Friday, March 19, 2010

Small Dark Worlds: installation and performance art


Last Saturday night I attended Small Dark Worlds, a show of installation and performance art. This show was held on the fifth floor of Detroit's marvelous Russell Industrial Center (a former auto body manufacturing plant). Long out of use as a manufacturing facility, the building is now populated by a good number of artists, along with many other small businesses. Still, the complex is so large, that much of it remains deserted. Even in the areas that are currently in use, you can feel a palpable sense of the ghosts of the past-- this building defines the term "post-industrial", and is something of a metaphor for Detroit in general.

Small Dark Worlds was curated by artists Marianne Audrey Burrows and Amanda Faye Cain. I was introduced to Amanda's work last May, when I attended her photography/installation show Free Alcohol [ism], which was also at the RIC. I have not really been much of a fan of installation and performance art; still, as my artistic interests have been expanding lately, I became interested in this show when my son Jesse and his friend Dan B. told me about it (Amanda is a friend of theirs). So, I attended Free Alcohol [ism], and found it to actually be quite fascinating. I made a blog post about the event, with lots of photos. Click here for a link to that page (you'll have to scroll down a bit once you get there).

I attended Small Dark Worlds with two of my friends, Todd MacIntosh, and Joe Smith. Both are in advertising-- Todd as an art director, and Joe as a writer-- and both are musicians as well. They play together as Me + Joe Smith, and I have played both guitar and drums with them on a number of occasions. Todd and Joe area couple of super-awesome dudes, and really into the whole art and music thing; good people to go to a show like this with.

For the Free Alcohol [ism] show, I took the stairs up to the fifth floor. This equates to essentially ten flights of stairs, and the pitch of the stairs is pretty steep. Needless to say, I was glad that we were able to catch the freight elevator this time.

We followed three long, dark, and cavernous hallways down to where the show was being held.

We quickly came across the location where Amanda's performance piece would be later that evening, and read her artist's statement (see below).

I looked up, and Todd had put on some 3D glasses that were hanging from the ceiling.

The performance pieces were a bit later, so we had time to peruse the rest of the show. Sorry, I don't have names for most of the artists, but here are a few examples of some of their work, most of which was pretty great.

Here is a statement from one of the artists-- I'm pretty sure it was for either the work directly above or directly below.

Left to right: little creepy trailer dude, the author, and Joe Smith.

Conceptual artist Donnie Weldon, featured artist/curator Amanda Faye Cain, artist/musician Jesse Jacobi.

Marianne Audrey Burrows
Destitution: an installation

Regrettably, I forgot to take a photo of her artist's statement, but you will be able to read some of her thoughts that she had written on two large pieces of paper that were part of the installation (see below).

Marianne's installation occupied a fairly large area, sort of a room adjoining the main room. My first impression, seeing the bed on the floor surrounded by empty beer bottles and other detritus, was that one could argue that the piece was pretty derivative of British artist Tracey Emin's famous/infamous signature installation titled My Bed. However, on further inspection, there was really a lot more going on with Marianne's art; not to mention that it ultimately became the set for her performance piece.

Marianne writes:

While waiting for her performance to begin, I wandered off taking another look as some of the other work. Engrossed, I suddenly became aware that the performance was in progress. By that time, dozens of people were crowded around the area where it was taking place. I had some trouble finding a vantage point where I could see what was going on. Live music was provided as part of the piece, performed by a quartet of musicians on trumpet, bass clarinet, electric guitar, and drums, providing some sparse, eerie atonal sounds that seemed to really set the mood. (The music could probably be described as avant garde jazz, for lack of a better term.)

As part of her performance, Marianne shaved off all of her longish hair in front of the audience. Regrettably, I missed most of that part. By the time I got positioned to shoot some photos, she was collecting her hair and affixing it to a dummy/large doll that was now lying on the bed.

When she was done with the hair, she stood up facing the audience, and let loose with a chilling, blood curdling scream, and quickly departed the area. Pretty intense.

We had a chance to have a nice chat with Marianne a bit later on, and she proved to be very friendly, which is always nice to see.

photo by Todd, on Joe's phone

Amanda Faye Cain

Again, wandering around the large space, I missed the beginning of this performance as well, but did manage to see most of it. There were some cardboard boxes on the floor. Amanda pulled some candles out of one of the boxes, set them on the table, and proceeded to pour some kind of goopy liquid onto the table. She got on her hands and knees and crawled around the table, drawing a circle around it on the floor; she then stood up and drew a circle on the wall. Another darker liquid was poured around, and she started to light the candles.

She reached into a box and pulled out a large candle in the shape of a life-size human head, placed it on top of the other candles, and proceeded to light it.

Suddenly, a young man jumped out of the crowd, grabbed her, and wrestled her away from the table. Fortunately, this was not a crazed fan; rather, it was part of the performance. (We later learned that the young man was her boyfriend, and the candle had been cast from his head.)

Amanda then reached into another box, where she found a 9" x 12" envelope containing a number of photographs, which she then nailed to the wall.

The photos were mostly faces/heads, a couple bodies... they looked pretty messed up. I spoke with Amanda later on, and she said that the photos were sent to her by a friend. She knew basically what they would be about, but this was the first time she had actually seen them. The photos are actual crime scene/morgue pics, and are exceptionally gruesome. Creepy as hell.

Blasting the wax head with a propane torch, she looks upward for several seconds, very still. What's going through her mind?

Amanda torched the head right in the eye for a few moments, and then that was it.

I found Amanda's performance piece to be fascinating, very intense. There were a lot of people watching; few left. The audience appeared to be mesmerized, or at least really drawn in to what was going on. Todd told me, "That seemed really ritualistic, like some weird tribal shit or something..." I spoke with Amanda after the performance; she shared with me some of the details about what the piece was about. I'm not sure if her explanation was really to be shared, or if she would prefer to let people derive their own meaning, so I will leave it with that.


Over the last few years, I have been doing a lot of re-assessing of what I think art is really all about. I have always leaned heavily towards art that is very skill-based, but at the same time, have also leaned towards the strange, the surreal, the bizarre. To many art critics and art historians, we are way past the need for or even the presence of any demonstration of skill in works of art. This line of thinking goes back for many decades-- pure abstraction was de rigueur by mid-twentieth century, and the philosophical origins go all the way back into the dawn of the modern era in the nineteenth century. I have written about all of this a number of times on this blog, so I will not rehash that material at the present time. Suffice it to say, even though I still mostly prefer artwork that involves traditional skills (but not necessarily traditional subject matter!), I have to admit that I am becoming increasingly interested in some of these newer forms of art. The Free Alcohol [ism] show was really the first time I felt like I was buying in to installation art, and I think that this is really the first time that I have fully experienced and bought into any performance art. Congratulations and many thanks to Marianne Audrey Burrows and Amanda Faye Cain for putting together a great show, and for giving me the opportunity to increasingly open my eyes and mind to this type of art.

Todd and Joe, on our way out after the show.

One last thought... As a musician who has played a lot of improvisational music over the years, I see definite parallels between performance art and jazz (this would be real improvisational jazz I'm talking about; not some of the commercial non-jazz crap that is unworthy of the name). In both cases, the art is essentially ephemeral, a fleeting moment in time and space. Sure, you can take pictures or make recordings, but folks, trust me-- to get the full impact, you really gotta be there.

All photos are by the author, except where otherwise indicated.