This essay first appeared in Modern Painters, July–August 2007.

Underdogs and Also-Rans: Six Blind Items from a Reliable Source

The seven-foot-tall German star of the NBA’s best team this season performed poorly in the play-offs, leading to their historic defeat in the first round.

Despite the shocking nature of the upset, cognoscenti found it a less than total surprise. True, the underdogs had made the play-offs by only the barest of margins; but they had been playing some of the best basketball in the league for the previous few weeks. And they had defeated the odds-on favorites each of the three times they’d met during the regular season. Most attributed this success to the fact that the coach of the Bay Area team had for eight years led the very team he was about to face; what’s more, he had been a great defender of and mentor to the German power forward who, like most foreign players who emerged in the 1990s, met an ambivalent initial reception in America. Foreign players were soft, the Americans felt.

The coach and his ex-protégé had apparently maintained warm relations up until this contest, which the Texas team would lose four games to two. In comments to the media leading up to the series, the old coach seemed to have deliberately mispronounced his tutee’s surname, exchanging the German “w” for an Anglo-American one: “No-witsski,” he called him.

A few days into the long layoff following their premature exit from a tournament they had been expected to win, the German was named the league’s most valuable player for the 2007 season.


A neophyte attending a matinee of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde found it performance difficult to avoid watching the gesticulations of the legendary conductor leading his orchestra. The 49-year-old Finnish native provided a new model of virility in the course of directing 106 musicians over some five and a half hours of playing a notorious piece of music. Even from the distance of some rows, the conductor’s thrusts suggested the presence of a vivid musculature under his perfectly tailored dark gray suit.

Less difficult to ignore, despite their billboard size, were videos created by an esteemed midcareer artist that, in this configuration, took the place of a full staging of the opera. The imagery included specks slowly approaching the camera to become people; people slowly receding from the camera to become specks; impossible levitations in floods; impervious strolls through fire; and incidentals of grainy ocean and tree limbs, the latter of which were described by wags in the lobby as recalling The Blair Witch Project.

The facial hair of the Tristan figure, who at times appeared nude, bore an odd resemblance to that seen in photos of the artist himself.


As part of a recent public-arts conference on the “complexities of social engagement,” a panel was organized to include representatives of a Tijuana collective who run an Internet radio station, publish a ’zine, offer fashion workshops, and so on; an artist-activist who forged an unusually successful hybrid of art and social action in Houston; an artist whose recent projects include the importation of dates into the United States from Iraq; and an artist working in Buenos Aires and New York who achieved mass-media penetration by designing, producing, and distributing tennis shoes for illegal crossers of the US border from Mexico. Their features included a flashlight, a compass, and a removable insole that doubles as a map of popular routes into San Diego.

At a dinner party not long before the panel was to take place, the Argentine artist announced that she regretted having accepted the invitation to speak. In response to this declaration, a fellow diner promptly offered to take the artist’s place. On the day of the panel, audiences found the conference organizer stammering, sweating lightly, and so flummoxed that he botched the session’s introductions. A murmur bubbled up in small, knowing pockets of the crowd. The impersonator was much taller, a decade older, and not Latin American but Irish American; a hairpiece approximated the artist’s signature braid. All proceeded more or less as if the real Argentine had been onstage. When the imposter presented a video reel featuring documentation of her work, it included a brief clip from CNN’s Lou Dobbs show, on which the artist herself discordantly appeared, to a few chuckles.

Days later the Argentine was approached by an earnest-seeming young woman professing to be a fan. She had been impressed by her intelligence at the conference, she said, and very much enjoyed the presentation.


A Canadian film director of cult standing proves more ambitious with each outing. His last effort garnered the participation of a foreign beauty with some pedigree—starring as the legless heiress to a beer fortune—as well as the attention that was that participation’s inevitable result. Sadly the film was one of his worst.

In his next release, however, he returned to form, and perhaps even reached new heights. Told in flashback, framed by a grown man whitewashing an old lighthouse, the film’s story furrowed into the peculiar disasters of his childhood there, which involved an orphanage run by his parents to diabolical ends and the appearance of a teen girl detective who pulls a gender switcheroo to seduce the protagonist’s sister, resulting in a discombobulation of the child’s budding sexuality. As usual the symbolism was conspicuous, Freudian, and comic—whitewashing? A tower? Yet it was sincere. The director’s method is to push through thickets of the absurd, the fantastic, and the occasionally embarrassing to hollows of emotion that are experienced all the more intensely for their being so nested—and some of the silliness, it should be noted, is in fact comic and fun.

