Thoughts on “Beginning of the Great Revival”

July 5, 2011 § 3 Comments


Beginning of the Great Revival (Source: TheReelBits.com)

By Rebecca Liao

To celebrate July 4th this year, I saw Beginning of the Great Revival (or The Founding of a Party in the People’s Republic of China), a movie released last month by the Chinese government to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. While the film does not have anywhere near the level of propaganda in films from the Cultural Revolution, it would be hard to miss how badly the government wants people to buy into this movie. The state’s initiatives have a strange resemblance to the New Yorker’s offering Jonathan Franzen’s piece about David Foster Wallace to readers for free as long as they “liked” the magazine’s Facebook page. Only, Beginning of the Great Revival is not as seamless as Franzen in its presentation of a very complicated narrative. And even if people had read Franzen’s piece primarily to keep abreast of a Very Important Writer, the compulsion cannot be compared to being deprived Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (on the big screen, that is: the former is already available on the streets in China and the latter will be available soon) until Beginning of the Great Revival grosses in the nine figures domestically. My seeing the movie in the U.S. was not going to help my people back home. But to indulge in a healthy dose of American irony with a side of Chairman Mao’s favorite raw, hot peppers, I ambled into the nearest AMC theater and took my place between an elderly Chinese woman who kept an excited running commentary and a little boy who really only showed interest during the assassination scenes. Here are my 8 lucky thoughts about the movie:

1) Seeing stars. Nearly all the A-list actors and actresses in China make appearances. Chow Yun-Fat as the delusional emperor Yuan Shikai, Liu Ye as Mao Zedong, Zhou Xun (Zhang Ziyi’s rival before Zhang decided dating billionaires was such a better business strategy) as Wang Huiwu, Andy Lau as Cai E, Fan Bing Bing as the Empress Dowager Longyu, and on and on. Coupled with the breadth of historical events covered and the expansive mise-en-scene, the spectacle was breathtaking and relentless, much like the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. When it comes to mobilizing large numbers of talented people, China is second to none. Most of the actors and actresses waived their fees to be a part of this film. I hate to beat the we’re-losing-to-China dead horse, but can you imagine Brangelina or any American A-lister doing the same barring a highly-publicized natural disaster?

2) It’s weird to think of Mao as a human being. Chairman Mao as a passionate, earnest and capable leader is a time-honored (and probably pretty accurate) persona. Mao as a romance hero? Several Mao-glorifying scenes earned a smirk, but the subplot about his romance with his second wife, Yang Kaihui, whom he abandoned in real life to shack up with a 17-year old, was just cringe-worthy. She is charmed by his height and intelligence, he by her innocent, playful nature. On his deathbed, her father and Mao’s favorite teacher, Yang Changji, wakes from a coma and gathers enough strength to clasp the lovers’ hands together. This is just way too much cheese for a lactose-intolerant population.

3) Chinese history is complicated. Beginning of the Great Revival tries to cover the events from the Xinhai

M.C. Escher’s Relativity (Source: http://evansheline.com)

Revolution in 1911 to the founding of the CCP in 1921 in just over two hours. Because the film is an officially sanctioned version of history, omitting any historical figure would fuel speculation about who is out of favor with the Party and what that means for the Party line. Labels that pop up as each person is introduced help, but the sheer number of players and the complexity of their political relations is still a challenge. Superficial treatment of most significant events was necessary but certainly increased the confusion. There’s nothing quite like this period in Chinese history. However, I imagine that if we condensed War and Peace into 200 pages without eliminating any characters and mapped them onto an M.C. Escher lithograph littered with land mines, we’d have something comparable.

