REVIEW: The World to Come: Art in the Age of the Anthropocene

The University of Michigan Museum of Art’s new exhibition Art in the Age of the Anthropocene is a powerful collection that forces museum-goers to grapple with the harsh realities of human impact on the environment, climate change, and our future. Here is a sampling of what I found to be the most impactful pieces:

 

Chris Jordan: CF000313, unaltered stomach contents of juvenile Laysan albatross (2009) & CF000668, unaltered stomach contents of juvenile Laysan albatross:

These photographs show the half-decomposed carcasses of albatross, the former location of their stomach filled with brightly-colored plastic detritus. According to the placard accompanying the work, their parents would have mistaken the plastic for food and fed it to their young (as well as eating it themselves). As a result, albatross of all ages suffocate and die. The photographs cannot avoid being interpreted through the lens of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”: “the death of the albatrosses heralds humanity’s impending destruction.” However, I believe that one of the purposes of this exhibition is to work toward a world where the impending destruction doesn’t come to pass. All hope is not lost, if only we would wake up to the reality of what is happening to our world.

 

Nicole Six & Paul Petritsch: Special Intervention 1 (2002):

You will hear this work long before you see it. A video in a dark room off the main gallery, it shows Petritsch in the middle of an expansive frozen landscape, repeatedly chipping away a circle around himself with a pickaxe. “Regardless of impending disaster, he persists in this futile and ultimately deadly activity” … clearly a commentary on our own inaction regarding climate change. The sound of this pickaxe echoes across the entirety of the exhibition, and it continued to echo in my mind once I left the museum. It drills into your skull, incessant and without letting up, and even now I can hear it in my mind’s ear.

 

Kimiyo Mishima: Akikan [Empty Can] (2012):

From far away, these appear to be actual crumpled soda and beer cans, but close inspection reveals that they are impeccable ceramic replicas. Sitting in a glass case in a museum, it is impossible not to wonder if this is what the future will see us as. Is the legacy we are leaving behind on the planet one of disposable materialism resulting in environmental destruction? Is this what the archaeologists of the future will find we left behind?

REVIEW: Collection Ensemble

Walk into the University of Michigan Museum of Art, and you will be greeted by Collection Ensemble, the new museum entry way. It is certainly a stark contrast from the previous collection in the apse, which housed only European and American paintings from the 19th and 20th centuries. Where heavy gilded frames once hung on white walls, a diverse collection of art graces the now-black walls in the grand, columned space. Collection Ensemble is a museum entrance fit for the modern world: it feels sleek, modern, and almost minimalist compared to what only just recently hung on the very same walls. The white columns stand out against the black background, and though the frame of the entrance is still very much recognizable, it’s fascinating to me how something as simple as a change in the color of the walls could change the entire feel and light dynamic of the museum’s space.

The first thing I noticed when I walked in the museum’s front doors was Candida Höfer’s photograph Basílica do Palácio Nacional de Mafra. From far away, it appears to be almost a portal through the end of the apse, like you could just keep walking right into it. Walk closer, though, and you will see that it is actually a photograph of a Baroque church. Almost ironically, two marble statues, one by Richard James Wyatt and the other by Randolph Rogers, remain unmoved on either side of the photograph, survivors of the apse’s reimagining.

The exhibition is divided into nine “gatherings,” separated by the apse’s already existing columns. Among the titles of these spaces are “Community Blocks,” “Constructing a Scene,” “Light Details,” “Entrancing,” “The Cosmos + Me,” and “Water Protocols.” I appreciated these carefully thought-out names, as they offered a lens through which to view the artwork in each gathering. Additionally, signs with each gathering title give a “key” of which artwork is which.

Also new is the seating space just inside the doors of the museum. With comfy seating, coffee table books about art, and art hanging over your head, the little area seems as much like someone’s home as it does an art museum. From the vantage point of this seating, it is possible to admire most of Collection Ensemble.

If you haven’t yet had the chance to check out the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s new entry space, stop by for a visit!

REVIEW: Amazing Grace

“She can sing anything … ANYTHING.”

