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Blame It on Magritte

You might assume that the Photoshop fantasias of our age would make the visual conundrums of René Magritte’s pre-war paintings feel quaint. Certainly the beguiling originality of his fractured figures and enigmatic objects has been obscured over the decades by the bowdlerized surrealism of Madison Avenue and pop culture. Yet Magritte’s conflation of the everyday with the otherworldly continues to resonate, a transformative aesthetic that destabilized the foundations of reality as determinedly as Einstein in physics and Heidegger in philosophy.

MOMA’s exhibit focuses on the years 1926 to 1938, when Magritte worked as a commercial artist to supplement the uneven sales of his Surrealist paintings, an unsettling—and at times shocking—body of work that would influence generations of artists on both sides of the high/low divide. While in his early 20s, Magritte (1898–1967) explored Cubism, Futurism, and other modernisms, and eventually developed a style of figuration that presaged Andy Warhol’s formal insights by including advertising graphics and typography.

Affecting the same bourgeois dress and provincial manner he assigned to the bowler-crowned businessmen who populate his paintings, Magritte lived and worked mostly in the suburbs of Brussels, save for a few years spent in Paris seeking an official blessing from the pope of Surrealism, André Breton. Magritte’s painting of a pipe accompanied by the text “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”) impressed Breton and other luminaries of the group, including Salvador Dalí and the poet Paul Éluard. The journey to this iconic 1929 canvas, titled The Treachery of Images, had begun a few years earlier, when Magritte experienced an epiphany in an “unpretentious” Brussels brasserie: “I was in a frame of mind such that the moldings on a door seemed to me to be imbued with a mysterious quality of existence and for a long time I stayed in contact with their reality.”

In the 1926 collage The Lost Jockey, antler-like limbs grow out of decorative wooden posts festooned with sheet music. A horseman gallops through this domestic forest, the entire scene viewed through parted curtains, the shifts in scale and texture creating a mesmerizing dreamscape. Like a physicist ramming particles into each other, Magritte choreographed collisions of homey objects—a large egg crammed into a small birdcage—and the resulting tableaux set off elusive detonations in the brain.

The Light of Coincidences (1933) depicts a candle on a table, which illuminates an easel holding a framed painting of a statue reminiscent of the Venus de Milo. This deathly white human form casts a shadow corresponding to the candle in the foreground; in other words, a light source outside of its frame of existence. We are looking at a two-dimensional rendering of a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional object placed within a realistically painted scene of a darkened room—multiple fictions begetting illusions. The mind parries the impossibility of a flat, painted canvas casting such volumetric shadows, which causes a conceptual tango to arise between the viewer’s own body and those classically idealized breasts, belly, and mons.

Magritte’s perturbing riddles hide in plain sight of his serviceable trompe l’oeil style—the imagery seduces the eye even as it batters the brain. The staid Belgian’s febrile concepts laid the groundwork for all manner of intellectually driven artwork of the past century: “This is not a pipe” can be seen as the template for much of Jasper Johns’s encaustic japery, as in using blue paint to slather the word “RED” on canvas. Freud proposed that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar; Magritte emphatically countered that neither a depiction nor a verbal description of a pipe, however precise, is truly a pipe. In 1927, he painted an image of deeply recessed shelves upon which lay a severed hand, bruised fruit, and a biomorphic blob; a fourth opening is obscured by a pink, perforated screen. Titled One-Night Museum, this painting anticipated by almost a decade Duchamp’s “Box in a Valise,” a leather case containing reproductions of that conceptual artist’s most famous works. And as compellingly weird as Neo Rauch’s most recent paintings have been, they’ve got nothing on the sheer WTF bravado of Magritte’s The Secret Player (1927), in which a huge sea turtle (headless, no less) levitates above a pair of ball players and a gagged woman in a closet. All of this is acted out in a formal garden of the artist’s trademark wooden balusters.

Even now, in our porn-on-demand age, Magritte’s 80-year-old canvas The Rape delivers a jolt. He replaced a woman’s face with her torso, a brilliantly disturbing move that substitutes nipples for eyes, navel for nose, vagina for mouth. The painting asks a question those buttoned-down suburbanites Magritte specialized in would rather not hear, much less answer: When a man imagines undressing and having sex with a woman he is speaking to—or just passing on the street—has his mind’s eye committed rape? How does the interplay of the physical and the imaginary in masturbatory fantasies affect the object of desire?

