Biennale Dreams Pt. 2 | Written by Rob Williams | Read Pt. 1
Biennale Dreams Pt 2
by Rob Williams
Is conversation an artform? If so, I started off my day with a beautiful work, care of Sarah Barlow about the nature of music and performance as sketch and improvisation and the joys of one on one connection. Here in a town barely a mile square, I had texted her earlier in the day and surprise! Rather than reply on her phone, she just walked over to our display space to say hi. Imagine saying hello to someone new with a wave and a smile instead of an emoji for a change? As we have grown increasingly dependent on electronic means of communication it’s refreshing to know the sense of real community isn’t lost on the attendees. I had several conversations as the festival wore on deep into the night, but I’ll cherish the 2 hours I spent with Sarah hiding out from the sun while we covered a dozen or more topics in depth.
Sean Guerrero with da Vinci Fish - photo by Dave Day
While our fish spun lazily on its axis our team of artists took turns entertaining the myriad of guests coming into the BBAC art yard. We met art lovers from Germany, France, Belgium, Japan, Russia, Bosnia, and doubtless a dozen more that I missed. We had the locals beaming with pride as they realized one by one that da Vinci Fish is indeed a permanent installation and will weather the elements with every that stays long after the festival has pulled out of town.
This event was truly a cosmopolitan meeting place of the minds and with only one bar in town, The Ski Inn felt more like the United Nations than the United States as everyone clamored for cheese burgers and Negra Modelo on tap.
We’ve made many new friends here, among the crew, among the Bombay Beach locals, among the denizens of East Jesus and among the international participants of the Biennale. Here’s to hoping they last our lifetimes.
We had the opportunity to take a new friend, Jessie around during the day to look at some of the local murals and installations so we started at the Bombay Beach Drive In. I couldn’t tell the makes of all the cars, but I know at night when all the engine compartments are burning the effect was haunting like the last reel was still spinning in the projection booth while the world burned. It’s was the perfect setting for a screening of Doctor Strangelove. There was some debate among our group as to the identity of the portrait on the ice cream truck. I suggested it looked like a mix of Bruce Lee and a young Steven Segal (a nod to martial arts archetypes?) others thought it was some French actor or that it didn’t matter. I say he was wearing a kimono or gi, so feel free to correct me if anyone knows the answer. There were dozens of nameless murals dotted throughout the festival and on abandoned houses and on hastily thrown up canvases. Figurative work remained in demand in this year’s show.
We drew ourselves next to Ian Ruhter’s Dead Sea Scrolls, photographs made using an immense wet plate camera mounted on a truck. I’d already seen the short film Carnival of Dreams Ruhter did with Gary Oldman, (I film I HIGHLY recommend) so I knew the laborious machinations Ruhter goes through, but this exhibit was more about presentation than process. Each print was displayed in negative and could only be ‘decoded’ by use of an iphone or ipad adjusted to take that image into positive light. The effect was like a sort of digital archeology as Jessie delighted in ‘discovering’ each brush-stroked landscape on display. Ruhter himself was in attendance and proved to be a very personable and engaging host. We talked briefly about the film before Jessie and I left Sean to discuss a proposal with the photographer.
Collaboration was a common theme here. It took an army of local laborers, artisans, servers, designers and donations to make an event like Biennale possible, and I could see pride in the work of them all—we artists may have been finished but their tasks certainly were far from finished as the sun began to set.
We found ourselves home again at BBAC and were treated to a set (finally I got to see a whole set) by Sarah Barlow and her drummer Jeremy Brownlowe. Wind and fire smoke and racing trucks barreling down the alley be damned, Sarah was going to play that set like there were a thousand people out there instead of a few dozen. When a cowgirl sets her bootheels firmly she can do anything. As for the music I appreciated some genuine Americana among all the paint and pomp of an international art event. She’s got a lilting delivery that can make a tinny mic glow, and while I didn’t hear her yodel in this set, I have no doubt that Silver Dollar Queen is more than capable. I am looking forward to her debut album.
As darkness descended J. donned his trademark bright red suit and Sean doffed a dapper Russian ushanka, I opted for a vintage night desert camo parka and we delved deep into the visual feast of the estates once again.
