On Tuesday December 4th, I attended the UMMA’s Heroes and Icons Film Series. Every Tuesday night at 7 pm, the Student Programming Advisory Council hosts a film in the auditorium of the UMMA, featuring pioneering artists who have made strong statements through their life’s work. This week featured China’s most infamous and controversial artist Ai Weiwei.

If you don’t know anything about Chinese history or its contemporary art movement, thats ok. I will give you the briefest and most topical- and opinionated- overview: in China, the government imposes very strict and fearful censorship on the public expression of its people. This issue has been of particular debate in the past decade because of the rise of social networking and Internet communication. Ai Weiwei is an international artist who has made numerous controversial pieces since he began his work int he early 70’s. Most recently, he has created a photographic documentation daily life in China. His gallery space is unconventional however; his exhibition is displayed via  Twitter.

In 2008, a massive earthquake in the Sichuan province shattered the lives of thousands of citizens, many of whom were children attending a poorly constructed public school building. The government tried to hide the extent of the destruction by refusing to release numbers of casualties or names of victims. Infuriated and inspired, Ai Weiwei ventured to the Sichuan province and began documenting and Tweeting his findings. As you might imagine, the government was displeased with the dissemination of his opinions and came to his hotel room late at night. They kicked in the door and entered unwarranted. The rolling camera captured the sound of a police man hitting Ai Wei Wei’s head.

One year later, the artist finds himself in Munich trying to build an installation to honor the lost lives of the children in the Sichuan earthquake when he discovers that the lingering trauma from the beating will require surgery. The premise of the film, therefore, follows Ai Weiwei’s recovery process and continued defiance of government restriction through his artwork. This particular installation is a mosaic of 70,000 children’s backpacks hoisted onto the façade of Haus der Kunst, a German building connected to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. This statement, called “Remembering,” is one that is difficult to forget.

Film maker Alison Klayman tells a very detailed story of an irreverent and soulful man who has powerfully challenged the fundamentals of the Chinese society through his artwork. I was particularly excited to see this film for that reason AND because I spent the summer in Beijing interning at an architecture studio that is right across the street from Ai Weiwei’s! The second image above (the turquoise door) is the entrance to his studio Fake in ArtZone Caochangdi. That was the view I saw every single day for months whenever I exited or entered my studio. Unfortunately, however, I never got the chance to see  Ai Weiwei. That is partially because he was on house arrest the entire time I was there. During his trial, a group of policemen blocked the street and tried to stop him from attending. A very dramatic, 24-hour police stake-out took place on our block for over a week, involving trucks, cameras, and many men in uniform. There was a great deal of publicity on the conflict, and  our studio’s exterior was featured here in the New York Times! See the elderly onlooker peering out from behind the bricks in the back? I know her!

REVIEW: Jennifer Holms, lecture and reading

Thursday evening, I sat in the Stern Auditorium of the UMMA, perhaps my favorite auditorium on campus, to hear Jennifer Holms give a lecture about her life as a children’s author. Quirky, energetic, and quite hilarious, she enraptured us with the stories behind her three Newbery awards and success as a published author.

Holms had four brothers growing up, and she mentioned how greatly that environment continues to influence her life as an author today. She discussed that her motivation to start a graphic novel series for young girls was because she remembers growing up, only having comic books about boys to read: Superman, Spiderman, and Batman. Holms saw young girls as an audience that was largely lacking in their own comic books of sorts, and wrote her series “Babymouse” to fill the gap. “Babymouse” tells the story of a small mouse named Babymouse and her experiences in school, struggling with adolescence, boys, lockers, and running for class elections. She is cute, relatable, loves pink, and eats a lot of cupcakes. Since I too love pink and eat way too many cupcakes, I think I may have to start reading these books.

Holms’ lecture touched on her 3 Newbery award winning novels: Turtle in Paradise, Our Only May Amelia, and Penny from Heaven. As an aspiring young writer myself, I was so interested to hear how all of her stories stemmed from the experiences and traditions passed along in her family. I saw so much passion as she spoke about the subjects of these stories, that I understood at least a core reason why she’d so deserved those awards.

As an introduction before Holms’ lecture, a woman got up and spoke about why we continue to love and appreciate children’s literature now that we are older. She mentioned how it reminds us of how we began as readers; that childlike wonder of knowing you’ve finished your first chapter book. I think this lecture reminded me too of what that feels like.

In the end, I’m obviously so glad I went. It was definitely a dream come true to hear one of my childhood idols, Jennifer Holms, give a talk. Moral of the story, if I were to give one, would be read your e-mails. There are so many opportunities here in Ann Arbor, and I definitely would have missed it if I hadn’t actually read some of those English department newsletters. Hope to see you at the next reading!