The number between 3 and 5) Hots for the teacher. The Chinese lionize their scholars. On film (and in real life, to a certain extent), they are categorically hot. They are brilliant, charismatic, dignified, and passionate, with rhetorical gifts that produce witty repartee one moment and rousing revolutionary speeches the next. They’re also good looking. That’s all.5) Speaking of beating a dead horse. When will the story of foreign aggression grow stale? This is not at all meant to be a point of criticism: a depiction of the events leading up to the May 4th Movement must include the humiliation of having Germany transfer Qingdao and Jiaozhou Bay to Japan as part of the Treaty of Versailles. But to this day, foreign encroachment on Chinese sovereignty and general disrespect on the international stage are the sorest spots in the Chinese psyche. No doubt they have been a great source of motivation to develop the country as quickly as possible, but now they serve mostly as demagogical levers for the government. China has essentially become a capitalist country. As is the case for every successful startup, the narrative has to go from, “We have come so far,” to, “Where are we going next?” High-speed railways, longest bridges in the world, the lone spot of economic stability as the rest of the world founders—these have been on every pundit’s list of talking points in the past year. China has captured the world’s imagination; how does it grow its soft power? First thing’s first: step out of the shadow of rapid ascension and embrace sustained change and growth.

6) Speaking of soft power.  AMC Theaters inked a deal with China Lion Film Distribution to exclusively distribute the film in North America. In the U.S., it is showing in 29 theaters, all in the Chinese immigrant hotbeds of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. While this movie will never be an Oscar contender, it is interesting to see how it stacks up against the box office performances of the last five Academy Award winners for Best Foreign Language Film, the most recent three of which enjoyed the press of the win and two of which received positive critical attention in major domestic publications when first released. On average, they grossed $115,394 in their opening weekends and had a ranking of 39, but were only shown in eight theaters. By contrast, Beginning of the Great Revival grossed $65,866 in its opening weekend and ranked 37th, but is playing in 29 theaters. There is a certain appeal to the regular art house film crowd of a stylishly filmed propaganda movie, but let’s be honest: AMC was betting that blood would be thicker than water. We’ll have to wait until the end of the movie’s run for a final verdict, but it looks like the Chinese are actually quite good arbiters of quality.

7) Do not try this at home. The irony of a government-sanctioned film commemorating a revolutionary response to injustice and oppression was not lost on the mainland Chinese audience. If anything, though, the irony serves more as a reminder of the government’s power than as motivation for demanding reform. Still, the first step towards legitimizing a social movement is to glamorize it: the government should be careful what it wishes for.

To get you in the mood for number 8:

8) The East is Red. In a desperate attempt to regain political clout ahead of China’s imminent leadership transition, “Chinese JFK” Bo Xilai instituted a campaign to revive Red culture in Chongqing, where he is mayor. The charm offensive directed at Beijing includes sing-a-longs to Red songs, Red song singing competitions, and readings of Mao’s poetry.

Surprisingly, not everyone is laughing. It turns out there is significant nostalgia for the days of Chairman Mao, not because anyone longs for famines or the Cultural Revolution, but because there is something about Red culture that the Chinese feel proud to claim as part of their DNA. The revolutionary impulses in the film that the government is trying to promote and suppress at the same time have free expression in Red songs. This is true for many people in mainland China, but all the more so for the workers and peasants that are the songs’ heroes. Chairman Mao rose to power off of the widespread anger and fatigue of the working class—perhaps his rehabilitation is not so much an exhortation for the newly wealthy Chinese to remember his ideas as it is a reminder that his ideas have not been forgotten by the CCP. Altogether, now:

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The Chinese have a very dark sense of humor

May 2, 2011 § 2 Comments


By Rebecca Liao

In response to the death of Osama bin Laden, the following parable went viral on the web in China:

Al Qaeda once sent five terrorists to China: One was sent to blow up a bus, but he wasn’t able to squeeze onto it; one was sent to blow up a supermarket, but the bomb was stolen from his basket; one was sent to blow up a train, but tickets were sold-out; finally, one succeeded in bombing a coal mine, and hundreds of workers died. He returned to Al Qaeda’s headquarters to await the headlines about his success, but it was never reported by the Chinese press. Al Qaeda executed him for lying.

Read more from Evan Osnos here.

TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people: hire Mario Testino next time

April 25, 2011 § Leave a comment


By Rebecca Liao

As a serious journalistic publication, TIME Magazine is an old hat at making people who are not, perhaps, naturally photogenic photograph well. Its signature portrait  is a brightly-lit closeup against a neutral background with an intriguing facial expression that, at its dullest, makes the viewer curious and, at its most effective, entices the viewer to mirror the image. Bottom line, though, the magazine’s honorees need to look good. This was especially important this year because, unlike in previous years, TIME decided to reduce many of the tributes accompanying the photographs to an ant-like 4 point font. If we didn’t bother to read the tributes before, we certainly didn’t read them this time around. The photos were left to stand on their own, and it became clear that TIME doesn’t quite always know how to style or incorporate props into people’s personas. Two suggestions for next year: supersize the tributes, or hire Mario Testino (I hear he’s still cheaper than Annie Leibowitz). Am I being too harsh? Let me know in the comments!

