Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Theatre: Arrabal

Who knew I would like dance?  I have always asserted that I find pure dance performances boring because I prefer shows, especially musicals, that have a strong story, dialogue and preferably singing.  After watching Arrabal, I stand corrected.  While there was no dialogue or singing, Arrabal told a very powerful tale of political injustice, personal loss and the quest for truth.  The plot was conveyed exclusively through the use of expressive dances that ranged from passionate to moving, and clever staging which included lighting effects and video.

Arrabal opens in the context of 1979 Argentina, which was controlled by the vicious military dictatorship that was responsible for up to 30,000 "forced disappearances".  Alleged political dissidents were abducted, tortured and sometimes killed.  Rodolfo, the father to baby Arrabal, is one such protestor who flaunts his allegiance to the former Peron regime by proudly displaying his "PV" (Peron Vuelve, meaning Peron will Return) t-shirt at a political rally.  He is caught, beaten and then executed by the soldiers of the military junta led by General Jorge Rafael Videla, while his best friend El Puma flees, unable to help him.

Eighteen years later, Arrabal dreams of her lost father in a tender ballet that turns into a nightmare as he is torn away from her.  El Puma decides it is time to tell Arrabal about her father and sends his servant to lure her to his tango club.  Along the way, she encounters the streets of downtown Buenos Aires as well as the patrons of the tango club.  She is fascinated by the intense and sensual tango dancing, especially by Juan, with whom she forms an instant connection, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend Nicole.  El Puma approaches Arrabal and dances with her, but loses his nerve and runs off in shame as he relives Rodolfo's torture and his own guilt at not trying to help him.  Juan rescues Arrabal when she is cornered by a group of predatory men, and the two fall in love (yes this is quick, but it is a dance story).  El Puma finally summons up the courage to reveal all to Arrabal after conjuring up happy memories of his and Rodolfo's childhood days.
Arrabal is devastated by what she hears but comforted by the ghost of Rodolfo who gives his blessing for her to be with Juan.

The scene that gives the story its greatest poignancy is rooted in history–The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo were a group of Argentinian mothers of the disappeared, who gathered and marched at the Plaza de Mayo carrying signs with photos of their children around their necks, demanding answers regarding their children's fates.  In the show, Rodolfo's mother joins the march as haunting faces of the missing are shown in the background.  Then in a dream sequence, Rodolfo and other "disappeared sons" drift on stage to have a touching dance with their mothers before fading away again.  As their mothers embrace them, the men spread their arms in a religious "Christ-like" pose.

Black and white video footage of those dark times in Argentina help accentuate the horrors of that period.

The beautiful ballets and fast-paced tangos were thrilling to watch, but it was the moving story that drew me in.  A thorough synopsis provided in the program really helped to highlight the various plot points.  The show also included much audience participation. Prior to the start of Arrabal, members of the audience could go on stage for tango lessons, which were then put into good use when they were led back on stage for a quick dance in the middle of the show.  A few lucky patrons were able to watch the show from cabaret-styled tables located  both on stage and along the front row in front of the stage.  Although that would have been a unique experience, I'm not sure it would have provided the optimum sight-lines to watch the intricate dance patterns.  We were quite happy with our seats further back, where we could see the entire stage.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Library Talk - The Curious World of High-End Contemporary Art

We recently attended a fascinating library talk titled "The Curious World of High-End Contemporary Art" which was presented by economist, professor, and author Don Thompson.  Thompson wrote the book called "The $12-Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art" which explores the reasons why some contemporary works of art, by artists who may still be alive, command such high prices at auction.  He theorized that the exorbitant amounts being paid by elite collectors in the art world had less to do with the technical skill of the artist or the esthetic virtues of the art, and more to do with scarcity, branding and back-story.  Scarcity is easy to understand since it plays directly into the iconic supply vs demand model of economics.  Branding and back-story required further explanation, and Thompson spent the rest of the discussion sharing anecdotes that proved his assertions.

