December 15, 2011
Friday, December 16 Happy Feet Two
See the sequel to the wildly popular 2006 hit Happy Feet in full IMAX 3D. In Happy Feet Two, the emperor penguin Mumble must confront a new challenge as his son runs away and joins a rival group. The film is voiced by a star-studded cast including Elijah Wood, Robin Williams, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon. Tickets are $15, and are available online. Showings at 5:40 p.m. daily, from Dec. 16 through Jan. 10. Natural History Museum, Samuel C. Johnson IMAX Theater.
Saturday, December 17 All About Me in D.C.
Come meet children’s author and illustrator Corkey Hay DeSimone, author of All About Me in D.C. The book is a unique kid-friendly guide to the nation’s capital, featuring trivia, fun facts, maps, polls, full color graphics and spots to jot down your own thoughts and draw what you see during your visit. Take this chance to have your copy of the book, available for sale in the museum store, autographed by the author. Free. 12 to 3 p.m. Natural History Museum, outside museum store.
Sunday, December 18 Title Tracks Unplugged
As part of the Luce Foundation Center‘s “Unplugged” series of intimate acoustic concerts with emerging artists, enjoy a performance by John Davis, frontman of the local D.C. group Title Tracks. Davis’ work draws influence from power pop, rock, and indie music. Get there early because a staff-led art talk through the museum kicks off the event. Free. Art talk meets in F St. lobby at 1:30 p.m., followed by concert in Luce Foundation Center, 3rd floor, at 2 p.m. American Art Museum.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Visitors Guide. Additional reporting by Michelle Strange.
September 23, 2011
This post is part of our on-going series in which ATM invites the occasional post from a number of Smithsonian Institution guest bloggers: the historians, researchers and scientists who curate the collections and archives at the museums and research facilities. Today, Amy Henderson from the National Portrait Gallery weighs in on cinema as art. She last wrote for us about David McCullough visiting the Smithsonian.
What is it about the “moving image” that stops us in our tracks? If someone posts a video on your Facebook wall, aren’t you more likely to click through than you are to other links? Why do we watch movies on our cell phones? Why is there a pedestrian mall in Times Square, where zillions of people sit in beach chairs and gaze at images beamed back in surround sound? In museums, visitors always crowd the moving image galleries. Why does video so stimulate the mind?
In the early 20th century, when film was silent and actors anonymous, people streamed into theaters to watch projections flicker across the silver screen. After the advent of “talkies,” Hollywood studios created a parallel universe of “larger-than-life” stars. Women bleached their hair platinum blonde in homage to Jean Harlow in Red Dust, and men drank martinis as if they were William Powell in The Thin Man. We wanted to wear what stars wore on screen: in the midst of the Depression, the sewing company Butterick sold 500,000 patterns of the puffed-sleeve dress Joan Crawford wore in the 1932 Letty Lynton, even suggesting less expensive materials for home sewers to substitute for the film star’s silk. The rapture seems limitless.
I’m fascinated by how movies define culture. Pre-movie America is chronicled in various media, but nothing moves—all that we have to examine from that era is static, like delicate butterflies pinned in a display case. And in fact, we have a hard time imagining those freeze-framed individuals moving, breathing, talking, walking, singing, even just going about their daily routines. When I take visitors through the Portrait Gallery’s exhibition “America’s Presidents,” I remind them that we don’t really know what our Founding Fathers even looked like, except as depicted by different artists; and we can only guess at what they sounded like.
I thought about film’s power to reveal recently as I prepared to introduce a screening of The Maltese Falcon at the Portrait Gallery. This 1941 movie marked John Huston’s debut as a director and Humphrey Bogart’s transition from typecast gangster to star. It is unmistakably Depression-era in its noirish shadows; like Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 novel of the same name, the movie’s narrative clips along like a newsreel; private eye Sam Spade (Bogart), the Fat Man (Sydney Greenstreet), and Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) are drawn boldly and speak in rapid-fire dialogue that reinforces the film’s staccato beat. The story’s captured moment leaves little time for nuance or subtlety; the narrative ruthlessly and relentlessly moves.
This staccato beat is a theme I emphasize when I take people through the Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of the 1920s through the 1940s—years that saw the rise of modern America. Between 1890 and the 1920s, 23 million immigrants had arrived on America’s shores; most were from Southern or Eastern Europe. Few spoke English. In that period, the face of the country changed. At the same time, the pastoral landscape of Emerson and Thoreau morphed into cityscapes: the 1920 Census showed that, for the first time, America was more urban than rural. New York emerged as a vast center of consumer culture, a billboard-and-neon furnace stoking—in one of my favorite phrases—“a staggering machine of desire.” It was a city that gave its pulse to Gershwin’s rhythms, Martha Graham’s choreography, and Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled fiction.
