Art

Michael Richards ‘Winged’ Takes Flight: A Voice Once Silenced Cries Out Anew (Part Two)

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Truth to Power

Yours truly beside sculpture of Tar Baby vs, St. Sebastian (Photo courtesy of Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Sep. 2016)
Yours truly beside sculpture of Tar Baby vs, St. Sebastian (Photo courtesy of Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Sep. 2016)

These are the photographs and/or descriptions of the remaining works left behind by the late Michael Richards, an artist and sculptor who perished in the 9/11 attacks that brought him and thousands of others down with the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.

img_0973Let Me Entertain You, 1993, Mixed media installation with video, Installation images courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Michael Richards Estate

“The installation takes the form of a historical dressing room of famous performer Bert Williams … A video of the artist applying blackface is projected unto the mirror. On the left wall of the room are four mirrors, printed with photographs of the artist, on which text is silk-screened questioning the degree of blackness reflected: ‘Black, ‘Blacken,’ ‘Black Enough For You.’”

img_0977Climbing Jacob’s Ladder (He Lost His Head), 1994, Resin, mirrors, lights, Installation images courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park and the Michael Richards Estate

img_0979Escape Plan 76 (Brer Plane in the Brier Patch), 1996, Wax, resin, paper, metal, rubber, lights, Installation images courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem

img_0981Swing Lo’, 1996, Steel, neon, wood, speakers with musical soundtrack, audio tape, Installation images courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park

img_0984“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” an old spiritual, the voice of reason — preaching tolerance and understanding. But at the same time, holding a “mirror” up to life’s inequities and how we have been treated by those who have exploited race and economic equality for their own purposes.

img_0985The Great Black Airmen (Tuskegee), 1996, Wood, resin, plexiglass, tar, feathers, paper, bonded bronze, Installation images courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem

Untitled (Air Lift), 1997, Super hold hair gel, plastic, wax, pigment, and plexiglass, Installation image courtesy of the Bronx Museum of the Arts

img_0989Free F’All, 1997, Resin, steel, mirror, Installation image courtesy of the Studio Museum of Harlem

[Untitled] (Free F’All), 1997, fiberglass and resin with iron oxide, Brooklyn Museum, Anonymous gift in honor of Michael Richards, 2007 © Estate of Michael Richards, Installation image courtesy of Brooklyn Museum

img_0991Map Head, 1999, Urethane, resin, transfer, Installation image courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem

N’Kisi Nigga, 1999, Urethane, metal, Installation image courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem

img_0993Tar and Feather, 1999, Bonded bronze, tar, metal, Installation images courtesy of Franconia Sculpture Park

img_0995Are You Down?, 2000, fiberglass, bonded bronze, resin, concrete, black beauty sand, Installation images courtesy of Franconia Sculpture Park

img_0998Fly Away O’ Glory, 1995, Resin bronze, feathers, motors, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate

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Air Fall 1 (His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and I Know He’s Watching Me), 1998, Hair, latex, and glass, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate

Planes plummeting from the ceiling above into a mirrored abyss — again, Michael’s prescience was captured by his ultimate realization of the existing 9/11 Memorial, built on the exact spot where the North and South Towers once stood: two rectangular-shaped pools of water, open spaces, with middle squares of water pouring into a hole.

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A Loss of Faith Brings Vertigo, 1994, Resin, marble dust, wood, motor, photo transfer, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate

img_1014Travel Kit, 1999, Bonded bronze, hair, and wood, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate

img_0957Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian

Say It Loud!

And these are the voices of those who knew and worked with Michael, along with Michael’s own special words:

Sam Seawright, Artist: “For Michael making art and getting his message to a diverse audience was essential to his being, and a vital component of his core beliefs. One beautiful lesson I learned from Michael was the importance of overcoming prejudices, lack of funds, false perceptions and misguided criticisms and to make art at all costs, in the end the art speaks for itself. He was able to practice in the studio the lessons he learned from the hardships persevered in his personal life. He preached compassion and understanding with his art and practiced generosity of spirit in his life.”

John Hock, Artistic Director/CEO and Co-founder, Franconia Sculpture Park: “Of the many blameless people annihilated that day in 2001, few can have meditated quite as much as this man did upon the quick rise and quicker fall of hope: a Jamaican, an immigrant, a black man, Richards knew something about the loneliness of exile, and the feeling of exclusion from others’ realities. It is no presumption to imagine Michael, at times, had nothing to go on but his rage against an identity projected on him by apartheid.”

img_1016Carolyn Swiszcz, Artist: “I would describe Michael as soft-spoke (but not shy), confident (but not overbearing), and sophisticated (but not pretentious). He had a knack for charming pretty much everybody he met. It seemed to me that he didn’t suffer from the kind of prickly bad moods I struggled with, or maybe he was just much better at managing them. What stays with me most, almost twenty years later, is his smile. He shared ut often. I can easily envision it spreading across his face in response to a joke or in an attempt to express a sympathy.”

Wendell Walker, Deputy Director for Operations, Exhibitions, and Design, Museum of the Moving Image: “The fantasy of flight was a frequent topic between us during our early days together at the Grey [Art Gallery]. We shared dreams of flying — both beautiful and frightening ones — that we both had as children, and I cherish those conversations even though they now haunt me. I feel those dreams represent such a critical part of Michael’s work and life, and I feel strangely reassured that, on that horrible day, he decided to fly.”

img_1017Marysol Nieves, Vice President, Specialist, Latin American Art, Christie’s Former Senior Curator, The Bronx Museum of the Arts: “The impressive body of work Michael Richards produced during his brief, yet prolific career reflects the discourse on identity, racial and gender politics that was so pervasive in the landscape of contemporary art during [the] 1990s. yet his work eschewed many of the tropes often associated with identity based art by tackling the complexities of, and at times painful histories implicit in the investigation of such notion as blackness, masculinity, and power.”

Dread Scott, Artist: “As much as I will remember Michael as an incredible brilliant artist and some of his unrealized projects, I really remember him as a fried and the simple things that make up friendship. What I remember most is him frequently greeting me in intentionally thick patois saying: ‘Whayousay Dread?’”

img_1023Jorge Daniel Veneciano, Executive Director, El Museo del Barrio, former Curator of Exhibitions, The Studio Museum in Harlem: “Michael was a poetic soul. Somewhat quiet, with a bemused, all-knowing smile. He had a keen sense of irony. It suffused his work, sharpened his artistic wit. A poetic sensibility for human contradictions deepened the aesthetic value of his work… His interest in metaphors of flight adds a confounding layer of irony to his life and passing. Like Icarus, perhaps he flew too close to the sun — too close to the truth. And the dark poetry of the universe answered in an unforgiving way. Yet Michael’s work prevails as a living, lasting retort to the unmoved universe.”

Genaro Ambrosino-D’Amico, former owner, Ambrosino Gallery: “You know when sometimes you meet someone and you think, ‘Wow, he’s so cool! I want to be his friend’? That’s how Michael was. He was handsome, he dressed well, had a killer smile. He was loving and warm and made sure that you knew that you could count on him. He was smart, street and book smart. He could talk politics, art, music, history and popular culture with the same ease and knowledge, and always with a consistency that made you agree with him, even when you really didn’t! But one thing above all I loved of Michael, and makes me miss him most. He was fair, he was just. And you can’t say that of many people. That’s why he was so ‘cool.’”

Michael Richards, Artist Statement:

“— Does the glass ceiling which excludes also reflect the desire to belong?

“My current body of work investigates the tension between assimilation and exclusion. By focusing on issues of identity and identification, I attempt to examine the feelings of doubt and discomfort which face blacks who wish to succeed in a system which is structured to deny them access.

“How do systems of representation, and the portrayal of success both seduce and repel? I wish primarily to give voice to the psychic spaces in which exist both hope and frustration, faith and failure, and the compromises which must be negotiated in order to survive.

“Though the issues which inform the work may be seen as primarily political, I use language of metaphor to express them. The use of feathers and tar, mirrors and ladders, the concept of flight both as freedom and surrender, all attempt to open a metaphorical space into which the viewer can be seduced.

“This space allows for an examination of the psychic conflict which results from the desire to both belong to and resist a society which denies blackness even as it affirms.

“In attempting to make this pain and alienation concrete, I use my body, the primary locus of experience, as a die from which to make casts. These function as surrogates, and as an entry into the work.”

img_1021The End Game

We look in vain for clarity to horrific events, and for meaning to our lives. Michael Richards discovered both fairly early in his career. I cannot help but think of the Winged exhibition, a spare memento of the artist’s state of mind, as an austere expression of his Spartan lifestyle.

Here, one may presume that Michael found closure in enclosed surroundings. His surviving works, as few in number as they were, have been arranged in predetermined patterns. We are left with a mere handful of artifacts, objects conceived and sculpted in cogent thought, in the hope of achieving a higher purpose and in demonstrating to the observer the many injustices that Michael witnessed around him.

