In the dream, a turquoise dog with a curved horn for a snout walks quietly up to me. A magenta dog joins us. Then there are skunks the size of horses with flowers as tails. I had this dream a decade ago, but I remember it because it's one of the few times I dreamed surreal instead of the more obvious missed-plane, lost-wallet, wrong-boyfriend anxiety dreams.
In his artist statement, Jim Woodring (2010 Stranger Genius Award winner for literature) said that the 10 drawings that make up The Pig Went Down to the Harbor at Sunset and Wept are the things of his dreams and "each picture I draw is an attempt to answer one question and ask another at the same time."
(I've always wondered how visual artists dream differently than writers than musicians than dancers. What comes first, the dreamed imagery or the waking drawings? Do the drawings inspire a wilder dream imagery or vice versa?)
Woodring used an oversize dip ink pen for the series of large-scale drawings commissioned by the Frye. The four-foot-long wood pen with a 16-inch steel nib is displayed in a case nearby. "Oh my, that is big," I thought as I inspected it.
The large drawings were outlined in graphite and then filled in with black ink—the giant pen dipped in a vase used as an inkwell. Woodring didn't touch up or fill in anything after. Nor are there any erasures of the graphite, to allow insight into the process. Giant ink splotches dot the borders in a few of the pieces. The work is hung on the wall gallery style, but the size of the pen meant that it was created from above. (Maybe next time it should be displayed on low tables to preserve the perspective.)
The question Woodring answers while asking another revolves around the presence—but more so the absence—of the pig in the work's title. The shapes in the illustrations are organic, amorphous, corporeal. The drawings march around the walls left to right in numerical order. Naturally, one follows this order and expects a story to unfold. Having been told there is a pig and a harbor and a sunset and weeping, the mind is desperate to place all of these elements and confirm there is a beginning, middle, and end.
The pig shows up in The Pig Went Down to the Harbor at Sunset and Wept #2, poking its head out from the base of what looks like Botticelli's Birth of Venus clamshell. It's hard to tell whether the pig just rode in on a comet or is about to blast off from Earth. But by #3, everything is disassembled, the pig is nowhere to be found and—if you're willing to meet the artist on his terms—it's best to abandon your innate, unshakable desire for all of it to be moving neatly toward resolution.
Continuing, #4 smacks so much of Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights that I want to attach some kind of art historical through line to the project. Look at the drawings heavy-lidded and the show becomes a Rorschach test. I see a giant ball sack, I see ornate wallpaper patterns and keyholes, I see labia and eyeballs, I see tonsils and waves, and I see how everything seethes and surges against each other, fighting for a spot on the white space.
By #6, the pig has completely disappeared (I think?), and for all my efforts to let the little swine go, I can't. Is it pig parts and not the whole pig making the trip? Are those tonsils in #5? Do pigs even have tonsils? I take a few more steps back and notice there's as much white space as there is inked.
We know the pig went to the harbor at sunset and wept. I keep wondering whether it stayed or left.
Black and white world” was a new wave song from early eighties in which the front man sang at the very beginning: “My name is such and such…and all you can see around me is a black and white world.”, and kept repeating what was black and white in his world: tv, night street cars, his girlfriend, imported exclusive programs, etc. The band at the time was new wave-ish, the song was ska, and I used to hang out with punks a lot. When Heather said that much of her aesthetics comes from times when she hung at the concerts and in the gritty punk scene in nineties, she got me fully. There is a lot of irrational romanticism in that, but I don’t need much to connect, if the words and ideas, both said and unsaid, are right.
“Not everything is black and white. There are lot of gray zones in between.” You must have heard it too. You must have heard it and stared blank in darkness, kind of getting it, but not agreeing with it, understanding that intensity and beauty gravitate towards extremes. I have seen and understood Heather’s work in darkness and light at once: envisioning it in the aesthetics of zines and anarchy from one side, and in the aesthetics of minimalist canvas on the other, both as in a vision, less as in a thought.
These are the snippets of talk we had in the lobby of On the Boards one Friday morning:
P: In the sense of aesthetics, what is it that you look for in your badass uncompromising work?
