Order, Chaos, and the Space Between – A Review

order, chaos,This month the Phoenix Art Museum is showcasing Latin American art from the Bruce and Diane Halle collection. Many of these pieces were born out of fear and loss, created by people living within war-torn and poverty-stricken countries. Most are dark and troubling, some, confusing, some, begging the question of whether they can be defined as art at all.

Upon entering the exhibit one midweek night, my gaze was immediately drawn upwards by a vortex of black butterflies that rested on the wall beside me. They climbed upwards to the ceiling, swirling round and round, creating a path of sorts to the Halle Collection. I could not help but find it a fitting entry to an exhibit whose goal was find the happy medium between wild beauty and impenetrable darkness.

One piece caught my eye immediately from all the way towards the back of the room, drawing me irresistibly in. Strange, and certainly not an ordinary work of art, the weathered hutch stood tall against a back wall like a discarded ruin. It’s glass windows were pressed close against a suffocating force of dried cement laced with old clothing, metal like shrapnel piercing through. The hutch had been unearthed, along with the clothing and metal, from houses whose occupants had fled from the Columbian civil war in the late twentieth century. The piece, by Doris Salcedo, is untitled, as though not to give credence to the unspeakable events the wordless belongings witnessed within the abandoned home. The combination of empty clothing, metal, and cement, housed carefully, solidly within the wooden hutch created an aura not only of loss, but horror. I could only see children where their old clothing poked through, and bones where jagged bits of steel gleamed though the dust and concrete. I felt as though I was looking upon a mass grave of memories,  kept like precious, sinister trinkets within a wooden box. We turned away from the piece, weighted heavier than when we first came.

Across the hall from the cemented hutch sat a rather different piece from the collection. A pile of mint-green wrapped candies lay in the center of the floor, piled into a shapeless mass. The wall beside it bore a plaque explaining that the artwork is ever changing in size and shape. Viewers are encouraged to take candy for themselves and the sweets are replenished each night. This is supposedly representative of our transient state in life, and the changeability in the world. I must admit, we stifled laughter when reading the plaque and comparing the deep, philosophical words about order and chaos to a pile of cheap candy on the floor. All of the art in the exhibit was contemporary, but this is as post-modern as it gets. I felt forced upon as I viewed this nameless creation, and got the impression that the artist was attempting to make a very particular point, as though it were propaganda of sorts. Perhaps he strove to say that anything could be art; that all is art; that everything we interact with on a daily basis says something about the universe and it’s ebbs and flows. But instead he left me more emphatic in the belief that not every expression of the self, or of the world, is art. If everything is art, then why create art at all? Perhaps next time I’ll skip the museum and head straight to my pantry.

After viewing many other post-modern pieces that I am hesitant to describe as “art,” we were tired and began to doubt we’d see anything else of interest. It was then that we happened upon a gem. In a small room off to the side a miniature theater had been set up, with film being projected onto three of the four walls. Across the walls spun dozens of black, twirling objects. The film portrayed the traditional Latin American game of battling tops. Although the hands of the players could be seen as they threw the tops into the battleground, the identities of the competitors were unknown, allowing the tops to attain a sort of personality. The tops were all black, varying in size, and the ominous, rolling sound of their tracking across the cement battleground filled the small theater. One by one they dropped, sometimes in violent bursts, as though suffering the shock of a bomb. They viciously cut into one another, drove across each other, destroyed all in their path. One large top in particular took enemy after enemy down. But in the end, the remaining top could only spin for so long, and wavering, collapsing, eventually succumbing to gravity, lay fallen amongst the other casualties on the floor.

This one art piece made the entire exhibit worthwhile to me. The concrete filled wooden hutch was a close second, and everything else was more or less worthless, but this gem left me feeling hollow and excited at the same time. The beautifully filmed game was fearsome and sublime. In those spinning tops I saw the battles of thousands of years and my own heart mirrored with countless others. Piles of cheap candy on the floor can never accomplish what those few minutes of beautifully filmed saga said of human dignity, powerful hunger, and  soulless, crushing war.

We left the museum that night satisfied with the two excellent pieces we’d seen. Order, Chaos, and the Space Between is well worth the time of any museumgoer, if only for those two. The rest of the artwork from the Halle collection at the Phoenix Art Museum was convoluted or left lacking, and art, true art, does not say too little or too much.

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Beasts of the Southern Wild: A Review

beasts-of-the-southern-wild02Beasts of the Southern Wild is everything I can ask for in a movie. Fiercely beautiful and sincere, this feature presents a simple story that is as exquisite as it is savage; visually poetic and triumphant.

