I.M. Pei in Suzhou and Beyond

The second of our remembrances focuses on the architect I.M. Pei, who passed away this week. A true champion of modernism worldwide, I have admired his work both from afar and close up.

Perhaps the most vivid memory with his work was from the Suzhou Museum in Suzhou, China. It may not be his best known work, but it is a masterpiece in itself and a love letter to his hometown.

The exterior facade combines Pei’s trademark geometry and minimalism with more the more traditional designs and tropes of an adjacent palace and Suzhou’s famous gardens. It also makes extensive use of water as an architectural element both inside and outside the building.

The simple geometric shapes, as well as the use of water, stone, and glass, gave the entire complex a very warm and welcoming feeling, even as the rain came down around me. Inside, the simplicity of the galleries left ample mental space to enjoy the exhibits and artifacts, while the atrium was a work of art itself.

I admire the way he often brought modernist aesthetics and principles to traditional spaces. This is perhaps most dramatically seen in his glass pyramid that anchors the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Napoleon courtyard of the Louvre museum at night time, with Ieoh Ming Pei’s pyramid in the middle. Benh LIEU SONG [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The pyramid is perfect, a stark contrast to the severe facades around it, and perfectly balanced in size and space. While I know many traditionalists have hated on this addition over the years, I for one love it. I am an unapologetic modernist and often find myself sparring with traditionalists even here in San Francisco.

Pei’s modernism was intended to integrate with its surroundings, even as it stood in contrast to it. For example, he wanted his stark geometric design for the Mesa Laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (U.S.A.) to look “as if it were carved out of the mountain”.

Until reading others’ tributes and remembrances, I had forgotten about his role in the Javits Center in New York, a building I am quite familiar with both inside and out. It is a massive and imposing structure but crisscrossed with triangular details that remind me of the Suzhou Museum (built 20 years later). The project was plagued by challenges and controversies, and “during the inauguration ceremonies, however, neither [James] Freed nor Pei was recognized for their role in the project.” [source]

Jim.henderson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Triangles do seem to be a major recurring theme in his work, and perhaps part of why it appeals to me even within the scope of other modernists. Triangles are powerful and strong, and the often stand out in Western spaces dominated by rectangles. These elements also played a role East Building for the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., a project is loved by many, but similar to the Louvre, criticized by some traditionalists.

The building is a masterpiece of minimalism. Even some of those traditionalist critics have grown to love it in the years since it opened in 1978. And it serves its purpose, both as a home to art and a work of art itself.

The growing popularity of art museums presented unique challenges to the architecture. Mellon and Pei both expected large crowds of people to visit the new building, and they planned accordingly. To this end, he designed a large lobby roofed with enormous skylights. Individual galleries are located along the periphery, allowing visitors to return after viewing each exhibit to the spacious main room. A large mobile sculpture by American artist Alexander Calder was later added to the lobby.[93] Pei hoped the lobby would be exciting to the public in the same way as the central room of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The modern museum, he said later, “must pay greater attention to its educational responsibility, especially to the young.”[94]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I._M._Pei#National_Gallery_East_Building,_Washington,_DC

Defending modernism, even after a century, remains a tireless job. As we lose champions like I.M. Pei, it falls to those of us in later generations to make sure this beauty is preserved and celebrated.

Julius Caesar by Théâtre National de Bretagne

Today we look back at Théâtre National de Bretagne’s unusual production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. We at CatSynth had the opportunity to see it at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, California a couple of weeks ago.

It is a play we know well, having read the original and recently revisited Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s epic 1953 film version starring Marlon Brando, James Mason, and John Gielgud. In contrast to that version which places the play in a grand realization of ancient Rome with large sets and hundreds of extras, this production directed by Arthur Nauzyciel with set design Scott Zielinski, was abstract and spare: a mostly empty stage surrounded by a backdrop of empty theater seats. The cast was stripped down to a small set of players, some pulling multiple roles – both Portia and Calpurnia were played by Sara Kathryn Bakker, for example. Their costumes (by James Schuette) were inspired by the 1960s, as were the furniture. We see the characters as mostly upper-class individuals in suits and dresses in spare rooms with modernist furniture, something directly out of Mad Men. We first see Brutus (James Waterson), Cassius (Mark Montgomery), and Julius Caesar (Dylan Kyussman) in simple tuxedos, with Mark Antony (Daniel Pettrow) bounding in wearing an Adidas tracksuit – a nice touch that harkened back to Brando’s jockish first scene as Antony in the 1953 film. One cannot consider these things anachronistic, seeing as how the Shakespeare play in itself is an anachronism, with its mentioning of clocks, doublets, etc., not to leave out the fact that it was written and generally performed in English.  The drama is what is most important in the play, the interaction of the characters, and the mechanics of politics and public opinion. 

