November 15, 2011
Brush up on your German, zip up your lead-lined pants and bring your NukAlert badge when you go check out the film Under Control [Unter Kontrolle] tonight, Tuesday, November 15, at 7:00 at the Hirshhorn Museum. This timely work explores both the design aesthetics and the behind-the-scenes of what really happens behind the scenes at nuclear reactors.
Filmed in the wide-screen Cinemascope, the camera moves deliberately over several locations, running the gamut from active nuclear plants, decommissioned reactors, training classes and radioactive waste storage facilities—even shooting over an open research reactor while the fuel rods were being changed. Kind of gives you a warm, glowing feeling, doesn’t it?
Hollow, echoing sounds reflect the underlying menace that’s present. Yet there’s an appeal to the clean lines of the sterile, industrial design and a retro Eastern European feel to the furniture and instrument panels that ironically control some of the most powerful forces on the planet.
Hirshhorn associate curator Kelly Gordon first saw the piece at the Berlin Film Festival this past February and came away impressed. “It is a mind-blowing study of the haunting elegance of the hardware of the industry,” she says. “The film meditates on the poetry of technology but also the echo of mass destruction.”
Director Volker Sattel, who will be on hand for tonight’s screening, came up with the idea for the piece in 2007 while in Vienna. He was visually inspired by the concentric construction of UNO-City, the 1970s-style high-rise headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Additionally, the men in dark suits and stylishly-dressed women there reminded him of the men-in-black portrayal of the secret service in American cinema.
Sattel actually grew up where nuclear reactor towers loomed on the horizon, in the German town of Speyer. He brings an objective and stylized eye to the German nuclear discussion.
“We encountered an industrial-scale technology that was both fascinating and creepy at the same time,” Volker told Berlin Art Link in April of 2011. “Looking at the long term, you can sense the enormous challenges and ludicrous efforts that this form of energy generation demands of human beings.”
October 31, 2011
Master magician Harry Houdini made a living wowing audiences and escaping from death-defying situations. But this day in 1926 the Great Houdini was unable to cheat death one more time and succumbed to peritonitis resulting from a ruptured appendix at age 52.
“Harry Houdini is famous for his incredible feats of magic,” says historian David C. Ward of the National Portrait Gallery, “all of which required meticulous planning and preparation.”
Born Erik Weisz to Jewish parents in Budapest, Hungary in 1874, Houdini’s family immigrated to Appleton, Wisconsin, when he was four years old. He adopted the “Harry Houdini” moniker in 1891 when he became a professional magician, in honor of French magician Jean Eugene Robert Houdin and American magician Harry Kellar.
Houdini started out with card tricks at small venues and progressed to escape acts on the vaudeville circuit, eventually earning the title of “The Handcuff King.” “For him,” illusionist David Blaine noted to The New York Times in October of last year, “sometimes the difficult thing was keeping the handcuffs on.”
As Houdini’s stature as a performer increased, he had to up the ante with new stunts to please spectators. “I knew, as everyone knows,” wrote Houdini, “that the easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that at a given time and a given place someone is going to attempt something that in the event of failure will mean sudden death.”
Houdini escaped from a wide variety of objects, including items suggested by his audience: straitjackets, boilers, wet sheets, milk jugs and supposedly even the belly of a preserved “1,600-pound sea monster” that had washed ashore in Boston.
His 1912 underwater box escape in New York’s East River was proclaimed by Scientific American magazine as “one of the most remarkable tricks ever performed.” And Houdini continued his string of legendary stunts, debuting his legendary Chinese Water Torture Cell later that year. In it he was suspended upside-down in a locked glass and steel cabinet overflowing with water.
“Amidst the sensation,” says Ward, “what is not as well known, however, is that Houdini also spent much of his career debunking and exposing charlatans and con-men who used aspects of magic, especially séances with the dead, to dupe a credulous public. Spiritualism had an upsurge after World War I as populations that had suffered horrendous loses sought ways of coping. But Houdini dismissed claims of the supernatural as so much quackery that cruelly played on the hopes of those who had lost loved ones.”
But how did he finally die? Houdini apparently had been suffering from appendicitis for weeks before his death on Halloween of 1926, but hadn’t sought out treatment. Things came to a head after an October 20 performance at the Princess Theater in Montreal. According to eyewitnesses, Houdini was laying on a couch having his portrait sketched by a student when Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead, a McGill University student, entered the room. Whitehead asked to test Houdini’s claim to be able to absorb any blow to the body above the waist without injury.
Upon Houdini’s supposed approval, Whitehead delivered multiple blows to Houdini’s stomach, reportedly hitting him three times before the magician was able to tighten his stomach muscles to protect himself sufficiently.