Sean is quite the performer in his own right as he adopted the persona of a Russian oligarch there to “buy all of this art.” We paraded from exhibit to exhibit with me shooting portraits of Sean and scribbling in my phone like his harried assistant. Sadly no one was around to take up his offer on the Number 2 Museum, but the bold color blocks inside made for great light and shadow play in my lens. We found ourselves at down in a room bathed in black light with a glowing construction like some alien rocket had crashed through the roof and some of its fuel was leaking through the walls, eroding the floor, the sofa and the bed. Nothing was safe from the pulsing red invasive crimson tendrils and beams. We goofed on photos for a good bit in that space.
We returned to the sexually charged exhibit “Naked Revelations” where I had previously mentioned the photo series “A Girl Named N”. To enter you pass through either a spiderweb of confessions written on underwear or under a display of female mannequin forms sprouting wrist thick braids of yarn representing underarm and pubic hair. We encountered a trio of women that knew Gordo (one of our build team) slightly and they were adamant to talk to us about some of the nudes on display. I’ll start with Parisia, a dapper Brit in a cowboy hat who asked what our favorites of the series were, and I pointed to a pic of N astride a toilet shot like a polaroid.
“That one it reminds me of a photo by Richard Kern.”
Sean pointed to a pic of N perched in a ballerina’s arc on a pile of trash.
Her friend Tiffany agreed with Sean, “Yes I like the ones in the town it’s the close ups that bother me.”
J. quipped that N was clearly proud of her body and was fearless about displaying it through art.
Parisia looked at us quizzically, “Come on you’re having a go at me, as a woman how am I supposed to feel about all this--” she waved to a close-up of N’s tufted nethers. “How am I supposed to react at-- I mean it’s a pussy pic.”
I explained that I was not a woman, nor her so I was in no place to tell her what she was supposed to think. Clearly my answer wasn’t good enough—the art had engaged her so much that needed to talk about it right here and now.
I continued, “I see compositional figures in space, same kind of work I did in figure drawing every week for years. I mean the yellow skirt raised on the couch around her is almost a floral form.”
She was having none of it. “I just want someone to explain why this is here.”
Art can affect people in profound ways, and I found it immensely amusing that similar pics of a naked man in full tumescence astride a rusting Jaguar XJS in the next room didn’t seem to affect her at all. Nor did she bat a perfectly curled lash at the myriad of taboo messages scrawled on discarded knickers in the display at the back entrance. I assured her as we parted ways that I would I make it my mission to unwrap the meaning of the pics that had so affected Parisia to the point of exasperation. (I promise to come back to that.)
We made our first (but certainly not last stop at Café Bosna. A deceptively simple installation: a room draped in tapestries with pillows for lounging and a DJ mixing while he makes coffee. If I left it at that, no one would be impressed by the absolutely immersive experience of the Café. The light is dark, murky and red orange cast and the beats are hypnotic, there is an ‘otherness’ to the place--it could be Baghdad, Sarajevo, the Hindu Kush but it certainly isn’t ‘here’. Not in this time anyway. As the DJ creates the world’s slowest urn of hand ground, a tiny knot of drummers, spectators, and tambourine players bob and weave to the beats. As he placed the vessel, he switched the beat. The dancers who had been swaying in the chill out room/shadow puppet theater began to thump and grind and the DJ transformed from barista to wizard. The circle of revelers became acolytes in the ritual, no longer dancing in their seats to the DJ but to the coffee itself—shaking fingers and percussion instruments and cymbals like physical incantations. They, by will alone, create the brew from this complex interaction that is as mesmerizing to watch as an any exotic dance from a far-off land. If that sounds too trippy, the coffee is crazy strong and certainly gave me a much-needed caffeine bump to continue late into the night.
We wandered again into the light and someone called out “good night, Rasputin” to Sean. Behind a giant mural of a woman’s face was a constructed tower where video visuals flickered. One display took a live feed and reference piece of art and turned the subject into a living canvas in that style in real time. See yourself as a Kandinsky, as a Lichtenstein, or a dozen other painters--It was a dazzling display of technology and party trick all at once. There is no rule that all art must be devoid of humor mirth and dare I say, fun?
