Scott Benzel, (Threnody) A Beginner’s Guide to Mao Tse-tung—for 2 tape loops, dancers, cello, viola, violin, and percussion and Math Bass, Brutal Set, both part of Made in LA, at the Hammer Museum, June 22, 2012
Two intriguing performances happened at the Hammer Museum last night, as part of the Made in LA biennial. If you missed them, Math Bass’ performance will be reprised tomorrow (Sunday, June 24) at 3pm, and Scott Benzel’s will happen again on Thursday, June 28, at 7:30pm, as part of the Hammer Bash announcing the Mohn Award finalists.
Benzel’s work takes its inspiration from a bizarre 1967 Esquire magazine photo essay in which doomed beauty Sharon Tate was used to illustrate aphorisms from Mao’s Little Red Book. A collection of beautiful people of both genders models each of the looks adopted by Tate in the essay, using the symbolically-charged implements (farm hoe, shotgun, etc.) to compose noise on a tape loop while moving around and striking poses. Their movements are accompanied by musicians improvising a score. Since the original essay doesn’t make sense and is blatantly exploitative to boot, it is a logical move to take the eye candy it provides and dissipate it into an experimental noise composition. I found it dramatic, evocative, and lovely to watch.
Bass’ piece is as painfully earnest as Benzel’s is coolly transformative. Ladders, pants, plants, and friends are the elements at play in this organic composition that mixes choral singing with interactive movement. While helping and hugging each other, Bass and her players intone the following score over and over: “scores of blood and fire and freeways / I am going to get my share / who say you have to be a dead dog / well and it comes down and it comes down and it comes it comes/ one is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.” The feeling is of a group of innocents searching together for a unique means of expression.
The piece climaxes when Bass ascends a ladder held up by her friends, and crashes a potted plant to the ground. I wish it had ended there; breaking the silence by playing Three Dog Night’s “One is the Loneliest Number” on the PA system while the cast reconvenes for a final bow makes the whole piece, in retrospect, feel a bit like an old Electric Company skit, and not in a good way. Leaving it on the spotlighted broken plant would have been more evocative and less feel-goody.