What is the art scene at Carleton? This is a difficult question to answer and may summon to mind wildly different images for each Carleton student. It may mean the late-night halls of Boliou, quiet except for the distant whir of power tools in the woodshop; the bass-ridden tracks thumping from the sculpture studio; or the scratch of stencils on copper in the printmaking studio. For others, it may mean the riotous jocularity of drag shows in the Cave, the abstract jazz jam sessions in someone’s living room at decibel levels that threaten both mind and body or the literary publications distributed across campus at haphazard intervals. This week, however, it took the form of two top-rate visiting artists, the two-night spectacle of Synchrony and home-grown performance artists working off the beaten track.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul visited our small midwestern college campus last week as this year’s Lucas Lecture Series guest, marking a unique stop on his grand US tour. Apichatpong is recognized as one of the most original contemporary film directors working today. His film, “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” won the Cannes Palme d’Or — perhaps the most prestigious film award in the world — in 2010. He screened his most recent film Memoria (2021) at Carleton, visited courses, had individual critique sessions with CAMS students, went for several student lunches and, of course, gave his Lucas Lecture.
The Ward Lucas Lecture Series in the Arts is one of the college’s most important functions, having brought past speakers including Salaman Rushdie, Barbara Kopple, John Updike and Margaret Atwood to campus. The series travels between humanities and arts departments at Carleton but has not brought a guest since 2019, so this visit marked the first time most Carls got to experience the occasion.
Apichatpong grew up in Khon Kaen in northeastern Thailand and began making films and video shorts in 1994, his first feature releasing in 2000. His visit began Monday with some student engagements and an evening screening of Memoria. The film marks his first film shot outside of Thailand, the product of his long friendship with Tilda Swinton and his experience traveling through Colombia. Central to the film is Exploding Head Syndrome, a disorder Apichatpong has experienced himself, which manifests as strange and sometimes disruptive auditory hallucinations. The film’s protagonist Jessica, a Scottish woman living in Bogota, Colombia, awakens to a startling and mysterious sound. She then begins to experience insomnia and strange sensory hallucinations. The film premiered at the 74th Cannes Film Festival in 2021, where it won the Jury prize (Apichatpong seems to be one of the festival’s favorite directors).
I had the honor of leading a Q&A with the director following the screening. Our conversation illuminated the enigmatic director’s process and gave context for some of the film’s elements that shirk pure narrative. Ultimately, Apichatpong said that the audience makes the film what it is. That is, there is no one Memoria, it must be actively constructed by a live audience. This is part of the reason he wanted it to have a highly unusual release. Memoria is unique in contemporary film distribution for its complete inaccessibility on streaming services. Initially, the film travelled from theater to theater, never playing in a different place at the same time. This ethos, he said, is essential to the film’s form. Slow and oblique, Memoria does not yield easily to straight logical interpretations. It was a pleasure, therefore, to welcome the director into an open conversation concerning his film and begin to work through such a complicated piece.
In his Lucas Lecture, Apichatpong focused on his trajectory as an artist more broadly and highlighted some of his installation work, screening a few rare shorts as well. Central to much of his work is a contemplation of sleep. One of my favorite pieces of his, and a culmination of this interest, is SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL, a fully functional hotel and installation art piece the artist created for the 2018 Rotterdam Film Festival (the most important independent and experimental film festival in the world). SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL offered many beds upon a scaffold structure, all overlooking a large round screen playing a 120-hour stream of documentary clips from the archives of the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam and the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision in Hilversum. Running through all of Apichatpong’s work is a critical, self-reflexive approach to image-making. Whether he is working in video installation or hotel management, the artist’s work considers what it means to walk between reality, fiction and dream and the sociopolitical implications of these transitions.