It’s likely Houdini’s appendix would have burst on its own without striking. Houdini still continued to travel while in severe pain, and arrived in Detroit on October 24, 1926 for what would be his final performance. He took the stage at Garrick Theater even with a fever of 104 and a diagnosis of acute appendicitis. When Houdini had surgery to remove his appendix later that afternoon, doctors discovered it had ruptured and that he was suffering from peritonitis. Houdini died of peritonitis seven days later October 31 at age 52.
“Houdini’s death was ironic and tragic in equal measure, ” says Ward. “His escape artistry required him to be in incredible physical condition, able to endure small spaces in a twisted pose and capable of wriggling free from straitjackets, chains and other ingenious restraints. His body was battered and bruised both by the acts themselves and all the training.”
More than 80 years later, Houdini still captures imaginations. “I am so amazed that even though Houdini died in 1926…the world is still baffled and mystified by him,” Dorothy Dietrich wrote on the Harry Houdini Museum website. Dietrich, who is a leading female magician and a board member for the museum says, “He instills a feeling of wonder to everyone just by mentioning Houdini’s name. Poof!”
October 28, 2011
Toni Morrison’s gaze in a large-format portrait seems to stare knowingly at you when you enter the new multimedia exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Opening today, The Black List: Photographs by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders features 50 portraits of prominent African Americans from different fields ranging from entertainment to medicine to politics. For photographer Greenfield-Sanders, his collaborator, film critic and radio host Elvis Mitchell, and executive producer Tommy Walker, the term “blacklist” becomes a badge of honor.
“We were fortunate to be able to have a project that could deliver a message that pulled us away from stories and films that were about victimization [to ones that were] more about success,” said Walker.
It’s only fitting that Morrison’s portrait is the first viewers see, since her 2006 conversation with Greenfield-Sanders provided the initial creative spark for the project. And her participation in the project gave credibility to it as far as other celebrities’ participation. “It’s easier to make the call and say ‘We just interviewed Toni Morrison, would you like to be in this film,’” said Greenfield-Sanders.
The process began on a napkin. Greenfield-Sanders and Mitchell scrawled on it a veritable who’s who list of the African American world. Twenty-five subjects were selected for The Black List: Volume One; Greenfield-Sanders shot the portraits and directed the film while Mitchell interviewed the subjects. Eventually two more volumes were produced, and this exhibition is the first time that all 50 images from all three volumes are being shown together. “It’s a very special moment for me,” revealed Greenfield-Sanders.
The crisp, clean large format portraits are elegantly shot using one light source and a gray backdrop. The five-foot by four-foot prints are pasted into simple white frames with no matting, yet the large-format of the images gives them an element of grandeur and reflects the dignity and importance of the subjects.
In the video portion, subjects share bits of wisdom or anecdotes from life with Elvis Mitchell. Interviews can be lively or compelling, and the visual style is the same as Greenfield-Sanders’ portraits. “You always think when you look at Timothy’s pictures, ‘what are they thinking, what should they be saying,’ and this time they’re actually saying it,” noted Mitchell in HBO’s Making of The Black List documentary.
Greenfield-Sanders masterfully captures the character and style of his subjects in his portraits, whether it be the intensity in the expression of hip hop artist and mogul P. Diddy or the Asian elements reflected in the pose of hip hop producer RZA. “If you let people do what’s natural to them, I think that’s the best approach for a portrait,” said Greenfield-Sanders. “For me it always has been.”
The Black List: Photographs by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders will be at the National Portrait Gallery until April 22, 2012.
October 5, 2011
There’s a wonderful little nip in the air that’s invaded the Metro area, and finally taken the edge off that dreadful humidity that had been lingering like in-laws that just won’t take the hint to leave. It’s the perfect time for you and that special someone to go out for the evening and kick up your heels, or get out to learn something. And wouldn’t you know it, the Smithsonian museums have a full slate of varied evening events scheduled for pretty much every night this month. We’ve selected an uneven eleven, because that’s just how we roll.
1. See a film: If you’re a fan of Asian cinema, Friday nights at 7:00 at the Freer Gallery this October could be your bag, baby. The ambitious Boxer Rebellion tale, 55 Days at Peking, featuring Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner, is playing October 7. You can check out Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, the aptly-titled film about Puyi, the last emperor of China on October 14. And in Rebels of the Neon God, October 21, a street hood gets a overly zealous student admirer.