Theatre is fundamentally about illusion and representation.  Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, in older forms of theatre, minimalism accentuates the essence of what a dramatic piece is trying to convey.  All of the information is conveyed through the words and actions, with the dressing secondary.  As I believe it should be with Shakespeare.  So I felt the right tone was taken with the way the visual aspect was handled.

Sara Kathryn Bakker as Portia. Photo by Frédéric Nauczyciel.

Of course, the central element of such a play is the acting and interpretation of the text. Kyussman’s portrayal of Caesar brought the right mixture of pomp and gravitas to his character.  Waterson’s Brutus came across as conflicted in his feelings, ultimately choosing reason over loyalty. And Montgomery’s Cassius was a thoughtful but odd fellow. Bakker’s double-duty as Portia and Calpurnia was beautifully played but also served to highlight the overall lack of women characters in the play. Something I was ambivalent about was the decision to excise the scene with Cinna the Poet, and his being swept up by the angry mob and killed, having been confused with Cinna of the conspirators.  This scene is excised from many stage productions and most films of the play, for purposes of pacing, which is unfortunate.  I feel it is a crucial scene which shows the madness of crowds, the way opinio publica can be twisted by those who seek to further their own ends = “The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power”, indeed.

The lighting was also a major player in this production. For most of the early scenes, the stage was shrouded in a mixture of darkness and low lighting. It is only when we get to the Capitol and the chamber of the Senate that the lights become bright, drawing us to a very stylized and choreographed assassination of Caesar. This continues into the speeches of Brutus and Antony before changing again into an eerie fog-filled atmosphere for the war scenes of the final act.

The assassination of Caesar. Photo by Yann Peucat.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of this production was the use of a live jazz trio, who performed between acts, and occasionally between scenes. The musicians (Marianne Solivan on vocals, Dmitry Ishenko on bass, and Leandro Pelligrino on guitar) were all top-notch and performed extremely well.  But we were anticipating original music.  What was presented was a selection of standards.  In itself, this was not disappointing – and the joining in by Bakker as Portia and Montgomery as Cassius was fun.  However, the selection of pieces – which, lyrically, commented upon the action with a winking, postmodern irony – in some ways undercut the otherwise serious and austere quality of the production and interpretation of the play. After the scene between Brutus and Portia, we were given “You’ve Changed”.  In the entr’acte, we heard “Is That All There Is?”  I felt by the end of the performance, it had become something close to a parody.  

This sense that the music played against the other dimensions was highlighted in the final song-and-dance number, set to some recently recorded, faceless, autotuned pop song (I’m pretty sure it was a Lady Gaga song, but I can’t confirm). It really seemed to be negating much of what I feel is at the core of this play, very serious ideas about morality, duty, and civic responsibility.

This may be the director’s intention, I don’t know for sure, and I can’t say.  The director took many chances with the production and created a fairly unique take on a work which has been performed so many times, in different ways.  “How many ages hence shall this, our lofty scene, be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown”, indeed.

Overall we enjoyed the performance, the design, and the acting. And I like to see productions of Shakespeare’s plays take chances with new directions rather than simply redoing the same thing over and over again. But with any experiment, sometimes things work and sometimes things do not. The end result here was mixed and ambiguous. But perhaps that was the point.

[Jason Berry contributed to this review.]

CatSynth Video: Brian Eno and his manipulative cat, Angel

We know Brian Eno loves his cat, but his cat really runs the show as we see in this interview.

Brian Eno and Angel definitely give us something to aspire to 😸🎹.

