In the way that autumn, redolent of falling leaves and new notebooks, is always the same autumn, so the first Salon is always the same first Salon. Here we are again—students and artists, neighbors and teachers—together in ICA’s auditorium with its carpeting and its round, comfortable poufs. My mind spirals back to last fall—to the last first Salon—when Alex (as she does tonight) invoked Gertrude Stein, that quintessential Salon hostess, dressed in brown corduroy, sitting in a high-backed Renaissance chair, facilitating “polite and perhaps animated conversation.” For a dizzy half-moment, I don’t know quite where I am. Those three guests at the front of the room with their presentations ready, are they painters here to talk about abstraction? No; tonight is Staging / Restaging, and that trio of guests is Terry Adkins, an artist, musician, and a fine arts professor at Penn; Homay King, an art historian at Bryn Mawr College, and Sharon Lockhart, an artist, filmmaker, and professor at USC. “I hope you’re all properly caffeinated from the La Colombe coffee,” Alex says.
Staging and restaging: What is that, exactly? The spark for tonight’s program is a work by Jeremy Deller, on view in the gallery upstairs. The Battle of Orgreave is a video and related archive that reanimate a restaging Deller organized in 2001, for which he marshaled 1,000 volunteers (and some horses) to recreate a violent confrontation in Thatcherite England between striking coal miners and police. That restaging was unlike the sort of Civil War reenactments common in America in a very important way: many of the people doing the reenacting were the same ones who had been in the clash in the first place. That’s like a married couple reenacting their divorce trial. “This isn’t about healing wounds,” Deller has said. “It’s going to take more than an art project to heal wounds.”
What, then, is the role of such a project? And how is a restaging of a past event like (and unlike) a photograph of the event, or a memoir, or a documentary, or a song written to commemorate it? Each kind of restaging has its own quality, its own particular haunting power. Ghosts flit in and out in different guises, some white as clouds, some sticky with ectoplasm, others groaning and clanking chains.
In this room tonight, for instance, Terry Adkins powerfully summons the spirit of John Brown—“America’s first terrorist and leading shepherd,” he says, half-ironically—the American abolitionist who mounted a doomed raid on the armory in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. Adkins (who hints that he has his own invented shadow self) has worked on a number of reanimations of Brown. He has played Brown’s ghost in a video (backed by ibises), refabricated the iron pipes with which Brown armed fugitive slaves (if they didn’t know how to use firearms), and resurrected a procession to commemorate Martyr Day, the day—December 2, 1859—Brown was hanged for his crimes.
“I’m working on a project about the virtual,” Homay King says. Suddenly the room is open to the ghosts in the machines—computers—that have now become, like faithful dogs, our constant companions. In addition to introducing us to Ming Wong, an artist who restages films like Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (which is itself a remaking of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows), with Wong playing all the roles, King speculates about what it might be about digital culture that encourages restagings, which are proliferating on YouTube this very moment like bright, tenacious dandelions. At the same time, she reminds us that, in the ancient world, recital—oral repetition—was how stories were spread; at the other extreme, she mentions the current fad whereby politicians are made, via software, to sing. Restaging has a long history, but things seem to be speeding up.
There is no speeding up, however, in Sharon Lockhart’s current work, which is disciplined by the steady pulse of a metronome counting out 120 beats per minutes. In her new show, Sharon Lockhart | Noa Eshkol, which just opened at The Jewish Museum in New York, Lockhart engages the work of Israeli dance composer and movement theorist Noa Eshkol (1924 –2007). Through a film installation featuring dancers who worked with Eshkol, combined for the first time with textiles (“wall carpets”) Eshkol made from scraps of fabric, Lockhart reanimates the choreographer’s fierce creative spirit. In fact, I think I see Eshkol now, entering the room in her leotards, cigarette in hand, bare feet hard with phantasmal callouses.
As the Salon moves into its final act, audience members ask questions, make suggestions, speculate, fabulate. “This idea of anonymity and authorship is in the air,” someone says.
“It’s about the current generation’s inability to think about the future,” conjectures another.
By now the auditorium is thick with ghosts. See: in the corner, Gertrude Stein offers a glass of wine to John Brown. A British policeman raises a night stick over Fassbinder’s head. Noa Eskhol rescues the scraps of Ming Wong’s costumes to make a wall carpet. I peer over her shimmering shoulder, half-expecting to see our own visages given form there, as we lean eagerly forward in our chairs, not wanting to miss a word.
Don’t miss the last Salon of the fall, Folk / Subculture, with Alex Baker, Matthew Higgs, and William E. Jones, on Wednesday, November 28 at 6:30.
Join Terry Adkins for this year’s Martyr Day procession down Locust Walk at Penn on December 2.
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