What would Michael have said about the Black Lives Matter movement? About the murders that’s gripped the city of Chicago? About the NFL protests by quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers? How would he have reacted to the treatment of young black men — which he, too, happened to be one — to the violence around them?

These are the true tragedies of Michael Richards’ death; the art and political world were deprived of his powerful, reasoned voice. The exhibition of his remaining work, at the Art Center at Governor’s Island, sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, offers, if nothing else, a singular vision of what it was like to live as a talented black artist in a racially and economically divided America.

Unlike the noise and strife that surrounded him, amid the tumult of world affairs — the so-called “body politic,” and the use of his own body to portray that very politic, spiraling out of control — Michael’s voice was one of calm and reason. To paraphrase a line from the poem “Invictus,” he was the master of his fate; he was the captain of his soul. He commandeered a measured, more pensive response to the world’s problems. He gave thought to his actions, yet put action into his thoughts.

I see a severed head (his own, if such as thing were possible) encased in a football helmet, the American flag draped around the lifeless body of a football player, kneeling before us. In my mind’s eye, I see the artist’s statement — it is Michael himself.

With gratitude to Alex Fialho, co-curator with Melissa Levin, for the use of photographs and literature from the Michael Richards: Winged exhibition, and to the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for their help, support and cooperation in the writing of this article.

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Michael Richards ‘Winged’ Takes Flight: A Voice Once Silenced Cries Out Anew (Part One)

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img_0951The City Never Sleeps

Having grown up and lived in New York for almost four decades, you would think that I had visited most of its myriad attractions. Not so! There are many such unfrequented hotspots in and around town, one of them being the little known Governors Island.

To get to this nearly inaccessible site, one must travel by subway to the tip of Lower Manhattan, where the East River meets the Hudson. From there, you wander aimlessly about until some kind soul leads you in the right direction.

“I’m going there,” said the young girl wearing a New York Harbor School T-shirt. “Follow me.” After a short stroll, my volunteer guide piped up again. “The ferry to Governors Island is right over there,” she pointed out to me, “in the building to your left.” That would be the Battery Maritime Building, right? I thanked the young girl, who disappeared inside a local coffee shop.

I waited at the terminal until the appointed 8 a.m. hour when the next ferry would be ready to launch. The boat ride itself lasted under a quarter of an hour, a pleasant enough trip with little if any turbulence — just the thing for this landlubber.

Disembarking from the ferry at Governor’s Island, the first view I had was of the bay and the newly rebuilt World Trade Center buildings. Looming silently in the distance behind me, they stood as a bulwark against a clear, cloudless sky — coincidentally, the same September sky that shone brightly over Manhattan on the morning of 9/11. Noisy helicopters, simultaneously taking off and landing from the busy heliport near the East River, broke through the stillness.

img_0958I approached the Arts Center entrance on foot, where I was greeted by an apportioned wall with the name of the exhibition, Michael Richards: Winged, in emboldened lettering. A variant of Matura MT Script Capitals, the title was displayed prominently to my left, with the figure of the artist’s Winged sculpture suspended directly ahead. Cast from Michael’s own forearms, it was “conjoined at the elbow,” and, as the written description indicated, “pierced with feathers, bringing together human anatomy and bird-like features to evocative effect.”

I stared intently at the bronze and metal object floating before me. With its outstretched arms, the work gave the appearance of bidding me to come forward and inspect the contents within. If I had stood underneath that welcoming embrace, the hands would have brushed lightly against my shoulders — reassuringly, I would imagine, in preparation for what I was about to see.

Though some of what I witnessed would cause me (and others like me) great pain, those extended hand figures — and ergo, Michael’s spirit — would still be there, guiding and comforting me along the way.

Winged, 1999, Bonded bronze and metal, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate
Winged, 1999, Bonded bronze and metal, Courtesy of the Michael Richards Estate (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)

Roughly a year ago this past September, I wrote an article in memory of the late World Views artist Michael Richards. Michael had been working on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center’s Tower One (aka the North Tower) on the morning of September 11. He perished, along with thousands of other victims, when one of the hijacked planes crashed into the floors above his studio. Accordingly, whatever Michael had been working on had vanished along with him.

The manner in which he died was brought to poignant light when a work thought lost resurfaced in a cousin’s garage. This was the harrowing Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian, displayed at North Carolina Museum of Art, from November 2003 to March 2004 and beyond, as part of their Defying Gravity: Contemporary Art and Flight exhibit (see the following link to my original article: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/09/12/lost-navigator-michael-richards-a-story-of-redemption-through-art/).

Since viewing that same Defying Gravity exhibit, where the extraordinary figure of Michael dressed in a Tuskegee airman flight suit was being pierced by dozens of model airplanes, I had determined to learn the details of this remarkable artist’s life and his controversial art.

In one of those unforeseen circumstances, just prior to the start of Memorial Day Weekend I received an e-mail from Melissa Levin, Director of Cultural Programs for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, which sponsored the World Views artists-in-residence program, inviting me to a reception for their Michael Richards: Winged exhibition on the afternoon of June 25.

The exhibition, to be held at the Arts Center (a former army warehouse) on Governors Island, for which Ms. Levin served as co-curator with her colleague Alex Fialho, was planned as a combination retrospective and commemoration. It was slated to include “a range of Richards’ work in sculpture and drawing, most of which has not been on public view for over 15 years, as well as documentation and ephemera of his art and life.”

While I was unable to attend the reception at that time, I made my desire known to both Melissa and Alex that I would like to pay a visit to their exhibition. This I managed to do towards the end of September 2016.

Obscure Objects of Desire

Michael Richards: Winged exhibition hall, Sptember 2016 (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)
Michael Richards: Winged exhibition hall, September 2016 (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)

The term “ephemera,” as noted above, is normally associated with transitory matters — namely, objects of a short-lived, impermanent nature. In this instance, the so-called ephemera of Michael Richards’ life and art, gathered together in this impressive collection, transcended the dictionary meaning of the word. I realized, to my astonishment, that these works were not so much ephemera as they were the enduring artifacts of a socially-minded individual far ahead of his time.

More so than most artists, Michael spoke wholly and exclusively through his art. As such, he gave voice and substance to millions of unheard voices that have rung out through much of our nation’s history. Sadly, his own voice was silenced on September 11, 2001. Today, it speaks louder than ever, crying out anew from the remnants of Tower One, in the exhibition Michael Richards: Winged named in his honor.

The Arts Center in which Michael Richards’ remaining works were housed was large and spacious, albeit underutilized. It struck me as more empty than full; a hallowed dwelling providing safe haven for what was left of his Estate. The walls were lined with rows upon rows of photos and artist statements, along with epigrammatic descriptions of his work — some written by Michael himself — as well as reminiscences from those who knew and worked with him.

Amid the hall’s open spaces and echoey ambience, the exhibition as a whole expressed to me what was both moving and lacking in the display. For instance, why were there not more pieces physically present as part of the exhibition’s central theme, i.e., the celebration of the artist’s purpose in life? Why was there an uneasy sense of “incompleteness” about the whole affair, an unshakably deaden feeling of works still in progress?

True, many of Michael’s art pieces had found permanent residency in such places as the Brooklyn Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem, Socrates Sculpture Park, and the Bronx Museum of the Arts, in addition to Franconia Sculpture Park outside of Minneapolis, the Michael Richards Estate, and those of private collectors.

But instead of closure and acceptance; of moving away from the sins of the past so as to get on with one’s present and future existence, the majority of Michael’s surviving output, represented in whole or in part by photographic depictions, seemed dwarfed by comparison to the monumentally tragic events that surrounded them.

Once I left the exhibition hall, however, I had ample time to reflect on what I had seen. I must confess that, over the course of these past several months, my initial reaction has changed drastically from mild disappointment to sincere admiration for the thought and consideration that went into this pioneering effort.

How else could the terrible emptiness I felt inside when regarding Michael’s work, and the horrifying circumstances of his demise, have been accurately depicted? The sense of shock and outrage at what was done to him and to those around him has been tempered by the knowledge that Michael Richards’ life was dedicated to documenting the abuses of power and authority.

A potent, early expression (from 1990) of racial injustice can be found in a series of photographs of an installation entitled History: Meditating on the Middle Passage. Quoting from Michael’s artist statement, the installation consisted of “three life-sized boats built to resemble coffins.” These coffins were “positioned in a row evoking both funeral processions (and the political functions such gatherings serve in many black communities) and ship convoys used in the Middle Passage,” [to wit, the slave trade in which millions of blacks were forcibly shipped from Africa to the New World].

History: Meditating on the Middle Passage (1990) (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Counvil)
History: Meditating on the Middle Passage (1990), left (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)

“In each vessel are 100 glass slides silk-screened with the faces of black men. Each face,” the statement went on to explain, was “repeated in its own vessel to both reinstate and drain its identity. The slides are illuminated from within the boats/coffins, and 4 phrases are projected unto the walls corresponding to the cardinal points in the room.