PREVIEW: Jennifer Holms

Children’s author Jennifer Holms will be giving a lecture at 5:10pm in the UMMA Helmut Stern Auditorium on Thursday, March 29th. Having grown up inspired by her quirky characters, like May Amelia, Jennifer Holm was one of my favorite authors growing up. She received a Newbery Honor for Our Only May Amelia and is also the author of the Babymouse series, The Creek, and several other novels that have capture the hearts of her young readers. My favorite series by her when I was first really getting into reading was the Boston Jane series. I remember there was some sort of love intrigue in the novel, and I felt like it was the first “romance” novel I’d ever read. I still can visualize where I would place all the Boston Jane books, carefully arranged in chronological order, on my book shelf as a kid.

So, definitely come hear Jennifer Holms speak – I’m sure it will be interesting. Her success as a children’s author is entirely admirable. Hope to see you there!

Review: Angika- Dancing body as art!

Angika, March 20, 2010

I managed to make it to this show and grab the last seat in the nick of time by doing a 2 min 34 second sprint from the C.C. Little Northwood bus stop to the Stern Auditorium of UMMA in 2.5 inch heels (as to why I had to sprint can be a  a story of its own by itself- but then, we are not interested and so….)

Just as I caught my breath and stopped the audible panting, the lights dimmed out on a full auditorium with many people standing at the back. There was a brief introduction of “Angika” (with all the funny anglicized pronunciations of the Sanskrit words). Here’s the gist.

In Angika, the dance performed is the over 2000-year old Odissi, from East India. This dance, known for its square stance  and fast feet and leg movements along with its stunning grace and sensuality was a dance that was mainly used as a means of expressing devotion. It was a means to advance in spirituality and so the themes and songs that you come across in this dance are also of this kind- devotional prayers or songs expressing love for the Divine. Sreyashi Dey, Artistic Director of Srishti Dances of India, was performing this lovely ancient dance with her students.

As the kids in the audience fretted a bit, complaining about the darkness,  a  clear resounding voice beckoned us,  “Welcome to the temple of dance.” The voice belonged to Martin Walsh, whom I last saw as a ‘Galileo’ in the Residential College’s production of Brecht’s “Life of Galileo” in March 2009 (Mr.Walsh was brilliant as Galileo!) . Martin Walsh is head of the Drama Concentration at the Residential College and he has a perfect voice for narrating.

The words belonged to poet Zilka Joseph and she took us to a temple where we were to hear the stories of dancers as they prepared for prayer. We could smell the incense and the fragrant fresh flower garlands that they had lovingly woven. While we waited thus, the magic began.

The sound of   strong tapping of  feet with jingling of the bells on their anklets came first. It was followed by the dancers, looking resplendent  in colorful elaborately designed Odissi costumes. In an invocation to the divine, the dancers seeked the blessings so gracefully with slow movements and a lot of poses. The effect was bewitching.

In most Indian traditional dances, the program always begins with an invocation. It could be to to Mother Earth ( it’s almost like asking her permission to dance as we do stamp the feet on ‘her’ when we dance ). Many dances also include  a note of thanks to the  Guru (the teacher) and the Divine.

The second dance, called the “Konark Kanti” was about the Temple of the Sun in Konark, Orissa.

Konark Sun Temple
Konark Sun Temple

In Joseph’s Poetry, she imagines that the moonlight touches the figurines on the Temple of Konark and brings them to life (like our “Night at the Museum”). These dancers start dancing and the musicians bring out their instruments and even the stars get dizzy looking at this impromptu performance. The raga (melodic mode) to which this song was set was a very pleasant one.

Figurines form the Konark Temple
Figurines form the Konark Temple

This dance was a wonderful one- so many moods shown clearly in expressions as well as clever variations in the choreography, as if the dancers wanted to show all the weapons in their arsenal.

The third dance, called “Manini”, the most expressive and I am sure, the most difficult one to comprehend, especially  for a Western audience, was a solo by Shreyashi Dey. This song is about Lord Krishna’s beloved, Radha. She is waiting for her Lord and so she decorates herself as well as the gazebo and waits for the Lord. She is clearly happy anticipating his arrival. But as the time wears out (she in fact falls into sleep for a bit), her joy turns into despair and then anger and she flings all her jewelry and tears down  the decorations. In the end, she is so dejected. you could say, “So it’s the case of a girl who has been stood up by her lover!”. You may be correct but here, “Radha” is the seeker who is searching for “the Ultimate Truth”, her lover and the story of Radha and her love are symbolic metaphors.  Anyway, this piece requires perfect portrayal of the emotions that Radha goes through.

Sreyashi Dey
Sreyashi Dey

Odissi, is a dance that not only demands strength in movement, but it also requires the dancers to have good acting skills , as facial expressions are a very important part of this dance. Sreyashi Dey was absolutely brilliant in this song. The way she portrayed disappointment with trembling fingers, a heaving chest and eyes heavy with fatigue caused by unbearable sadness was brilliant. She ran through the gamut of emotions that Radha feels and at the end, when she lay on the floor in a bundle, totally dejected, you couldn’t help but reach out for her. This was a great piece.

