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Sisters of Mercy 

Meredith Monk on art and war . . . and the healing power of performance

Wednesday, Feb 6 2002
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PERCHED ATOP THE NARROW LEDGE OF A MANHATTAN HOTEL-BALLROOM STAGE LAST month, a full head and a half shorter than the rest of her vocal ensemble, Meredith Monk surged and swayed, her whole body -- her entire being -- enveloped within the mesmerizing incantation she was coaxing from the crowd. With her childlike braids whipping back and forth across an impish face that tends to rest in a generously gleeful smile, Monk has a decidedly otherworldly presence, and a bit of the shaman about her. In that particular moment, she was what she would call "transparent" -- an animated vessel for an astonishingly supple three-octave voice that she wields dexterously through a range of evocative melodies.

For Monk, the voice has proved to be a limitless, profoundly capable instrument for communicating the depth and range of human experience. Since the '60s, she has pursued its ability to communicate landscape, character, gender, scale, dimension and emotion in a range of groundbreaking musical compositions. She also has pioneered multimedia theatrical forms (call it new opera, musical theater, interdisciplinary performance -- just don't call it dance) based on her highly physical, extended vocal technique, and worked in film and installation art.

For Mercy, which will play at UCLA's Royce Hall Thursday evening, Monk collaborated with acclaimed installation artist Ann Hamilton. Like Monk, Hamilton has a predilection for immersive, transformative experiences; to this end, she creates beguiling performative environments saturated with a rich multitude of smells, colors and mystery -- walls shed tears, flour rains down, a woman sits quietly sewing next to a 48-foot-long bouquet. Together they've produced a timely meditation on the wonder and horror of human nature. In New York, Monk spoke about the making and meaning of Mercy.

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L.A. WEEKLY: What was the genesis of Mercy and this unique collaboration between you and Ann?

MEREDITH MONK: When you work for a long period of time, you try to find ways to create risky situations to get out of your habitual behavior, so I was looking for a way of pulling the rug out from underneath me. I'd been working on installations, but I'd never really worked with a visual artist, and the artist who came to mind was Ann. I didn't know her, but her work seemed very close to how I think about things. There's a quiet in both of our work, and a sense of mystery -- mystery that doesn't need to be solved. In terms of our site-specific work, I think we share the idea of going into a space and excavating a culture.

 

How did the piece take shape?

We explored the idea of a music concert with images, and tried to find a form that wasn't a theater piece. My last piece, Magical Frequencies, was very playfully theatrical. Mercy isn't quite what I'd call anti-theater, but it's not really theater. It's a very meditative, painterly piece. It has an art-installation aspect to it, but we realized we couldn't use huge materials like in some of Ann's work. With a â touring piece, you don't have three weeks to set up the space. What we're doing sculpturally is with sound. We talked about the volume of the whole space, so I've written music that the audience is surrounded by. Ann did a lot of work with these tiny video cameras -- one is in my mouth, so when I open it to sing, images are projected on a screen, and when I close my mouth, it goes dark.

 

Why mercy?

When we started thinking about mercy, we talked about the potential for help and harm that the mouth and hand could have, which is quite abstract and elemental. On a more specific level, we were working on the piece at the beginning of the Intifada in September 2000. I turned on the television and there on the screen were this father and son caught in the crossfire as they were walking home from school. And they were pleading for their lives, and then they were shot. It was just so shocking. Why couldn't there have been a cease-fire for one minute to let these innocent people continue on their way? Why couldn't there have been just a few minutes of mercy? I started thinking about South Africa, and the really hard problems in the townships before the ANC came into power, where people were killing their own. People were begging for their lives, and they would say, "No. We want your life." The idea that you could actually say that to someone! I'm loath to talk about sources, because people think this inspired the entire piece, and it didn't. I've been doing a Buddhist practice for a long time, and I contemplate a lot on human ignorance, aggression and indifference.

 

I can see how you'd hesitate to tell that story, given everyone's heightened sensitivity since September 11. How has that affected reactions to the piece?

In a way, the piece is like a requiem. And we didn't know how resonant it would be. For example, there's this image of paper falling down from the sky. After September 11, we asked ourselves, "Are we going to do this?" We hadn't gotten it together for the July premiere [at the American Dance Festival], but from the beginning we'd talked about it, and Ann was working on it in her studio. It was very important to the time structure of the piece, so we just did it. And it's breathtaking.

 

Do you believe that you, as an artist, play a role in moments of national trauma?

Live performance is very important in a time like this. It's a very affirmative experience, because it's a place where people can gather in the present moment. That's a healing influence. The piece has a kind of energy almost like an ocean, it has waves of energy that you just can't go against and a very sustained kind of mood. I think that's what people are responding to since September 11. It gives people a chance to be in touch with themselves and their spectrum of perception and feeling. Art has that capacity. It's a very openhearted kind of energy. Another aspect of live performance is that it's extremely vulnerable. It's like being on a tightrope -- we can fall off anytime. With very good performers, there's always a kind of vulnerability, a kind of transparency. And to just experience that, the risk of that, is very moving.

Anne Hamilton: Immersion

L.A. WEEKLY: One of the more fascinating aspects of Mercy is the use of video technology.

ANN HAMILTON: For several years, I'd been playing around with handmade pinhole cameras that fit into my mouth -- the aperture is in the camera, but my lips function as the shutter. When you open your mouth as if to speak, you expose the film. I was trying to think of a situation in which you could photograph yourself where you're totally unselfconscious, where you don't have the apparatus between you and the photograph. Now the apparatus was the body.

At the same time, I was also working with small surveillance cameras that are about half an inch big. I had an idea that all the images would come from sound or vocal production. There's been an ongoing linkage in my work between a window and a void, but I've never done anything like this live -- no one's been willing to sing with my cameras before! The projection screen is the scale of the stage -- it's quite gigantic -- so the light video became a way to cross the barrier of the proscenium stage. While you're outside seeing the whole scene, the simultaneous projection from within the scene places you also on the stage.

 

You don't normally collaborate. How did your work intersect with Meredith's?

I'm interested in live presence, and Meredith's work is about a coming into presence. I'm also very interested in voice, as both material and metaphor and action. It's been a long, recurrent process in my work of trying to understand what I mean when I say "the voice of the work." But one also collaborates out of a longing for things that you can't do in your own work. It was an extraordinary gift to be surrounded by what it is Meredith and her singers do -- it's very different from the forms I usually work in. There's a different kind of immersive quality that comes out of her work, and I'm very interested in experiences that are immersive.

 

Your own work is inherently immersive as well.

In installation art, just to cross the threshold into it is to be surrounded, to be implicated in it. It's a position you can't be outside of. You might not be willing to enter into the experience intellectually or emotionally, but you're physically in there -- and in physically immersive experiences we become aware of other kinds of sensory experiences. You lose that kind of self-consciousness that often distances you from something. There's different ways of achieving that. Everybody has memories of watching something with a sense of wonder, and when you watch something with wonder, you lose your distance to it. What continues to interest me is to find the places that we allow ourselves to have those experiences.

MEREDITH MONK and ANN HAMILTON | MERCY | At UCLA's ROYCE HALL | Thursday, February 14, 8 p.m.

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