“These phrases, ‘No Name,’ ‘No Face,’ ‘No Place,’ and ‘No Tongue,’ speak not only to a lost history and culture but to a process of transformation by which African-Americans were formed.” A chill ran down my spine as I moved in for a closer look. Yes, I pondered, this was how the ancestors of today’s African American communities were brought to these shores — if they survived the perilous ocean voyage, that is, with “survival” a dubious term, at best, considering the subsequent nature of their lives as slaves.

The next exhibit (via another photographic display), a mixed media installation entitled Al Jolson Dances Forever: Birth of a Nation, came from 1991. It consisted of (and I quote) a “large ornate frame into which an 8mm movie loop of Al Jolson performing in blackface is projected.”

The son of a Jewish rabbi and cantor, Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson in present-day Lithuania) was a popular entertainer who starred in The Jazz Singer, the first “all talking, all singing” motion picture. The frame leads up to and is flanked by two rows of tarnished and damaged trophies “with their arms raised in a gesture of either victory or surrender. The pedestals on which the trophies stand are silk-screened [similar to those in the previous display, History: Mediating on the Middle Passage] with the legends, ‘Who Wins,’ and Who Loses.’

“On the wall opposite the frame projection, a mirror reflects the installation and the audience that enters the room. On the mirror are silk-screened three questions: ‘In Whose Name,’ ‘With Whose Face,’ and ‘In Whose Image.’ An audio loop of Al Jolson singing ‘Mammy’ plays continuously in the room.”

Al Jolson Dances Forever: Birth of a Nation, 1991 (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)
Al Jolson Dances Forever: Birth of a Nation, 1991 (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)

Juxtaposed alongside History: Meditating on the Middle Passage, the exhibit paid belated tribute to the hundreds of unsung African American performers who came before and after Jolson. While taking nothing away from Jolson’s work, the installation questions the rationale for our having neglected the incredible range of talent that helped shape the American entertainment landscape, and (by implication), the sports industry as well.

In a similar vein, another unspeakably vile image came a year later, in 1992, with Same Old Song and Dance. Again, quoting from Michael Richards’ boldly assertive statement, “The piece was installed in two large windows which faced the street. Both windows were arranged as a theatrical tableaux united by a half-raised red velvet curtain, across the top of which ran the title in large white letters. In the left window, partially concealed by the curtain, four pairs of suspended legs dressed in tuxedo pants and patent shoes slowly rotated. In the right window, 12 disembodied black heads rotated slowly in the opposite direction. Audible from the sidewalk, the pop song ‘Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue’ played continuously.

“The piece sought to examine the pervasive nature of racial violence in our society and the empty apologies offered in response. The theatrical setting addresses questions of the perception of racial violence in a society of spectacle, while the minstrel costumes evoke the historical battle of representation and the violence implicit in this struggle.”

The dangling feet of the dancers were a stark reminder of the horrors of Jim Crow and the illegal lynching of poor blacks during those God-awful times. How anyone could extract meaning from such hateful associations proves the truism that “The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity.” This was about as intense a lesson as anyone was capable of absorbing.

Same Old Song and Dance, 1992, Mixed media installation with motors and audio loop, Installation images courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park, Video documentation by Wendell Walker, Grey Art Gallery, 1992
Same Old Song and Dance, 1992, Mixed media installation with motors and audio loop, Installation images courtesy of Socrates Sculpture Park, Video documentation by Wendell Walker, Grey Art Gallery (Photo courtesy of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council)

End of Part One

(To be continued…)

With thanks to Alex Fialho, co-curator with Melissa Levin, for the use of photographs and literature from the Michael Richards: Winged exhibition, and to the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for their help, support and cooperation in the writing of this article.

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

Lost Navigator: Michael Richards — A Story of Redemption through Art

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Michael Richards & Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian (Photo: Frank Stewart / The Studio Museum in Harlem)
Michael Richards & Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian (Photo: Frank Stewart / The Studio Museum in Harlem)

The clock-radio went off at 7:45 a.m. on the morning of September 11, 2001, a radiantly sunlit Tuesday in New York. Instead of being greeted by the usual reggae beat, a distant, far-away psalm in Latin verse came over the airwaves — softly at first, then stronger and more assured. Women’s voices predominated, followed by the men; an eerie sort of sound not much different from Gregorian chant that reverberated in a church-like atmosphere. It forced Michael Richards to pry open his eyes.

“Oh, Geez,” he muttered sleepily to himself, “what the heck is this?” Michael rolled over in his cot, a simple makeshift bed he’d been using with increasing frequency, while he stayed up till the “wee, small hours,” a close friend would say, working diligently on his art projects.

Despite being startled by the sound, the music was vaguely familiar, except that Michael had a hard time placing it. He decided to leave the radio on for the moment. It took some time for him to shake off the effects of the previous night’s indulgence. He had gone to bed late, long past midnight; it must have been two or three in the morning. No matter, Michael had to be up by 8:00 and on his way to the Bronx by 8:45. The subway ride from lower Manhattan took about an hour and twenty minutes on a good day, but it was less of a hassle than if he had made the trip from his home in Rosedale. Besides, he didn’t want to be late for work.

Work? Man, he thought, it wasn’t work at all. Not to him anyway. He loved his job at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Michael was an assistant art laborer, sort of a go-to guy and artistic jack-of-all-trades. “Yeah, and master of none,” another wise-ass buddy once remarked.

bronx museum of the arts

“Hah, you’re probably right,” Michael would snap back, in that deliberately calm, non-confrontational style of his. He didn’t want to offend his pal, whom he had known since their Miami South Beach fellowship days. What’s the sense of it? He’d only seen him, what, three, maybe four times a day. Each and every day! “Why make enemies when you can keep the mutual admiration society going?” he reasoned. Good point.

“Damn! Why can’t I remember this tune?” There was something ethereal and slightly other-worldly about it. “Is this what they call an out-of-body experience?” he wondered aloud. Moving in for a closer look, Michael noticed the radio wasn’t tuned to his favorite station.

“Yo, who’s been messing with my dial?” The call numbers read 96.3. This was WQXR-FM, a classical-music station. “Ah, right,” he remembered, with a look of bemusement. “Maybe Jeffy had something to do with that.” Michael was referring to a fellow artist named Jeff, his studio neighbor and a die-hard football fanatic. The two of them had stayed up past their normal hour to watch Monday Night Football, which featured the season opener between the Giants and the Broncos at Denver’s Mile High Stadium. The Giants lost 31-20, a real heartbreaker.

Among other styles of music, Michael knew that Jeff liked classical. Michael, too, had wide-ranging tastes, but classical? A little gospel and blues perhaps, and, of course, lots and lots of reggae, a love of which he acquired while growing up in Kingston, Jamaica. Although Michael was born in Brooklyn — on August 2, 1963 — his father was a Jamaican by birth, one who had strong views about where his son should be brought up. His mother, a native of Costa Rica, had other ideas. Michael’s decision to become an artist and dedicate his life to art had initially been met with resistance by family members. Still, that did not stop him from pursuing his goal.

“Can’t dwell on that now,” he commented. “I got to get going!” With that, he turned off the radio, got up from the cot and went to the bathroom.

As he turned on the shower, Michael’s thoughts turned back to sports. It had rained the night before. “Man, it poured,” he added for emphasis. A passing thunderstorm that started before 7 p.m. blanketed the skyline with threatening clouds. Heavy showers dumped nearly half an inch of rain onto Yankee Stadium, leaving a water-logged playing field in its wake. As a result, the game between the Bronx Bombers and the Oakland A’s, originally scheduled for later in the evening, had been scrapped. Michael was fond of baseball, but with the Yankee game cancelled football seemed the better option. Jeff thought so, too.

In as much as they both loved watching sports on television, Michael’s real passion was for sculpture. He’d often work through the night on a piece, sometimes into the next morning — shaping it, defining it, tweaking it with his tools and hands, until in his gut he felt it was just right. “That Goldilocks thingee in the belly.”

Monday, September 10, had been an especially long day for him. He had come to the studio, located on the 92nd floor of Tower One (also known as the North Tower) of the World Trade Center, after having first attended a late afternoon opening at the Grey Art Gallery where he used to work, near New York University in Washington Square Park.

Returning from the gallery, Michael kept to his habit of working out in the gym, sculpting his solid six-foot-something frame into fighting shape. Grunting and groaning, lifting multi-pound weights, working those thigh muscles, flexing his arms, calves and legs, and using the treadmill. He did this for the simplest of reasons: he needed his body in tip-top condition for his projects.

Why else would he, or anyone else for that matter, have subjected themselves to such torture? By covering himself with plaster resin and casting his own muscular build, Michael could put his time and effort to good use, as well as imprint his likeness on every piece he turned out — not unlike the carvings and statues of ancient kings and pharaohs.

