some of the most heinous acts, in particular against women, namely through the systematic emotional and physical abuse of very young women that are forced to marry men old enough to be their fathers (and sometimes ARE their fathers) in what the FLDS calls "plural marriage."

However, while I found the Krakauer informative and enlightening, I had to ask myself if the Mormon history, while violent, was really that surprising. Or, if the Laffertys aren't just another example of how religious fanaticism isn't good no what which cake you're cutting from, Mormon or otherwise.

Which brings me back to Big Love . Big Love , for those of you who haven't seen it, is the new-ish HBO series about a Mormon family that practices "the principle," aka, "plural marriage." In other words, Bill Paxton's character, Bill Hendrickson, is married to three women, and has fathered children with all of them. I don't feel qualified to go into the series in a major way, since I've yet to see the whole first season, but I will say that in some ways Big Love is good for us in that it gets the Mormon discussion going, but it's also negative because it portrays Mormons as polygamists and obviously this is not the case in every Mormon household.

That said, Mormonism is quickly becoming one of the biggest religions in the world, with multitudes of converts every year. Whether us "gentiles" want to deal with it or not, we're going to have to realize that Mormons will continue to confront us in our every day lives (see: Mitt Romney), and yes, not all of them are murderers and rapists.

I'll close with this:

Aforementioned friend, L., invited me to Easter services at her "steak," our freshman year. I was flattered to be included and honestly, I was curious.

"Am I allowed?"
"Of course! You can come to steak stake all you like, you just can't go in the temple in Salt Lake."

Upon entering the church, which looked just like any other church, to be honest, and upon being greeted by several people quite warmly, "Oh we're so glad to have you, L.'s told us all about you, welcome," and the like, I thought, hey, I could get used to this. Next thing I knew L. was telling me, "Grab a score."

"A score? A score to what?"
"The Messiah."
"Oh, to follow along with the choir?"
"No, silly, we're going to sing it."
"No, just selections."
"Wait, you're telling me this congregation is going to SIGHT-READ Handel's THE MESSIAH?"
"Do you guys do this every year?"
"No, we've never done it before."

And I'll tell ya. Those Mormons. Every man, woman and child picked up a score of The Messiah, and we sang one of the most beautiful Messiah's I have ever heard. We sight-read that thing. It was a lovely Easter.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

I Love Mormons

I swear on Joseph Smith's grave I must've seen at least twenty people reading "Under the Banner of Heaven," by Jon Krakauer last week on the subway. I was #21. I don't know what was in the air: either the premiere of Into the Wild suddenly had people interested in Krakauer's work in general, or perhaps something major had just happened on Big Love . Whatever it is, New Yorkers were very interested in Mormons last week.

I, however, have always been interested in Mormons. I met my first Mormon when I was about thirteen. I remember going to her house and seeing the picture of the Temple in Salt Lake and the strange pastel rendering of Jesus, thinking her Mom was too young for her dad, and wondering why she had so many siblings. She (her name was Jessica) told me the story of Joseph Smith and how he had found the gold plates, about the angel Moroni, and how everyone thinks Mormons have multiple wives but "real Mormons almost never do."

Which brings me, of course to Big Love .

I feel the same way about Mormons and Big Love as I do about Virginia Woolf and The Hours . But wait, let me backtrack.

My lovely friend L. happens to be a Mormon. She and I met when we found out we were both on our way to Indiana University back in the day, and lived in the same dorm once there. We were both Voice Majors. (L. stuck with her major, like a trooper, I gave-up and went the English major-route). One day, I cornered L. in her dorm room and asked the tough questions. I wanted to know about Mormonism.

"Is it true that you guys can't drink hot liquids?"
"What? Where did you hear that?"
"Well, you can't have coffee . . ."
"I can't drink caffeine. That doesn't mean I can't have hot liquid! You see me drink herbal tea all the time!"
"Oh, yeah, I guess that is true."

She went on to give me a short run down of the history, and the texts "the Quad," and marriage ceremonies. I have to admit, L., that the whole "fusion," "sealing" (Ah, MEA CULPA!) idea still seems pretty quirky to me. The idea is (and please, Mormons and Mormons experts, feel free to correct me on this) that not only are you "married," (think traditional christian marriage ceremony here, folks) but then you are "fused" "sealed" to your spouse in a ceremony. This is to make sure that when you die, you are able to find each other in the afterlife. (Mormons suppose heaven is pretty crowded, I guess). From what I understand, you can also fuse your children to you, as well, or other members of your family. I think that's a little strange. What if you don't want to be found in the afterlife? What if you just want to sit around and read and hang out with Oscar Wilde? I guess Oscar wouldn't make it to Mormon heaven, anyway.

But all this is really beside the point. Talking to L. made me realize I had no idea what Mormons believed. I felt fairly confident after speaking to her that I did.

Enter, "Under the Banner of Heaven."

Now, this is the book that everyone cites in a conversation where you reveal that you love Mormons. It goes something like this:

"I don't know what to think about that new HBO show."
"What, Big Love? It's great! I love Mormons!"
"WHAT. How can you love Mormons? They're a cult! It's a cult! They hate women and gay people! They force fourteen year olds to marry their fathers!"
"Wait, wait, wait. Are you talking about the FLDS?"
"No! I'm talking about MORMONISM. Haven't you read "Under the Banner of Heaven?"
"Well, no, but isn't that about the FLD--"

So finally, last week, I read "Under the Banner of Heaven."



Saturday, November 03, 2007

Desperation Pencil

It's 11:30 PM and I've just returned home. I have to take the GRE subject test in English Literature tomorrow morning at 9AM. I have to be there by 8:30AM. Meaning I have to leave Brooklyn at 7:30AM. Meaning I have to get up at 6:45AM so I can wash my hair. If my hair is dirty, I will not be able to concentrate.

I pull my admission ticket out and take a cursory look to make sure I know the address of the testing center. I see a section labelled "Special Notes."

"Note: Only #2 pencils allowed. NO MECHANICAL PENCILS ALLOWED."


After a brief period of "I'll just buy them in the morning, wait but then I won't be able to sharpen them, then I'll have to wake up at 5:45AM and nothing will be open," and "I'll just wheedle myself a pencil using a knife, my teeth, and the holy spirit out of one of the legs of our dining room chairs, oh wait, those don't have LEAD in them," I went back out to buy PENCILS AT MIDNIGHT.

Bodega #1. No real pencils. Only mechanical.
Bodega #2. Real pencils, but totally not real #2, they say "CHINA" in big black letters. BLACK AS MY SOUL.
Bodega #3. Closed.
Bodega #4. Jackpot. Motherfucking #2 pencils.

"Hi there," I said to the man through the bulletproof window. "Do you have any pencils?"
"Oh, pencils. Um, yes! Here's one (laughs)."
"Could I have, uh, four?"
"Sure. That will be three dollars."
"Well, I can just put them back . . ."

I need a drink but I can't have one. I have to go to bed now so I can take a test which reviews my RECALL MEMORY OF ALL OF ENGLISH LITERATURE FROM BEOWULF TO THE PRESENT.

I will work the sweet love of GOD out of these pencils. I will channel fucking Virginia motherfucking Woolf and fucking James Joyce. I will speak in fucking tongues, god dammit, and I WILL ACE THIS EXAM WITH THESE MAGICAL PENCILS. I will be the goddamn HERMIONE GRANGER of ENGLISH GODDAMN LITERATURE tomorrow. I WILL SEND FUCKING HENRY JAMES AND ALEXANDER POPE SPINNING IN THEIR GRAVES.

Holy God, is it over yet?