Amazing Grace will transport you in an instant to New Temple Missionary Baptist Church on two very special evenings in 1972: when the legendary Aretha Franklin recorded live her album of the same title, which would go on to be certified double platinum. The film of this event, recorded by Warner Brothers, has never been released before due to technical difficulties associated with it, and it is a rare window into a monumental performance to be able to view it.

The film quality, which is grainy and blurry, is terrible by today’s standards, but it doesn’t matter. Similarly, the camera work is quite bad: the camera shakes, moves around too quickly, and looks like a home video during some parts. But again, it couldn’t matter less. What viewers see is the awed faces of the audience, the sweat beading on the brow of Ms. Franklin as she sings, and the shining vests of the Southern California Community Choir, the group that provided background vocals. We see the face of Jesus on the wall behind the performers, and we watch when, in the middle of the evening, an audience member breaks out into tap dance. We witness the Reverend James Cleveland, his head in his hands and tears in his eyes during the performance of “Amazing Grace.” We view Ms. Franklin’s entrance on the first night, the camera angle giving her an almost regal appearance as she passes down the church’s aisle. What is most important, though is what we hear: one of the greatest voices of modern American music, unfiltered and in her fullest glory.

I don’t think that I can put into words the energy and electricity that is tangible in the moment, and it is a privilege to be allowed in to see it. It’s pretty much impossible to watch this documentary without feeling the insuppressible urge to clap, sing, stand up, and dance, and it did not bother me in the least when I could hear other audience members doing so. It is an emotional rollercoaster ride that is a miracle to be able to ride, and you will likely laugh, cry, and sway with the music.

In my opinion, it is not possible to give this film a high enough rating – eleven out of ten stars would not even begin to describe it. Experience it for yourself while it is still in theaters!

REVIEW: The Chaperone

The Chaperone, directed by Michael Engler, was a movie, though flawed in some areas, that was full of delightful details. It tells the story of sixteen-year-old Louise Brooks (played by Haley Lu Richardson, the future film star of the 1920s), and how she travelled from Wichita, Kansas to New York City to study dance at the Denishawn School. There was just one problem: Louise’s father would not allow her to go unless she was accompanied by a chaperone. Luckily for her, Norma Carlisle (played by Elizabeth McGovern) volunteers herself on a whim after seeing Louise, and the two head off to the big city – a stark contrast from small-town Wichita.

Though Louise Brooks is the “star” of the movie in that she is the larger-than-life character, Norma Carlisle is really the person that comes to be the main character. Layer by layer, we learn more about Norma’s past, and the movie deals with difficult themes of identity. Adopted from a New York orphanage by a farming couple in Kansas, Norma married her husband at age sixteen. As the audience, we can sense that Norma isn’t fully happy in her marriage, and Louise sees right through this as well, despite Norma’s insistence that she is perfectly happy. As it turns out, in a flashback scene, we learn that Norma’s husband is in a relationship with a man named Raymond. This is very complicated for the two of them, because they can’t separate under these circumstances, and so they remain together. However, in New York, Norma meets a man named Joseph, and the two of them connect in a way that she has never felt with Mr. Carlisle.

I will say that I found the character development between Norma and Joseph to be somewhat inconsistent. I was never entirely sure whether we were supposed to be seeing a newer, different side of Norma, or if her actions simply did not add up with her character. Particularly when they first met, Norma and Joseph’s interactions felt extremely awkward to me. They stood uncomfortably close to each other for people that were just meeting, and it did not seem like the Norma we knew from the other scenes. With Louise, she espoused moral and proper, lady-like behavior, and frowned upon flirting with boys (particularly a Columbia law student named Floyd), but her own actions with Joseph did not match this.

However, we did see Norma’s character arc develop throughout the movie, largely in part to Louise’s influences. She gains self-confidence, takes risks, and loses her corset. On a side note, having seen Elizabeth McGovern in the TV show Downton Abbey, it was interesting to see her play Norma, who had an entirely different affect.

The Chaperone was an enjoyable movie, but it won’t be added to my list of favorites.