When he was 13, Magritte’s mother committed suicide, and legend has it that he witnessed her exposed body being fished out of a Brussels river, her dress wrapped around her head. If The Rape is pure provocation, an earlier painting, The Lovers (1928), haunts us with its vision of a man and a woman kissing though their heads are swathed in white cloth—veils of propriety muting desire.

Magritte’s imagery has been co-opted for everything from the CBS eye logo to album cover art, from Monty Python animations to James Cameron’s floating Avatar landscapes, but this exhibition forcefully reminds us of its original power. Few artists before or since have so remorselessly exposed the simultaneous disconnection and entanglement of the ravenous meat and imaginative neurons that make up the human body.

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Watch Erased with the Sound Off and You’ll Still Know What’s Going On

Mix a dollop of The Bourne Identity, a dash (or two) of Taken, and a pinch of the spy classic Three Days of the Condor (1975), stir it all together, and you get Erased, a thriller whose storytelling ingredients are so familiar that one could watch it with the sound off and still know what’s going on. Aaron Eckhart is Ben Logan, a recently widowed private security analyst living in Brussels who awakes one morning to find his office empty, his co-workers in the morgue, and his personal identity wiped away. With his rebellious teenage daughter, Amy (Liana Liberato), in tow, Ben begins dodging assassins. As luck would have it, he’s a retired black-ops agent, so, game on. German director Philipp St√∂lzl proves adept at staging fight scenes in confined spaces, and has fun with a bob-and-weave train station pursuit. The movie zips along nicely for a while, but once screenwriter Arash Amel begins explaining the vast conspiracy Ben has stumbled upon, action gives way to talky angst. Eckhart is too lively an actor for material this mundane, although a Liam Neeson hand-me-down is probably irresistible in today’s marketplace. Can Erased Again be far behind?

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Your Brother. Remember?

It begins as a one-man show, with master of ceremonies Zachary Oberzan seated onstage, doing a deliberately stilted Jean-Claude Van Damme impression, complete with blockhead-mystical gestures. But there is, at the heart of Your Brother. Remember? (which originated as a stage piece), a wealth of filmed material. Two decades ago, Oberzan (who was also behind the recent extreme-DIY First Blood adaptation Flooding With Love for the Kid) shot lo-fi parodies of the 1989 Jean-Claude Van Damme film Kickboxer, and some of the more obviously staged segments from the mondo compilation “documentary” Faces of Death, with his brother, Gator. In 2009, the two set about to re-enact those re-enactments. Your Brother. Remember? represents, in part, a mash-up of the new and old home-video footage, as well as clips from the original source material. Family is a theme of Kickboxer, and Oberzan weaves in the film so that it reflects, with an amusing bluntness, upon the brotherly collaboration it inspired. Additional video musical spoofs relate Gator’s real-life struggles with drug addiction and gradually clarify the return to the Kickboxer/Faces of Death project as an attempt at reconciliation after years of estrangement (third Oberzan sibling Jennie also lends a hand). Gator’s game reprisal of his Muscles From Brussels screen persona is increasingly poignant, as we learn more about the events that occurred between the two Oberzan Kickboxers. At barely more than an hour, Your Brother. Remember? is a formal clusterfuck in the best sense, held together by Oberzan’s irrepressible faith in the redemptive power of the cultural scrap heap of adolescence.

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Gangsta Excess From the Congo in Viva Riva!

“Your country is the worst shit pile I have ever seen,” César (Hoji Fortuna), an Angolan crime boss, tells a Congolese soldier—an assessment that writer-director Djo Tunda Wa Munga doesn’t wish to disabuse us of. Viva Riva! is both the first feature by Munga, who left Kinshasa at age 10 for Belgium, later studying art and filmmaking in Brussels, and the first from the Democratic Republic of Congo to be distributed in the U.S. That in itself is worthy of some kind of celebration, even if Viva Riva! too lazily indulges in shapeless genre excess. After a decade away, gangster Riva (Patsha Bay Makuna) returns to Kinshasa with a truckload of gasoline he stole from César, hoping to score big in the fuel-depleted capital. Frequently fanning wads of cash, the hustler hits the clubs and the whorehouses, soon falling hard for Nora (Manie Malone), the flame-haired moll of a porn-addicted kingpin. Sweaty copulation, whether paid for (the dominant mode), consensual, het, or lez (not as radical as the coupling in 2001’s Karmen Gei, from Senegal), breaks up the scenes of torture and bullet-spraying, if not the moments of sloganeering. “Money is like poison—it always kills you,” Nora tells Riva after a vigorous workout in a bathtub; meanwhile, Munga revels in the rising body count.