2. Gaze into the starry, starry night: Get all romantic and hold hands with that special someone while you do some stargazing at the museum’s Public Observatory at the Air and Space Museum. No excuses, guys. You’ve got three dates to chose from—October 8, 21 or 22.
3. Get your dose of intellectual: Share an art outing Wednesday, October 12 at 7:00 and head over to the Smithsonian American Art Museum for figurative painter and portraitist Elizabeth Peyton’s lecture on the creative experience. Peyton is best known for her smaller-scale paintings of stylized, elongated, androgynous figures.
4. Play ball: True, the Nationals didn’t make the playoffs, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to stop loving baseball. The authors of Baseball Americana: Treasures from the Library of Congress will be on hand for signing and discussion at the National Portrait Gallery Wednesday, October 12 at 6:00 7:00. The book uses the Library of Congress’ vast trove of baseball goodies to cover over two centuries of baseball history.
5. Expand your music horizons: Go hear the performance of American composer Daron Hagen’s new concerto for Japanese koto and string quartet Thursday, October 13 at the Freer Gallery. The piece is based on the eleventh-century work of Japanese literature, Tale of Genji, and the soloist Yumi Kurosawa has appeared at Carnegie Hall.
6. Go the sophisticated route: Take your date to After Hours at the Hirshhorn for modern art, cocktails and live music October 14 at 8:00. Tickets are $25 in advance, and the event usually sells out!
7. Chase storms like the pros do: Head over to the IMAX Theater at the Natural History Museum October 20 at 7:00 to catch Tornado Alley 3-D. Director Sean Casey, along with featured scientists Josh Wurman and Karen Kosiba, will be on hand to answer questions like, “Why the heck do you go outside while there’s a gigantic tornado going on?” Tickets are $10 for members, $13 for general admission.
8. Do the locomotion: Receive a history lesson in cinematic form, courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. American Experience: Transcontinental Railroad covers the six-year construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, in all its laborious glory Thursday, October 20 at 6:30.
9. Be a problem solver: Head over to the Anacostia Museum Thursday, October 20 for the lecture and book signing The Heart of the Race Problem: The Life of Kelly Miller. Author Ida E. Jones will be discussing the accomplishments of Miller, the first African American admitted to Johns Hopkins University in 1887. Miller, who pursued a doctorate in mathematics, physics and astronomy, later became interested in improving relationships between the races.
10. Go trick or treating: Have kids, or just want to remember the good old days of trick-or-treating? Head over to Boo at the Zoo at the National Zoo on either October 21, 22 or 23 at 5:30. Throw a costume on your child, or don one yourself and enjoy wildlife and treats. Tickets are $20 for FONZ members, $30 for non-FONZ members.
11. Take flight: If you and your special someone happen to dig airpower, check out the lecture over at Lockheed Martin IMAX Theatre by Captain Rosemary Bryant Mariner October 27 at 8:00. Mariner was one of the first eight women to enter military pilot training back in 1973, and was the first woman to fly a front-line attack aircraft.
Update 10/12/2011: The baseball event this evening takes place at 6 and not 7 p.m., sorry for the inconvenience.
Mickey Hart, the former percussionist for the legendary San Francisco jam band Grateful Dead has never met a world beat he didn’t like. And that’s reflected in the new Smithsonian Folkways world music series that he’s curating, “The Mickey Hart Collection,” that will be released October 11.
Comprised of 25 albums, the series includes music from regions that span the globe, including Sudan, Nigeria, Tibet, Indonesia, Latvia and Brazil. Listen to the albums in this series and no doubt you’ll come away having heard genres and instruments you’ve never heard before, like the ngoma, oud, bouzouki, darabukka, or the dungchen. The album series includes Hart’s solo projects, plus other artists’ productions, as well as re-releases of out-of-print titles.
But how did the drummer for a counter-culture jam band become entranced with rhythms from around the globe? It turns out he’s been worldly for some time. “I was entranced as a young boy by the rhythms of West Africa by way of Cuba, Haiti,” Hart told Smithsonian Folkways in a recent interview. “They all were the rhythms that spawned the music of American music, because they were everywhere and you could dance to them. They were polyrhythmic. They were dance music. And I loved the music that made you dance.”
While living in the Bay Area during the late 1960s, Hart recorded exotic musicians like sitarist Ravi Shankar and sarodist Ali Akbar Khan. Though the musicians weren’t household names in the United States at the time, Hart respected their virtuosity.
“I treated each recording as if it would sell a million copies,” Hart recalled to Smithsonian Folkways. “I always recorded it at the highest resolution and had it mastered at the same place I was mastering Grateful Dead material.”
Listen to audio samples from “The Mickey Hart Collection.”