Singing in Dark Times: Martha McDonald, Music for Modernist Shapes

by Kaitlin Pomerantz

Martha McDonald, Music for Modernist Shapes: Reimagining Spectrodrama

Marginal Utility, November 2018 – January 2019

Philadelphia performance-based artist Martha McDonald makes work that mines the present to confront history, offering it up for consideration, memorialization, and revisitation. McDonald often uses site as a jumping-off point, with projects taking place in repositories of memory around the world, including historic house museums, gardens, archives, libraries, and even a dump. In a previous Philadelphia performance, Martha McDonald, in a hard hat, fluorescent vest, and dusty white uniform, ambled atop piles of construction rubble in line to be sorted at Revolution Recovery waste management center, belting sea shanties and other traditional songs of memory and longing into a walkie talkie and megaphone before a live audience. Using her great strength as a performer and artist, McDonald makes forgotten objects and overlooked places function fluidly as portals to the past; enchanting, complicating, and enriching our awareness of the present.  

Martha McDonald and artist/musician Billy Dufala performing Songs of Memory and Forgetting at RAIR (Recycled Artist in Residency) , 2016

Her most recent exhibition and performance used similar strategies to point us towards a specific moment in the history of wonderment and sensory exploration – but also a moment of radical social and political upheaval. In Music for Modernist Shapes: Reimagining Spectrodrama at Marginal Utility gallery, McDonald revisited a theater piece made by Bauhaus alum Xanti Schawinsky and performed by his students at Black Mountain College in 1936. McDonald learned of the largely forgotten piece through documentary photos she found while digging through the North Carolina Western Regional Archives during her ACTIVE ARCHIVE residency at Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center in 2017. McDonald became fascinated specifically with the cut and folded paper costumes created by Schawinsky’s wife, Irene, and felt compelled to “conjure the memory of this little known work.” The piece at Marginal Utility is a second iteration of her first reimagining, offering to Philadelphia audiences the opportunity to connect with a foundational moment in art history, and art pedagogy’s history.

For the exhibition, McDonald transformed the Marginal Utility gallery space into an installation site and set for performance, replete with primary-colored sculptural props and costumes, surreal art imagery, and simple but elaborate folded paper forms in a state of suspension between use, display, and discardment. Her paper sculptures stood like origami sentinels indicating the activity of play, yet not necessarily inviting it firsthand. The bold wall colors and chunky, graphic decor spoke of a kind of reflection on art activity, while not quite claiming to be art itself. A large Greco-Roman head with an embedded pseudo-color wheel gestured at a kind of surreal embodiment of art principles and conflation of aesthetic ideas throughout the ages. Entering the space felt like stepping into a Foundations of Art textbook, with each visual moment hinting at a lesson to be learned on subjects like abstraction, realism, perspective, and geometry. A series of live performances took place over two weekends within the space and video footage from these showings occupied the gallery when McDonald was not present, so the gallery itself functioned as a sort of portal into its performance past, in addition to engaging viewers directly in the present through the mercurial props-cum-sculpture.

Composer Laura Baird performing with McDonald

Inspired, ultimately, by the foundational vision of Josef Albers, Schawinsky’s Spectodrama unpacked and animated basic ideas in Sight, Sound, Time, and Architecture through a four-part play. McDonald’s reimagining focused in on the section dedicated to Sight and offered a live score by composer Laura Baird, drawing on instrumentation and themes from the original score (which did not survive in completion), as well as regional Appalachian folk songs and lyrics inspired by Goethe’s writings on color (which greatly informed Albers). During the live performance, McDonald performed alongside Baird – their own interaction and exchange forming a sort of synesthetic bond. Baird’s instruments, all visible to the viewer, came to occupy the same sort of presence as the paper constructions. Each object in the space took on an emphasis of its own made-ness, and a kind of sonic potential. This aspect was emphasized by McDonald’s “playing” of the objects adjacent to Baird’s playing of the instruments: an accordian-folded piece of paper giving way to a crescendo, or a paper seashell suddenly offering up sounds of the sea (pre-recorded and emanating through a strategically-timed speaker). Though childlike and dreamy, the sounds, gestures and lyrics also hinted, in certain moments, at something more somber:

Blue brings a principle of darkness, it draws us after it.

Through a blue glass all is gloom,

all is gloom and melancholy.  

This tension, between chipper didacticism and a sort of looming morosity, was most palpable in the paper forms and costumes themselves, and in McDonald’s handling of them. With any slight misstep or excessive gesture, the paper could, and would, rip, shattering illusion with intrusive material truth. This happened once during the performance I attended, and was a stunning moment: an acknowledgement that within this space of visual and sonic strategy is also the capacity for reality to cut straight through. For me, this threat is what brought the piece into greater significance, allowing an understanding of why McDonald might have seen it as so important to resurrect for audiences today.

Xanti Schawinsky, Untitled (1052), 1938, Vintage black and white photographic collage

Schawinsky and many of his colleagues at Black Mountain College were dismissed from their previous faculty positions at the Bauhaus when the Nazi party came to rule, and their work was deemed too “degenerate” for the kind of culture that the Nazis sought to promote. Black Mountain College was essentially a safe haven for exiled Bauhaus faculty, a re-creation of the thriving artistic community curtailed by totalitarian rule. The back-to-basics ethos of Black Mountain – which was not only a school but truly an intentional community, where artists and students lived and ate side-by-side, grew their own food, create and learned symbiotically – has astonished generations after it, not only for the fact of its existence and the radical work it nurtured, but also for the amazing focus and simplicity of its pedagogy. Color, form, space, material, and structure were the topics of Black Mountain courses (not, as one might think given the time period and context, political art or radical aesthetics). It is as though this community wanted to recreate, or just create, from the ground up, emphasizing construction and composition as ways of achieving harmony, elegance, expression, and perhaps even peace.

Xanti Schawinsky, Spectodrama

In Reimaging Spectrodrama, I could not help but feel that same layered aspect, that beneath the levity of the artifice and play might lurk a more significant message: that in the face of atrocity and the corruption of power, we must learn how to disengage, go back to basics, and remake. I think of Brecht’s oft-cited quote, “In the dark times, will there also be singing? / Yes, there will also be singing, about the dark times.” In reference to McDonald’s piece, one might rephrase it as: there will also be singing despite the dark times, and that singing could give us the strategies and insight to more accurately confront the darkness.

The show read to me, then– in all its whimsy and beauty– as also an opportunity to slow down and reflect on the fundamental tools of art and the tragedies of history, so that we might consider how to use them (the tools and the tragedies) most effectively in the face of current unrest. Resurrecting this pivotal Black Mountain College moment made me wonder anew about the role of ethics in art education; and the possibility of foundational art concepts – color, form, material, light, sound – to function beyond aesthetics.  

Kaitlin Pomerantz is an artist, educator and writer in Philadelphia, and a managing editor at Title Magazine.