Unthinking indulgence is the easiest way to sink avant-garde art, but does that mean violently decayed films of long-gone camel crossings are automatically overwrought?
Indulgence is the most easily misunderstood aspect of avant-garde art. It’s not enough to pile up wildly adventurous ideas -- you have to make them work together. That’s not to say disparate forms can’t sync seamlessly, but without some sense of a grand thematic structure, ambitious art becomes muddled beyond repair, leaving the audience to wander. That’s all well and good if confusion is your conceit, but not if you’re actually trying to say something. So where does that leave someone who wants to show violently decayed footage of long-dead Indians and camel crossings on screens in an old synagogue as an orchestra plays a strange and elusive live score? Walking a fine line indeed. Envisioned by composer Michael Gordon and filmmaker Bill Morrison with the help of a number of other artists, Decasia Live is an interdisciplinary art piece which pairs a wildly avant-garde score with visual montages of exotic, decaying footage. And when I say “decaying,” I mean it quite literally: the images -- taken from old stock footage -- have begun to melt away with age and oxidation. Saving them from utter desolation, Morrison captured the distressed black-and-white scenes in their various states of decay, creating an unrelated series of psychedelic montages that melt in on themselves. Needless to say, Decasia is an inspired idea, but, as I make my way towards the art space where tonight’s site-specific presentation will be performed, I still have my doubts: this will either be a stroke of artistic genius or a painfully executed act of over-indulgence. One or the other. There’s no in-between. As I enter the Angel Orensanz Center -- a repurposed 19th-century synagogue abandoned in the slow dissolve of New York’s Yiddish Lower East Side -- I’m struck by a sense of exulcerated history. By art-space standards, things look just fine, but that doesn’t stave one’s sense of the synagogue’s decay. Long, tan-grey arches reach above the great, open heights of the main hall, crisscrossing the peeling blue of the dome’s ceiling. The once-grand bimah and backing altar are also damaged -- not rusted or broken so much as dissolving, paint flecking in rude, unmanaged lines. A patchwork of threadbare rugs has been haphazardly placed along the floor of the enormous room. Intersecting at random, the rugs' overlaps create bunches, bumps that give the illusion of waves in an untamed sea of material. Sitting cross-legged on a small patch in a corner, I rest my back against a large speaker, one of several subwoofers surrounding the main room. Taking a cue from others sprawled out on the carpets, I place my hands behind my head and lean back, staring at the 13 surrounding screens. Each of the long drapes hangs well above my head, shielding the balconies behind. * * * BOOM! I’m woken from a momentary power-nap -- these things happen when you find yourself staring into the dome of an old synagogue -- by an explosion of sound. To say it radiates through me is an absolute truth: I’m shaken by the speaker at my back and fall forward, awkwardly crawling to the floor. Led by a matronly woman with fire-engine red hair, a small group of musicians has taken the pulpit. Surely they can’t be making all this racket? It’s a moment before I realize that the vast center of the room is surrounded, and that the majority of the Manhattan School of Music’s massive TACTUS Contemporary Ensemble’s members are hiding behind the screens. While I can only see momentary flits of their faces through the canvas, I can feel the full-bodied sound of their 55-piece orchestra as light bangs begin to square off against the soft mew of strings.