Thompson explained that Contemporary art collecting by the ultra-wealthy had much to do with conspicuous consumption, bragging rights and large egos competing at auctions, who need reassurance that their purchases will be appreciated as opposed to mocked by their peers.  This is where branding comes in.  Buying a work of art created by a recognized name (such as Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Banksy), handled by a respected dealer, sold at one of the high-end auction houses (Christie's, Sotherbys), or having other well-known collectors owning works by the same artist, ensures credibility and acceptance.  Thompson provided excellent examples of the importance of branding as well as the appeal and resulting value of an interesting back story.

Damien Hirst, one of the wealthiest and most successful contemporary artists of our times, is known for creating the designs for his works, but often uses assistants to actually produce them.  His "Spot" paintings are examples of this practice and he publicly acknowledges that many of the best ones were produced by his assistant Rachel Howard.  When Howard left to pursue her own career, Hirst let her take one of her unsigned spot paintings, which she sold for 90,000 pounds.  Hirst signed his name to another one of these identical spot paintings created by Howard and it sold at auction for 2.25 million pounds. 

AA Gill, a British restaurant reviewer was the long time owner of an unremarkable and valueless portrait of Joseph Stalin.  Nonetheless, he tried to get Christie's to sell the painting and was promptly refused with the reply that Christie's did not deal in works on such tasteless and politically incorrect subjects.  Gill called up his friend Hirst, who came to Gill's office, picked up a red marker, drew a red circle over Stalin's nose and signed the piece.  Not only did Christie accept this "work by Damien Hirst", but it sold for over 100,000 pounds.

The infamous and anonymous graffiti artist Banksy once went to a thrift shop and bought a generic landscape painting for around 50 pounds.  On it, he added the image of a Nazi officer, sitting on a bench, gazing out at the scenery.  He called this work "The Banality of the Banality of Evil".  Although his addition accounted for a miniscule part of the painting, this "Banksy" sold for 615,000 pounds.  Thompson revealed that many in the art world are well aware of Banksy's true identity, but conspire to keep it secret since this back story of his anonymity is a large part of his allure.

The ultimate example of paying mostly for the back story comes from the works of Felix Gonzalez Torres, who made multiple "sculptural" works as a tribute to deceased loved ones including his father, his lover Ross Laycock, and close friend and artist Marcel Brient.  Torres' works, such as his mounds of wrapped candy, are meant to be fluid and changing.  Interaction with the sculpture is encouraged, as viewers are prompted to take candy from the pile and consume it.  As the candy pile diminishes, this symbolizes the lost and letting go of the loved one.  Then as new candy is added back to the pile, this symbolizes rebirth and resurrection (which sounds almost Biblical).  He has a similar sculpture installed in Buffalo's Knox Albright museum where there is a pile of paper each with two joining gold circles on them.  The circles symbolize the eternal love shared by Torres and his lover Laycock who died of AIDS.  You are encouraged to take a sheet of paper with you and as the pile decreases, more are printed.  Each of these sculptures sold for millions of dollars and come with a certificate of authenticity.  But since the original sculpture is meant to be taken away and then restocked or replenished, what is actually being paid for is the concept and the extremely touching back story which moved me to tears when I first read about it in the Knox Albright.

Thompson gave some other examples of the power of branding and back story that were not related to contemporary art.  He described the auction of Elizabeth Taylor's jewelry including her famous La Peregrina pearl which Richard Burton bought for $37,000 and presented to her as a wedding gift.  This pearl was originally owned by King Phillip II of Spain in the 1500s and was painted by Diego Velázquez who also painted Les Meninas. When it was resold at auction in 2011, the auctioneers came up with an estimated price by contacting the original jeweler to find out that you could have a similar piece made today for $2.5 million.  But the powerful association with Taylor and Burton drove the bidding up to $11 million. To put it another way, somebody was willing to pay $8.5 million for the back story! I find it an amusing comment on our celebrity worshiping culture that there seemed to be a much higher premium  put on the Liz and Richard back story, versus that of the King and Queen of Spain plus a renowned Baroque painter.

Thompson told many more intriguing and amusing stories that demonstrated what drove prices in the high-end Contemporary art world.  I look forward to reading his book The $12 million Stuffed Shark as well as his new book coming out at the end of May, called The Supermodel and Brill Box: Back Stories and Particular Economics from the World of Contemporary Art.