Rolex Arts Weekend: I Discovered a Mountain
Brian Eno, Peter Sellars and Anish Kapoor talk about Art, Surrender, Scale and Mentorship
Photo Credit: Rolex/Marc Vannappelghem
“Clarity is a place where it is possible to act.”
Peter Sellars, Theatre Director and Opera Producer
As library patrons and tourists filed into the front entrance of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, another cluster of people formed along the side of the century-old institution. On a cloudy Sunday afternoon in November, a crowd of bookish types, journalists and rockers strained their necks for a glimpse of the soon-to-appear speakers as they walked into the Celeste Bartos forum of the New York Public Library, a ballroom sized space with towering ceilings. Four chairs had been arranged in a semi-circle on stage.
Those seats were filled by three of today’s most inventive artists, all of whom had served as mentors to emerging talents as part of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. Masters in their respective fields, Peter Sellars (theatre), Anish Kapoor (visual arts), and Brian Eno (music) were about to discuss their craft with Paul Holdengräber, the director of the culture series, LIVE from the NYPL. (Read WRR’s interview with Holdengräber.)
Holdengräber, the ever-sharp conversationalist, introduced his guests by quoting the seven-word, haiku-like biographies he had requested from them.
He began with his own:”If you want to be very modern, a sort of tweet,” he grinned.
Anish Kapoor: “As if to celebrate, I discovered a mountain.” (eight words)
Brian Eno: “I like making and thinking about culture.” (an obedient seven words)
“And, there are some people, not surprising, who don’t send me any words. And who do you think that might be?” asked Holdengraber with a smile.
Instead of sending his biography, Sellars had opted to spontaneously compose his on stage: “Anish Kapoor, Brian Eno, Maya Zbib, and…,” the theatre and opera director said with a smile, referring to the influences of the two mentors seated on either side of him, as well as that of his own Rolex Arts Initiative protégé.
Over the course of a nearly two-hour conversation, the quartet mused on: art as an act of radical sharing (in which the viewer or listener wholly participates); the human necessity of (and craving for) surrender and; the many ways in which art can help us become more comfortable with uncertainty.
“The whole point is to not know,” affirmed Anish Kapoor, “Most of our lives we are told what to do and how to do it. The liberty one has to afford oneself as an artist is that which says, ‘it’s okay to not know.’ That uncertainty, indeterminacy and all that is part of our role as artists and we must dare to go there wholeheartedly everyday.”
“There is a line I love quoting from Karl Ginsberg,” interjected Holdengräber, “that he starts every bit of new research with the ‘euphoria of ignorance’…and in a way it’s an aphrodisiac…it’s euphoric, it’s highly inspiring.”
“Well, it’s a first love, isn’t it?” asked Kapoor.
From the exhiliration of love, the conversation moved to the artist’s concept of size and scale in the creative process. “I saw Anish Kapoor’s work in Paris and it was actually like getting hit in the stomach when you walk into that room and see the biggest sculpture you’ve ever seen in your life,” said Brian Eno. “But we have the scale problem in music as well, you know. One of the bands I work with is such a loud band that they recently set off seismometer in Belgium because the authorities thought there was a very “unusual earthquake” going on.”
“Scale actually changes things. It isn’t just the same thing bigger,” said Eno. “When you blow up a mouse to the size of an elephant, it immediately collapses because its legs don’t grow big enough….You have to remember that things are always different at different scales and the same is true with sculpture and with sound and whatever activity we’re involved in.”
“So, in a way, your saying that size actually does matter,” juantily asked Holdengräber, at which point the audience had a good laugh.
But Peter Sellars introduced a more sobering tone into the concept of scale.
“Scale is also a moral issue. Because moral questions are always about relationships…if relationships lose a sense of scale, they no longer seem real. People don’t have to relate to one another with honesty because the scale takes over. That’s the issue in large-scale government…because honesty must be visible.”
“One of the most complex, but very simple things we can do is create spaces where people can meet each other—where people who need to talk can finally meet,” Sellars said about his gratitude for the Rolex’s mentorship initiative. “There is space in people’s lives that has been earmarked for exchange and I think there’s nothing more valuable on earth than that.”