Amy Poehler Source: TIME.com

The lovely and hilarious Amy Poehler is expanding her repertoire to Shakespeare and will star this summer as Queen Titania in Shakespeare in the Park’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Oh, wait, that’s not the play they’re doing this summer? Oh, I get it, Amy’s show is Parks and Recreation, which has to do with nature, hence the crown of flowers. Judging by her expression, she seems to be a little befuddled by it too, but completely game, which is why we love her and all her cohorts from SNL. Still, this was hardly a Tina-Fey-hiding-under-the-desk-Amex moment.

Mark Zuckerberg Source: TIME.com

We all know Mark Zuckerberg is a visionary, and this is before he has actually pocketed the billions and has Twitter nipping at his ankles. We have all suspected he’s not human, but according to The Social Network, he’s all too human, and you can’t create that characterization out of thin air lest the reality catch up all too quickly. This photo throws that whole storyline into doubt, though. That light in his eyes and on his forehead–I’ve seen it before. He’s receiving knowledge from a higher source and will disregard Indiana Jones’ warning to cover his eyes before…no, can’t be. He looks so calm.

Amy Chua Source: TIME.com

I never thought that an educated and cultured woman would share so much with Sarah Palin: overexposure, unintelligible interview responses and shameless opportunism. Only Palin is a politician, so she’s somewhat expected to have those traits. Amy Chua, on the other hand, marketed herself as the model mother, not perfect, but certainly better than any of the empathetic Western parents out there with failures for children. That image has started to chip away as Chua has settled into the public eye and is ready to really have some fun. At a talk hosted by the Wall Street Journal at the New York Public Library a few weeks ago, Chua wore a suspiciously short (as in, personally tailored) blue tweed skirt that she had to constantly adjust as she shifted in her chair. Yes, it’s just a goddamn skirt, but no tiger cub would have overlooked such a detail. The photo for TIME 100 follows in the same vein. Like all those who futilely tried to dissuade the Tea Party from adopting the term for a sexual position to describe themselves, I would like to point out that “dominatrix” is a sexual term. It is a role that should be embraced as a wife. But Chua has hid her role as a wife to the public. To us, she’s only a mother. I think we’re all due for some therapy…

John Lasseter Source: TIME.com

Which brings us to Pixar! Who doesn’t love a Pixar movie? Except, perhaps, its Chief Creative Officer? Granted, I would be a little morose too if I had to fight for real estate with the characters I created. Lasseter appears to be drowning in a sea of childlike joyfulness and doing his best impression of a sage to balance the narrative. Always on the job, I see. I knew there was a reason I actually pay to see his movies.

Grant Achatz Source: TIME.com

It’s hard to label a chef heroic. Chefs are in the pleasure business, and their craft does not easily translate to revolutionary, world-changing ideas (unless you’re Alice Waters and have convinced people who can afford it that Whole Foods and farmer’s markets are the only acceptable places to shop for groceries). If anyone has earned the honor in America, however, it’s Grant Achatz. Executive Chef at Alinea in Chicago, Grant is one of the leaders in molecular gastronomy. As his star was rising in 2007, he was diagnosed with mouth cancer and lost his ability to taste. Now cancer free and armed with a newly cerebral approach acquired when he had to build a sense of taste independent of the palate, his output of innovative dishes is as furious and delightful as ever. The field in which he works can challenge even the most adventurous eater. My family is from southern China; all the wild stories people have about the food we eat is true (there are lots of animals, not all raised on a farm, many of them quite cute). A potato impaled with a test tube, I have no problem. Vaporized Rocky Mountain oysters (not on the Alinea menu), I can also do. A pheasant presented like a science experiment, maybe it’s the vegetarianism buzzing in my ear, but I really don’t want to eat that pheasant. The photo gives the science-heavy molecular gastronomy a bad name; it’s much better if we just remain ignorant of where our food comes from.