H: It is personal, slightly obsessive-compulsive tendency within myself and using it and accepting it, where I go. Some of it is to understand. I made this work called “Self-obliteration companion” for which I have been renting the studio and all I wanted to do in the studio is cry or fall asleep, cry and fall asleep, and making stuff and hating all of it. Then I realized maybe that’s ok, I guess that’s the work.
How do you work, how do you choreograph?
I have no idea how to make dances. I am always amazed how people are moving bodies in space, and I suck at that. The way how people understand things … I cannot do that. I think about my dances as sculptures, or even two-dimensionally, as dots and lines, like in Bridget Riley paintings, or as sound pieces. I am interested in how things function sonically or sculpturally, those are the things that I enjoy playing with and understand something about. I can’t figure out right now if this piece is more of a grid, or a spiral, or it is a relationship between two places. The way the breath sounds: I chart all piece around it.
P: I noticed that your dance phrase patterns continue until they get exhausted. Do you usually work with dance drones, like music drones?
H: I love drones. This work, unlike my other work is not just pattern based. I am trying to fit it in spatially. I want to know about the transformation right now. There are eight men in the work. I don’t think the gender matters at all, but this is the time when we all want to understand that we have an ability not to get stuck. There is something in the work that tries to change that: not to get stuck, but I don’t know if it is a crazy weird quilt or it is a chain of events. My last work was a chain of events, and “Quartet” was like that too, this one is different.
P: You work is very funny. Do you know that? I saw your eyelids choreography in “Action to relate”, and I couldn’t stop laughing.
H: There are always few people that key into that element of my work, and I like that some people key into that. I just watched Richard Pryor late 1970 comedy routine that he did in Long Beach, and it was heavy. Everything he was talking about could have happened yesterday. There was so much violence in it and self-deprecation. It was funny and super not funny. That’s usually where comedy exists. I am interested in it and teetering on that.
P: You said your background is ballet and Grotowski. How do these two connect in your work?
H: My teacher in Pullman, Washington, was ballerina and then she decided to teach theater, so she taught us theater. What those theater exercises for me did was early experience of going deep into my imagination. Ballet also has a definite voice in my work. My use of ballet is linked with how I use language: seeing it as a structure, striving for precision inherent to my work. Without precision, my work is awful.
Lot of people might find repetition irritating, but I love it. Our lives are everything changing all the time, like Madison, or Times Square. I passed there the other day. Every single ad on the Times Square is a screen that constantly changes, it is crazy.
What I find interesting is that the repetition and minimalism are not appearing only in my work, they are in the works of others. Last Agnes Martin’s show in New York was like that. Theater can be a place of time and space where we can understand and not just receive what we should be thinking.
P: What is specific about Visions of Beauty?
H: This work is a mirror–piece of my previous piece, “The Green Surround”, a solo for nine women. They were working all in unison, from peeing in unison to holding “tendues” in unison. People would go: “Oh that is a piece about women.” So, I thought it would be fun to do the same thing with men. At first I had a concept that it would be an inversion of “The Green Surround”, but then I rejected the idea, as I am pretty contrary person. We now have eight men and one woman in the piece. I am not spending a time thinking about the gender of the cast.
“What is this piece about?” the dancer asked me the other day. And I was like: “I am not sure what it is about. What the work is about? The work is about itself.” I have heard it very beautifully from a composer John Adams who said: “All my work is absolutely about itself and trying to figure out how it is about itself and how it is abstract, and it is definitely very political in what is going on right now.” I related to that a lot.
To embrace and to be delicate about what the piece is about with this cast helps me make it in a way I never dealt with people before. My pieces can have a lot of anxiety in them and there is always something that might look authoritarian, and there is also–
Anger, yes. (There is still anger in this one). But I am not interested in anxiety and authoritarianism anymore, because they are everywhere. We don’t need to go to the theater to experience more anxiety and authority. So right now, I am making the piece without understanding what structures are. These performers are really helping me do it and I am letting them help me do it and that feels unique to this piece.
And for the end, what words come up for you when you think of this work?
There are no words for this work because these days I often find myself in the position where I don’t know what to say. I guess I don’t have words and I want to honor that space where one can be with another and nor agree or disagree.