The film, headed up by first-time director Benh Zeitlin, chronicles the story of six-year-old Hushpuppy and her father, Wink, living out an atypical life immersed in extreme poverty and characterized by proud defiance. The tale is set in an isolated bayou, separated from New Orleans by an enormous levee. The ramshackle community, situated on the wrong side of the levee, is affectionately known as “The Bathtub,” home to a collection of human detritus. Satisfied with their derelict homestead, the residents of The Bathtub revel in festivities and teach their children to be survivors. “I am meat, ya’ll asses meat,” proclaims one Bathtub native to a group of children. “Everything is part of the buffet of the universe.” Meat – and the death it takes to obtain it – is a central symbolin the film. Wink teaches Hushpuppy to catch fish with her bare hands, farm animals decay on the flooded landscape after an earth-shattering storm, alligators are shot and deep fried. And alone in her house, Hushpuppy proclaims with a raw bluntness, “if Daddy don’t get home soon, it’s gonna be time for me to start eating my pets.”

The film is at first a rugged telling of a community identifying so deeply with their homeland that they refuse to leave when a great storm threatens. Parallel to this runs the story of Hushpuppy and her daddy. What at first seems to be a strange, if not downright neglectful relationship culminates into an understanding that what they have is deep. Their love is primal; a wild and natural affection one might see between lions and their cubs, or killer whales. These two stories are intertwined and consummate, blending poetic vignettes of glaciers cracking and roaming arctic beasts with stark realism. Myth and matter are interwoven. The Bathtub residents are preparing for a disaster not unlike Hurricane Katrina, and Wink and Hushpuppy have their own storms to face.

The bold six year-old is the star of this feature, no doubt about it. Played by Quvenzhane Wallis, Hushpuppy is a thunderbolt in a community that expects nothing less of their offspring. This disheveled, unkempt child makes complex observations about the fine tunings of the universe one moment, and relishes in the sound of her own scream the next. Hushpuppy is at once a vulnerable child yearning for affection and a wild and uncanny creature quite capable of fending for herself. Her father, like many of his neighbors, relies on alcohol to brace him. His moods are erratic as a result. Early in the film Wink is hospitalized, disappearing for a day and a night. But Hushpuppy is hardly nonplused by his absence, settling for a canned cat food supper that she cooks by lighting the gas stovetop with a blowtorch.

The visuals in this film are radiant, poetic. Swirling dust is captured in sunlight, rain is caught glinting on tin roofs and bare skin. Hushpuppy is frequently surrounded by bright, sparkling lights. She’s captured twirling amongst firecrackers in the beginning of the movie, and towards the end Hushpuppy and her band of orphaned friends are held and rocked side to side by mothering prostitutes in the soft, hazy glow of a saloon. The film constantly alludes to itself. Ancient cave-drawings are tattooed on a woman’s thigh, and Hushpuppy draws stick figures with charcoal, stating that, “in a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know that once there was Hushpuppy and she lived with her Daddy in the Bathtub.”

The film bears an overall emphasis on wholeness. The Bathtub residents are one with their land, and Hushpuppy proclaims that, “the whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the entire universe will get busted.” One of the strongest scenes in the movie features a tugboat captain who saves his lunch wrappers, littering the floor of his vessel with chicken biscuit papers because it makes him feel cohesive. “I wanna be cohesive,” says Hushpuppy.  “Oh you will be,” replies the captain. “I got no doubt in my mind.”

Aurochs, the gargantuan ice-age beast, are another reoccurring symbol in the film. At first their appearance coincides with disaster and fear. A herd rampages through the town, devastating The Bathtub between takes of a hurricane rolling in. The boar-like creatures feast on a fallen comrade as Hushpuppy soliloquies on the brutality of life. Aurochs are devastatingly powerful beasts, identified with the series of hardships that fall upon Hushpuppy and The Bathtub. Yet as the film progresses, a kinship and likeness develop between the people and the wild animals, culminating in Hushpuppy’s final encounter with Aurochs. “You’re my friend, kind of,” she says simply to the great monster kneeling before her. And this is why the movie is so fiercely tender and wonderful. The characters don’t ever escape the hardships, but they master them. At six years old, little Hushpuppy learns that trials are a necessity of life. “Everyone loses the thing that made them,” sheproclaims. The wildness of the world calls to that wild part in our souls. Hushpuppy knows the call. She listens for it in the heartbeat of every creature she comes across. And this is the triumph: that in the midst of the hardships there is a perseverance that can be clung to. The film concludes with the rag-tag group of homeless souls traversing a narrow road with the waters lapping up on either side. There is no going back. And they are moving onward, triumphant.