Only, instead of relying on slaves to build 40-story-high tombs, Michael could depend on his colleagues and fellow artisans for help with the painstaking process. He worked patiently and methodically. Once the molding and casting were done Michael could manipulate the plaster resin to his desired purpose. In the age of advanced technology, his output was decidedly low-tech: therein lay its appeal.

Michael Richards & Friends
Michael Richards & Friends

On occasion, he would demonstrate the labor-intensive process in person to his girlfriend, now his fiancée, Christie. She would stand there and gaze at him, admiringly, seeing how much he enjoyed the results of his labor. Keeping her in his mind as well as in his heart, Michael called Christie on his cell phone just after the football game had ended, to let her know he was still at work.

“Michael, it’s midnight,” she reminded him. “When can I see you?”

“Tomorrow, sweetie. I should be free by tomorrow, okay?”

Jeff, Vanessa, Monika, and the other 22 artists in the World Views program run by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council — the entity that provided windowed studio space in Tower One — were also privy to Michael’s working habits and methods, in particular his obsession with flight imagery.

It was an obsession that started about a decade ago. As a young black man, albeit one of distinctly Caribbean ancestry, living and working in the America of the new millennium, Michael took “the idea of flight” not only as it relates to his subsequent “use of pilots and planes, but” its references to “the black church, the idea of being lifted up, enraptured, or taken up to a safe place — to a better world,” as he explained it.

One of his earliest representations, from 1997, depicts a World War II Tuskegee airman in flight suit, helmet and parachute. The eyes are closed, the body rigid and erect, with the hands flat against his side. Nails perforate the figure from the neck down to the lower abdomen and upper thighs. With the left leg bent slightly inward, it’s an obvious pharaonic pose preserved in fiberglass and resin with elements of iron oxide. A study for future events to come, but Michael didn’t know that at the time.

Michael’s continued use of “pilots and planes,” i.e., the famed all-black and segregated Tuskegee air squadron, came to full fruition in his 2000 creation for the Franconia Sculpture Park, near the rural town of Shafer, Minnesota. He titled it Are You Down? Originally made of glass fiber and resin, but recast in bronze in 2012 as part of a preservation project, this piece is a tableau of three downed air pilots positioned triangularly across from and with their backs to one another. Again, Michael was the model for each of the airmen.

Are You Down? (Photo: Jason DeMoe)
Are You Down? at Franconia Sculpture Park (Photo: Jason DeMoe)

In the middle of the structure is a large bulls-eye target which the figures have missed. The faces on the three airmen are downcast and looking at the ground. According to writer, artist, designer and long-time Twin Cities resident Glenn Gordon, “They speak not so much of the exhilaration of flight as of dreams of freedom crashed to Earth.”

A variation on this theme found its culmination in one of Michael’s last surviving works. Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian is a bronze sculpture made in 1999 of a lone Tuskegee airman. True to form, the sculpture was cast from life, that is, from his own form. In this instance, the airman is portrayed as the early Christian martyr St. Sebastian. But instead of the figure being pierced by multiple arrows, the artist, who is dressed once more in flight gear and accompanying helmet, is impaled by a swarm of model airplanes.

Like his prior 1997 piece, Michael’s eyes are shut tight. But unlike that statue’s severe countenance, or the downed air pilots in Franconia, the face is tranquil and relaxed, the chin raised imperceptibly to the sky, the hands placed with their palms up in the manner of a supplicant. His feet (covered by army boots), and indeed his entire body, are lifted off the ground by several inches. The structure is supported by a steel shaft, with the planes attached by steel bolts. The impression one receives is that of the pilot (or, if you will, Michael himself) ascending into heaven.

Michael recalled the artist’s statement he had composed back when Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian was completed — the statement he never had the chance to submit before his statue was exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem: “The Tuskegee airmen fought for democracy in the sky, but faced discrimination on the ground. They serve as symbols of failed transcendence and loss of faith escaping the pull of gravity, but always forced back to the ground, lost navigators always seeking home.”

Detail of Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian (Photo: NC Museum of Art)
Detail of Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian (Photo: NC Museum of Art)

Stepping out of the shower, Michael dried himself off and got dressed in a spiffy black outfit. “Say it loud,” he’d shout back at his reflection in the mirror, “I’m all in black and I’m oh-so proud.” He mused on his accomplishments to date, and was indeed proud of the fact that he was an artist-in-residence at several New York studios and museums; that he had had several gallery showings under his belt, among them the Chicago Cultural Center, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the aforementioned Studio Museum of Harlem, and the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.

Even more than these, he was glad to have been able to address such personal issues as social injustice, discrimination, the lack of opportunity, racial intolerance and unfairness through his art. “I’m a credit to my race — the human race!” he pointed out half jokingly, in a paraphrase of sports journalist Jimmy Cannon’s famous observation about the boxer Joe Louis.

Looking at his watch, he still had a few minutes to think about his mounting workload. One he had been spending a good deal of time on had to do with a man riding a meteor. Another was a life-sized recreation of his own torso with wings on its back. One of the wings was supposed to be broken off. He called this piece Fallen Angel. Michael gave out a little chuckle at that title. “Lucifer, you little devil, you’re the fallen angel!”

Time was getting short. Michael had to step on it if he was going to catch the subway train to the Bronx. Out of the blue, he found that he remembered the title of the choral music that had awakened him that morning. It was Adagio for Strings, sung by mixed choir in an arrangement by its composer, Samuel Barber. The words, based on the Latin text for “Lamb of God,” were part of the liturgy of the Catholic Church:

Agnus Dei

Qui tolis peccata mundi

Miserere nobis

 

Agnus Dei

Qui tolis peccata mundi

Dona nobis pacem

 

Lamb of God

You take away the sins of the world

Have mercy on us

 

Lamb of God

You take away the sins of the world

Grant us peace

 

This was something his Catholic friends would repeat when, on the rare occasion that Michael was invited to attend Mass, he would hear the priest speak these words from the altar: “Happy are those who are called to the supper of the lamb.” And the congregation would respond in turn: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” Even though he did not take communion, Michael invariably felt better afterwards. He especially looked forward to the sign of peace where the parishioners would shake hands with one another.

“Peace be with you,” they would whisper to him. “And also with you,” he’d answer back.

It was 8:45 a.m., almost time to go. Michael had just enough time to turn on the TV and hear the latest weather forecast, along with a summary of the previous day’s events. Satisfied with the news, he turned off the set. Just then, he heard the ear-shattering noise of a jet engine, an unmistakable sound for someone, like himself, so attuned to aeronautics. In the next instant, an airplane crashed into Tower One between the 93rd and 99th floors. The time was 8:46 and thirty seconds.

Repeated calls to Michael’s cell phone went unanswered. In fact, no one’s cell phone was working properly that day, or the day after.

*              *              *

Michael Richards perished on the morning of September 11, 2001. He was 38 years and one month old. He was working in his studio on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center Tower One, on the side facing the Statue of Liberty. Ironically, Michael was entombed with his work in a 110-story structure, a tower taller than any pyramid or obelisk from the ancient or modern world.

At exactly that same moment, fellow World Views artist Vanessa Lawrence had stepped off the 91st floor elevator when she felt the whole building shake. She headed for the stairs, making her way through smoke, debris and water. Eventually leaving the building, she saw that Tower Two had collapsed next door.

The above story is a fictionalized account of the events on and before the day of Michael’s passing. Though much of the dialogue has been recreated and dramatized, the events as they occurred are based on the written record and on eyewitness accounts of those who knew the artist personally.

Linda Johnson Dougherty, chief curator and curator of Contemporary Art at the North Carolina Museum of Art, was co-curator of the Defying Gravity: Contemporary Art and Flight Exhibit held in Raleigh from November 2, 2003 to March 7, 2004, as part of the Centennial of Flight Show honoring the Wright Brothers. It was during this exhibition that I first laid eyes on Michael Richard’s achievement, the mesmerizing Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian. Needless to say, I was both stunned and immensely impressed by the figure.

Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian full length photo (NC Museum of Art)
Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian full length shot (NC Museum of Art)

But how did this particular piece become a part of the North Carolina Museum of Art’s permanent collection? Linda explained that the sculpture was a long sought-after item, but that it had not been among the artist’s work at the time of his death. Later, the museum learned that it was found stored inside a family member’s garage (that of a cousin who lived outside the city, in Mount Vernon). The family had given it to the museum as part of a long-term loan. It’s an incredibly moving and poignant piece, hugely significant and impressively displayed. The work is a commemoration of the artist’s life and talents and a memorial, of sorts, to those who died on 9/11.

Out of intuition and my own curiosity about the artist’s thought processes and mind-set, I asked Linda if she felt Michael may have had a premonition of his own death. “No, of course not,” Linda insisted. “How could anyone know that? It would be impossible.” Indeed, one of the many ironic coincidences of Michael Richards’ life was how his art transcended his manner of death.