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Francesco Tristano & Bruce Brubaker

Brussels-based pianist Francesco Tristano has performed with the Hamburg Symphony and at Carnegie Hall; he’s also covered Detroit techno pioneer Derrick May’s “Strings of Life” and collaborated with Berliner dub-minimalist Moritz von Oswald of Basic Channel. His album for Carl Craig’s Planet E, Idiosynkrasia, bridges these classical and electronic worlds, configuring the piano as an instrument of the future. Joining Tristano is his former Julliard piano teacher (and a leading interpreter of Glass, Muhly and Cage), Bruce Brubaker. Later, there’s “We Are Your Friends!” with residents Epistaxis, Reachout, and Nathan Vice.

Thu., Feb. 3, 6:30 p.m., 2011

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Belgium Brings the Avant-Garde, Probably No Waffles

Sometimes it seems like the avant-garde moved to Flanders and set up an official world headquarters—at least for experimental performance. That region of Belgium hosts dynamic international dance-theater companies like Damaged Goods (led by American expat Meg Stuart) and the Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui collective, among others who are pushing the frontiers of ensemble creation and physical performance. In Antwerp and Brussels, creative ferment and congenial subsidies attract artists from around the globe to pursue long-term, large-scale collaborations.

New York audiences can catch rare glimpses of the action in October, when two top Flemish ensembles visit. Needcompany, originally formed in Brussels in 1985, will present its newest work, The Deer House, at BAM October 5 and 7 to 9. Under director Jan Lauwers, the troupe has always made deeply personal work: Isabella’s Room, which played at BAM in 2004, was a fiction inspired by thousands of archaeological objects left by Lauwers’s father.

With The Deer House, however, Needcompany delves even more deeply into emotional autobiography, reflecting on the company members’ grief at the 1999 death of war journalist Kerem Lawton, whose sister, Tijen, is a longtime company member. The company was on tour in France when they heard the news—a scene re-created in the production’s first scene. “Her cell phone rang,” says Lauwers, speaking by phone from Belgium, “and all of a sudden the war in Kosovo came into our dressing room.”

Searching for a form to express the human cruelties of the Balkan wars, Lauwers turned to fairy tales, where, he notes, cruel deeds routinely transpire. The director devised a fantasy scenario to play off the realism of the group’s backstage trauma, riffing on a film he had seen about deer farmers in Mongolia. “Once a year, they ride through the forest on horses and gather all the deer together in a corral,” he says. “They cut off the antlers and let the deer with their bleeding heads back into the forest, into the wild.” Lauwers made this haunting image of the wounded herd a central motif for his text and choreography.

After performing in The Deer House for about six months, Tijen Lawton found it too wrenching and dropped out. At BAM, her role will be performed by a replacement. “It’s almost perverse to play your own grief onstage,” says Lauwers. “It’s good that somebody else performs it.”

Les Ballets C de la B, a renowned collective still largely unfamiliar in America, arrives at the Joyce Theater (October 19–24) to perform Out of Context—For Pina, a work for eight performers by the group’s founder, Alain Platel. The title refers to the late Pina Bausch, the 1980s pioneer of tanztheater in Germany—and, perhaps in homage, the piece promises to experiment with orderly movement.

Platel, formerly a teacher for the physically disabled, founded the ensemble with friends in 1984 to explore social questions in relation to individual experience. Out of Context, he says, investigates expressions of uncontrolled movement, hysteria, and unrestrained consciousness in relation to formal choreography.

“In our two previous performances, the music was a starting point,” Platel tells the Voice. “In VSPRS, it was the music of Monteverdi. In Pitié!, the music of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion was used. For this performance, I just wanted to continue the physical work I was doing with these dancers, but without a context that would guide us too much.”

From both companies, adventurous audiences can expect thought-provoking abstraction, social subtexts, a lot of bare flesh, and more than a little wildness—a good introduction, all in all, to these new Flemish masters.

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Congo’s Politics of Dancing

Most of us gringos are content to simply let the guitars sing and the grooves signify while listening to the lilting, rumba-drenched soukous that typifies music from the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo. But for those who actually wonder what those sun-parched Congolese singers are going on about over all those hypnotic horn and axe breaks, here’s a helpful bit of shorthand: Listen for the words “bolingo” and “motema.” You won’t have to try too hard, as tallying them is easy as identifying “habibi” in music from the Arab world or “corazón” in anything Spanish or Latino. Love, it would seem, is everyone’s message. Translated from the Congo’s native Lingala, “bolingo” means something like “romance”; “motema” is “heart.”