Which brings me to the mirror wheel. Clearly a crowd favorite the idea is deceptively simple two people look at each other in the same sight plane and a mirrored wheel with missing sections is slowly spun between them. The effect is that each viewer briefly becomes their opposite instead of their own reflection. Yelps of delight, surprise, anguish and sang out over the crowd as people traded places in and out. I have no idea who the artist was, but every party should have one.
J. left us to catch another performance and I’m posting his reflections on Vera Sola here:
Long before we arrived in Bombay Beach, we were told not to miss Vera Sola. When I asked Sean to describe her music, he said, “Heh, well, man, I don’t know, you just have to see her.” I hadn’t ‘cheated’ with online videos or research. I didn’t know yet about her album ‘Shades’ that dropped in November. He pointed out her place, bare and beaten by the sun, seemingly abandoned, a giant picture window revealing a spare interior – little help to conjure a music from just that.
Saturday afternoon, intent to view the visual art, some of us caught a snippet of music on the wind. One or two folks had already slowed and stopped, as others did after us, drawn into the dusty yard. There she was in the window, with her drummer and bass player. The last note faded and spontaneous applause bubbled out of us like joy. She thanked us, dismissed it as a sound check, and graciously welcomed all to stay, but the show started at 8:30. Remaining seemed intrusive, like watching a bride dress, but all vowed to return. Later, a torn piece of cardboard spray-painted silver proclaimed LIVE MUSIC 10pm.
By the time of our return, she had already launched into her first song, and everything was the opposite of our first happenstance. The darkness framed over the spartan surroundings with infinite promise; the room was bright and alive; a crowd carpeted the ground, riveted. The band was in full fettle, confident and convincing, driving the music out, illuminating the night. Perhaps it was the unexpected introduction that kept me off-guard and unsure, but I was never a voyeur, I never got into my observer-mind, there wasn’t a me, just the music.
The sound refuses the box, a specimen squirming away from the pin, oxymoronic, a Zen koan, descriptions insufficient and negated, not just by the next song, but sometimes the next bar. Her golden guitar twanging country, pulsing surf rock; the stand-up bass plucked funky and sawed classical; the drums splashy lounge and staccato jazz, the vocals sincere and sly, her delivery immediate from beneath layers of protective obscurity; a fresh and innocent world-weariness; avant-garde comfort food for the ear, mind, and soul; seriously funny, humorously somber – honest and hokey, evocative and haunting, stripped down and direct; a storyteller, an impressionist painter, the shrink and the patient, by turns, everything true and untrue. Like the Ancient Mariner doing penance in tiny and overlooked venues, she converts the unwitting and unwilling into true-believers by embracing the absurd commonality of our humanity through the unique expression of her experience.
In other words, you just HAVE to see her.
Back to Rob:
It was time for another big attraction, the Toledo Show at ShowTown under the circus tent. A vivacious mix of theater, burlesque and music led by the ringmaster Mr. Toledo whose genuine smoky voice breathes like gravel through a steam grate as he improvises over back beats. It’s rhythmic, repetitive, it can’t be ignored and as the crowd bodies swayed and swirled, the cat girls emerged for the audience in something black and slinky to writhe around Toldeo, his band and a lucky few audience members. The first set was entrancing with staccato flourishes of pole dance and tango while the beat drove on there was still the feeling of restraint. Not so with their second set where the floor was bouncing with moving feet, sexuo-tribal beats and the lava-like howl of Toldeo’s voice. A searing, intimate experience best seen in the confines of the tent rather than on a large stage. Tendrils of smoke gave way to clouds as the drum beat hammered like a brick bat on a coffin lid. It all felt a little dangerous, a little hallucinatory though that could the second-hand recreational use herb hanging around in my system.
The last number by the band (a driving cabaret noir thumper that could make Liza Minelli blush) was equal parts spoken word, stomp jazz and sensual dance rolled into a crescendo of tent shaking explosive energy.
As the crowd thundered applause, to my immediate left in the crush of the bodies I spied Parisia, and no other than the model starring in “a girl called N” and a small entourage, one of whom was the artist that created the mannequins. I was determined to get her answer. It was time for another conversation.