In its general theatrical release, the film was presented as a silent, complete with intertitles, and with editing and postproduction simulating the skips and stutters, the grain, and the high-contrast lighting of old film. But it was actually conceived to be accompanied by live staging that incorporated musicians, Foley artists, a tuxedoed singer nicknamed “the Meadowlark of Manitoba,” and a battery of narrators that over the nights of the New York show’s run included a performance-artist legend and her rock-music-legend partner, a crusty old actor, a swishy old actor, an aged poet, the vocalist of an alternative rock band, the director of a film festival, and the foreign beauty mentioned above.

Sound-effects professionals in particular go about their work with a comic, antique, mechanical precision that makes it seem as if live Foley artists should have been part of the director’s repertoire from the start. Two women and a man donned lab coats to wrack bunches of celery to simulate flesh being rended, splash in a tub to simulate the paddling of oars, kiss their fists to simulate smooches, slam doors to simulate the sound of slamming doors. Audience members felt a twinge of guilt for watching them so eagerly.

In an interview on the film’s official blog, the filmmaker evidenced no worry that the live elements would overpower those projected—that context would overpower text. He referred to watching Foley artists as “one the purest delights a film-lover or just anyone can experience!!!” In his trademark cadences, he went on, “You glance down at them and they are up to the queerest mischief!!!”


Disaffection is of course in no short supply in today’s artworld. A recent gallery exhibition with a title recalling those of zombie movies declared itself to be “a show about putting on a show, a performance that sometimes cuts its own throat in the process.” (“It happens mostly on the floor,” the press release added.) The installation emphasized a skeletal mise-en-scène, with sawhorses and a broad carpet in a shade of dull pink along with stacks of paintings by the two organizers loaded on movers’ dollies.

Programs of performance formed an integral part of the exhibition. One dance act had an intriguing structure. Two video projections hovered on opposite walls, one featuring, simply, a 40-minute countdown and the other a video feed from a small city park outside, on a one-minute delay, of some young people attempting to erect a columnular structure of metal tubing. A sound track played, composed of bootleg recordings ’70s punk shows from the library of a brilliant, dotty, much-beloved conceptualist. After a brief “reading” by a German émigré—an injury prevented her from playing the keyboard along with the music, as planned—members of the performance troupe took to the pink carpet and embarked on a series of halting motions that displayed elements of, alternatively, ballet technique, Martha Graham technique, and no technique. Meanwhile the activity in the park showed no signs of real progress. Some members of the group dashed outside to work while others came in to dance; the rotations continued until eventually the faux monument was abandoned and all came indoors. Together they arranged some elongated sawhorses in parallel and draped translucent plastic over them to form a three-foot-high horizon with a crawl space beneath; it was here that the final eight minutes of the dance took place, half occluded. When the 40 minutes was up, the troupe distributed “instant magazines” featuring as covers printouts of digital photos taken that afternoon, of the performance that had just been completed.

The artist who conceived the piece had mustered good and ample themes and motifs (dislocation of the spectatorial gaze by physical and technological means, entailing both pleasure and frustration; formal contrasts between horizontals and verticals; the collapse of monumental structures; the dumbness of being entertained foregrounded). And yet the lassitude and unpracticed presentation of the actual choreography meant that the gig was not, in the end, a success. Even a gesture signifying failure must in some sense succeed.

More disappointing was an appearance by an athletic, confrontational artist whose works integrate video and live action. Like the dancers, she seemed hamstrung by the show’s brief toward disaffection; it did not suit an artist capable of aggressive comedy and disturbing expression; it was like a coach telling the NBA’s German most valuable player to eschew his trademark fadeaway “j.” Her characteristic anger, to the degree that it was present, had been channeled into an oblique satire of the artworld and liberal types in general. In a reference to an Agamben-themed Documenta then looming, the performer repeatedly intoned “Bare life . . . bare life . . . bare life . . . I am a cub” and thrust herself into floor-based, yogic contortions. She also drew attention to the fact that virtually all in the crowd possessed a college degree.

At the outset of her performance, the artist brandished a bent coat hanger and delivered a few remarks on a dismaying decision by the United States Supreme Court. Some in the audience took this as a very sincere and welcome laying of the groundwork for what would follow; others as a parody of ideological speechifying by a performer; others as an oblique attack on the paralysis and political laziness on the part of a complacent, middle-class Left. The meaning of the gesture remains open to debate.


At the second intermission of the second of two performances of the recent staging of Tristan, an art critic of note wandered over to the soft-drink line and found a friend.

“Which did you like better,” the critic asked, “the Wagner or the [video artist]?”

The friend hesitated. It is difficult to pronounce one’s judgment in the presence of an authority.

“Wagner,” she said, then hurriedly added, “did I get it right?”

“Yes,” said the critic. She could here be imagined to smile.