Of course, nothing is quite that simple in a land that has become synonymous around the world with ethnically driven conflict and rape as retaliation, even if it’s true that most postcolonial music bearing any Congolese stamp has been recorded for decades in Paris or Brussels, instead of onetime-African-music-capital Kinshasa. (The Central African nation gained independence from Belgium in 1960.) According to University of Montreal anthropology professor Bob W. White, many linguistic complexities are rooted in the repression endured under Joseph Désiré Mobutu, a/k/a Mobutu Sese Seko, the CIA-installed despot who changed the country’s name to Zaire for much of his 32-year reign (which finally ended in 1997) and sought to merge his own leonine, paternalistic image with that of his increasingly mismanaged one-party state. One of the best chapters in White’s recent Duke University Press book, Rumba Rules: The Politics of Dance Music in Mobutu’s Zaire, addresses this directly, using soukous lyrics by such stars as J.B. M’Piana, Koffi Olomide, and General Defao to show that love paeans and praise songs are often veiled cries for help, community, even power in a society gone awry.

White’s tome is a bit harder on guitar hero François Luambo Makiadi (“Franco,” for short), the burly maestro considered by many to be the great man of modern Congolese music. One way to gauge Franco’s stature—other than the fact that he has been the subject of two Stern’s Africa–produced retrospective sets in as many years—is that T.P.O.K. Jazz, his buffed-to-perfection ensemble, gets on-screen time along with James Brown, Bill Withers, the Fania All-Stars, and B.B. King in Soul Power, the fine recent concert film about the Mobutu-sponsored diaspora festival Zaire ’74. White’s affection for Franco’s music and influence is obvious, but the artist’s on-again/off-again coziness with Mobutu’s regime clearly frustrates the author. It’s true that Franco serenaded the dictator and was given control of the nation’s premier label and recording studios, but he also ribbed Mobutu with carefully calibrated satire that eventually managed to get him thrown in jail and forced to spend periods in exile.

The handsome, new two-CD set Francophonic, Vol. 2 covers the last decade of Franco’s life, leading up to his death from AIDS in 1989. T.P.O.K. Jazz had only recently become an album-oriented outfit—and Franco finally more comfortable with the increased space that afforded him—when the set gets under way in 1980, with the result that every track on disc one is more than 10 minutes long (“Bina Na Ngai Na Respect” clocks in at 17:28). Rules acknowledges that hyper guitar breaks (or sebenes) were hallmarks of the band’s style, but it’s the way the singers and instrumentalists shift gears from clavé-driven soukous up to the fleet groove called kwassa-kwassa that makes this a contender for party record of the year. If disc two suggests that the tempos slowed once Franco got sick, in the midst of it all, 1985’s “Mario” introduces the innovative, back-to-the-future sound that brought Franco his first real international audiences, who immediately grasped its dance-floor appeal, whether they noticed all the lyrical bolingos or not.

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Two People Wind Through a Desiccated Labyrinth of Love

What is this place? A dim wasteland in which two barely discernible figures slowly tangle and roll apart and tangle again in a contest between desire and despair. Things rumble and crackle in the darkness; sea birds cry. When Jan Maertens’s lighting finally brightens, we can see that a woman and a man—Meg Stuart and Philipp Gehmacher—are stranded in a carpeted room that could be a movie theater or a funeral parlor, but is principally an arena where memories of love can be resurrected and, perhaps, laid to rest. A tombstone-like platform lies to one side. Designer Janina Audick has enclosed the space with a curving wall of blue-gray curtains, parted to frame a slide projection of dried leaves, an overhanging fern, and two dandelion puffballs waiting for the wind to finish them off.

Although Stuart was born in New Orleans and trained, performed, and began to choreograph in New York, she relocated to Brussels to found her company, Damaged Goods, in 1994. We haven’t seen enough of her work here. She was last at DTW in 2006 with Forgeries, Love, and Other Matters, a collaboration with composer Hahn Rowe and Montreal choreographer-dancer
Benot Lachambre. This wrenching 2007 work, Maybe Forever, is more shadowed, its characters more numbed by lost love that lingers, aching like a phantom limb.