Sting Source: TIME.com

I have never met Sting in person. From his performances and interviews, though, he doesn’t strike me as Agent Smith from the Matrix. This is one of the photos shot with the signature TIME look that did not fare so well. I wouldn’t worry about next time: Mario Testino is universally charming, unless you’ve seen The September Issue, in which case, you know he can sometimes flaunt direction. (But the honorees would look happier!)

Arianna Huffington Source: TIME.com

All along, we thought that Arianna Huffington was after Tina Brown’s life: glamorous and powerful editor who covers and hosts the most important political and cultural luminaries. It turns out we were all wrong. This photo may have been TIME’s most grievous error, an image that gives away something about Arianna that she probably does not want the world to know yet. Tina Brown was never her target. It’s this woman:

Anna Wintour Source: fashioncollections.org

Beijing Bob: Protester as Possum

April 13, 2011 § 7 Comments


By Rebecca Liao

Uninhibited exercise of free speech is a useless fantasy. Two Sundays ago on Meet the Press, Senator Lindsey Graham gave the following unfortunately-worded condemnation of Terry Jones’ burning of the Koran in Florida: “I wish we could find a way to hold people accountable. Free speech is a great idea, but we’re in a war.” The “fighting words doctrine” in US constitutional law recognizes that words that can only inflict injury or immediately incite violence are not protected under the First Amendment. Those are just some of the officially-sanctioned restrictions on free speech. Then there’s the social filtering that Carolina Herrera put best in her Proust Questionnaire for Vanity Fair: when asked when she lies, she answered, the ellipses emphasizing the obviousness of the response, “Whenever I have to…it’s called manners.” Social activists worth their salt would never worry about being rude, but that is not to say they do not have a keen instinct for expedient self-censorship.

Bob Dylan in China

For an iconic voice of the protest generation, Bob Dylan doesn’t talk very much. In concerts, he only speaks to introduce the band members. His interviews are really only quotable if questions are included, just to give a sense of how frustrating and hilarious his stubbornly non-sequitur answers can be. More importantly, Dylan never says what the listening public wants or expects him, of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin” fame, to say. The seeming disconnect between the person and the personality is pronounced to the point that many still have a hard time believing it exists, which leads to misguided outbursts as newsworthy as the episodes that inspire them. In reaction to Dylan’s performing in China according to a setlist pre-approved by the Ministry of Culture and failing to voice support for detained artist Ai Weiwei, Human Rights Watch had a go at the singer, as did the New York Post and John Whitehead at HuffPo. In the end, though, it was Maureen Dowd who really did Beijing Bob proud with a scathing op-ed in the New York Times:

The idea that the raspy troubadour of ’60s freedom anthems would go to a dictatorship and not sing those anthems is a whole new kind of sellout — even worse than Beyoncé, Mariah and Usher collecting millions to croon to Qaddafi’s family, or Elton John raking in a fortune to serenade gay-bashers at Rush Limbaugh’s fourth wedding[…]

Dylan said nothing about [Ai] Weiwei’s detention, didn’t offer a reprise of ‘Hurricane,’ his song about ‘the man the authorities came to blame for something that he never done.’ He sang his censored set, took his pile of Communist cash and left.

Dowd does eventually acknowledge Dylan’s reluctance to be a protest figure, but rather than accept that as an explanation, let alone an excuse, for his refusal to be overtly topical, she suggests that he was a cynical sell-out from the very beginning, leveraging the fertile socio-political culture of the 60s to become famous, only to cut and run once he had succeeded. It’s a fair, but nauseatingly demanding, point that, as Alex Ross, classical music critic for the New Yorker, said over the weekend, smacks of “the worst sort of armchair moralism”. Given the body of work sung in place of the anthems Dowd so wanted to hear, among them “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “Desolation Row,” it’s also a lazy and unprofessional point that was probably conceived and written before Dowd had done any fact-checking (i.e. looked up the list of songs performed). So what she and her fellow critics hated wasn’t exactly what Dylan actually did in China so much as the very idea that he would go there and not be Yankee gangbusters.