The other two pieces were really fast  and full of quick movements of both hands and feet. They demanded so much from the dancers (Kritika Rajan, Ishika Rajan and Debnita Talapatra were the other dancers from Shrishti Dances of India- they were very graceful and co-ordinated) and the stamina of these dancers as they moved through really tough pieces was something amazing. The choreography required co-ordination and you could find all the “yoga” postures from advanced yoga classes too.

Kritika Rajan, Ishika Rajan and Debnita Talapatra
Ishika Rajan, Kritika Rajan, and Debnita Talapatra

The final Pallavi was really intense as the tempo was so fast-paced and the use of space in this piece was very nicely done. The dancers were very cohesive and the symmetry of their movements was so beautiful.

So there was the really beautiful dance. There was some wonderful poetry that set the stage for these dances.  Where were the sculptures? Though we saw some brilliant postures as part of the dance, somehow the message of the  connection of the dance form as an inspiration to sculpture  or vice versa didn’t get conveyed.  Maybe this aspect could be elaborated in the next performances (which would be great!).

This was definitely a great show and the next time you get a chance to watch Odissi, please grab it.

Krithika, for [art]seen

Review: So Percussion

So Percussion (2007 New York performance of Steve Reich’s “Music for Pieces of Wood”)
So Percussion (2007 New York performance of Steve Reich’s “Music for Pieces of Wood”)

So, this post is pretty delayed. There is no real excuse.  We all talk about how busy we are. Since we are all busy, it is boring to talk about. I won’t bother.

The background on this one is that I am generally pretty skeptical of what can only be described as “weird shit”.  Obviously, the presentation of weird shit stretches across all art forms, across all sectors of life.  Damien Hirst-weird shit. Philosophy- weird shit.  Unicycles- weird shit.  The list goes on. I expected weird from So because they planned to play a set of only Steve Reich. Of course, “shit” may be weird to me and not so weird to you. However, although I can’t be certain, I would guess that there is some consensus to the fact that the work of composer Steve Reich is pretty weird.  Reich, they say, is a composer of contemporary classical music- or, is that classical contemporary?  He works in the realm of minimalism, art broken down to its most fundamental aspects.

First off, the UMMA space was a really great space for this performance.  The apse, in the old part of the museum, had rows and rows of chairs set up and the upstairs had seating around the railing overlooking the main floor.  We sat upstairs to catch a view all of the instruments as well as the audience.  In an improvement from past performances at UMMA, the stage did not have a curtain- it was just an elevated platform at the end of the hall.  We were truly in a museum- even museum security! (Why do I get the impression that museum security guards are pretty square?  Maybe art museums should look into hiring security guards that are interested in art in order that they can also act as guides or helps in the galleries.  Or maybe it’s just the uniform and the mandatory cold glares that make me think they are squares- easily changeable characteristics).  One particularly cool only-in-an-art-museum moment was during the “Mallet Quartet” piece, you could see the shadows and reflections of the percussionists movements on the art and the walls in bright golds and oranges and, well, normal shadows.

And, the music was weird. Definitely. Especially the piece that was not percussion instrument based- “Four Organs” (in which, a UofM music student played the maraca part for 15 minutes.  A crazy show of endurance.  Listen to the song below and think about this kid keeping that exact maraca rhythm for 15 minutes.  You just wanted to cry for the kid and his forearms.  Absurd).  However, despite its experimental force, the pieces found ways to connect with me, rather easily.  In the excerpt from ‘Drumming’, I could hear the United States’ history with Africa, and a US battle march played with all four percussionists on a line of six (yes? I think, six.) drums and their interconnections and intricacies.  In every piece, really, I could find something to latch onto, something to think about and study.  The pieces they played are in the playlist below (except for the newest piece, “Mallet Quatet”, which they were playing for just the second time in the states.  It is a Reich piece commissioned for So Percussion (and a few other percussion groups).

I had the opportunity to talk to these guys for a bit at the Eve after party- a really fun time hearing these young dudes philosophize and tell stories in the hip bar atmosphere.  But, at one point, one of the guys, Adam, was talking about what he has seen from being on tour and playing around the country.  He said that people are trying, again, to understand what is true American culture- like, what is ours and what is theirs? And, perhaps slightly biased, but nonetheless, he got the sense that rhythm and percussion just made sense to people in terms of helping to define American culture.  That, although the Reich pieces were pretty out, people could find ways to relate to their patterns and rhythms.

Great night.  The dudes are working on an album with Matmos for this summer. Matmos always seems to be doing pretty cray cray thangs- so definitely watch out for that.

Booyah, Bennett