CatSynth Pic: Chancer Von Chonkerfloof (with Moog and Nord)

This is Chancer Von Chonkerfloof, a rather handsome fellow if we say so. This studio portrait comes to us from skinfitz via Instagram. And he is posing with synthesizers from Moog and Nord, two brands dear to our hearts at CatSynth.

Weekend Cat Blogging: Cat Town

We recently joined our friend Serena Toxicat for a visit to Cat Town in Oakland. Our visit was featured in a recent episode of CatSynth TV.

Cat Town is an organization that helps foster and adopt out cats in the East Bay, with a particular emphasis on cats with special needs or those who otherwise have a hard time in a traditional shelter setting. From their official website

Cat Town Adoption Center and RAWR Cafe are dedicated to helping cats in Oakland and the surrounding areas find both foster and forever homes. They are particularly focused on cats with special needs or who otherwise don’t do as well in a standard shelter setting.

https://www.cattownoakland.org

The way it works is that you come to the cafe, order coffee and other treats, and then move into the cat area during a reserved appointment time. One initially comes into the bright and spacious open play area, adorned with murals and unique cat furniture depicting Oakland landmarks and local color.

Serena Toxicat with one of the denizens of Cat Town

But the cats are the real stars.


Many of the cats have the “clipped ear” suggesting they were fixed as part of TNR programs for outdoor cats.


The cats are well cared for, and are doing well in this environment where they receive a lot of individualized attention. In addition to the play area, there are quiet spaces for rest and alone time, as well as a newer second adoption space with rooms for the cats. This space, too, is adorned with interesting feline-and-local-themed murals.

Cat Town works closely with local animal services, as well as Adam Myatt — aka the Cat Man of West Oakland who co-founded the space. We have encountered and supported work documenting the street cats of his neighborhood over the years.

If you are in Oakland or the surrounding areas, we do recommend a visit to Cat Town. Bookings and purchases at the cafe support the cats, and you might end up with a new companion. For more information please visit cattownoakland.org.

CatSynth Pic: Nico and Yamaha MOXF6

Handsome Nico proudly shows off his Yamaha MOXF6 synthesizer. From Alan Kyle via Facebook.

The MOXF series is Yamaha’s current workstation line, which combines MOTIF XF with studio features such as MIDI+USB and DAW control. As for Nico, we hear he is quite the sweetheart. According to Kyle, he is “so well mannered and affectionate 😁”

Weekend Cat Blogging with Marlon (aka Big Merp)

This weekend we check in on our feline pal in Oakland, Marlon.  We have dubbed him “Big Merp” for his large size and vocalizations that sound like “merp“.

This the face of a cat who has lived life hard, and just wants to chill out in his older years.  Fortunately, he is getting that opportunity as he has been spending more and more time indoors.  This included getting to stay indoors during the worst of the smoke from the wildfires to our north last month.

As we have mentioned before, it is clear he was a pet cat at one point in his life.  He enjoys the comforts of indoors, attention from humans, and food. Lots of food.  His friend Hissy is not so sure about the indoor life and is still wary of humans, but she does come around for food and to hang out with Big Merp.

The two of them clearly share a connection, even though they don’t always have the same outlook on life.  We hope Hissy does learn to trust people a bit more in the future.

We close with a reminder to readers to be kind to the cats – and other animals – that share our neighborhoods and spaces with us.  

Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, Whitney Museum

We at CatSynth have long been interested in the intersection of art, technology and conceptual process.  Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965–2018 surveys over 50 years of video, computational and conceptual art, cleverly weaving them together into a single narrative whole.  The three disciplines are united by the concept of a “program” or set of instructions through which the work of art unfolds, whether a computer program, instructions for a performance, or strict concept on a visual object.  Video and lights abound, but there is also painting, dance, and more.

Installation view.   Photograph by Ron Amstutz.

One of the artists who embodies the range of works is Nam June Paik.  Immediately on entry to the gallery, we are bombarded with his massive installation Fin de Siècle II.  Originally made in 1989, it has been beautifully restored for this exhibition.  It contains numerous clips from broadcast video and art video taken out of context and turned into a moving collage on a grand scale.