In a reference to this piece, Michael’s art dealer, Genaro Ambrosino, was quoted in the Associated Press as saying, “Although it was about death, it was more about liberation, freedom, being able to escape. It was a sad message because of what it meant historically … It was like redemption from all that.”  

This lost navigator sought and found his home, a spiritual port of call. For it is only through Him, the above-named Lamb of God, that we can be redeemed.

When asked by a friend what he wanted out of life, Michael made this telling connection: “I want to live hard. I want to love hard. I want to work hard, and then I want to die.”

Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes

The View from the Chair — Walk of Life: An Analysis of Two Scenes from William Wyler’s ‘Ben-Hur’ (1959)

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Post art for Ben-Hur (1959)
Poster art for William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959)

With the coming of the fall season and the expectation of cooler and (it is to be hoped) balmier days ahead, now would be an appropriate time as any to introduce a new series of posts — an artistic reawakening for yours truly: in this instance, an overview of some of my favorite scenes from movies past and present.

I’ll call this series “The View from the Chair.” Whose chair? That all depends! Admittedly, it would be a picture-perfect excuse to shape our discussion around a particular director’s point of view, or that of an actor or group of actors — or the audience’s, for what it’s worth, thus metaphorically killing two birds with one stone. By whatever means this topic can be approached, it would be great fun to simply get those cameras rolling — the motive behind it be damned!

So, without further ado, let’s jump-start this series with an analysis of two scenes from one of the all-time most watchable family features: the 1959 widescreen, Technicolor remake of Ben-Hur. At the time of the film’s release, this multi-award-winning epic cost Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer a hefty $12.5 million, an immense sum even in those bygone times. Over 15,000 sketches were drawn prior to building the three hundred or more life-size sets on which the story would take place. These sets covered approximately 150 acres of territory in and around Cinecittà Studios in Rome.

None of these figures remotely begins to take into account the sheer number of extras involved in the project, to include technical and administrative staff, work crews, painters, architects, builders, camels, horses, props, costumes, food and drink, to say nothing of the tons of materials necessary in recreating the massive arena where the famous chariot race would be run. Months of preliminary planning and backbreaking labor went into this effort before the first feet of film was even shot.

With impressive location footage and a sturdy international cast, headed by Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur, Stephen Boyd as Messala, Jack Hawkins as Quintus Arrius, Hugh Griffith as Sheik Ilderim, Finlay Currie as Balthazar, Martha Scott as Miriam, Cathy O’Donnell as Tirzah, Sam Jaffe as Simonides, and Haya Harareet as his daughter Esther, the picture went on to gross over $40 million at the box office, not to mention its record-setting eleven Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Cinematography (Robert L. Surtees), Best Actor (Heston), Best Supporting Actor (Griffith),and Best Score (Miklós Rózsa).

One of those coveted honors went to director William Wyler. A German-born immigrant to the U.S., Wyler studied music at Lausanne and Paris. His film career took off in earnest in 1922 at Universal Pictures’ New York headquarters, first as a messenger boy and then as a publicity writer. Moving to the West Coast, Wyler apprenticed as a prop man, grip, script clerk and cutter, rising in rank to become a casting director, then an assistant director on several prestige pictures, among them The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Lon Chaney (1923) and the silent version of Ben-Hur (1925) with Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman.

Academy Award-winning director William Wyler
Academy Award-winning director William Wyler

A list of Wyler’s accomplishments must surely encompass such classics as Dodsworth (1936) with Walter Huston, Jezebel (1938) with Bette Davis, Wuthering Heights (1939) with Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier, The Letter (1940) with Davis and Herbert Marshall, The Westerner (1940) with Gary Cooper, The Little Foxes (1941) with Davis with Marshall, Mrs. Miniver (1942) with Greer Garson, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) with Fredric March, The Heiress (1949) with Olivia de Havilland, Roman Holiday (1953) with Audrey Hepburn, The Desperate Hours (1953) with March and Humphrey Bogart, Friendly Persuasion (1956) with Cooper and Dorothy McGuire, and The Big Country (1958) with Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, and Charlton Heston in a supporting role.

That’s quite an impressive résumé by any standard. Still, the director had a reputation as a demanding taskmaster who often clashed with cast and crew. Known in the business as “90-Take Willie” for his copious retakes and excessively fastidious working methods, Wyler’s background in the cinema on a multitude of assignments, and his ability to get the best performances possible out of his stars, prepared him well for the rigors of helming Ben-Hur, one of Hollywood’s finest (and longest) Biblical spectaculars.

Ralph Winters, the Oscar-winning film editor on Ben-Hur, described him as “a damn good director, Wyler was. Damn good. But I didn’t care too much for him personally.”

Keeping all of the above in mind, let’s take our assigned seat in the reserved section and turn to the epic at hand.

Begin at the Beginning

“Then God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’”– Genesis 1:26

“The Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.” – Genesis 2:7

The act of creation, so movingly depicted in the first book of the Bible through these two powerful yet poetically-inspired passages, also frames the opening and closing credits of our feature film.

Notwithstanding the above, the movie proper begins with a brief prologue showing the birth of Christ — the New Adam, born without sin to Mary and Joseph, hitherto known as the Holy Family — in the picaresque town of Bethlehem. Three Wise Men from the East have come to pay homage to the child Jesus, who lies comfortably in a stable while cradled in his mother’s arms.

This gentle episode, whereby family unity and stability are stressed — a unity and stability that will soon be shattered by unfolding events — is immediately followed by a majestic brass fanfare (the score comes courtesy of veteran composer Rózsa) announcing the main title sequence. As the credits roll, in the background and completely filling the widescreen space is a detail of Renaissance poet and artist Michelangelo’s brilliant rendering of the “Creation of Adam” panel from the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

In H.W. Janson’s classic work, The History of Art: A Survey of the Major Visual Arts from the Dawn of History to the Present Day, the scholar offers the following commentary concerning Michelangelo’s monumental conception: “[The panel] shows not the physical molding of Adam’s body but the passage of the Divine spark — the soul — and thus achieves a dramatic juxtaposition of Man and God unrivaled by any other artist… the dynamism of Michelangelo’s design contrasts the earth-bound Adam and the figure of God rushing through the sky.”

"Creation of Adam" panel (Sistine Chapel)
Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” panel (Sistine Chapel, Rome)

It’s a captivating combination: on one side we have God (the Old Testament, gray-bearded father figure), caught in the very act of creating, with Man (His earthly offspring) receiving the “breath of life” from the creator. God appears to be admiring His creation, faintly nodding to him in pride and approbation; while on the other side, Man — helpless, alone, and adopting a childlike expression of awe and reverence — looks to God with hope and longing, little realizing that permanent expulsion from the Maker’s Paradise is just around the corner.

If we look further into this stately introduction, we make note of the fact that our title character, Judah Ben-Hur, will himself be expelled from his own paradise — that is, from his family’s ancestral estate. But of course, we do not know this going into the drama. We will learn about his fate soon enough.

Although the full title of Wyler’s epic, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, refers to a subplot that hardly seems fitting for the main course of action, the film turns often to the recurring Christ figure, who has his own musical motif from the start — followed swiftly by the four-note Ben-Hur theme, placed in direct succession to that of Christ’s in order to capitalize on the religious, political and ideological distinctions between the true protagonists of the drama: Judah and Messala.

Judah Ben-Hur, a prince of the Jewish people — a man at the height of his wealth and power, who, like Adam, experiences a precipitous fall from grace, only to regain a semblance of his former stature by film’s end; and Messala, his boyhood companion, now a hardened Roman tribune hell bent on bringing order to the unruly province of Judea, whose furthering of his own deep-seated career ambitions at the expense of his former friendship with Judah will have dire consequences.

Their past association — or what little of it that remains — is severely tested when Judah, refusing to aid Messala’s cause by revealing the names of the Jewish resistance leaders, is wrongly accused of threatening the life of the new Roman governor. As penalty for his “crime,” Messala sends him off to hard labor on board a Roman warship, while his mother and sister are held as prisoners in the Roman fortress’ dungeon. Condemned to a living death, Judah will spend the rest of his days chained to an oar.

Judah is arrested by Messala (Stephen Boyd)
Judah (Charlton Heston) is arrested by Messala (Stephen Boyd)

What Judah subsequently suffers through — his grueling ordeal in the galley, his rescue of Roman consul Quintus Arrius, his freedom from bondage and eventual redemption and reclamation of his family’s rights — is mirrored in a parallel story involving Christ’s suffering and Passion.