Words they once spoke return to hang emptily in the air. Their bodies keep misremembering embraces. Near the beginning, Stuart jumps into Gehmacher’s arms as he kneels, rocking stiffly. He lets her fall, tumbles on top of her, and then tries to crawl away with her clinging to him. Their gestures are abortive, helpless. They reach upward, fingers working busily at some undecipherable task. They open their palms to receive . . . what? They clutch nothing, bodies twisting awkwardly. They fall, stagger, and knock into each other. When Stuart—initially wearing a skirt, a blouse, and white high-heeled shoes—lies across Gehmacher’s lap, her legs sprawl clumsily; she looks like a doll whose owner has dropped it and moved on. In addition to the occasional soar of violins in Vincent Malstaf’s sound score, songwriter Niko Hafkenscheid, sitting onstage, plays ironically harmonious waltzes on his guitar and sings hopeful words.

Harmonious memories sometimes surface also: For a while, the two sit close together and watch the woodland scene as if it were a movie (the slide changes almost unnoticeably, becoming more or less colored). But the jagged rhythms jolt along over stillnesses and silences. In one of Stuart’s two monologues, she makes statements like “You know when I said I wished I were you?” Pause. “I take it back.” A fine, deeply honest actress, she builds these into a litany, modifying their intensity and interrupting thoughts with runaway gestures to shattering effect.

The contrast between the two performers is provocative. Stuart’s blend of bluntness, stoicism, and vulnerability has always shown through her training. But she retains the ability that the best dancers have; she doesn’t just transform herself, but lets you see how she transforms. Behind the woman’s needy awkwardness, you sense a potential for harmony and equilibrium that makes what she does all the more heartbreaking. Gehmacher, well known in Europe, was born in Austria and studied, performed, and began to choreograph in London. Watching him in Maybe Forever, you’d almost never know he’d had dance training. This man is defined by his tensions—locked into his body, barely able to extend his arms to their full length; everything is an effort. Yet it’s he who ends the piece with a halting speech that acknowledges the ongoing presence of love. As if to contest the unbearable heaviness of being, Stuart comes back onstage with Hafkenscheid. She’s wearing a peach-colored dress. Spangled.

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Zap Mama’s Supermoon

Supermoon‘s opening track, “1000 Ways,” aims for nothing less than transforming the human condition: “Thousand billion people/Thousand ways to talk/Thousand ways to smile.” With lesser voices, that “one world” ambition would curdle into cheese, but the generous spirit and coolly delicate chops of Marie Daulne (a/k/a Zap Mama) inform a set that manages to be both monumental and humorous.

As ever, it’s all rooted in the forests of Central Africa. The pygmies there had rescued her family after her Belgian father was killed during Congo’s civil war— they were airlifted to Brussels when Daulne was just three weeks old. So her music lessons took place in a chilly European kitchen as her Bantu mother washed dishes and warbled the pygmy forest songs that Daulne eventually tweaked into a cappella sounds that the rest of us could understand on Adventures in Afropea, Vol. 1, her 1993 debut with Zap Mama, then composed of five mostly European women. The focus has since narrowed to Daulne’s shifting layers of vocal effects, and the instrumental arrangements have expanded throughout African, Caribbean, and African-American beat routes, with guest musicians drawn from world, soul, jazz, and pop—like-minded souls all. Supermoon‘s lengthy list includes bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, drummer Tony Allen, and most fittingly, Michael Franti for “Hey Brother,” a lovely call-and-response duet across continents. With tracks like “Affection,” a eulogy for a close friend; “Kwenda,” adapted from an African children’s game; and “Gati,” based on a chant she heard upon return- ing to Congo as an adult, this is Daulne’s most personal and infectiously buoyant release yet.

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Film

Suspected of murdering the transgender hooker population of Brussels, Bo (Robinson Stévenin in a superb performance), a pre-op transsexual, chooses to act as suspicious as possible by breaking into apartments, accosting neighbors, and courting the local hustler. Although director Girod hints at Bo’s peril as a possible victim, the character’s employment in a noble profession (she waits tables at a drag bar) establishes that she is never really endangered. Still, Girod contrives a stream of scenes in which men tromp Bo for her sexual advances. After multiple explanatory scenes to clarify the obvious, Bo’s lacerated face and broken limb are her paltry compensation for helping solve the crimes. Transfixed ultimately fails in the same way as William Friedkin’s Cruising: Despite honorable intentions, it may have an unintended appeal for bigots.