New England’s Prospect: Beyond the Sea

Lining out Matthew Ritchie's Monstrance/Remonstrance, ICA/Boston, March 28, 2014.

Lining out Matthew Ritchie’s Monstrance/Remonstrance, ICA/Boston, March 28, 2014.

Introducing his collaborative piece Monstrance/Remonstrance at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston on March 28, Matthew Ritchie—currently in the midst of an 18-month stint as the ICA’s artist-in-residence—gave a whirlwind, 30-second history of the philosophical object. His endpoint was deliberately unfathomable: the object-oriented ontology of Graham Harman. In Harman’s view, the ingrained philosophical habit of considering objects only inasmuch as they are used or encountered by human consciousness is forever incomplete: in addition to perceived and idealized objects, there are real objects, with their own ontology, existing whether we sense them or not. “[The] real world,” Harman writes, “is made up of individual objects that are withdrawn from all theoretical, practical, and even causal access.”

Harman’s philosophy isn’t much concerned with aesthetics, but one can see why an artist might love it. It’s full of sentences

 The interplay of dust and cinder blocks and shafts of sunlight is haunted by the drama of presence and withdrawal no less than are language or lurid human moods

—that could easily double as mission statements for any number of post-modern conceptual art installations. If you were looking for them, you could see Harman’s real objects as a recurring feature of Monstrance/Remonstrance. They also were, in the end, something else: an alibi.

***

See and hear: music was an integral part of the piece. Ritchie had recruited an impressive group of collaborators, drawing heavily from what might be called the Parenthetical Parallel Résumé wing of the new music establishment: vocalist Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), guitarist Bryce Dessner (The National), clarinetist Evan Ziporyn (ex-Bang on a Can All-Star), sound designer David Sheppard (Sound Intermedia). The performance started in the ICA lobby, site of the ICA’s art wall, turned over to chosen artists on a regular basis for large-scale murals. Ritchie’s mural sprawls across the wall and into the adjacent glass facade. The imagery—spiraling lines, jagged, vectorized tendrils, vaguely organic circles—is congruent with his mural, Remanence: Salt and Light, currently covering a large wall in nearby Dewey Square (itself, not so long ago, the site of Occupy Boston); the mural recycles elements from Ritchie’s painting The Salt Pit, on display elsewhere in the ICA. Ritchie further echoed the imagery in the foam pads scattered across the floor in place of traditional seating.

David Sheppard (center) under the art wall, ICA/Boston, March 28, 2014.

David Sheppard (center) under the art wall, ICA/Boston, March 28, 2014.

The music for this portion was Propolis, devised by Dessner, Ziporyn, and Sheppard, first performed in 2008 as part of The Morning Line, a Ritchie installation in Seville, Spain. It is a framework for improvisation, though this performance had documentary specificity, being filmed and recorded for subsequent incorporation into the space, via playback and smartphone-accessible video. It started with Dessner and bassist Blake Newman slowly layering over a mulching electronic background, with Sheppard hovering nearby, manipulating the sound from a tablet computer. Then violinist Shaw Pong Liu began to weave through the crowd, soon joined by trombonist Randy Pingray, and then Ziporyn. Everybody was amplified; the conversation—or, maybe, competition—between local and global perception was constant.

The piece itself fell into four large sections: an opening in which the overlay of electronic noise predominated; an industrial breakdown (the “three minutes of excruciating pain” Ritchie warned the audience about, though it was actually pretty inviting in its head-banging way—a chunky, asymmetrical stretch of metallic thrashing); collective commentary over a pleasantly bumpy bass clarinet loop; and then a long coda settling into rich, Ligeti-like clusters. The improvisation had a tendency to default to a particular style—bursts of extended-technique scribbling over minimalist grooves—a little of which, for me at least, goes a long way. But the slower sections, where the players had an expanse of resonance to play into, built up into shimmering walls of sound.

The physical interaction between the players was minimal, ending in an apt tableau in which Pingray, Ziporyn, and Liu faced the wall, away from the audience and each other, while continuing to play. (Dessner had already left the space by this point.) The performance seemed to occupy the interstice between a group improvisation and five people improvising. Maybe you could call it a symbol of the gap between the perceived object and the real object.

***

Monstrance/Remonstrance then moved out of the museum, along the pier, and across the street, to the Our Lady of Good Voyage Chapel, for the second part of the piece: a screening of Ritchie’s film Remonstrance, to the live accompaniment of Dessner’s To the Sea. This, too, was a revival, having been premiered at the short-lived L&M Arts gallery in Los Angeles (though, like all of Ritchie’s works, it’s been continually tweaked and altered). Remonstrance was already playing as the audience was herded into the chapel. The film mixes sea imagery, computer animation, and allegorical ideas, all filtered through a sepia-toned, painterly filter of video processing. A drone flies over a beach; we see the pilings of a pier and a decaying bridge. (Harman: “The reality of the bridge is not to be found in its amalgam of asphalt and cable, but in the geographic fact of ‘traversable gorge.’ The bridge is a bridge-effect; the tool is a force that generates a world, one in which the canyon is no longer an obstacle.”) The whole is invaded by protozoa-like spheres, again recapitulating visual elements from painting and mural.