This is the exact kind of narrow, inflexible, commercial-friendly generalization Dylan ran away from when he was first anointed a visionary and brave folk singer. Direct criticism is not the only way to effectively make a point. Dylan’s songs largely shy away from proper references; they instead work by playing off the atmosphere in which they are performed. They will always be associated with the events and spirit of a certain era, but someone with no knowledge of their history will find that the lyrics, inflections and chord relations are actually quite well suited to counterculture tendencies in any socio-political landscape.

If anything, Dylan’s decades-long slide into the uncooperative eccentric has further enforced the subversive nature of his work. It began innocuously with altered melodies and transposed lyrics. It graduated to a game of cat and mouse with the press generally and, as Paul Williams put it, “cause-chasing liberals who concern themselves with the issues and have no real empathy for people” in particular. If people insisted often enough that a song had a certain significance despite Dylan’s denial, he would give in and make up a clearly bogus backstory. At some point, the artist became unrecognizable, his delivery in concerts as unpredictable in quality and substance as only the most die-hard Dylan and music-legend fans would tolerate. Whether these are the tricks of a calculating fameball, a tired performer, or just an artist that has refocused his perspective is not clear. What is evident, though, is that Dylan is not comfortable being in anyone’s corner, neither that of William Zantzinger nor Hattie Carroll’s champions. It leads to a funny outcome in which the message of the music maintains its clear bent but remains almost universally claimable because it refuses all allegiances.

More importantly, it’s the sort of “protest” that goes over well in China. The Ministry of Culture allegedly did screened Dylan’s setlist, but lyrics like the following from “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” slipped past:

Gonna change my way of thinking
Make myself a different set of rules
Gonna change my way of thinking
Make myself a different set of rules
Gonna put my good foot forward
And stop being influenced by fools

So much oppression
Can’t keep track of it no more
So much oppression
Can’t keep track of it no more
Sons becoming husbands to their mothers
And old men turning young daughters into whores

As did this gem from “Desolation Row”:

Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row

Chances are the Chinese officials didn’t see a “Free Tibet” riff on the program and let it go. It’s also plausible that the Chinese government categorically likes Dylan’s music: CCTV played “Blowin’ in the Wind” in the background for their feature on him. One man’s protest song is another man’s…protest song, equally applicable against Communist regimes and Imperialist barbarians.

Contrast that with Ai Weiwei, who makes both his political activities and the identity of those on the receiving end clear. On the eve of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, for which he helped conceive the Birds Nest Stadium, Ai wrote a column for The Guardian entitled “Why I’ll stay away from the opening ceremony of the Olympics”. It included the following statements:

Almost 60 years after the founding of the People’s Republic, we still live under autocratic rule without universal suffrage. We do not have anopen media even though freedom of expression is more valuable than life itself […]

We must bid farewell to autocracy. Whatever shape it takes, whatever justification it gives, authoritarian government always ends up trampling on equality, denying justice and stealing happiness and laughter from the people.

Ai has reiterated these sentiments in his blog, twitter feed, and interviews with foreign press on a regular basis. He isn’t simply a pundit, though: after the devastating earthquakes in Sichuan province, Ai created an installation for the Haus der Kunst in Munich comprised of 9000 children’s backpacks spelling out, “She lived happily for seven years in this world,” words from a mother who lost her child. Assembling a group of volunteers through the Internet, Ai compiled a list of 5,335 names of children who had been crushed in the rubble. All went to 20 schools whose buildings had collapsed during the quake. Though the government shut down the investigation, it launched one of its own into shoddy classroom construction.

Like Dylan, Ai is an increasingly subversive artist, but their styles could not be more different. In an interview with the Financial Times a year ago, Ai confessed, “You play like a gambler. You may be on a winning streak. You may think: ‘This is a winning table’. And you may fantasize that you can win for ever.” One man has sung his ballads for 60 years; the other has been silenced, hopefully not indefinitely. It would be indefensible to downplay what Ai has sacrificed for his political bravery, but it would be just as irresponsible to encourage him to continue as he has and permanently join the leagues of “crazy, anti-China dissidents” the Chinese public by and large ostracizes. Protest works against a very organized and controlled enemy; it should be just as inclined in order to maximize effectiveness.

