Friday, March 14, 2008

Gogol Bordello at the Warfield

Gogol Bordello played the Warfield in San Francisco last night. Their performance was outstanding - energetic, musically proficient, freakish and wonderful.

Having moved to California around the time of their first album's release, I just barely missed out on the first wave of this New York band's gypsy punk revolution. I became aware of them after seeing the film Everything is Illuminated, an excellent film based on a mediocre book, in which lead singer Eugene Hutz stole the whole show from Elijah Wood and so became a star. Recently Madonna has taken a shine to Hutz, and while I can't blame her, I hope readers will ignore that association and check out this terrific band anyway.

Eugene Hutz: 12 stories high, made of radiation

Why is this band so great? Well, I have a thing for Slavs, a fondness for both punk rock and shtetl music and a diasporic affinity for the Roma, whose roots can be traced back through history to my native India. So culturally, they're right up my alley. Their lively songs force you to dance with exuberance while singing along to lyrics like "all your sanity and wits/they will all vanish, I promise/It's just a matter of time." This defiant joy is, to my mind, what great music and art is all about. We have limited time here on Earth, but even as we age and decay every day, we will enjoy every minute, dammit!

Finally, who can resist a six-and-a-half foot tall moustachioed Ukrainian gypsy in hot pink stilettos? I mean, really.

Next week, Gogol Bordello plays the Southwest, followed by a super-fast European tour and an appearance at Coachella in April. In early May, Eugene Hutz promises to be back in Northern California for The 12th Annual California Herdeljezi Roma Festival, though it's not clear whether he'll be performing.

This also seems like a good opportunity to mention Paradise Lost: The First Roma Pavilion, an exhibition at the 2007 Venice Biennale featuring Roma-identified artists from across Europe. While the show was rough in many places, its spirit was robust, and it was an important step toward recognition and preservation of this unique and long-suppressed cultural heritage. Fear of a Roma planet? Not unheard of.

Damian Le Bas, Roma Europe, 2007

Other related bands: Balkan Beat Box, Leningrad, Yat Kha

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Whitney Biennial

I'm back from my Biennial tour, and the dust has begun to settle. I attended the press preview last Tuesday night as the guest of Bay Area-born Neighborhood Public Radio. The group has been in force since late 2004, but recent events in the core members' lives have fixed it so that they exist on more of an event basis now, coming together from their far-flung homes in Chicago, San Diego and Oakland for residencies and exhibitions such as this one. For the Whitney, they have taken over a storefront at 941 Madison Avenue, just up the block from the museum, and will be running a nonstop barrage of DIY variety radio out of that spot for three full months.

Neighborhood Public Radio's Whitney Biennial Stream

The NPR storefront is only one Biennial outpost this year. Several artists' work has been installed in the Park Avenue Armory. A series of performances that will run until March 23 had not yet begun when I visited, but the grand and decaying architecture is spectacular and worth a visit in itself. A few of the installations are strong enough to make an impact on this overwhelming environment. They include The Scarface Museum by Mario Ybarra, Jr., commemorating the fictional gangster's appeal to young Chicanos in his home of Los Angeles who too often follow their hero to his downfall; and Ties of Protection and Safekeeping by Portland, Oregon-based performance artist M.K. Guth.

M.K. Guth, Ties of Protection and Safekeeping, 2007-2008. Braided fabric and artificial hair

Architecture stakes its claim on the Biennial in more than one place this year. LA artist/architect Fritz Haeg's Animal Estates surround the museum's exterior. These habitats for wild creatures - few of whom are likely to be found on Madison Avenue any longer - endeavor to bring animals back into the urban environment by offering them viable living spaces. At the same time, they read as a poke in the eye to the high-rent Upper East Side, offering luxury accommodations for bobcats, bald eagles and brown bats.

Fritz Haeg, Animal Estates 1.0: New York, New York, 2008

Inside the museum, the highlights include Javier Tellez' powerful film, Letter on the Blind For the Use of Those Who See, in which six blind men encounter an aged elephant and describe the wonder of getting up close to this powerful, gentle being, while ruminating on their experiences in a sighted world. Mika Rottenberg's environmental video installation Cheese tells the story of six sisters who claimed to milk a hair-growth tonic from their own exceptionally long hair. The story plays out wordlessly on several screens embedded within a tattered wooden structure, the decrepit form of which contrasts with the sunny, high-quality production values of the accompanying videos.

Javier Tellez, Letter on the Blind For the Use of Those Who See, 2007. 16mm film transferred to high-definition video, color, sound; approximately 35 min.

Walead Beshty presents images of the abandoned Iraqi Diplomatic Mission in East Berlin, a site where the remnants of two collapsed regimes intersect in their neglect. The large-scale prints are themselves expressionless, except for a gentle colored glow which is the chance result of X-ray exposure. Adler Guerrier invents a long-dead political movement, "BLCK," addressing real history through fictional documentary. The artifacts he creates call our attention to true events that took place in Miami 1968, which have been forgotten by many these forty years later.

This being a Whitney Biennial, there's also plenty to hate, but fortunately there's enough to love that the show yet again warrants a visit.

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