 

 

 

REVIEW: NEEDTOBREATHE Acoustic Live Tour

I was familiar with the South Carolina-based soft rock band’s music, but NEEDTOBREATHE’s concert last Monday at the Michigan Theater was not the kind of event that I usually would go to. That said, I enjoyed the performance for that very reason.

I couldn’t help but be excited as I stood in the buzzing line on the sidewalk to get in to the concert, under the marquee sign lit with NEEDTOBREATHE’s name. It was clear that there were many loyal fans in attendance, and so that was surely a good sign!

After an opener by singer-songwriter Trent Dabbs, the concert began with golden lights onstage turning on one by one, like lanterns in the dark. The band then entered, and launched right in to several songs. One thing that was very fascinating to me about this concert was the set: the background consisted of many twinkling lights, like stars in the sky, with a wave of vertical lines of light at the bottom. The color and intensity of the lights changed according to the mood of the song they were playing, and the bars of light would move at times and turn off completely at others. I thought that it was very well-done in that it was interesting and added to, rather than distracting from, the music.

It was quite a long concert (almost 3 hours with the opener and an intermission), and NEEDTOBREATHE played a host of songs, of which a few of my favorites were “Wasteland,” “Difference Maker,” and “Multiplied.” However, the one thing that I didn’t like was that I found that the music was generally too loud. I expected it to be a rather loud concert, but it was their acoustic tour after all, and so I thought that it would be a little more manageable (I can only imagine how loud their non-acoustic tour concerts must be!). The volume was distracting from the actual music, though, I found that to be frustrating.

On that note, the best part of the concert was hands-down the last songs, during which NEEDTOBREATHE disconnected entirely from the sound system and came to the front of the stage. No microphones, and no amps – just human voices, two guitars, and a single drum. I didn’t want it to end, and I wished that they had performed the entire concert like this! It was in this configuration that they concluded the concert with their hit song “Brother,” to wild applause. After what seemed like a long time filled with shouts of appreciation and unabated applause, NEEDTOBREATHE returned to the stage for an encore of their song “More Heart Less Attack.”

I had a great time at this concert, and it showed me that it’s good to get out of your artistic comfort zone every once in a while!

 

REVIEW: Ann Arbor Symphony – Beethoven 9

Saturday’s performance by the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra was celebration of the number nine: The program included Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major, Op. 70, as well as Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125. Appropriately, this concert was the conclusion of a season that marked the Ann Arbor Symphony’s 9th decade (90th anniversary!).

However, although both pieces were their respective composer’s 9th symphony, the difference between them is clear. Shostakovich 9, composed just after the end of World War II in 1945, is a whimsical piece, but with, in my opinion, very little melodic material. The composer himself noted that “It is a merry little piece – musicians will love to play it and critics will love to bash it.” I certainly did not leave Hill Auditorium humming motives from Shostakovich’s 9th symphony, but the piece gave me the feeling that it was depicting something electric and fleeting, like fireflies in the dark of night. I also did enjoy the plaintive clarinet solo in the opening of the 2nd movement, “Moderato.”  However, it seemed to me as if the piece lacked the energy that I, as a listener, wanted it to have, and I am not entirely sure whether it was the actual score of the music, or the performance of it, that caused me to feel this way.

In contrast, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 contains what is probably one of the most recognizable melodies in all of music. Even if you don’t know it as coming from Beethoven 9, you most likely know “Ode to Joy.” Related to this, although I knew that “Ode to Joy” was from this work, and although I have heard recordings of the symphony, it was interesting to hear the famous melody in its original context. It is almost as if “Ode to Joy” has, in popular culture, lifted itself out of the confines of Symphony No. 9 to become its own entity.

After the mildly disappointing Shostakovich, Beethoven’s famous work drew me and held my attention. It was awe-inspiring to fully process that Beethoven wrote his 9th symphony after he had gone entirely deaf. At the work’s May 1824 premiere in Vienna, he was unable to hear a single note. And yet, listening to the work, I realize that it is abundantly clear that the music was still very much alive in his mind’s ear. The beauty of the music cannot be captured in words on paper – it must be heard. In fact, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor has become one of the most widely performed works in classical music, and it established itself as an impossibly high standard by which other composers’ 9th symphonies would be evaluated.