This setup happens to be bookended by two scenes that call to mind the opening “Creation of Adam” sequence. Throughout the story, various acts of kindness — represented by touching, giving and receiving — are reenacted by the film’s participants for the audience’s benefit as well as their own. Wyler references these acts at key moments so as to alert us to their deeper meaning within the context and framework of the plot.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

In the first scene under review, Judah is marched through the parched desert country as punishment for his alleged attack. Accompanying him are Roman guards and other criminals. They are on their way to the port city of Tyrus to serve out their harsh sentence. It’s blisteringly hot and dusty. Exhausted from the long trek through the sand and rock, one of the prisoners falls to the ground. Rather than minister to a condemned man, the guards untie his bonds and toss the body over the dunes to its death. This, then, is the sad fate for anyone who stands in the way of Rome.

The music in this sequence, both angular and sharp, is disconcerting in its dissonance. Calling to mind a similar set of circumstances from twenty years prior, it will remind attentive viewers of Rózsa’s powerful score for Zoltan and Alexander Korda’s desert saga, The Four Feathers, from 1939, in the scene where Ralph Richardson gets blinded by the sun.

Finally, the prisoners arrive at a village, where they pass the house of a certain carpenter, sawing away at his workbench. The line of prisoners moves from left to right. The soldiers call for a temporary respite from the march. “Water for the soldiers!” one of the guards shouts. “Soldiers first!” Some of the prisoners leave their formation and rush headlong to the well, but they are beaten back into line, where they await the hapless villagers who are forced to attend to their needs.

As each prisoner is handed a cup or a bowl, Judah waits his turn with hands outstretched. Again, the camera pans from left to right, surveying the ragged line of desperate men. The first to drink is a soldier on horseback, who takes a huge swig from a ladle. Just as another ladle reaches Judah’s lips, a pug-nosed foot soldier snatches the water from his hands and barks out an order: “No water for him!”

After quenching his thirst, the pug-nosed soldier arrogantly spits out the remainder. Judah attempts to gather what droplets he can salvage, but the soldier roughly pushes him back into line. Denied the water’s life-giving sustenance, Judah collapses to the ground in despair. Just as the previous prisoner was left to die an agonizing death in the sand dunes, Judah knows his fate is sealed.

Judah lies on the ground
In despair, Judah lies on the ground

Helpless, alone, and at the end of his rope, he cries out to in a choked voice, “God, help me.” He has been beaten into the ground from whence he came, and from whence God first made Man. “For dust you are, and unto dust shall you return” is the oft-quoted Biblical passage most closely related to the foregoing.

Judah’s body occupies the left and middle portions of the frame. His arms are extended (especially his left arm) in the same manner as that of Adam in the “Creation of Adam” panel at the start. Just then, a shadow crosses Judah’s face and form. We hear the soft theme-music associated with Christ — significantly, the same theme-music the trumpets and full orchestra had thundered forth during the opening credits.

Wyler had his award-winning cinematographer Robert L. Surtees shoot this crucial scene with his cameras low to the ground, forcing the viewer down to the characters’ eye-level for a closer and more intimate encounter.

Christ approaches Judah with ladle in hand and sprinkles water over his neck, head and face. Next, he touches Judah’s left hand with his right in replication of God’s bringing Adam to earthly life (“the breath of life”). Seemingly “baptized” in water and earth, Judah’s head is lifted upward from the ground and onto the ladle and its thirst-quenching contents. Judah drinks his fill of the water while Christ gently strokes his hair and forehead — a much-needed sign of comfort and affection where previously none existed.

Judah looks up at Christ
Judah looks up at Christ after taking a drink from the ladle

Judah stops to look up with hope and longing (just as Adam did to God) at the man who has favored him with libation. He then resumes the business of drinking. At that very moment, the pug-nosed soldier catches sight of Christ with Judah and calls out, “You! I said no water for him!

The soldier pulls out his whip and is ready to give the miscreant a thorough lashing, when Christ abruptly rises to his feet (occupying frame right), the low camera angle giving him the impression of towering over the guard. Backing off, the confused soldier looks down at the ground, then at Christ, then at the others to his right, and at the ground again before finally turning away. Not knowing what else to do, he takes one last look at Jesus and barks another command, “All right, on your feet, all of you!” before sauntering off.

Christ (right) looks on as Judah (left) is led away with the other prisoners
Christ (right) looks on as Judah (left) is led away with the other prisoners

Thoroughly sated, the reinvigorated Judah returns the ladle to Christ. In a spontaneous gesture of gratitude, Judah reaches out to touch his hand. They both rise simultaneously to their feet, with Judah occupying the center of the frame and Christ opposite him and to the side. The camera closes in on Judah, who is now in the exact center — reclaiming, as it were, his rightful spot as the focus of attention. A mounted guard comes over to lash him with a whip, shouting: “You there, back to your place! Back to your place!”

Getting back in line with the prisoners, who resume their lengthy walk to the port, Judah (with the noble Ben-Hur theme resounding prominently in the orchestra) cannot help but look back at the man who saved his life — the one who has given him a second chance and renewed his faith in the goodness of men.

As the sequence comes to a close, Christ, with his back to the audience (his face is never seen from the front), moves to the extreme right of the film frame, the ladle still dangling from his left hand — his gaze deliberately directed at Judah. They will meet again before film’s end. Meanwhile, Judah and the line of prisoners are at left, walking slowly away in the distance.

Judah goes off to meet his destiny
Judah goes off to meet his destiny

The camera shifts its focus to Judah’s face, which again happens to be in the middle of the frame. He stops briefly to give pause as to what has occurred. With his chin up and head held high, Judah takes one last look behind him (much as the pug-nosed soldier had moments before), at the place and person he’s left behind. They will be etched in his memory for later. Once again, he joins the other prisoners on their walk of life, little realizing where the road will take him next.

End of Scene One

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Waste Land – The Musical’: ‘Ninety-Nine is Not a Hundred’ (Part Two)

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The conclusion to a proposed musical theater piece about the award-winning documentary ‘Waste Land’ (‘Lixo Extraordinário’)

Artist Vik Muniz
Artist Vik Muniz

In the first part of my tribute to the denizens of the Jardim Gramacho slum (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/06/13/waste-land-the-musical-we-suffer-we-die-and-were-buried/), one of the catadores was hurt by an unfriendly encounter with a garbage truck and its contents. Meanwhile, the office was looted by drug thieves who made off with the monthly payroll.

Act II: Resolution

Number 12. “Rescue Attempt” – The garbage pickers pull Zumbie out from under the crumbling rubbish heap. “The truck’s gate fell on him,” yells Big Carl, one of the slum’s inhabitants, “but he’s going to be okay.” With a huge sigh of relief, the garbage pickers take the stricken catador de lixo to the hospital. “Over 20 people will donate blood,” Zumbie announces proudly. “I’m surrounded by good fr-fr-friends.” He’s well on his way toward mending, both physically and emotionally.

Number 13. “Vik’s Visit” – The famous artist, Vik Muniz, now comes to call on Jardim Gramacho with a unique proposal for the pickers. He wants to take their pictures – i.e., photographs of the workers, in all sorts of weird poses. As Vik explains it, he intends to recreate the classic paintings of old. The garbage pickers look at him in alarm and amazement. “What’s this all about?” they wonder openly.

Vik tries to clarify his idea, but they still don’t get it. “Pictures? Pictures of what?” they inquire in unison. “Pictures of garbage,” Vik replies, rather matter-of-factly. They are even more astonished at this alleged clarification. They still can’t believe their ears. “Who in their right mind would want to do that?” they declare. “I would,” says Vik. “It’s what I do for a living.” “And people say we’re crazy!” is their response. This leads to an extended discussion (via an ensemble passage) where everyone chimes in with their own ideas about the project.

Eventually, the issues are resolved and the garbage pickers’ reluctance begins to fade. Vik is making headway in his appeals to their self-esteem: he wants them to think of his project as a possible “way out” from the dead-end lives they’ve been leading.

Number 14. “Death of Marat” – The first to take his turn at the canvas is boss-man Tião, who decides to pose for the painting of Jacques-Louis David’s “Death of Marat,” followed cautiously by the other participants. In a humorous episode, Tião starts to undress before the other participants, who shyly look away as he slips into Marat’s outfit. “Irmã’s Painting” is next in line. After posing for her picture, she is finally able to see herself as others do. “Artists have to suffer,” she offers, which leads into the next number.

Magna portrait
Magna’s portrait

Number 15. “Isis’ Suffering” – “They aren’t the only ones,” cries Isis, another of Jardim Gramacho’s put-upon residents. “I don’t see myself in this trash heap anymore. I don’t want to go back to the garbage. I don’t…” Isis then reminisces about her young son, who died in a nearby hospital of pneumonia. The scene shifts between her recollection of the recent past and the events at the landfill, which are taking place simultaneously – in parallel – but on two different levels. Some of the garbage pickers are transformed into doctors and nurses, keeping Isis informed of her son’s deteriorating condition.

