The other green art
A sound installation at the LPC loops through Beirut.
PLEASE DO NOT POST ANY POLITICAL COMMENTS ON THIS BLOG.
THIS BLOG IS DEDICATED TO ART. AND AS SUCH, IT VOMITS ON ANYTHING CALLED POLITICS.
That’s from Mazen Kerbaj’s blog, or Kerblog (“beirut + free improvised music + comics + bombs + drawings”), as he calls it. I’ve found my way to his site via the Lincoln Park Conservatory after going to see Story Bush, an art project by “editorial horticulturist” Hugh Musick, and “Florasonic,” a sound installation series curated by the Experimental Sound Studio. The latter includes a collaboration with Beirut-based artist and trumpet player Kerbaj and Chicago composer Michael Zerang in the hot, humid Fern Room. The piece, The Fifth Pythia of Deir el Qamar, was inspired by the ancient Lebanese village of Deir el Qamar (“Monastery of the Moon”). Zerang and Kerbaj explore a mythical version of the place through sound. Walking through the installation, it was hard not to wonder what their collaboration might sound like today and, more important, how Kerbaj was faring.
Zerang has kept in touch daily with Kerbaj by e-mail since the war started. “He was supposed to be here the week that ‘Florasonic’ opened with two other Lebanese musicians, but obviously they couldn’t even leave the country,” Zerang says. “There was no way out.”
Until last year, Zerang ran the Candlestick Maker, a performance space in Albany Park. Three years ago, Kerbaj was coming to the States and wrote to ask if he could perform there. “I was fascinated because here was this improviser coming out of Lebanon,” Zerang says. Kerbaj then invited Zerang to perform at a small festival of experimental music that he co-organized in July 2005. Kerbaj took Zerang on a tour around the country, and one of the places they visited was Deir el Qamar. “So I’m watching the news, seeing all these places I have been recently that are completely devastated.”
Zerang went back to Beirut in April and recorded an elaborate improvised duet with Kerbaj. He reconfigured and manipulated the tapes when he returned to Chicago, creating the sound score which projects from speakers hidden throughout the Fern Room. Zerang created separate progressions ranging in length from 45 to 60 minutes and laid them down in four different channels issuing from the speakers. When the composition repeats, the loops are always out of sync. “You’ll never hear the same thing twice,” he says. “You are really defining the space with sound.” In The Fifth Pythia, the sound is always shifting, moving from one speaker to the next very gradually throughout the day. Zerang says he wanted to give the idea that under the surface of all the foliage, there’s a whole other ecosystem teeming with energy.
During my visit, the wailing of Kerbaj’s trumpet sounded like the screeching of elephants and monkeys. “It’s funny, once I put it in the space it sounded so jungly,” Zerang says. I asked Kerbaj via e-mail how he managed to focus on art while bombs were falling and also for some comments on the project. He responded: “I do not know how I can keep my focus on art. I have the naivety to imagine that any artist in the same position would do the same (I am not talking about Britney Spears here). I think that continuing to do what I usually do keeps me somehow sane. For the installation, the music was more likely improvised by both of us, and the animal sounds are intended and not intended. It is somehow our ‘usual’ sounds. We sound like animals!”
On the way out of the conservatory is Musick’s Story Bush. The artist wrote a 255-line narrative poem onto the leaves of a star-magnolia bush using a water-based paint pen. Musick says he’s concerned with “the poetics of unseen acts,” that is, doing small, beautiful things that are hardly noticed.
The poem started as a piece of prose. “I’m not terribly well versed in poetry but I am a much bigger fan of music and the way lyrics float,” he says. Musick called the Poetry Center for advice and it put him in touch with poet Dan Beachy-Quick. “He read through very generously and started striking lines out.” Musick rewrote the resulting poem in segments on the leaves. But that’s just the first phase. As the leaves begin to fall, Musick will gather them daily and create a new poem determined by the change of season. “I’ll probably check on it beginning the 20th of September,” he says.
Musick’s other public art work is on the wall at Hot Doug’s where he created a timeline on the history of encased meats. His wife is in educational publishing and Musick has taken to aping the authoritative voice of textbooks. He did a little of that with Story Bush, where the text of his made-up facts on the origin of the tree is placed in the planter, on the same rectangular metal plates used throughout LPC to identify plants. It’s impossible to read the tree in its entirety, in fact it would be pretty easy to miss. But Musick hopes that some of the words, “in these Magic 8-ball increments,” might catch visitors’ eyes and cause them to stop and look closer.
The Fifth Pythia of Deir el Qamar by Michael Zerang and Mazen Kerbaj is at Lincoln Park Conservatory through September 30. Story Bush will be on view through November 1. See Museums & Institutions. Check out Kerbaj’s blog at www.mazenkerblog.blogspot.com.