Sunday, April 24, 2011

Week 5: Ekphrasis (translating the verbal into visual)

Constraint for week 5:

We will meet at the Ross Art Gallery in the Fisher Fine Art library (220 South 34th St., between Walnut and Spruce). Visit the gallery the week before Feb. 21 and write poems in response to or to accompany or exist in conjuntion with the work on view at the gallery [NOTE from SSD: This has changed since the time we went. When we went the gallery had work in an exhibit called "Post-Mao Dreaming: Contemporary Chinese Art"]The show presents contemporary art from China. Be sure to bring a hard copy of what you write so you can perform it. You are free to approach this assignment as you like, but let me make this initial suggestion: Write down everything you see in the work, a complete description. This can be in prose. When we meet at the Ross gallery, you will each present your work; this will be a performance situation, where you will find a spot in the gallery to read from; and we will talk about reading in the space and performance in general. It is also possible to involve others from the seminar in the performance. It is also possible to write something for the space rather than a specific work.
Extensions:  Write a poem to accompany an image A good source of on-line images is the
PennSlide library and ArtStor (via library e-resources). Write a poem to be read in a place.

The gallery is very, very tiny. It's essentially just one long room. There couldn't have been more than thirty works in there, tops, and there's hardly any furniture. So, I looked around. I loooooove chickens, so I picked a painting with two hens by Cheng Shifa and sat right down.

I had looked at the text that accompanies the painting, text which I have to recover from the notebook I scribbled it in, so that's soon to come!

Here is my commentary from the time:

"This was great fun to write. I was naturally attracted to the chicken painting because I love chickens. But I never know what to say when I "talk about art" because I think it's so subjective, and I never have the words to communicate what I mean. So I wanted to approach this from a different angle, and I found my inspiration from one line in the info card: "In Shanghai, in May 1980, Cheng Shifa painted this charming image of two chickens amidst flowering shrubs as a gift for Joan Lebold Cohen." This got me thinking about the story behind the painting. Why chickens? Why chickens amidst flowering shrubs? What does that mean, if anything? Why make it a "gift" for this Joan Lebold Cohen woman? Who was she to Cheng Shifa? Why did she donate (or sell) this, what was once a gift, to the Smith College Museum of Art (I think she must have donated most of the collection because I saw her name everywhere on the other paintings)? How would Cheng Shifa feel about this if he knew the chickens painting was given away?
Taking this idea and running with it actually made me engage with the painting more than I probably would have done if I had tried and failed to describe it or find artistic meaning in it. I found that in creating a back story it made me look at it in a different light, thinking less about the best way to express myself and instead take a step back (literally)."
And so the poetry was born. I banged it out in ten or fifteen minutes. It just all came together. Little did I know that the gallery was actually supplied by Joan Lebold Cohen, who had traveled around in post-Mao China and collected art from the artists in the art schools there. In fact, when you first step into the Gallery on the right, there was a 40 minute long video about her and about her collection and her commentary on it. I found this out the next day. Aso note that I took some artistic liberties. The two chickens are hens, not a hen and a rooster. So I'm calling on you for a suspension of disbelief.

My poem:

"Gift for Joan Lebold Cohen, 1980"

I am writing to tell you
That you are dead.
But that chicken picture you did,
That black and colored ink,
On paper,
On cream silk brocade,
That was a gift for Joan,
Is now public.

Ms. Joan Lebold Cohen,
Nee Joan Lebold,
Smith College class of 1954,
Has betrayed you.
Has exposed you.
Given it away.
She took "Two Chickens" out of her attic
And sold it to pay for rent
When she was down on luck.
And with that
Now  you have your picture,
Painted out of frustration
Of your illicit, erotic affair,
Painted to remind her of you,
You the grey cock,
And she in her dominatrix black hen coat,
Is now for all the world to see.
Maybe she never understood
That the scene was based on that morning when you got up at dawn together to watch the sun rise.
A simultaneous crow
A cockle doodle do
Sexual, climactic, bittersweet
(though of course you aren't chickens)

I'm sorry, Mr. Shifa.
If you take solace in one thing
Let it be that right now
And probably forever
Someone will stand by it and say,
"This speaks to me."
When we performed it in class, we first did our own presentation and then took suggestions from classmates on how to do it a different way. The bench in the gallery was right in front of the picture naturally, and we were given fold out chairs for the occasion. My first performance had everyone come up and read the info card on the wall to the right of the painting and then go back and set in line with the bench. Next, at the suggestion of someone, got two people to be the characters in the story, and I had them say the lines to each other while I narrated. The poem went over well which made me happy because it went over well with me, too. :)

On another note, tomorrow (Monday, April 25th) is our last class. We are each putting together a chapbook or something and performing something in front of the class. It is already 4:07 PM on Sunday, and I have not started either! Yikes! I have an idea for my chapbook, though. I'm going to do a couple different poems based on illustration. I will try to alternate between writing poems to accompany art I come across, making art of my own to accompany poems, and making my own poems with my own illustrations. I know it's ambitious, but let's hope the pay off is good!

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