Unreal Nature

May 6, 2016

Trying to Watch the Hour Hand Move

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:30 am

… ‘Then, when you get there and look back, things seem so different from what you imagined.’

This is from Joan Jonas: I Want to Live in the Country (And Other Romances), by Susan Morgan (2006):

… Occasionally, figures do appear in the landscape: two unidentifiable men cutting down trees and walking away into unmown grass with a pair of white dogs. Once, very fleetingly, framed in a curtained window, we catch a glance of a woman’s upraised arm; her elbow is bent as if she might be holding binoculars, looking out to someplace we cannot see.

[line break added] Even in this fairly wild countryside the sounds and sights of machinery intrude: passing trucks raise dust clouds on the dirt road, earth movers dig up a quarry, chain-saws whine and a motor boat engine rumbles offshore. Mostly, however, there is the thrumming of wind and waves and the crackle of spreading fire. In the open air, we can hear dogs barking, crickets chirping, a scrap of old-timey Appalachian music playing and the deep lowing of cows.

[ … ]

… One of the exterior scenes of I Want to Live in the Country (And Other Romances) (1976) opens with a shot of a window, hung with a sheer white curtain, upstairs in a grey shingled house. The camera lingers for a few seconds there, then drops down and away, brushing quickly over treetops, down into a field and across toward the sea. Cows are lowing. We catch sight of another house, a barn. ‘Time is more precious year by year,’ reads the voiceover. ‘The air sharper. The sun warmer. And the trees more like friends. And my friends more precious, like trees.’

… When Jonas first visited Japan in 1970, she was looking for an alternative language for art-making, ‘one beyond Minimalism.’ Encountering Noh theater — with its slow tempo and use of rhythm, refined ritual and static gestures — she saw a complex and viable alternative. ‘To try and watch the tempo grow,’ observes Donald Richie, the great chronicler of Japanese culture, writing about Noh theater, ‘is like trying to watch the hour hand of the clock move, like trying to watch flowers open.’

… Noh theater has been described by Western critics as being barely recognizable as theater at all: a stage stripped bare as a boxing ring; no action but the recollection of action; ambiguous story-telling; an arbitrary and fragmented text; and a pace that slows down time, altering the viewer’s perceptions and insistently focusing on the present. As Donald Richie notes: ‘There exists only the extraordinary bond between the mind of the actor and the minds of the audience. There is nothing else. It is pure and naked theater.’

Interior: In the windowless studio, the woman in white races between a chair and a stool, swings around, starts to lose her balance, and swings again, changing direction. On the soundtrack, there is the sound of wind and sputter of spreading fire. ‘Last night we turned on the TV for the first time in weeks. Poltergeist lifting and moving furniture,’ intones the voiceover. ‘A child thrown against the wall. The smell of sulphur.’

Yvonne Rainer asked in ‘A Likely Story,’ a paper she delivered for a panel at the 1976 Edinburgh Film Festival:

Can an audience learn to abandon its narrative expectation once that expectation has been aroused by narrative elements in the work? [ … ] Can the narrative and the other-than-narrative exist simultaneously in the same shot, creating a kind of strobe effect with regard to meaning?

… In the 1950s, Halpern [teacher of Jonas‘ teachers] had a realization as to how to approach dance and performance. ‘One day as I was sitting for a long time outdoors on our wooded dance deck, I became aware of light on a tree, a red berry that fell at my side, a fog horn in the distance and children shouting; and I wondered if they were really in trouble or just playing. These chance relationships, each independent of the other, seemed beautiful to me.’

Exterior: ‘You see something in the distance,’ says the voiceover, as the Super 8 camera picks out the landscape, moving furtively in curious glances, darting about — up and down, right and left. The open fields are sunburnt yellow and green. In the foreground, tall grasses stir in the wind and the filmed space appears deeper, the immeasurable expanse more defined, the wide field, the distant house, the wider ocean. The voiceover continues: ‘Then, when you get there and look back, things seem so different from what you imagined.’

-Julie

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