This becomes the emotional crux of the drama, wherein Isis sings about the ant crawling on her deceased son’s face – the same ant that, if one pulls back far enough away from the landfill, everyone appears to resemble. “We’re just a bunch of tiny insects in this life,” Isis insists. “I saw my son die at three years old,” as she resumes her story. “He died of acute pneumonia. His name was Carlos Igor.” At the mention of his name, Isis breaks down in tears. In trying to comfort her, Vik tells her that no one can do anything more to her than has already been done. His mission, then, is to help the populace see what life is like on the outside, beyond the confines of the garbage dump. That is the most that he can do – the rest is up to them!

Number 16. “Lesson: How to Look at Art” – This is the scene where Vik instructs the residents of Jardim Gramacho how people who go to museums look at (and appreciate) the works of art they find there. First, they take a step up to the painting, and then they take a step back. This routine turns into an amusing vignette, with the onlookers contributing their own versions of “how to look at art.”

In the meantime, the lesson continues: back and forth, everybody leans in and everybody leans out; they move away, see the material, see the landscape, and then move out again. “Since we’re all garbage pickers,” they claim, “all we see are the recyclable materials.” “But that’s the thing,” Vik pipes in. “They’ll spend hours looking at your photographs. There is more to them than just garbage. Watch, you’ll see.” We know exactly what he means, which is: there’s more to the garbage pickers – much more, it turns out – than meets the eye. You just have to “get up close and personal” to simple folk, they retort, to learn “who we really are” – just like regular folk do with the paintings.

Suelem as "Madonna and Children"
Suelem as “Madonna and Children”

Number 17. “Madonna and Child” – A photo session involving Suelem and her two children takes place. In recreating the artwork, the garbage pickers themselves do the actual placing of the objects onto the photo – that is, they recreate the art from the trash heaps that they themselves have picked. In addition, each work is a commentary – a personal statement, if you will – on the personality and character of the individual who did the picking. For the “Madonna and Child,” this indeed is how Suelem sees herself and her brood.

This happens to be the real theme of the show: i.e., how others have perceived the garbage pickers to be, but, most importantly of all, how Vik, the artist, and especially the garbage pickers, see themselves and their roles in life. It goes beyond what anyone ever imagined at the start. How much they have changed in such a short time! Each finished photo is displayed in its glory. The garbage pickers are overcome with emotion by their wonderful portraits, especially Big Carl and his wife.

Number 18. “The Museum Visit” – In a change of scenery, reporters appear to gather around the garbage pickers doing makeshift interviews. At the museum, Vik and Tião stumble upon a bronze sculpture of a garbage bag. “What’s in it?” Vik asks. “Can you tell me? Can you venture a guess?” Tião pauses and ponders the contents. “Hmm, a cup of yogurt, hearts of palm, small boxes, a brand new cell phone, and the rest.” This scene is reflective of an earlier one, in Act I, in which the pickers made fun of people’s trash. It ends with Tião’s perceptive comment: “I feel like a pop star.”

We next revisit the skit, “How to Look at Art,” now called “Life Imitates Art,” but this time it is put into practice, with the garbage pickers seeing real people looking at their precious pieces of art, in exactly the way that Vik had taught them beforehand, the living embodiment of the phrase “life imitates art.” Both garbage pickers and museum visitors admire each other, first from afar and then from close up, a rather comical observation on how different groups of individuals behave and perceive the other to be – and a perfect illustration of the point that Vik Muniz was trying to make above.

Number 19. “The Auction” – It starts with the sale of an Andy Warhol original, beginning almost in staccato form, à la Mrs. Lovett from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Interspersed with the auctioneer pointing to various parties gathered at the auction, there are comments and asides from Vik and Tião interspersed throughout, as well as from the other participants, somewhat along the lines of: “Did you hear? Did you hear?” and “Did he say twenty, did he say twenty?” “Is it true? Is it true?” “It’s been sold for fifty thousand and two! Did he say fifty, did he say fifty? Sold today, sold today? Is it true what they say?”

At scene’s end, Tião’s picture is sold for $50,000 dollars. He is overcome with emotion and breaks down, weeping with joy – quite a different situation from the earlier one at the end of the first act, where we found him bawling his eyes out at the loss of the company payroll. He simply can’t believe his good fortune. “It’s all worth it. It really is,” he admits. Vik and Tião embrace warmly, in friendship and solidarity, as the onlookers break out into spontaneous applause.

Tiao Santos & Jo Soares (YouTube)
Tiao Santos & Jo Soares (YouTube)

Number 20. “Finale” – The musical ends with Tião and the garbage pickers’ appearance on a popular TV talk show (in Rio de Janeiro, it’s Jo Soares’ program; in America, it’s Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers or Stephen Colbert). Here, the talk-show host introduces the group as “collectors of garbage.” Tião has the polite audacity to confront him: “If I may correct you, sir. Garbage can’t be reused, whereas recyclable materials can. We are not pickers of garbage, but pickers of recyclable material.” What he’s trying to say is that human life is never wasted; it’s always salvageable – recyclable, if you prefer – even if you’re a lowly garbage picker. “I stand corrected,” Soares states, as he looks out approvingly into the audience.

The show comes to a rousing close with the repeat of Valter’s number, “Here’s wisdom aplenty: Ninety-nine is not a hundred, and nineteen is not twenty,” after the elder statesman’s personal motto. The entire cast comes out in a stirring rendition of “The Waste Land Song”:

Seven thousand tons of trash

Work all day for little cash

Robbing Peter, paying Paul

Look, here comes another haul

It’s a Waste Land

The set reverts back one last time to the garbage dump overlooking Guanabara Bay. Only this time, Christ the Redeemer is facing the audience. His massive stone countenance is seen looking down on the inhabitants. It almost appears as if He’s given His blessing to the goings on.

Blackout and curtain

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Waste Land – The Musical’: ‘We Suffer, We Die, and We’re Buried’

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A proposed Musical Theater piece is based on the documentary Waste Land (Lixo Extraordinário)

"Death of Marat" - Waste Land
“Death of Marat” – Waste Land

Back in April of 2011, I became struck with the idea of turning the Academy Award-nominated documentary Waste Land (2010) into a musical. Don’t ask me why, it was one of those mad obsessions I get from time to time.

I had been trying for weeks to get in touch with Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz, who was one of several driving forces behind the documentary, but without success. It was his penchant for taking discarded trash and turning them into extraordinary works of art that first captured my attention. Vik’s peculiar habit of photographing the end result led to unique objets d’arts involving, for example, Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper or a snapshot of Jackson Pollack outlined in chocolate syrup.

Other objects were comprised of such everyday household items as a strip of wire, a used light bulb, a roll of toilet paper, a spiral notebook, and similar materials. Muniz would arrange the objects in as artful a manner as possible and simply photograph them. For his series “Pictures of Garbage,” he photographed the residents of the Jardim Gramacho (Garden of Garbage) slum, in Rio de Janeiro, in poses reminiscent of famous paintings, i.e., Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat, Gustave Courbet’s The Gleaners, a Renaissance Madonna with children, and various others.

To my mind, a Waste Land – The Musical project would be an extension of Vik’s creative vision. In a 2010 Art in America article, he explained to interviewer Michael Slenske that one is “always dealing with preconceived ideas… of the value of materials, so the point of departure is familiarity.” In the case of the film, Vik “departed from the [preconceived] image” of garbage as foul-smelling and useless rubbish, transforming what others had discarded into images of poignancy and dignity, as well as beauty.

I was so impressed and moved by Vik’s efforts, and by the documentary itself, that I simply had to approach him about my idea. Although I never got to speak with Vik, I did have a lengthy conversation with the film’s producer, Angus Aynsley, who is also the main copyright holder along with O2 Filmes in São Paulo, Brazil.

My thought was to create a musical presentation in the spirit of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, where the personal back stories of the inhabitants of Jardim Gramacho are spotlighted and emphasized. It would be a marvelous way to pay tribute to the wonderful work of Tião, Zumbi, Isis, Irmã, Magna, Suelem and the late and much-lamented Valter.

With Brazil being the focus in 2014, in which ACAMJG (Association of Garbage Pickers of Jardim Gramacho) are the official World Cup recyclers, and especially the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio, this would be a great opportunity to bring the story of the catadores of Jardim Gramacho to the world stage.

As well, it would help to focus on their struggles by bringing aid and comfort to those less fortunate than ourselves. What better way to do this than through a musical adaptation that everyone could enjoy and participate in?

I began with a listing of the dramatis personae:

Tião (Sibby) – The leader of the garbage pickers

Isis

Irmã (Big Sister)

Valter (Walter)

Magna

Zumbi (Zombie)

Carlão (Big Carl)

His wife

Suelem (Sue Ellen)

Vik Muniz

The Auctioneer

Jô Soares – Brazilian TV personality

 

Act I: Conflict

The setting is Rio de Janeiro, behind Guanabara Bay. In the background we see the mountains, with Corcovado looming in the distance, far to the right. One can make out the statue of Christ the Redeemer silhouetted from behind.

