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Hidden in Plain Sight

Photography is not just the act of taking pictures with a nearly two-century-old invention; it’s a way of understanding the world. No longer just a paper and emulsion record of the way we live — goodbye Kodak, hello Instagram! — today’s hyped-up version churns out images ceaselessly and recklessly, like a stoned Artie Lange at Christmas dinner.

Begging Susan Sontag’s pardon, it really is now, and not during the flashbulb 1970s, that everything exists to end in a photograph. The iPhone, among other advanced gadgetry, fills the world with more reproductions than people ever thought possible. The fact that our surroundings are constantly being mediated by images, ranging from our own photos to those produced by pesky Google street-view cars, has in due course become one of contemporary photography’s most popular bugaboos.

The commonplace nature of this eye-opening quandary — that photography is constantly testing itself — is the subject of a terrific exhibition of pictures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Titled “Everyday Epiphanies: Photography and Daily Life Since 1969,” this modestly scaled show of 36 photographs and four videos traces the recent development of this omnipresent medium. Chiefly, it explains what happened after certain nettlesome artists realized mechanical and digital reproduction itself was the best tool available to pry open photography’s big box of magic tricks.

Starting with what pop historian Rob Kirkpatrick called the “year that everything changed,” “Everyday Epiphanies” examines the development of photography after 1969, an era marked by the medium’s openness to explorations of its own basic documentary and truth-telling functions. Set out in the manner of an insightful visual essay rather than an exhaustive argument or polemic by the Met’s photography curator, Douglas Eklund, the show chronicles photography’s drift through what may be termed early, late, and terminal postmodernity.

“Everyday Epiphanies” features photographs that are studiedly self-conscious, either by choice of subject or in their approach to the medium’s conventions. Consider, for instance, William Wegman’s print of two images of the same table knife. Combined with text that identifies one as “sharp” and the other one as “dull,” its perceptual, Magritte-like message is expressed drolly by selective focusing, rendering one knife blurry and the other crisp. Another photograph to use flatfooted imagery to test the boundaries of photography’s limits is John Baldessari’s Hands Framing New York Harbor (1971). A black-and-white picture that literally represents its title, the photo also apes the all-important framing function of the camera with the ultimate analog technology: the artist’s fingers.

A similar and more recent example of hard-edged conceptual photography is Erica Baum’s Buzzard (2009). An image of several pages of text folded into each other, the print not only flattens out the expressive possibilities of picture-making into a welter of unreadable ideas, it also goes a ways to making explicit our current data glut. Baum’s digital inkjet print also finds earlier machine-era echoes in a piece by the California conceptualist Larry Sultan. A color image of the artist’s father with everything but his hands obscured by the New York Times business section, My Father Reading the Newspaper (1989) displays sheets of reproduced information as an effectively obscuring rather than revealing barrier.

But not all of “Everyday Epiphanies” sounds the same paranoid, Adjustment Bureau note. In fact, much of the show is given over to two particularly lyrical artists. The first, celebrated shutterbug Stephen Shore — once Andy Warhol’s in-house photographer — is represented by a selection of colorful, everything-and-the-motel-sink “drugstore prints” he made during a single cross-country road trip in 1972. And then there are Gabriel Orozco’s 1990s photos of his own ephemeral sculptures. A pile of sand on the table, a curled-up potato bug, a shoebox in the snow — each of these images defies conventional hierarchies, while presenting photography not as unvarnished truth or power, but as a source of mysterious, small-bore revelations. One of the show’s takeaways is that you have to sift through a lot of Artie Lange’s Instagram garbage to find them.

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Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman in Sontag: Reborn

Few people who read Susan Sontag’s work—essays, fiction, nonfiction, plays—feel lukewarm about it. The polarizing cultural critic’s proclivity for using her vast breadth of knowledge to make bold, grand assertions (sometimes bypassing explanation) dares the reader to be either with her or against her. Either way, it’s unlikely most would find her acumen easy to relate to—which makes the New York Theatre Workshop’s production of Sontag: Reborn delightfully surprising in its warm theatricalization of her diaries.

