Matt McHugh

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The Artist is Bats**t


April 22, 2010

Some friends of mine were visiting NYC yesterday, so I took them to MoMA. We ended up seeing the special retrospective installation of works by renowned Yugoslavian performance artist Marina Abramović entitled "The Artist is Present" -- or, as I now think of it, the "Tim Burton was Sold Out" exhibit.

Marina Abramovic at MoMAThe big draw of this show? Nudity. Live naked models, male and female, sitting, standing, lying, or mounted on walls as part of the artwork. There's a woman in something like a crucified position. A guy on a bed with a skeleton. A couple standing in a narrow doorway, so close you have to turn sideways to pass between them... and some of their bits will inevitably brush against you. For the record, I took the alternate entrance. After 16 years of Catholic school and 8 years of wrestling, squinging past a stranger's bare wiener is something I see no good reason to do.

Aside from the au naturale objets d'art, the gallery included numerous video and photographic pieces, as well as clothed models forming almost Magrittean tableaux, frozen in poses surreal and mundane. Oh, and another one of the big draws was the artist herself, 60-ish Abramović sitting at table in the mezzanine, roped off and utterly still, while select museum goers were invited to sit across from her, utterly still and silent (a condition of the privilege), for what certainly seemed an hour at least in the case of a young woman I observed. Onlookers stood by and stared with rapt attention.

Marina Abramovic at MoMA From the moment I saw this first performance piece, I had a pure, visceral reaction that sustained through the subsequent entirety of the show: mirth.

This was some freakin' hilarious shit! I kept thinking what glorious fun Christopher Guest would have with something like this in his signature mockumentary style aimed at avant-garde silliness of this magnitude. I have reached a point in life where I am not intimidated by the artistic pretentions of others, so getting the hairy eyeball as I chuckled openly did not phase me. On the contrary, I realized that the whole thing was indeed a big joke.

Some critics have described Ms. Abramović's work as shocking or disturbing. And, perhaps when you first see her black & white videos of two people slapping each other repeatedly, or a someone running with a bungy cord then snapping back into a wall, or her primal-screaming at the camera endlessly, you might perceive them as harsh and threatening. OK, now think of "The Three Stooges" and watch 'em again and you're in for a whole new perspective. It's slapstick. Literally. Watch her run into a wall, over and over, like broken wind-up toy, or obliviously tugging on a bow with the arrow pointed straight at her chest. You're watching a naked lady doing Buston Keaton gags. It's a hoot. Except mostly, it's Ms. Abramović having a laugh at your expense.

From an artistic perspective, that is not an aim wholly without merit. Taking the ridiculous seriously and seeing how an audience of chumps follows suit is the essence of performance art, and this whole show is that straight-faced schtick played to perfection. And the nude and the clothed crew that people the exhibit are propbably closer to dupes than co-conspirators. I just imagine the auditions crammed with out-of-work NYC actors: "Do you think you could strip naked, stand completely still, and stare at a partner for hours?" ... "Absolutely. I had a Meisner class." These frozen wanna-be thespians ain't just standing around. They're Waiting for Guffman.

Marina Abramovic at MoMAIf you think I'm being a little juvenile or dismissive about all this, I'm probably inclined to agree with you. But, I stand by my judgement that this Marina Abramović thing at MoMA is, essentially, a comedic work. Consider one film that shows a dozen naked men lying face down in a field humping the grass. If you don't look upon that and giggle, there is something profoundly wrong with you. It was like bad trip at Woodstock. Don't take the brown acid! Or a new golf course designed by Tiger Woods. Try all 18 holes! Or perhaps Earth Day has simply gone too far. That's a good mother-lovin' joke right there.

I heard people commenting that the artist must be crazy. No, she's not. She's wacky. There's a difference.

-- mm




April 15, 2010

I recently watched Religulous, a documentary-style satire starring Bill Maher in the role usually played by Michael Moore. I'd been curious to see this for a while, but I have to say, I was kind of disappointed.

Generally, I'm not a big fan of Bill Maher. As a comedian-pundit, he somehow manages to add up to more than the sum of his parts. His jokes aren't that funny nor his observations particularly astute, but in combination, he can be reasonably entertaining. This is true of Religulous. It's watchable and has a few sharp moments, but on the whole, it's just not that good. Mostly, it's a lot of cheap jabs at easy targets. Dimwit televangelists. The not-very-well-educated faithful at a truck stop chapel. A guy who plays Jesus at a Holy Land-theme park in Orlando. Maher just comes off like a smug bastard knocking down these straw men.

The movie is better when it shows religious leaders (including a former U.S. Commander-in-Chief on a televised debate) spouting manipulative dogma. Be they Christian politicians, Muslim clerics, or TV preachers, they all come off like demagogues cut from the same self-serving cloth. These are the guys that need to be taken down a peg -- not the blue-collar schmuck who believes a sudden rainstorm is a miracle.

Intellectually, Maher doesn't seem up to the challenge of taking on religion. He doesn't much delve into religion as a historic or psychological phenomenon, the two realms where it's most powerful and dangerous. No, he mostly just wants to make wisecracks to people too dull to get them. Religion -- like most things -- needs to be mocked from time to time so it stays in its place. Others, like George Carlin and Monty Python, have done it much better.

One thing in particular that really bugged me: the film cites a theory that the Jesus story is a re-telling of the Egyptian myth of Horus. This caught my interest so I researched it a bit. Apparently, the details of the argument are entirely drawn from a self-published book by Dorothy M. Murdock (under the pseudonym Acharya S), who's considered a complete crank by reputable scholars. There's ample source material debunking Horus-Jesus parallels point-by-point that the film's staff could have located with a modicum of effort. So, Maher employs disinformation to fight disinformation. Told you he wasn't up to the task intellectually.

All in all, Religulous has its moments, but I wish it were better. In the end, Maher makes a surprisingly passionate and articulate plea for rationalism that I wish to God I could hear from a politician's mouth someday, but beyond that, there's wasn't much in the film I found enlightening. Other than the fact there's a Holy Land-theme park in Orlando.

-- mm


Basketful of Blues


April 4, 2010

Had a particularly lousy week last week. The whole family has been sick so I've been home several days. None of them were restful because of various degrees of incapacitation between myself, the wife, and the kids. The boy, in particular, when he's not feeling well acts up at school -- very whiny and argumentative -- so we got several notes from the teacher and had to have a meeting. At the best of times, that's a trial. During typhoid season, it's an ordeal. Gave the boy a good yelling-at over that. The irony of me yelling at him over losing his temper is not lost on me, but do-as-a-say-not-as-I-do is a timeworn cornerstone of parenting, so he'll just have to find a way to deal with the cognitive dissonance.

So, when sometime in the afternoon on Saturday, it dawns on the wife and I that tomorrow is Easter, needless to say we were little in the mood to play bunny. I very seriously thought about giving it a miss, but when I considered how my 9 and 6 kids really have very few years left where this is likely to be a thing, I simply couldn't. So baskets came out, eggs were dyed, and potted plants purchased from the local florists.

When I was a kid, the Easter Bunny always filled the baskets with a predictable assortment, then hid one gift somewhere in the house, leaving a rhyming note with clues to finding it. I remember this quite fondly so, for the first time, the Easter Bunny will do the same in my own home. Curious to see how the kids will react to this.

Anyway, here's to hoping Resurrection Day ushers in calmer, virus-free dispositions in the McHugh household. Happy Easter, everyone.

-- mm

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