Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Incunabula II

For the last day of March I will, I think, grant my own wish by revisiting the Book of the Month. A few more of the scraps found by thousands on the floor of the studio of painter Francis Bacon after his death in 1992.

Even at the end of his life in the early 1990s Francis Bacon could never possibly have guessed how the trash on his floor would someday transform itself into individual digital relics, available to anybody.

Monday, March 30, 2009


Stop off in the Castro on the way home from work to get a transit pass and buy coffee plus a few other tasks written out on a small scrap of paper in my pocket. Old people and their lists.

But as usual I find a good deal of visual entertainment along the way. It is, for example, absurdly pleasing to get a passable photo of lettering on glass, where the reflections generally end up defeating me.

This stenciled address is executed with such incredible tidiness that I feel a longing for the awkward improvisations that are so much more abundant and endearing (as below).

There seems to be an increase in beggars, where they were already plentiful, but I suppose that's only to be expected with the economy falling apart. And San Francisco has always attracted more than its share, even in the best of times. A weary-looking kid holds a cardboard sign with red block letters.


Call me squeamish, but I try not to think too much about the kind of job he expects to be offered, having positioned himself within a few yards of the world's largest gay flag. (Readers outside the U.S. may not be aware that sex with anyone under 18 is a felony in this country, and rigorously prosecuted. Non-Americans are often surprised by this fact, since the "age of consent" (as it used quaintly to be called) is 16 according to the laws of most of our peer nations. So this boy is in effect offering a sort of safety assurance to potential employers, knowing that they will require him to prove it.)

Sunday, March 29, 2009


The CCTV camera is showing up in street art as the preferred emblem of Orwellian authoritarianism. Celebrity graffiti practitioner Banksy painted this giant protest statement in London (which required putting up and taking down three stories of scaffolding during the night) just to the left of an actual CCTV camera.

Now I see the cameras themselves incorporated as cartoon components of the latest work here in San Francisco. The walk to my haircutter led me past this one early this morning just off Valencia in the Mission.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


Two weeks ago I wrote about the opening of the William Kentridge show at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art – and especially the chance to see the artist staging a performance piece called I Am Not Me, The Horse Is Not Mine in a small theater at the Museum.

SFMOMA also arranged to remount Kentridge's 1998 production of Monteverdi's Return of Ulysses. I attended the final performance tonight at Project Artaud Theater, a reclaimed industrial building South of Market.

All photos below here were taken by museum staff during set-up and rehearsals.

I ordered this ticket the same day they went on sale, and got sixth row center. I would have bought two, except for not being able to think of anybody who would be available and interested in one of the earliest of Italian operas staged with puppets by an innovative South African best known for his charcoal animations. As it turned out all performances sold out early. These $85 tickets were being scalped this week for $300. A considerable group stood outside the theater at performance time without tickets, hoping somehow to procure them.

At center on table (above) the Kentridge drawing on the cover of the original 1998 prompt book.

There are two Ulysses puppets (as seen above). The one in the foreground is an old man dying in a Johannesburg hospital. Images representing the inside of his declining body are frequently projected onto the rear screen, and his figure is seldom off the stage. Kentridge credits the medical imagery to the medical textbooks and journals his wife would leave around the house, and it clearly appeals to him that this imagery is accidental and "found" rather than invented. The puppeteer in charge of the dying Ulysses has for long stretches the humble but astonishing task of representing the breathing of the failing figure under the striped sheet. But at the same time the vigorous, prime-of-life Ulysses (as seen at rear against the projected path he will follow to regain Penelope) wears the hospital pajamas and striped hospital sheet transformed into believable garb for a wanderer/warrior. His conquests & triumphs (the upright puppet) and his ultimate mortality (the supine puppet) are seldom out of each other's sight.

Kentridge positions the musicians on a semi-circular stage-frame resembling an operating theater, as the program notes express it ... "thereby solving one of the most difficult logistical questions of early baroque opera: how to maintain the acoustic proximity of the singers and their accompanists." I could wish I had access to more and better pictures of the superb players and their period instruments. Sadly the musical aspect of this musical event is the most difficult to represent in a format like this one. Audioclips wouldn't help much, even if I had them. Nor do I have the rhetorical command of a music critic. The most accurate compliment I can pay is that even though I know this music intimately well, I felt as if I were hearing it for the first time.

The two pictures above give a rough approximation of how beautifully the stage was lighted. They also illustrate how each puppet was consistently supported by two people. The puppeteer had primary responsibility for the puppet, but the singers in every case participated in determining the puppet's gestures, and sang toward the puppet as if channeling their voices through the puppet. The puppeteers had more of a tendency to mirror in expression and stance whatever the puppet was expressing. One unexpected touch on the puppets was the eyes. The heads were carved from some pale wood, not painted or embellished, but the eye sockets deep inside contained reflective and faceted elements that occasionally caught the light and registered as the spirit behind a living face.

Ultimately, the old man's death coincides with the hero's reclaimed marriage bond.

The performance lasted 100 minutes with no intermission. The coherence of the staging and the finesse of Pacific Operaworks instrumentalists created a seamless suspension of time. Kentridge's film and animation effects on the rear screen could have kept me enthralled for 100 minutes with no music or singers or puppets or story at all. But in fact, as Stephen Stubbs writes in the program: This production achieves the main ambition of opera: to be a Gesamtkunstwerk or artistic whole, an ambition so rarely achieved in practice.