Last Monday, the esteemed poet Douglas Kearney visited Carleton to deliver the Christopher U. Light Lectureship in Boliou. Kearney is a Foundation for Contemporary Arts Cy Twombly awardee and Cave Canem fellow and has published seven books, staged four operas and teaches Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota. As Kearney read his first poem from his book Sho, I realized I was watching not just a poet but a performance artist. This impression only continued to grow as Kearney solemnly addressed the audience after his first poem, stating “If you haven’t figured it out by now, I am an avant-garde poet” and then exploding into another poem, using multiple voices, dancing, writhing on the floor and singing sections of his work. Kearney had the ability to turn on a dime from laugh-out-loud levity to biting, indicting irony. One of my biggest takeaways from Kearney’s discussion of his work was his approach toward poems that actively call into question his ethics as an artist. He led the reading of one of his poems from his book Patterns by saying that his attempt to replicate the experience of a traumatic event in his poetry was an unethical undertaking. As he wrote the poem, he discovered that it pointed to his own shortcomings as an artist and a moral human being. Instead of deleting the poem in the quiet of his own workspace, where no one else would have seen it, he published it. He brought his work into public conversation and, through that act, began to engage with the fraught moral questions of when an artist’s work is a tool for “putting us in contact with other consciousnesses,” as it should be, and when it becomes exploitative of other human beings’ and even the artist’s own painful experiences. I will be thinking about this reading for a long time to come and highly recommend people check out his work.
Next up: Synchrony. Delightful and strange, Synchrony brings tears to this author’s eyes for more than one reason. This term, Carleton choreographers pulled out the stops with songs like My Humps, Boom Boom Pow, Meet Me Halfway and Pump It. There were kicks, there were lifts, there were rolls and there was the omnipresent Synchrony crawl that had me wanting to cat-cow on every flat surface I encountered for days after. Many men could be found in Man Dance — and almost nowhere else. The large group performances at the end featured all the Synchrony dancers shifting on and offstage in legions of performers, like that one scene at the end of “Ratatouille” in which Remy orders members of his family to different cook stations after washing the germs out of all their rat-hair. As an avid Synchrony groupie, my mood during this event, as it is every year, was one of elation. There is something so beautiful in a group of people gathering together to dance in unison for no other reason than the joy of it. I commend Synchrony dancers for the work they do in keeping Carleton goofy and for reminding us to get out of our own way, stop taking ourselves so seriously and just have a grand ol’ time.
Our final installment of The Week in Arts is a continuation of our coverage last week. This time, we met Man’s collaborator, Woman, another anonymous artist working with a truly absurd subject matter. We were invited to partake in “3 in 20 elephants,” a conceptual performance piece engaging the public in riddles and ostensible social critique.
The performance began with the hailing of a random interlocutor. When a stranger was procured, Woman proceeded to give them a piece of printer paper with a geometric pattern and the following riddle: “A man is found in the middle of a New Hampshire field with nothing other than a straw in his left hand. There are no footsteps approaching his body other than yours. How did he die?”. Several words are underlined, but they are of no importance. The answer: The man was in a hot air balloon quickly sinking. The passengers drew straws, and this unlucky soul lying before you had the misfortune of drawing the shortest one. He had to jump. It seemed to take, on average, 5 questions from each participant to find the right answer (“Is it a normal straw”, “how does his body look”…). At that point, each participant was handed a small sheet of paper with the following words: “While you were completing this riddle, 3 in 20 elephants perished. You have killed them. Through your complacency.” An absurd reward for an absurd riddle.
My brief interview with Woman yielded nothing of value to us in interpreting her piece. She claims the piece is “Social Practice Art,” a genre she either willfully or ignorantly bastardized. In its participatory splendor, Woman claims her piece is “a bulwark of democracy in the United States,” an institution she sees as rapidly ailing. Through wit, participants are able to uncover a disastrous truth regarding ecological destruction.
I must append the artist’s intent to give my own interpretation. I think the piece is ironic. I think the irony is our desire to take it seriously. When presented with the note about elephant death, an unnamed junior apologized and scurried away, flustered and embarrassed. This is how the piece operates. It is not exactly the social which it wishes to demarcate, but the socio-psychological. “3 in 20 elephants,” rather, asks participants to consider the state of academia and their place within it. Is the liberal arts not an absurd riddle itself? Are we not also presented with social, economic, and ecological ailments over which we have little to no power? While wrestling with these questions, there is no way to bear the dreariness of self-criticality without the antidote of absurdity. What is even meant by “3 in 20 elephants?” A ratio? A rate? And this is where the piece loses me entirely. Although it wishes to guide a viewer to the rational understanding that all, truly all, is absurd, it fails to grasp the enormity of our generation’s challenges. One day, “3 in 20 elephants” will truly have perished. Perhaps that day has already come (in fact, I strongly suspect it has). On that day, Woman’s prank will fall on deaf ears. On that day, every one of her ashamed participants will look back and understand her for the fraud she is.
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