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Nam June Paul’s beautifully restored Fin de Siecle II. #whitney #nyc

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At the opposite end of the video spectrum is his 1965 piece Magnet TV.  A black-and-white CRT television set is disrupted by a large magnet, creating a unique but sometimes unpredictable pattern that is in its way rather spare and graceful.

Nam June Paik. Magnet TV, 1965. Modified black-and-white television with magnet.

In the first piece, the process is in the composition, arrangement, and looping of the various video clips.  In the latter, it is the physics of the magnet and the CRT.

Motion and experiments with electronics are also at the heart of James L. Seawright’s contemporaneous piece, Searcher, which features gradual motion and changes in light.  The shadows it casts are also part of the experience of the piece.

There is an interesting juxtaposition of one Joseph Kosuth’s classic neon text pieces, Five Words in Green Neon, and W. Bradford Paley’s Code Profiles, a Java program that generates images.  They bring together the concepts of “text as art” and “code as art” – the message is the medium.

Joseph Kosuth.  Five Words in Green Neon, 1965.  Neon
W. Bradford Paley.  Code Profiles, 2002 and 2018.  Java applet.

Paley’s code may be one of the most literal examples of the exhibition’s theme, but code need not be computer code as we think of it today.  Many works from earlier periods were based on a series of instructions, where the instructions are the work and the performance or visual object are the expressions of said work.  One such example is Sol Le Witt’s sculpture Five Towers.  The three-dimension grids are assembled by a program with various combinations into a simple but beautiful result.  I particularly enjoyed looking through it.

Sol LeWitt.  Five Towers, 1968.  Basswood with alkyd enamel paint.

Josef Albers’ color-field rectangles can similarly be generated from a “program”.  Like Le Witt’s piece, one could conceive of doing something like this with a computer, but neither artist chose to do so, instead being themselves the interpreters for the code.

Josef Albers.  White Line Square VI, 1966. Screenprints on board

The performing arts have long been linked to programs, whether the traditional score or choreography, or more modern uses of algorithms or conceptual instructions.  Performance was most strongly represented in the exhibition by Lucinda Childs’ Dance, done in collaboration with Sol LeWitt and Philip Glass.  Childs, who is known for a precise and almost algorithmic approach to dance, choreographed a series of 5 pieces to a score by Glass.   She made drawings in different colors for the different movements and projected these onto the floor.  During the dance segments, the colors of her drawing were also used for the lighting.  Finally, LeWitt filmed the dancers, and the film was then projected behind live performers.  The documentation of this complex counterpoint was on display in the gallery, including the film, score, and drawings.

Philip Glass.  Score for Dance #1, 1979.  Photocopy with ballpoint pen.

Program, object, video and performance also come together Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Lorna.  Lorna is an interactive video story on a laser disc (anyone else remember laser discs?).  Users can determine how the story unfolds through one of three endings via a remote control.  The screen and control are placed within a simulated apartment decked out entirely in leopard print, and the viewer is invited to sit in a comfy chair while the controlling the story.  This self-guided performance is at once programmed, but also immersive in that the viewer becomes part of the piece, both in space and in terms of control.

Lynn Hershman Leeson.  Lorna, 1979-84. Video, color, sound; with television, interactive laser disc shown as DVD, modified remote control, television cabinet, night table, end table, wood chair, upholstered chair, mirror, fishbowl with plastic goldfish, clothing, wallet, belt, shoes, watch, telephone, magazines, framed storyboards, and framed art

Video permeates the entire exhibition, popping up directly and indirectly in at least half of the pieces, or not more.  But video has many different aspects.  Is not a collection of discrete LEDs programmed to represent a moving image, as in Jim Campbell’s Ambiguous Icon #5 (Running, Falling), a video?  It is certainly a low resolution one, but this low resolution and discrete electronics allow us to see the individual elements that simulate movement in our perception.

Jim Campbell.  Ambiguous Icon #5 (Running, Falling), 2000.  LED lights and custom electronics.

We conclude this survey with a new site-specific commission by Tamiko Thiel.  She created an augmented-reality mobile app (in collaboration with developer /p) that overlays organic forms on the angular, geometric space of the museum’s outdoor terrace.  

