Monday, January 27, 2014

Autumn Knight invokes Robert Rauschenberg at the GAR

Dean Liscum

I wasn't sure what to expect when I drove to Galveston to see Autumn Knight perform The Ghost of Robert Rauschenberg, a piece conceptualized by Eric Schnell and Sallie Barbee, at the Galveston Artist Residency. It was a sunny Saturday in January (1/11/2014) and the appeal of the solitary, windswept beach and the frisson of confronting a ghost was enough to get me in the car. So I went with it.  When I entered the gallery space, it was evident that Knight had crafted a piece that was all thoroughly Rauschenbergian.

The stage with its sand and drift wood recalled the Port Arthur native's childhood environment. The bedsheet-esque backdrops hanging from the ceiling alluded to many of his famous combines, which merged sculpture and painting through found objects and painted images. The casting smacked of Rauschenberg. Flaunting the convention of traditional Noh plays in which male actors play both male and female roles, Knight, an African-American female, played the role of Rauschenberg, a white-Caucasian male. Even the score referenced Rauschenberg. As percussionists Brandon Bell and Craig Hauschildt played xylophones with horsehair bows and the cymbals with their fingers, the original piece by Thomas Dougherty exhibited the influence of the music of avant-garde composer John Cage, one of Rauschenberg's close friends.

I can only imagine Rauschenberg's glee, epitomized by his impish smile.

The performance was a modern Noh play, which is a form of Japanese musical drama that's remained primarily unchanged since 13th century. The fact that it was based on the choreography of Rauschenberg's own Noh play performed when he was collaborating with Cage and others makes it a re-imagining of modern (i.e., Rauschenberg) interpretation of a Noh play.

Given the number of artistic interpretations, the performance could have resulted in no Noh play at all.

I'm not a Noh play expert, but it seemed to adhere to the form. I'd categorize this modern re-interpretation as a Kami mono in which Knight plays the Shite, which is the protagonist in human form. The waki, the Shite's counterpart or foil, is never seen because it is nothing more than Rauschenberg, nothing less than his life.

To this untrained eye, the narrative/conflict played out as man vs. himself\woman vs. herself. (I appreciate the gender ambiguity, but it's tough to write about.)

The Shite, and make no mistake Knight is the SHIT-E in this performance (check out the scowl in the following pic) is born/emerges, ...

struggles, dies, and ...

rises as a ghost to exit stage least that's my somewhat flawed understanding of what transpired.

I was never so sure of the plotline, but Autumn's energy, grace, and concentration was unmistakable and well worth the drive. You can experience it for yourself on March 15, 2014  as the GAR will present the performance second time.

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