While looking for a place where I could write about Jessica’s work, the one that would have a European feel to bring me home (something that is more than 100 years old, with wooden walls, brass fixtures, and high ceilings) walking up the hill, and then down the hill, and then up the hill, then down again, on a first evening in which the sun hiding behind Olympics sets in months, I think how blessed I am to be far, far away from wars.
And I also think about my American experience, all of my American experiences at once. Oddly enough, what comes to mind while climbing up and down those hills is: “We eat, we shit, we kill, we fuck”. As I am not sure if it was in Jessica’s piece that I heard that sentence, I text my friend to ask her if she knows (she does). That same sentence always comes to me, here, at the end of the world, when the sun is setting behind Olympics, when I think about human race. I knew someone who decided that sun over Olympics would be the last view they’d see from their window before they died.
There are many of my first ever–American-experiences, some more pleasant, some more confusing than others. What keeps me here and what I admire in people is the capacity to imagine the unimaginable, and to hope even when there is little to hope. What always surprises me is a blend of things that couldn’t possibly blend together, like the home-made cookies with pre-purchased m&m’s and pretzels in them (wow), or tofurkey, or turducken. How many times I had that wow effect, in all range of “wows”. What confuses me is how much one such world makes sense: blending probably being its most sincere quality.
I saw Jessica’s piece for the first time a couple of years ago. From there I remember a group of people crying and dying on stage. I have seen them with wigs and props and sheets over their heads. Last Thursday I also saw someone making the Moon vanish all while crying and dying.
On Thursday I also thought: “Wait, Showcase Beat le Mot!” then I thought: “Wait, Gob Squad!” Both are European groups whose collective creations are cherished and valued where I come from. But with Jessica’s piece there was also something genuinely different, something autochthone, something that Gob Squad would always echo, but hardly ever experience first-hand, being its distant cousin. European experiences of America, if not experienced first-hand, come mediated through television, products, and behaviors of Americans.
Now, here, in Jessica’s work, we are witnessing West Coast art at its source: between camp and genuine exposure, all in trust in collective power and renewal.
I remember how much “California dreaming” I heard on my parents’ old records meant to me in my never-ending formative years, and how much I dreamed about those far away worlds where someone like Annie could leave someone like Alvy through glorious sunglasses in some place like Sunset Plaza in West Hollywood, close to the desert where Oliver Stone’s Doors walked high on mushrooms.
West Coast is where you go to go away. A desert opening itself up to possibilities to be dreamed about for one to go away. There is something magical in it, something that no other place has: a possibility to blend yourself with your finality and hopefulness. If there is a place where Earth’s end touches heaven, it easily might be here. I tasted that flair in J-Jo’s piece last Thursday.
“The whole world over, we eat, we shit, we fuck, we kill, and we die.”
“But we also fall in love, we build cities, we compose symphonies, and we endure.”
We compose ourselves
Adjacent to intimacy.
Shudder white against
Authentic skin undone.
Humor covers honesty
In shades of
Tension chaotic bliss
Found pleasure between
Our own thighs.
I have never seen a vision of honest beauty quite like A Great Hunger. The production traverses a soundscape that provides a vivid backdrop for the chaos and truth that ensues. As an observer, fourth row on the end, I experienced the production from the side, which often left my head tilting to the right and wondering just what was happening to me.
In between clear relationship tension and a limited feminine presence, it seems the narrative followed the real experiences of the cast and aimed to shake feeling from the audience. All too often, as I watched a really impactful moment of patriarchy infringing on the feminine presence, I heard laughter in the audience.
A Great Hunger is filled with moments that confront your gut reaction to respond. Nudity forces the audience to examine the very human nature of the ensemble and identify with their difference. Clothed masturbation caused individuals in the audience to cringe. You could feel the discomfort and curiosity—thick like conditioner—softening us up for the final moment of intimacy.
As the production draws to a close, the cast moves closer and closer to the audience. Suddenly, the entire cast is climbing the arms of the chairs and literally crawling up the audience. Not only are we forced to swallow the truth on stage, but we are forced to look another human in the eye and acknowledge their beauty and truth.