Thiel’s organic growths are beautiful and playful, but also have a darker aspect.  Some resemble plastic refuse, and others coral formations.  Both are emblematic of the crises facing our seas due to pollution and climate change.  At the same time, the algorithmic process she uses, a formal grammar developed in 1968 by the Hungarian biologist and botanist Aristid Lindenmayer, is fascinating.

Tamiko Thiel  (with /p),  Unexpected Growth, 2018. Augmented reality installation, healthy phase. Commissioned by the Whitney Museum of American Art

There were many more works in this exhibition that we can discuss in a single article.  Each one had something compelling and different about it.  For anyone interested in or curious about these forms of art, I highly recommend checking out this exhibit! 

Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965–2018 will be on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art through April 14, 2019.

The Art of Paper at Sundaram Tagore Gallery

The Art of Paper is a multi-artist exhibition currently on display Sundaram Tagore Gallery at their Chelsea location.  The term “works on paper” often refers to drawing and print, but the medium and can be used in so many more ways.  Each of the artists in the show uses paper in a very different way, showcasing its breadth and versatility as a raw material for art.

Korean artist Chun Kwang Young creates fantastic three-dimensional sculptures from mulberry paper.  This thin and delicate paper is prized as an artistic material, but also has mundane uses as wrappers.  Chun sources his paper from old books and wraps them into tight triangular forms that he then assembles into beautiful and complex forms he calls Aggregations.

Chun Kwang Young, “Aggregations” installation view

Some are flat and wall-mounted while others are freestanding.  But in all cases, they are three-dimensional full of complex depth and texture.

The jagged triangular elements seem sharp, even a bit dangerous up close.  But at the same time, they seem fragile, like delicate crystals that could fall apart among touch.  When viewing closer, they seem soft, especially as the details of the paper come into view, including the original printed text from the source material.  There is something almost science-fiction-y and other-worldly about the result that I find captivating.

Aggregation 17 – DE099​, 2017, mixed media with Korean mulberry paper, 59.4 x 59.4 inches/151 x 151 cm

Chun has a simultaneous solo exhibition from his Aggregations at the Brooklyn Museum, which we will be reviewing in a separate article.

The work of Anila Quayyum Agha also uses paper as a basis for sculpture with a very different set of styles, techniques, and sensibilities.  She is best known for her works featuring paper laser-cut into large intricate forms.  Many of the paper cuts are assembled into cubes placed in immersive spaces with light.

Shimmering Mirage, 2016, lacquered steel and halogen bulb, 36 x 36 x 36 inches/91.4 x 91.4 x 91.4 cm

Being in the space of this piece and viewing it from all angles was a captivating experience.  It doesn’t seem like paper, but rather intricately carved stone or metal.  Some of the same principles of light and the spaces in between the material are at play in Agha’s two-dimensional works. The designs of Agha’s laser-cuts are reminiscent of the intricate designs found in Islamic art and architecture, such as the mosques of her native Pakistan.  Growing up as a woman there, she often found herself excluded from such spaces, and this informs her art today.

In contrast to Agha’s highly intricate designs, Miya Ando’s work is more subtle and spare.  She is known for more abstract work in metal, but she brings that work to paper in her “moonlight” pieces for this show.

Miya Ando, Gekkou (August) Moonlight 2, 2018, silver leaf and pigment on Arches paper, 41 x 29 inches/104.1 x 73.7 cm

Paper is often white, but it can be many different whites and shades in between those gradations.  The subtle changes give the round form a very natural feel in contrast to the stark white background.

There are several more artists in this show, more than we at CatSynth are able to cover in this article.  For more information, please visit the gallery’s website.  They are located at 547 West 27th Street, and the exhibition will be on display through December 15, 2018.

CatSynth Pic: Luna and Mellotron Micro for Halloween

Not our Luna, but another sweet black cat who shared the name 😻and all dressed up as a sushi roll for Halloween!  From Yoselin Alcala‎ via our Facebook page.

A Cats on Synthesizers Halloween submission! Our little Luna in her sushi costume with a Mellotron ✨🎃 

“Sushi Luna” is posing with a Mellotron Micro synthesizer.  We at CatSynth are quite interested in this smallest edition in the venerable Mellotron series.  It is also the subject of our most popular CatSynth TV episode.