“Moving pictures” were a perfect metaphor for America’s rapidly changing staccato culture. Emerging in the dynamism of New York street life, movies won instant success as pop-up entertainment when entrepreneurs like Adolph Zukor, Louis B. Mayer and William Fox set up storefront theaters in the immigrant tenements of the Lower East Side. Language was no obstacle, so silent movies had a ready-made audience.
The ability of movies to transport us has remained one of this medium’s chief attractions. The irony is that while film is a remarkable cultural document that freezes time, it also removes us from the mundane.
Allison Jessing, a program coordinator who organizes film series here at the Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, told me that “film can be just as subversive, powerful and emotionally resonant as painting, sculpture, or any other traditional art form.” She believes that Smithsonian theaters should be considered galleries in their own right, “showcasing masterpieces the same way that we exhibit artworks that sit on a pedestal or hang on a wall.” One of the ways Jessing is doing this is by borrowing the “pop-up entertainment” technique from movies’ early entrepreneurs. To that end, the museums have purchased an inflatable 16-foot pop-up wide screen for projecting films in the Kogod Courtyard, and Allison will use the big screen for a larger-than-life series she’s calling “Courtyard Cinema Classics.”
On November 15, the first in the series will be presented—the 1949 A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a time-travel musical starring Bing Crosby and Rhonda Fleming. I am delighted to be introducing this film, which is based (very roughly) on Mark Twain’s 1889 novel of the same name; I may wear my boa.
Showcasing movies in museums proves once again that Sam Spade was right: they’re the stuff that dreams are made of.
A cultural historian at the National Portrait Gallery, Amy Henderson specializes in “the lively arts”—particularly media-generated celebrity culture. Her books and exhibitions run the gamut from the pioneers in early broadcasting to Elvis Presley to Katharine Hepburn and Katharine Graham. She is currently at work on a new dance exhibition entitled “One! Singular Sensations in American Dance,” scheduled to open in September 2013.
August 26, 2011
If flamingos were able to watch the new Hirshhorn “Black Box: Nira Pereg” presentation of the looped video 67 Bows (2006), no doubt they’d warn each other about Israeli digital artist Nira Pereg. In her video, she explores herd response theory when she appears to disrupt the serenity of a German zoo’s flamingo community with the repeated cocking and firing of a gun.
But all is not what it seems.
67 Bows was filmed during a snowstorm over Christmas in a nearly empty Karlsruhe Zoo. Though Pereg had initially desired to shoot a portrait of a flamingo, her project expanded into a study of group behavior utilizing the indoor colony of social birds.
“While visiting and studying the flamingo exhibit, [she] realized when visitors put their hands up, if one bird ducked, they all started to,” explained Hirshhorn curator Kelly Gordon. “This behavior inspired how this work was filmed and “scored.”” After shooting video of the flamingos being flamingos, making flamingo sounds, and then nodding and ducking in unison, the “score” was added.
The “score” in this case, being the repeated threatening sounds of a gun being cocked and then fired that break the silence and appear to shock the pink feathered video stars. Pereg synched her “score” with the pre-existing ducking “choreography” of the flamingos, making it appear as if they were reacting to the gunshots.
The timing of the gun soundtrack provides the illusion that the flamingos are actually responding to the sounds–and doing so in a Pavlovian manner. Initially, they only appear to duck when a shot is fired; however, eventually they cower at the sound of the cocking of the weapon and don’t even wait for the sound of the blast. The sight of flamingos bobbing their heads in unison almost in rhythm with the gun blasts is almost hypnotic. View a clip of the piece here.
Born in Tel Aviv in 1969, Pereg was raised in an environment where the threat of terrorism loomed daily. So was this piece designed to see if a potential threat affects individuals in a community the same way? “I was trying to make them [the flamingos] do a certain move in order to see the ones who don’t move,” Pereg said in a July 2010 Artis Video Series interview. “So 67 Bows is a lot about the ones who don’t bow.”
August 3, 2011
With the impending release this Friday of the documentary summer blockbuster Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I thought we should all be prepared in case we ever face chemically enhanced apes that attempt to take over our world. In the past on our site we’ve investigated zombies and kept a running record on robot technology, but the threat of ape rebellion had yet to be cataloged. The National Zoo’s Amanda Bania, a keeper who works with the great apes, told me that gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans and the other ape species can best us in many ways, even without being injected with mysterious serums by James Franco. This week’s list deals with 5 ways that apes outdo humans:
1) Apes are 7 to 10 times stronger than humans of a comparable weight, or as Bania puts it: “Apes are insanely strong. In a one-on-one they have us beat hands-down.”
2) They have four hands. While not technically true, apes’ feet are basically like hands, according to Bania. Their lower appendages are adapted to help them climb trees with ease. Additionally, their hands have “a have a reduced thumb and their fingers are longer, which helps them grip when moving through the trees,” says Bania. “You couple that with strength and it’s not a fair fight in the trees.” While orangutans are the only arboreal ape, giving them the best climbing skills, they are also the most solitary, so good luck getting them into any sort of infantry regiment.