It is still dark; the time is just before daybreak. As the sun slowly rises, we begin to distinguish the outlines of ramshackle homes and makeshift shantytowns, their lights flickering in the dawn. With the sun’s appearance, the lights in the theater go up as well — slowly, methodically, in time to the music.

What the audience doesn’t realize, but eventually begins to notice, is that the mountains in the foreground are, in reality, huge garbage heaps piled high with refuse, reaching almost to the top of the proscenium. There is ample illumination, with the only shade provided by the massive piles, mounds of trash in the midst of filth and decay. The scene is reminiscent of Peter Brueghel the Elder’s 1563 painting of “The Tower of Babel,” with openings, archways, windows, etc. It is a unit set that serves a multipurpose function.

"The Tower of Babel" - Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)
“The Tower of Babel” – Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563)

It becomes clear in the morning mist that Rio (read: Brazil) has turned its back on the impoverished, those downtrodden souls who labor for a living while providing “clean-up duty” to those residing in the lap of luxury, just beyond their reach. These poor folk are spurned, rejected, ostracized by society. Why, even Christ himself has turned away from the garbage pickers (symbolized by our view of His backside).

This is the horrid, sorry realm of people who live on the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder. “Garbage” equates to the type of persons picking it: that is, they are of no value, worthless, suitable only for tossing aside, once they are used up — a metaphor for the pickers themselves.

Number 1: “The Waste Land Song” – The catadores, or “garbage pickers,” who come out from behind the huge mounds, now appear, individually and collectively, in the opening number. They sing of their lot, each one in his or her fashion. This is “The Waste Land Song,” the first few lines of which are:

Seven thousand tons of trash

Work all day for little cash

Robbing Peter, paying Paul

Look, here comes another haul

It’s a Waste Land

We meet them, one by one, as they introduce themselves to us: there is Tião (Sibby), the president of ACAMJG, an acronym for the Association of Garbage Pickers Union; Zumbi (Zombie), Suelem (Sue Ellen), Isis, Irmã (Big Sister), Valter (Walter), the group’s philosopher-poet; Carlão (Big Carl) and his wife, and Magna — the main characters of our story and residents of the Jardim Gramacho (“Garden of Garbage”) neighborhood. They are denizens of this “Waste Land,” one of the world’s largest landfills.

Landfills, by necessity, are dead and lifeless places, akin to a cemetery or graveyard, in that there are dead and rotting things in them. All around, buzzards are seen circling overhead or swooping down onto the piles of refuse, constantly on the lookout in a never-ending search for sustenance.

The analogy of a graveyard is a crucial one, for it will determine the staging in many respects, as well as become instrumental in shaping the personalities of the play’s characters who, in many cases, have spent their entire lives there as pickers. Leoš Janáček’s From the House of the Dead is a good comparison, in particular the late Patrice Chéreau’s staging at the Metropolitan Opera House in 2009.

Although, like the characters in the Janáček opera, their lives are bleak and the work is constant drudgery in the extreme, the catadores somehow manage to keep their sense of humor about it all. Most are a happy, contented lot — unlike the put-upon individuals of Les Misérables who are incapable of masking a lifetime of hurt and suffering. So the landfill is not entirely lifeless; in fact, it’s teeming with vitality.

Number 2: “Valter’s Verse” – Valter, the landfill’s elder statesman and resident philosopher-poet, is the first to come out. He sings a number about his credo in life:

It goes like this:

Here’s wisdom aplenty

Ninety-nine is not a hundred

And nineteen is not twenty

Meaning that if even one object is rescued from the garbage heap and recycled, that’s one less of the total mess. It’s his life’s mission to rescue “that single one” that “will make all the difference.” He might be referring to the garbage pickers, which is, rescuing even one of them from a life of drugs, crime and prostitution, is a life that is itself worth preserving and/or “recycling.” Valter knows what he is talking about, having spent 26 years as a garbage picker, as well as vice president of ACAMJG and representative to over 2,500 pickers. He wears his responsibility with seriousness of purpose along with dignity and pride.

Number 3: “Isis’ Lack of Luck” – She talks about her “boyfriend,” a truck driver, who happens to be married to someone else. They recently broke up, after she had already tattooed his name on her leg. “It’s over,” she blurts out sadly. Five years she’s been working in the landfill. “It’s disgusting,” she muses. “I make $20-25 dollars a day. This isn’t a future. Not for me, it isn’t.”

Number 4: “Tião’s Tale” – He is the president of the association of rag pickers, a natural-born leader, and a person that all the pickers look up to for counsel and advice. He has a different take on his role at the landfill. “I have nothing to complain about in my life,” he declares, “nothing, nothing at all.” Not yet, he doesn’t. Dead bodies are sometimes dumped there, he claims, especially during the drug wars. But for now, things are relatively quiet. He sings about finding a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince and, after reading it, comparing the story in the book to the reality of slum life in Rio: “l learned a lot from it.”

Number 5: Ballet Dream Sequence: “Delivery Truck” – A truck comes along and unloads more garbage onto the heap. The pickers climb all over it, like ants on an enormous mound. This begins a ballet dream sequence, as if the workers are wrapped in a trance, methodically going about their monotonous routine. The pickers find some unused hotel and restaurant food, as they toss it to Irmã (“Big Sister”) for her to work her magic on, which segues into the next number.

Jardim Gramacho - Waste Land (zagrebdox.net)
Jardim Gramacho – Waste Land (zagrebdox.net)

Number 6: “Irmã’s Ode” – Irmã, strong, steadfast, full of spunk and good humor, is the camp’s only cook. She recycles the food she finds in the heap, “beef stew,” “rib steak,” whatever she can get her hands on. She turns the unused portions into a gourmet meal for the pickers. “We feel good in here. I don’t let anyone go hungry. I feel very good.”

Number 7: “Magna’s Yarn: The Bus Ride” – Magna talks about being on the bus — again, illustrated, in parallel, almost as if the scene were taking place before our eyes. She is on the bus going home, smelling of garbage as usual, saying to the other passengers, “It’s because I work in the dump. Hey, it’s better than turning tricks on Copacabana Beach. I find it more interesting and more honest. More dignified, but it’s disgusting. Still, we have to pay the bills. And no one ever stops to think: where does all that garbage go? It goes here, my friend. Right here…”

Number 8: “Zumbie’s Story” – Responding to Magna’s complaint, Zumbie finally has his say. He has a stutter: “I don’t want my son to be no garbage pi-pi-picker,” he cries. “A la-la-lawyer, yes… but a pi-pi-picker…? No, no w-w-way!” Suddenly, he shouts to the other pickers. “Watch out for the tra-tra-tractor!” Books are his thing, as he is the landfill’s resident “librarian,” always finding new and used volumes in the heaps to recycle for his expanding collection. His father died, “when I was nine years old. Mom died too.” He tells a sad story of his life, up to that point.

Number 9: “Suelem’s Lot” – Suelem adds her own two cents: “I started at seven, now I’m eighteen. A baby was thrown away — we see some unpleasant things here, you know.” It’s even more unpleasant for her when she tells everyone she’s pregnant with another child. “If the rent is late, it goes up. I have to pay it on time.” She already has a little boy and a girl. Their father is a drug dealer; the rats run along their roof. Suelem dreams of opening a daycare center one day: “I love children.” She takes us on a tour of her house, which is located in the next slum where she and her extended family live — so many people in one tiny place.

Number 10: “Name That Trash” – Next, there is a comic scene wherein the garbage pickers discuss whose trash they find: “This is middle-class trash. Poor is the trash of the poor. It comes in little plastic bags.” They find some discarded Playboy magazines and marvel at its eye-popping contents. “Are there really such women in the world?” They begin to wonder aloud.

Number 11: “Finale” – The finale to Act One is a crisis of immense proportions. A robbery is in progress. A gang of thieves or drug addicts (nobody knows for sure) enters and holds up the office. The gang takes off with whatever money the pickers’ daily toil has gotten them. Left without any means to support and feed their families for the month, the catadores moan their loss. What can they do now? An ensemble closes the act, with the principal themes and melodies of the characters’ songs building, reappearing and intertwining, with each of their individual thoughts, hopes and dreams (as well as failures) restated, in essence converging in one massed chorus.

“Hey, watch out!” somebody screams. All of a sudden, one of the catadores is hurt as a garbage truck empties its contents on top of him, while the others come quickly to his rescue. One of the members announces, “It’s Zumbi.” He has broken his arm and leg, and cracked several ribs. What will happen to them, to their families, their friends, their livelihood?

Indeed, their very existence is threatened by these unforeseen incidents. Who will help them in their hour of need? Who will take them out of their misery? Tião is seen weeping: “I just feel like giving up on all of this. I don’t want to stay here anymore.” He buries his face in his hands and shakes his head from side to side.

Blackout

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes