Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, through December 28
By Steve Basel
Easternsports is a collaborative, five-act video opera and installation, inspired by Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” directed by Alex Da Corte, written by Jayson Musson, with a musical score by Dev Hynes. On first impression this work is formidably dense and might seem like a cruel joke. It’s nearly three hours long, the pacing is slow; video is all at half speed, and the score is often reminiscent of a metronome. You are prompted to engage with the scene through subtitled narration and a host of alienating, meta-theatrical devices that can seem impenetrable and cold. Over time, these devices, shifting from interruption to harmony, cause the viewer to pay close and critical attention.
In performance, construction, and narration, the work constantly refers to and emphasizes its own making, denying the viewer a passive and dramatically engaged experience. Viewers must constantly re-orient themselves to each screen to follow the actors. This and other strategies, like surreal and dreamlike apparitions, high stylization, humor, and deliberately mechanical acting, purposefully place the viewer at a contemplative distance from the work.
It requires patience to wait for an entrance into the visual and linguistic complexity of this work, which occurs at a change or point of interruption: a shift from monotone meter to dramatic melody, an introduction of an absurd gesture or quick action, like someone falling through a ball pit, a horse rearing, or the emergence of a skateboarder. One can follow these entrances into a hypnotic and reflective state.
In the narrative dialogue of Easternsports, these openings appear through self-doubt, humor, and abrupt changes in language and cultural reference. Existential, socio-political and psychological questions are raised in pragmatic, poetic, and twitter-esque language, but the interesting thing here is not just this cultural meeting. Musson is quick to criticize the pretension and practical application of philosophical speculation, as well as the vulnerability of one who indulges desire without reflection. We are taken through critical examinations in narration and dialogue that evolve into more casual and humorous language. Bringing the conversation from spirituality, truth, and human nature to the antics of a night club, store or lounge makes us question both the examined and unexamined life. Through both an analytical and pleasure-seeking lens we see the entrapments of the indulgent and restrained alike.
Persona, voice, and narration are integral to much of Musson’s own work. Using a variety of platforms, he interrogates oppressive ideologies, guilt, and blind idealism. In his two-dimensional work he adopts a somewhat childish style, exploring the use and freedom of a juvenile perspective. Musson is mostly known for his video series, “Art Thoughtz,” where he assumes the hip-hop persona of Hennessy Youngman. In a language foreign to the art world, he generates bold critique and commentary about its pretensions and prejudices.
In Easternsports he displays his ability to identify with many personalities through gripping, humorous and inventive character and voice. The artist, minority, consumer, passive worker, cynic and viewer are all characters whose longings, desires, and delusions we glimpse.
The overarching themes of Easternsports are to establish one’s own values, resisting the pressure of others, and to develop one’s own notions of authentic living. A recurrent phrase is: “do not let those who are half dead instruct you on how to live.” It represents the ethos of the artists’ generation as a chronic mode of desiring, the symptom of a collective neurosis originating from guilt, fear, oppression and hopelessness. There is subject matter specific to the artists’ and younger generations, but there are many existential, aesthetic, and romantic themes that are broad enough to resonate with most viewers. When characters express longing, we see that they are the culprits of their own unease as much as their circumstances, because they continue to long for recognition. It’s difficult to determine if any character is presented as virtuous. What’s interesting about this production is that we can simultaneously identify with the characters and remain at a critical distance. We sit in judgment on ourselves.
To this end Da Corte constructs a highly theatrical visualization of Musson’s script with characteristic color and geometry. Optically dizzying wall paintings influenced by twentieth-century Philadelphia artist Edna Andrade punctuate each set. From the first act to the fifth, Easternsports moves from more realistic depictions of social activity to more abstracted, dreamlike, and metaphorical ones. Da Corte’s satirical presentation of everyday rituals, like a blue-collar worker building a brick wall with peanut butter as mortar, or an orange-tanned blonde woman practicing yoga (an example of a western, eastern sport), makes us question whether our engagements with the world are any less pointless, ignorant or—like the actors themselves—scripted.
Da Corte is an artist obsessed with the aesthetics and theatrics of commercial display. A formalist and neo-pop artist disguised as a cultural archeologist and conceptual artist, he displays a product of pure indulgence rather than critique. Da Corte re-contextualizes objects found at any dollar store or Urban Outfitters. Themes attributed to his work include self-destructive consumerism, gender, sexuality, and a scientific distillation of consumer environments, but his sincere appreciation of the objects themselves subverts much of this. Formal ends appear primary to him. Da Corte would seem to respond in enthusiastic agreement to conceptual pop artist Barbara Kruger’s phrase “I shop therefore I am.”
His installation space for Easternsports rests somewhere between Stonehenge and a strip mall. Four large, freestanding walls, externally decorated with neon signs, support each of the four projections on the interior. The space of the video installation refers to objects in the video and mirrors its style. Without the white walls of the gallery as background, viewers fully immerse themselves in the work’s constant dialogue with itself. Enduring nearly three hours of the aesthetics of Easternsports generates an extreme sensitivity to the presence of commercial design. Ads, street signs, elevator arrows, and signs on the parking meter all stand out after leaving. A sensory lens is installed that draws attention to what was hidden in plain sight. Outside the walls of the ICA, Easternsports stays with you, continuing to urge such reflection.
Steve Basel is an artist living in Philadelphia. He recently graduated with an MFA from Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.