After relaying Parisia’s queries (and forgive me I didn’t get all the names down so I’ll be brief.) the sculptor had this to say: while the photos themselves might be evocative, they are not meant to be viewed outside the larger piece “Naked Revelations”. (If you missed the part about yarn and mannequins scroll back.) Miss N, despite her comfort in her own skin, is still harassed by others as to how she should look and present herself sexually. The images were a collective ‘kiss off, my body is my own’ statement within the exhibit. Artists are often willing to discuss their work it’s part of the critique process we all go through. Never be afraid to ask a ‘dumb question.’ Someone is usually willing to give the answer. This one just took a tad longer to find. I thanked them both and went to collect another group of friends (as J. had returned) for round two at the Bosna.
Sean had called it a night by now, but I was determined to see the dawn, prodded on by John and J. who insisted bloody marys were being served at 7:30 at the American Legion.
I was definitely in need of some other-worldly tribal wizard coffee and I made a point to drink it slowly before joining the now mad hopping (blister inducing) dance party going n in the front half of the room. There may have been another puppet show but I recall a very tall brunette woman in a furry boots and angel wings asking me what time the opera was. “What Opera?’ I mouthed as a blonde dominatrix in leather pants straddled a patron go my left in a faux stranglehold (no idea what that dance move is called).
“The sunrise opera.”
Well I had vowed I’d make it to sunrise so now I had an even better reason to make a go of it. If last night’s performance was any indication this was going to be a spectacle.
J. and I crept back into town in search of our stashed cooler and fresh libations. We happened to see a group of figures crowded around a campfire in front of Vera Sola’s performance space and to our delight, found the band happily munching on some late-night campfire tacos. Vocalist and visionary Danielle Ackroyd invited us into her circle while her drummer fumbled a plate of tacos into the fire. Without skipping a beat, she reached in and retrieved the food before it was lost for good and made a point of offering everyone around a helping before tearing into one herself. I was surprised to find she has only been actively pursuing music for the past 3 years or so. Her songs certainly carry a maturity of musical experience far beyond that short span of time.
“I’d been doing voice acting and other behind the scenes stuff--typical L.A. work but I had a really great mentor that kept pushing me to do this and I finally said yes to something I’d been doing all my life.”
Her example can be a lesson to any artist, listen to your heart, your talents and even if you are doing something else now leave room in your heart and time in your day to create. We thanked her graciously and returned to the beach with a clutch of beers and followed the pulsing sounds to the largest tent on the beach.
By now my feet were bloody and raw and I was ready for a chill out while John joined in on the full-on Lost Boys style rave going on under the stretched canvas. Lucky for me I ran into a young lady I’ll call “Giggles” a recent East Jesus resident who’d been serving food at BBAC all weekend. Seems the volunteers were finally set free to party around the same time as we were under the big top and they had just come from the estates. We whiled the night away trading stories of our favorite art pieces and personalities we’d met along the way and as dawn approached, we made our way to the bleachers assembled on a trailer by Shigg’s lighthouse.
6:30 am Sunday
My body may have felt broken, but my spirits were high as Ariana Vafadari, Julien Carton, Nicholas Deutsch and Sirvan Manhoobi assembled below us to perform “4 songs of Anahita and Gathas, songs my father taught me a mystical voyage in antic Persia.” I can’t explain much about opera as an art form but I can tell you the air was absolutely hushed and the crowd reverent as the first notes came forth from her mouth and if there was any doubt the sun would come up that day, no doubt Apollo was eager to find who was making that siren song on the beach of the Salton Sea.
All around me rapt in her spell: the ravers, the scenesters, the builders, the artists, the organizers looked on lovingly. Any thought I had of fatigue of pain of trouble were suddenly taken away in those moments of pure bliss on a speck of sand at the edge of Bombay Beach.
As the sun dawned and warmed our faces the music warmed our very souls. It was a dream I didn’t want to end. At the last note a collective sigh went out across the crowd and the temperature must have dropped 15 degrees as a wind rolled across the water and braced my face. I took in a deep breath and just stared out at the sea.
Tuesday, Salton Seaside location withheld
This dream may have ended but another is beginning. As we leave this place, we take some of it with us and leave our names written in steel, our glittering fish a testament to what we did here. We can only hope that we have inspired others to create, to dance, to sing.
To all of Bombay Beach, the organizers and the laborers, and artists alike: We thank you all for your generosity, your kindness and your hard work in helping us make our sculpture, without you it would not have been possible.
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