Photo Credit: Rolex/Marc Vannappelghem
With all of its humor, moral questioning, collective wisdom and creative exchange, Sunday’s conversation didn’t end when the participants left the stage. Their words continued to hum (in the quotes you’ll find below) only hours later during the performances of protégés Lee Serle in dance and Ben Frost in music.
During the four hour “intermission” the sun had been snuffed out, leaving the library cloaked in a ghostly halo of light against the dim park. Once inside, people shook off the nighttime chill as they situated themselves in one of the library’s grand foyers where an intimate space had been formed for Lee Serle’s dance performance, P.O.V. Rows of chairs enclosed the center, where 24 swivel stools were symmetrically laid out. Attendees who had arrived early enough were offered these seats, which Serle had arranged to be his stage.
When the modern, fractured music started, the four dancers rushed between the rows of stools. As they passed, one could feel the gust of air and see their sweaty faces, hear their heavy panting and a radiant heat from their bodies.
Then suddenly, the dancing stopped, and the four lithe bodies began pacing the area, pausing to look intently into the eyes of the spectators, one at a time, beckoning them to become participants.
“The big problem of the 21st century is how do we share the planet. How do we get out of these nightmarish structures where we’ve isolated ourselves, where we’ve built walls and borders to keep people apart?” –Peter Sellars
The dancers then regained their liveliness, with one of the female performers bringing a set of dual headphones to share with an audience member as Lee Serle gave another attendee an upper-back massage.
Another male dancer wrapped his arms around the body of a gentleman on a stool, asking throughout, “Is this okay?”
“One of the things that I think artists want to do is to give you places where you can stop being the you that’s you in control and start to become part of something, to be carried along by something.” –Brian Eno
And then, with the sound of a champagne bottle being popped open, the four dancers reconvened, bringing with them another audience member to share drinks with them. Heavy metal music blared, making the scene feel more like a house party.
“Art is very good about saying, ‘Come here and be part of this and share in this thing that widens our human experience.’” –Anish Kapoor
But just as suddenly, the dance regained its composure, and the performers continued the seemingly interrupted choreography that had started the show, passing through the rows, looking intently into the distance.
Following Serle’s performance, the crowd moved to the Rose Main Reading Room, the silent heart of the library. The chandeliers were dimmed, but the desk lamps were still illuminated, as if expecting focused study to continue. Bowls of earplugs were placed at the centers of each of the wooden work tables, not to block out any faintly lingering sound, but because Ben Frost and his composition, Music for 6 Guitars, would soon be assaulting the room with the visceral and dark noise of six guitars and seven brass instruments arranged by Nico Muhly.
“Our job as artists is to take that thing that is considered inconceivable and begin to become comfortable with it instead of run the other way immediately.” –Peter Sellars
Frost, who describes his music as “genre-defying work, influenced as much by classical minimalism as by punk rock and metal,” had assigned each of the guitarists to play one or two chords as hard as they could throughout the forty-five minute piece, making the performance a feat of endurance and concentration. What started as the soft, repetitive jangle of strumming on unamplified guitars soon became the menacing and abrasive sound of shredded electric noise and lacerating, blaring horns, taking on different rhythms even after extended periods of repetition.
“Your brain isn’t the passive listener. Your brain is doing things to the sound all of the time and the act of processing can be used as part of the act of composition.” –Brian Eno
As if by magic, what the audience heard was different from what they saw being played. From a distance, Frost toyed with the input of the 13-piece band on his mixing console, ultimately dictating what was heard in real-time.
“We always want art to be at least as complex of our understanding of things.” –Brian Eno
And when the music stopped, the band had left, and room started to regain its silent disposition, the infrasonic vibrations lingered.
Paulina Reso is a freelance journalist whose articles have focused on literature, technology, and cultural oddities. She has contributed to The New Yorker, Village Voice, New York Daily News, and mediabistro.com. When she isn’t writing, she’s playing jazz clarinet, toying with HTML and CSS, or concocting vegetarian recipes.
Works by Paulina Reso
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