Worden and her on-film doppelgänger then made their entrances. (The film incorporates footage from an earlier, 2011 version of the piece, which included an installation/performance component that took place on Venice Beach.) In the chapel, Worden processed up the aisle with a model boat—a carvel-built, 17th-century English-style vessel, by the looks of it, appropriate for a pilgrimage—while on-screen Worden summoned seaweed-clad golems from the Pacific. Her costume made, perhaps, Harman-esque commentary: geometric patterns that evoked both fishnets and the harmony of the spheres, a carapace-like mask made of interlocking iterations of those jagged tendrils.

She was singing all the while, long, keening lines buoyed by Dessner and three trombones (Pingrey, Ian Maser, and Christopher Moore) and organ (Elaine Rombola) and Ziporyn, who turned up at the end. Perhaps this is reading too much into Dessner’s instrument of choice, but To the Sea seemed to derive its sound-world from a paradigm of guitar feedback: overtones and layers of pitch and noise built up into a shiny, grainy harmonic edifice. The basic progression was simple—a grim, lush circle of minor chords—but the musical surface (once again amplified and processed) was rich with constantly shifting texture. (One casualty of that texture was the text: Worden’s crystalline tone soared, but the actual words were largely a wash.) At the climax, Dessner veered into some marvelous big, dissonant, Messiaen-like chords: wide-angle, saturated luminosity.

***

I was kind of half-waiting for all of the disparate parts of Monstrance/Remonstrance to click into place, to come together in some summation, but they never do. Ideas mill around the same conceptual space, images are mirrored and echoed. It’s a series of partial glimpses of some theoretical, larger whole. I’m sure that’s intentional, but it kept running up against the notion that the piece was site-specific; the sites were more specific than the piece was, which sometimes made for an odd imbalance. It also brought to the fore how music is automatically site-specific in a way that visual arts have to work at.

Our Lady of Good Voyage, for example, is a utilitarian box of a building; apart from a couple of statues, some stained glass, and appropriately uncomfortable pews, there is not much in the architecture to suggest religious transcendence or mystery. Which is, one could say, part of the ontology of the place, a chapel for working sailors and fishermen whose required divine grace is of an unapologetically practical form: safety, security, survival. The way Remonstrance evoked the elemental nature of the sea, by way of mythology, was a little bit dissonant with such a practical place. I kept thinking of that most powerful of New England seafaring myths—Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick—and how its literary summoning of the sea’s power is inseparable from its exhaustive, anthropological detailing of the rituals and rules of shipboard life and the equipment and techniques of 19th-century whaling.

Of course, this was where the invocation of Harman’s real objects could answer any such quibbles. The performance’s disconnection from the place could, after all, reflect our inherent disconnection from the world of objects. The seeming jumble of images and ideas could, possibly, be taken as a shadow of a web of meaning beyond our perception. But Melville is dealing with real objects, too—he’s just doing it by describing, cataloging, narrating as much as he can, up to the limits of language, and in the process making you realize that it’s still not enough.

In press materials for the show, the ICA proposed that “the performance connects Boston’s seafaring history with its new identity as a hub of technology and innovation.” I could see a few connections in retrospect—that drone flying around at the beginning of Remonstrance, for instance—but, then again, you can see those connections just by walking around the neighborhood: building and development is going on all around the ICA. (Our Lady of Good Voyage, situated on prime real estate, is about to be moved.) Would I have been primed to think about those connections without the experience of Monstrance/Remonstrance? Probably not—in that sense, Ritchie’s project was a success. But I wonder if the connections would have been more immediate, more powerful, if it had been just the music—if we had heard the snaggy machinery of Propolis with only the view of the girders and excavators in the ICA’s parking lot, if we had heard the deep currents of To the Sea with the chapel as the main visual component, rather than just a box to be filled.

But what does it matter what I wonder? According to object-oriented ontology, none of it, not the sea, not the buildings, not the bulldozers, not the instruments or the loudspeakers, not the paintings and sculptures and rolls of film, not even my eyes and ears, none of it needs my consciousness in order to have presence and withdrawal and biographies and philosophical actuality. Maybe that’s the ultimate point of Ritchie’s work, that art, or anything we make or do, turns to music, essentially, as soon as its made or done: in the world, apart from us, beyond our sway or even comprehension. What is art? In multiple senses: it’s out of our hands.

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