Middle Finger at Tiananmen Square

Ai’s work is already a powerful tool: regarding his Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, Ai explains, “My work is always dealing with real or fake, authenticity, what the value is, and how the value relates to current political and social understandings and misunderstandings. I think there’s a strong humorous aspect there.” Whether by dropping a Ming vase, giving the middle finger to the world’s most recognizable monuments, or decapitating zodiac signs, an irreverence that makes people laugh along with it without causing discomfort is the most untraceable text message.

When Ai Weiwei is released, and he will be released because the Chinese hate more than anything to lose face, he should, as Dylan has, do his job. At the end of the day, we all just work here.

New Tenants at the Arcades

March 23, 2011 § Leave a comment


Passage des Panoramas Image: feuilleton

By Rebecca Liao

Nobody shops at the Arcades, unless they do not have anything to buy. Even at the height of their modernity, the indoor mazes of stores and restaurants beneath vaulted ceilings of iron and glass were more the territory of the incurable and occasional flâneurs. No matter, though; one thing the Arcades have never been is irrelevant. They were once the newest act in town. They are now an inside secret for the self-identified cultured traveler, which perversely makes them cooler than they ever were. The type of tenants they attract has remained the same: oddities that would not survive if they were not all housed under one chic roof and, therefore, able to play the legitimacy-by-numbers game. The same appeal underlies this form of entertainment:

John Galliano Spring 2006 Ready-to-Wear Collection Image: Style.com

Every few weeks, I will introduce new tenants to the neighborhood.

Tibor de Nagy Gallery: Painters & Poets Non-obvious mashups do not often lead to movements, but when you have the Abstract Expressionists as an ally, the prospects look much better, as in you might even name yourself after, and therefore claim to represent, a cultural capital.

– As the Federer Express was pulling into the U.S. Open in 2006, David Foster Wallace wrote what is still the most insightful and beautiful analysis of Roger Federer’s game. Eight Grand Slams later, Federer still owes many a lionizing (re)introduction to DFW’s poetry. Turns out DFW has a track record of elucidating and bringing heft to sissy, alien institutions. Sequitur regularly partners his work with contemporary classical music, most recently performing “Tri-Stan” (based on the story “Tri-Stan: I Sold Sissee Nar to Ecko”) and “Everything is Green” at Symphony Space in NYC.

– Street performers are generally kicked out of private shopping areas, but it’d be a pity to constrain Hanh-Bin to a concert hall.

– Uber-hippie John Luther Adams was finally convinced to bring his monolithic “Inuksuit” to an urban performance space. A student in the legendary Stanford course “Rock, Sex and Rebellion” once wrote in a paper about Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love:” “[That song] makes me want to have sex like burning.” Not there yet, but we are a lot closer than we’ve been in years.

– More than a hundred years after its founding, The Ballets Russes, as it originally existed in Paris, still captures the imagination. Each new incarnation seeks a direct link to the source, rather than all the re-interpretations that have come since. Most recently, the prima ballerina and sane half of a pair of genius siblings received their curtain call.

Time. Pencils down please.

– Food court is calling. During the last couple of years, The Village Pub in Woodside, CA was quite happy being the watering hole for Silicon Valley’s beautiful people. It’s finally taken a cue from its customers and iterated, only instead of obnoxious new tools for pushing borders on privacy, it’s offering bottarga, bone marrow and Bergamot Crème Anglaise.

Fetish and the Piano

March 16, 2011 § 1 Comment


By Rebecca Liao

As soon as the first model at the Cour Carrée du Louvre stepped out of her elevator in a sheer skirt, bellboy cap, and fetish boots, the fashion world was paralyzed between feverishly sharing their impressions with everyone else watching the show and catching every moment of the spectacle unfolding. Handcuffs, tightly corseted jackets, curvaceous jodhpurs, lace-up boots, bottomless outfits, Naomi Campbell, and Kate Fucking Moss smoking a post-coital cigarette. Despite the early start, everyone in the room had been sufficiently awakened from their stupor and cheered out of their minds for Le American Marc Jacobs, racing onto the runway and backstage while writing preliminary notes for all manner of fawning, naughty praise in their handhelds for a very successful fall Louis Vuitton collection. Until Jacobs paralyzed them again with this post-show gem: “At Vuitton, it always starts with the bags, I kept thinking about this inexplicable passion and obsession women have for bags, and how the bag became a fetishized object.” Somewhere, Bernard Arnault ruefully thought, “What did I do that my children would turn against me?”