3) Their army will be led by a chimpanzee. Chimps are exceptionally smart, which makes sense when you consider that they (and the more mild-mannered bonobos) are the primates most closely related to us (a 98.76 percent match by DNA). Chimps have to navigate complicated social structures in their groups. One might think that the 800-pound gorilla would boss his way around a group, but they operate in a single-male monarchy, says Bania. He would have no experience leading an army of other male apes (unless he had a WAC-equivalent composed of of bonobos—their social groups are female-led).
4) Chimpanzees are battle-tested. Not only would the chimpanzees be leading the revolution, but they are known to go on “border patrols” and even kill opponents. “There is group-on-group warfare in chimp society where if they find other males in their territory, they will hunt them down and kill them, more often than not,” says Bania.
5) Even their stupidest members are still smart. The intelligence scale of primates is rather clear. With humans at the top, it then moves from chimps and bonobos to other great apes to lesser apes on down to monkeys and then prosimians such as lemurs, which are at the National Zoo and “aren’t the brightest.” But, Bania is quick to point out, “Duke University has a lot of cognitive research with lemurs that shows they can work on a computer and do sequencing.”
In the end, “If anyone was going to take over and give us a run for our money, it would be chimps,” says Bania. Fortunately, the National Zoo doesn’t have any so we here in D.C. are safe. For now.
August 1, 2011
Events August 1-5: Seasons Arts of Japan, Doll Pins, Gherman Titov, Ancient Central America, Dinner and a Movie
Monday August 1 Artistic Monday
Don’t let the Monday blues creep in today. Join the Freer and the Sackler Galleries for ExplorAsia instead. Come to galleries 6 and 7 of the Freer at 1:30 to delve into the arts of Japan in Seasons: Arts of Japan. Explore paintings of cranes and owls. Marvel at the beauty of cherry blossoms or the paintings of the Japanese samurai as you discover the sights, sounds and activities of the seasons in Japan. Listen to beautiful poetry or create your own whimsical verse. Children are invited to act out what they see in the paintings and are encouraged to explore how a Japanese screen is made and used. This two-hour event is free and family-friendly so come for an hour or two.
Tuesday August 2 Make a Doll
Head down to the Anacostia Community Museum for a fun activity. Come to the program room of the museum at 10:30 where artist Camilla Younger is facilitating a workshop that invites visitors to create doll pins from a variety of crafts materials. After the dolls are complete, explore the exhibitions Anacostia has to offer. This event is free and visitors are invited to swing by the program room anytime between 10:30 and 12. For reservations call 202-633-4844.
Wednesday August 3 Russian Cosmonauts
This Wednesday at noon head to the Air and Space Museum for a special event. Meet at the museum seal in Milestones of Flight, Gallery 100 on the 1st floor of the museum take part in Ask an Expert Lecture Series. This Wednesday, join presenter Cathleen Lewis from the museum’s Space History Division as she explains the history, collections and the personality of Gherman Titov. Born in Verkhneye Zhilino, Titov was chosen as Russia’s second cosmonaut. He flew the Vostok 2 mission that launched in August of 1961, completing his mission in less than 26 hours after orbiting the earth 17 times. The 25-year-old cosmonaut was the youngest person to ever fly in space. After learning about Gherman Titov, explore the rest of Fifty Years of Human Flight.
Thursday August 4 Explore Ancient Central America
During the late 19th-century, travelers, scientists, politicians and archaeologists returned from Central America with never-before-seen artifacts. Numerous pieces ended up in museums or private collections, but regardless of their final resting places, the collections have helped define a unique history of Central America. This Thursday, join the Smithsonian Latino Center for the symposium, “Collecting Ancient Central America: Museums, Explorers, and Archaeologists in the Pursuit of the Past.” Come to the Rasmuson Theater on the first level of the American Indian Museum at 7 to take part. Keynote speaker Dr. John Hoopes of the University of Kansas will explain how individuals and institutions, as well as social and political factors have impacted the collecting of objects from Belize, Guatemala and Panama. This event is free, ending at 8:30.
Friday August 5 Dinner and a Movie
Friday is date night, so come to the American Indian Museum for dinner and a movie. Grab some dinner at the Zagat-rated Mitsitam Cafe between 5 and 6:30 then head into the Rasmuson Theater at 7 for the world premiere of “Always Becoming,” a new film by Santa Clara Pueblo artist Nora Naranjo-Morse. The film explores issues of Native identity, place and memory through the creation of modern sculpture. After the screening stick around for a question and answer session with director Nora Naranjo-Morse. Dinner is à la carte from the cafe, but the screening is a free event, seats are limited so be sure to register.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian Institution events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Visitors Guide.