Robert Whitman

Black Dirt
At Experimental Media Facility,  Media Lab, MIT.

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, January, 1990)

Robert Whitman was one of many artists in the early 1960’s who participated in Happenings – loosely structured events designed to break down the boundaries between painting and theater, artist and audience, art and life.  Happenings were theater without drama, painting without pictures, music without melody.  They opened up the world of art to daily life.  Random sounds and random actions took the place of narrative and exposition.  Happenings took place in storefronts and studios and parks.  They went on for hours, sometimes days.  The world was their stage.

Most of the artists associated with Happenings – Jim Dine, Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg – eventually went back to the studio, but Robert Whitman kept on creating Happenings-like performance pieces.  He spent the last three months in Boston working on Black Dirt with local artists and students from MIT and the Massachusetts College of Art.

I was eager to see Black Dirt because I’ve always regretted that I never saw a Happening (although I did go to a Be-In in Golden Gate Park).  On the way there, I stopped at Toscanini’s for ice cream, and they were playing the Jefferson Airplane.  The pulsating sound of Gracie Slick singing “Don’t you want somebody to love?  Don’t you need somebody to love?” seemed like a good sign.  But Whitman’s Black Dirt wasn’t hot and psychedelic;  it was cool and meditative.  It wasn’t about embracing the rush and tumble and sensory overload of contemporary life.  It was about retreating to an inner space where light, poetic images just drifted up and floated slowly by.

The whole Experimental Media Facility – the Cube – was hung with billowing white cloth.  A few trees were suspended from the ceiling, so were some ropes and hooks and pipes.  On the floor was a long strip of canvas painted black and red.  In the center of the room was a pile of sand and something wrapped in black cloth.  Everything was caressed by soft white light.

An image of a balloon floated by.  Then it was dark.   An image of an onion floated by.  The lights turned red, then white.

I saw the outlines of the trees, and a few dreamy pools of light. I heard the sound of wolves growling, then footsteps, then a crunchy sound, like walking on dried pine needles, or sand, or rain.  The soft white cloth undulated and began to descend, then stopped.  The light turned green.  The pile of sand seemed to move.  Behind the cloth, two people began to speak in a strange, imaginary language.  The light turned blue.

The sand began to move and two black shapes crawled out of the pile of sand.  A man and a women, both dressed in white, climbed out of a mound black cloth.  They wrapped the sand in the cloth and tied it to one of the ropes hanging from the ceiling.  It lifted up slowly, and hung in the air, twirling slowly.

I thought of Laurie Anderson‘s song Strange Angels:

“Strange angels – singing just for me
Old stories – they’re haunting me
This is nothing
Like I thought it would be…

Millions of tiny teardrops
Just sort of hanging there
And I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry
And I said to myself
What next, big sky?”

The light turned pale green.  The dancers took a series of pensive poses – holding their foreheads, hunching over, staring out.  Lights appeared in the ceiling, pale green and pink.  The dancers took off their jackets and hung them on the wall.  They were wearing white shirts, with some black paint on them, and they walked together in slow, graceless steps.

The lights turned blue, then darker blue.  Something moved through the canvas on the ground, rippling like an impulse or a wave.   The light turned pale green.  The dancers took off another shirt – another step in their intellectual strip-tease.  Something about the streaks of black paint on their shirts reminded me of the big brushstrokes in Robert Rauschenberg’s paintings, and I suddenly realized that what I was watching was an abstract expressionist tableau vivant.  Dancers and images were moving through the white space like brushstrokes and pieces of collage moving across a canvas or a picture plane.

The light turned pink.  A black cloth began to rise from the floor.  It was a square, like the black paintings that Ad Reinhart and Frank Stella painted in the 60’s.  The dancers disappeared behind the black cloth, and then their forms moved, rippling behind the cloth.

A talking mouth was projected onto the cloth, without sound.  Behind the billowing white curtains, two people began to talk to each other across the room, in the imaginary language, on red telephones.  The dancers folded up the canvas, the tent billowed.  The light turned pink.  The canvas was lifted up until it curled back like a white wave. The light turned red.  An open eye floated by.  Behind the cloth, I saw the silhouettes of trees and the dancers.  The light turned cool, bright  white.  The ceiling rippled and billowed.

Silence.  White light.  I was taking notes, and the only sound I could hear was the sound of my own writing.  It was over.

While it was happening, I wasn’t sure if Black Dirt was working or not, but afterwards, it crystallized into images that I kept on seeing long after the performance was over.  I took a walk along the river with a friend, and the reflection of city lights in black water reminded me of Black Dirt, and so did some low street lamps shining on a patch of grass, and the whirr of cars zooming by.

Throughout the performance, everyone in the small theater was in a state of anxious anticipation, waiting for the Happening to happen.  There was a big white pipe hanging from the ceiling, and I kept expecting black dirt to fall from the sky onto the floor.  But it never happened.  In the end, there was no black dirt – only White Light.

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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