Fortunately, Jacobs ended with this line, “I wanted to celebrate the love and desire that’s part of that fetish,” adding an assuaging glamour to his mockery of the Vuitton customer and decades-long marketing campaign. The fashion season is long, with several collections and product launches between the two pillar collections of fall and spring: the chase for trends is not amenable to narrative arcs. But it is impossible to ignore the connection between Fall 2010 and Fall 2011 for Louis Vuitton. Fall 2010 was a celebration of femininity, opening with Laetitia Casta and closing with Elle MacPherson, deliberately casting curvier models, sporting low-cut corseted dresses showing off the décolletage, bouffant ponytails, and tall pumps with oversized bows and retro block heels, some covered with Swarovski crystals, all parading by a romantic Parisian fountain with the soundtrack to “And God Created Woman,” the film that launched Brigitte Bardot’s career in the states, in the background. Jacobs signed with the Speedy, a bag that normally retails for around $700, redone in luxe fabrics and precious metals to up the price tag to five figures.

Spend long enough with this love and desire, though, and any amount of self-awareness will trigger the realization that it is just unnatural for an unnecessary object to have such power. Even more disconcerting is the subsequent thought that even if the human desire to not be controlled and manipulated resists such power, the bag is just so damn beautiful. If either side won with any consistency, fashion would become an incredibly boring Amtrak of consumerism, ambling along without variation. There are consequences to living this way.

This:

The Speedy (Image: Style.com)

becomes this:

The Lockit (Image: Style.com)

Jacobs replaced the Speedy with the Lockit as the heart of the fall collection in 2011. Accessorized with fur and gilded handcuffs, the subversion comes mostly from “The Night Porter” staging. Point taken, but not every fetishized object is so lucky as to become even more glamorous in a sadomasochistic relationship.

For example, the piano has seen hard times in 2011, continuing to pay for the most unerasable of sins: its existence. Worse, it gleefully affirms that existence at every turn. Like Julio Cortázar’s axolotl, its identity is so unwaveringly strong that it will engulf that of the people who come into contact with it, while remaining itself generally unaffected. To change how a piano is perceived initially feels like a giant victory, but a tainted one when one realizes that that can only mean it was inexplicably considered an enemy. Still, the victories that have come were as abrupt as they are lasting. There is John Cage’s prepared piano–a grand piano with bolts, screws, short strips of felt-covered plastic and other objects placed in between the strings to create a much larger array of percussive sound.

Before:

Pristine Piano Interior

After:

Image: What's my beef with Blackboard?

The sounds emitted are tailored to a modern sensibility: not that the piano needs updating, but to claim a part of it as unique for a place and time is a win-win for all parties. That’s especially true for Raphael Montanez Ortiz’s destroyed pianos.

Ortiz has done more than 80 of these performances.

These performances are not junkyard affairs; they are accompanied by ritualistic singing and dancing. The violence is meant to be a spiritual catharsis. I guess that’s one way to solve one’s problems.

Importantly, Ortiz recognizes that smashing sans technique does not make it out of a neighborhood performance space, and so the performers begin by very carefully taking apart the piano, using the ax to almost gently nudge the parts this way and that. It isn’t until the piano has already been largely deconstructed that the honest smashing begins, as though Ortiz is trying to be as respectful and merciful as possible by coaxing the piano to open up to its own destruction. It is this handy feature of calculated demolition that has a lineage in these works of art:

Gordon Matta-Clark, Day's End, 1975 (Image: NY Times)

Viktor & Rolf, Spring 2010 (Image: Dazed and Confused)

Stop, Repair, Prepare (Image: Jason Mandella/Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art)

First shown at the Hans der Kunst in Munich in 2008, “Stop, Repair, Prepare: Variations on ‘Ode to Joy’ for a Prepared Piano,” by the artist team Allora & Calzadilla, debuted in New York at the Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea in January 2009. Early December last year, it hit the big leagues with a roughly month-long stint at the Museum of Modern Art. In the second floor atrium, at the top of every hour, one of five pianists would, in a mildly erotic move, climb inside the hole, configure his or her fingers on the keys from the reverse position, and play the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony.

