Spiritually as well as geographically on opposite sides of the same street, Ping Chong's Kwaidan and Anne Bogart's Culture of Desire seem to reach out and almost touch. Visually striking works by known Downtown artists, both are at heart simple, traditional narratives--or would be if their makers didn't consciously disrupt them to scrutinize their materials from other vantage points. Bogart's disruptions are thematic: chunks of event that embody ideas churned up by the story, they often obfuscate rather than enrich the performance.
Chong gets more satisfying results. His disruptions are largely visual: shifts of scale, texture, space, or light source. Each change advances the story a step while keeping the audience on edge, too disoriented to wallow in the Orientalia of which the evening is composed. Just as well, since in the final segment Chong has found a witty way of disrupting that expectation too--magically, without harming either his narrative or the elegant style in which it's composed.
Kwaidan is Japanese for "ghost stories." That amazingly Easternized Westerner, Lafcadio Hearn, published a sampling of the genre under that title in 1904. Chong uses three of Hearn's items, including one of the four used in Masaki Kobayashi's famous 1964 film. The material is familiar--supernatural stories run true to form in every culture. What's distinctive is Chong's way of telling it.
Hearn loved the supernatural, much as he loved every culture that wasn't Gilded Age America. His distaste for Western materialism (which supported him by making his books best-sellers) led him into a romantic fervor for the exotic rather than to any kind of spiritual cleansing. Despite the Buddhist apparatus of reincarnation and redemption, his ghost stories are emphatically of this world. The Japanese revered Hearn for his thorough mastery of their culture, but there's always a sense that some inner essence has been mislaid in transit.
It's Chong's project, in effect, to restore this missing soul. A program note tells us that he sees the stories as "a reminder of what we have sacrificed in a world of commodification." Where Kobayashi's camera style suggested the short, bold strokes of calligraphy, Chong's approach is cursive and flowing. He lets the evening unroll, like a decorative scroll, at a stately pace; everything has its dignity, and each moment is exactly as beautiful as the one before. But each is also, cunningly, different; there's none of the vague pretty-pretty that makes some "beautiful" productions so boring.
A black backdrop slides down, revealing a three-paneled mountain landscape. As a narrator's voice takes us into the first story, the tiny puppet figure of a priest makes its way along the slope, disappearing into a valley. When it reappears, it's a much larger figure; entering a village, it's escorted by a parade of silhouettes. Bats flitter across a crescent moon, and a sheet of ectoplasm-like fabric flickers behind the sleeping household's shoji screens.
In this story, a flesh-eating demon is released from its curse and vanishes; in the third, an unhappy man finds the dead love of his youth, reborn in another body. Earthly life wins: The village is freed of its demon, the lovers find a new happiness. Only in the middle story--also used by Kobayashi--is terror seen as a permanent part of our world. In this tale, "Hoichi," it's an innocent who suffers: a blind temple acolyte, whose chanting to the biwa so moves the ghost of a warlord that he's summoned nightly to sing the epic of the lord's rise and fall for a convocation of the dead. His priestly mentors of course take steps to shield him from the spirits, but mortals are fallible in these matters, and Hoichi soon has an impairment worse than blindness. Ironically, the tale of his adventures makes him rich and famous, all too late.
Cold and unsparing where the other two are warm and forgiving, this central story's a tragedy of materialism's persistence even in the next world, where the imperious dead are too busy reliving their earthly glory to seek peace. Here, Chong pulls out all the showy stops: Shuttered doors slam unaided, giant demon eyes pierce the dark, and a huge tableau of puppet ghosts tilts off into nowhere. The spectacle never drowns the pain of injured innocence at the story's core.
With the third tale, "O-tei," we go back to quiet dignity, but Chong has made this chronicle of undying love also a chronicle of Japan's Westernization: Chohei loses his beloved O-tei in the Meiji past, then wanders miserably through the time of trains and telephones into the era of McDonald's, where he finds her again as a demure order-taker. Jan Hartley's projections slyly mix photography and painting as open country turns into skyscraping urban sprawl. Far from condemning commodification glibly, Chong makes sure we see beauty in technology's trivia, just as we do in the straw hats and lanterns of the first tale. In his notation, even a string of orders for Big Macs can sound like haiku. This refreshing take on modernity fits his story of lost love rediscovered across a fast-food counter: The wise moral isn't that we should scrap contemporary life but that we should and can make it worth living.
How wise or moral, though, was Andy Warhol, the antihero (Andy-hero?) of Anne Bogart's Culture of Desire? We learn Bogart's answer fast: Her Andy (a woman, Kelly Maurer) is shot, whereupon a Vreelandish muse (a man in drag) appears, reciting the opening of The Divine Comedy. Dante-Andy follows this astringent Virgil into shopping hell, a metal rack of identical cardboard cartons which, taken down, reveal bits of an ingenious backdrop (set by Neil Patel) that can be lit (by the incisive Mimi Jordan Sherin) to suggest inferno, purgatory, or paradise as needed.
Bogart's Andy has a rough time in hell, and things don't improve much when he reaches celebrity paradise. In fact, his whole experience is seen as purgatory--the agony of a queer, sensitive mama's boy in blue-collar Pittsburgh. Bogart's Andy is in a perpetual state of either swoon or desperation; his bland pronouncements about the joy of consumerized life are made to sound alternately like moans of despair or snide satiric gibes. The little interruptions during which the cast marches through in various stages of shopaholic frenzy muddle matters, seeming to finger Warhol as the cause of the consumer society that Bogart alternately abhors and relishes.
Vague as sociology, this is way off the mark as biography. Even I, who only met Warhol a few times and largely loathe the effect of his work, can say that he wasn't the whimpering basket case Bogart depicts. On the contrary, his complacent assurance, even about his own insecurities, was the infuriating part. To ascribe his love of consumerism to his personal unhappiness is also to underrate his artistic intelligence: His ideas are pernicious because they're partly true.
Unlike Bogart, Warhol succeeded in merging his love and his distaste for mass-manufactured objects. The soup can was beautiful because it was beautiful; that it was also hideously banal just added ironic luster to the beauty. Far from being disappointed in human love, he was probably happier gazing at his love objects than interacting with them. He neither empathized with the freaks nor sang the blues; he had attained a state of consumerist satori. What was, was.
This condition, static by nature, seems to infuriate Bogart, who as a theater artist inevitably sees life as action first and last. She doesn't link Warhol's passivity to the analogous stillnesses of Robert Wilson, hero of her much friendlier Bob last spring, and she doesn't find reinforcement for it in the nature or history of American consumerism, though both blankness and acquisitiveness were noted by observers long before Warhol. His genius lay in knowing how to transform his vision of marketing into a system of marketable objects. His parallels aren't with artists but with the likes of Henry Ford, Howard Johnson, and Ray Kroc. Visually charming as much of Bogart's piece is--especially a ballet of people in supermarket carts--it doesn't come near either Warhol or the big questions his work raises. The uneven ensemble is only intermittent help, though Maurer's Andy is as touching as it is un-Andy-ish.
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