In addition to the occasional missed notes and key changes, which frankly could not be helped by even the most virtuosic players in this position, only frustrating thumps sound when notes in the middle two octaves, the excised portion of the Bechstein baby grand, are depressed. Trouble is, these two octaves contain the most recognizable parts of the movement. A few minutes into the performance, the players would begin to move the piano while playing, some in a more elaborate choreography than others, but the physicality is evident all the same. By the time the movement is finished, the player and piano would have traveled throughout the entire atrium.

“Stop, Repair, Prepare” ticks off all the sensors of artistic reception–it is visceral, emotional, entertaining, technically disciplined, and intellectual, all on many levels at once. But we are still curious: what is it supposed to mean–that is, what did Allora & Calzadilla intend for it to mean? PR for the team emphasizes its socio-political import, namely its ignominious history as one of Hitler’s favorite pieces (it was actually performed on Hitler’s birthday in 1942 at the Haus der Kunst: a Bechtstein was in attendance then as well), the national anthem of Rhodesia, an apartheid state, and one of the few pieces of Western music played during the Cultural Revolution in China. Oddly enough, this emphasis on the work’s latent powerlessness recalls another, less successful, dressing down: Susan McClary famously wrote in the January 1987 issue of the “Minnesota Composers’ Forum Newsletter” that, “The point of recapitulation in the first movement of the Ninth is one of the most horrifying moments in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling, murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.” The metaphor may have been unfortunate, but its general sentiment that Beethoven’s Ninth hides an exploitable and exploitative spot beneath its majestic celebration of the human spirit finds itself validated.

Where does the piano fit into all of this? In the big picture, it may have been an innocent bystander. The Ode to Joy is rarely performed on the piano, and certainly never in those concerts that become a part of the symphony’s heritage and identity. But would a hindered orchestra à la Haydn have been a more effective medium? Probably not–an orchestra is a body of musicians; a piano and its player make one musical instrument. By choosing a piano, Allora & Calzadilla left little doubt about what was being subverted. There is nothing glamorous about a mangled melody. The piano is brought down with the ship only in its role as an enabler. Whereas a show of impotence emasculates the music, it is instead used by the piano to attack from a defensive position. The visible burden of being pushed around, the hole with its key missing octaves, the difficulty of matching the right minute finger movements while hunched over and viewing the keyboard upside down set the stage for bravura performances.

Which is exactly what each of the five players aimed for and achieved at the MoMA. A picture of “Stop, Repair, Prepare” is absurd, a viewing of it is thought provoking and moving, and a five minute reflection outside the door combines all the above into a Cagean moment. We will never look at a piano in the same way again.

That was the happy story.

Then there was that episode in which a boy from South Florida wanted to get into a great college. At a New Year’s Eve party, he set on fire an old grand piano that his father, J. Mark Harrington, production designer for USA Network’s “Burn Notice,” had rescued from a shoot. Turns out this sort of activity provokes quite a reaction. So Nick Harrington, along with his father and brother, moved the piano by boat to a sandbar in Biscayne Bay and lit it on fire again. Pictures were taken this time.

Image: Nicholas Harrington/Courtesy of The Miami Herald

Image: Nicholas Harrington/Courtesy of AP

Given that Nick was facing felony charges and a $5000 dollar fine for dumping the piano around the time the media caught wind of his identity, it’s understandable that he did not give any money quotes about what his work meant. He did, however, throw out buzz words like “artsy” and “surreal”. The poor piano really just had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Its problem is that the more readily people understand an object’s gravitas, the more readily they can discern its potential for absurdity. Few things are more serious than a beautiful, high-brow object with heritage and the love and devotion that have made it so, other than, of course, a belief in its unassailability so strong that the only deconstruction deemed worthwhile is that done in extremis following a relatively trouble-free decision process.

Bernard Arnault need not fear, however. The bags will still do well. Their pristine nature may be sullied, but they become even more esteemed because they were game. They allowed a moral victory—both sides of the viewing glass get the last laugh, and that is mutuality at its best.

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