The one-woman show, adapted and performed by Moe Angelos and directed by Marianne Weems, begins when Sontag is 14 and follows her emotional and professional development through the publication of her first novel, The Benefactor, at age 30. The writer’s precocious intelligence is evident early on, as she recounts a rigorous self-prescribed reading list that includes, among other things, lots of French author André Gide, whom she admires for his love of himself. (Intense introspection becomes a defining theme of the play.)

Behind Angelos, Sontag’s meticulous, handwritten notes appear in ghostly penmanship. On a screen in front of her, an older Sontag (also played by Angelos) looks on, offering commentary. Angelos remains sandwiched between these two screens throughout the performance; the effect of this design is both theatrical in its layering of generations and distracting in its slight obscuring of the action onstage.

Angelos portrays the younger Sontag with a pluckiness that seems incongruous with the severe older Sontag whose image hovers before her. But the contrast is affecting in that the spiritedness of the younger version seems more in keeping with the passionate tone of her diaries (the journals have been edited by her son, David Rieff, and published as Reborn (2008) and As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh (2012), with a third still to come).

A pivotal moment arrives when young Sontag has her first sexual encounter with a woman she refers to as “H.” Transformed by the experience, she realizes, “I never fully comprehended that it was possible to live through your body,” and resolves to do so going forward. Why, then, with what she recognizes in herself to be “lesbian tendencies,” does she conform to the social pressure to marry and have a child?

Whether Sontag ever explains these choices in her diaries—whether she even understands them herself—remains unclear. What we do see is a woman driven by the need to form an independent identity, who escapes her marriage by striving to achieve intellectual greatness while riddled with artistic self-doubt. In these moments of naked self-reflection, sometimes brought on by heartbreak from female lovers after her divorce, the emotional core of the character—and perhaps of Sontag herself—is revealed. “The notebook is where the artist is heroic to himself,” she writes. Indeed, in her private honesty, Sontag is at her bravest.

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A BEAUTIFUL MIND

In an interview with the New York Times 20 years ago, Susan Sontag remarked, “All my work says be serious, be passionate, wake up.” Adaptor-performer Moe Angelos and director Marianne Weems seem to have taken these words as inspiration for Sontag: Reborn, a solo drama based on Sontag’s recently released diaries, edited by her son, David Rieff. In this serious and passionate play, which runs at New York Theatre Workshop, Angelos incarnates Sontag as a febrile teenager and the graying lady of American letters. The Builders Association, which Weems heads, always makes remarkable use of technology, and, in this piece, live performance, live video, prerecorded sequences, and animations of the writer’s own prose all whirl together to resurrect one dauntingly complicated woman.

Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Sundays, 7 p.m.; Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Starts: May 28. Continues through June 30, 2013

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Tokyo Story

Dir. Yasujiro Ozu (1953) The final, devastating lines in Ozu’s masterpiece of intergenerational unhappiness—focusing on disappointed elderly parents and their overburdened adult children—made no less a die-hard fan than Susan Sontag weep at every viewing.

Wed., July 11, 1 p.m.; Thu., July 12, 1 p.m.; Fri., July 13, 1 p.m., 2012

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Avant-Garde January! It’s Koltes, the TEAM, Toshiki Okada, and, er, Ira Glass

It’s easy for Americans to feel intimidated when faced with the might of the European experimental tradition. Many continental companies enjoy generous state subsidies; our artists scrabble for private funding and juggle day jobs. European theater artists have challenged the centrality of plot, character, language; we fiddled with genre. They continue to question the limits of theatrical performance; we take our clothes off. Actually, they take their clothes off a lot, too.

But with the exception of a few Turks and a Pole, performers from here and abroad remained more or less dressed in the first week of the fashionable festivals tied to the annual APAP conference—Under the Radar, COIL, Other Forces, American Realness, etc. Yet several pieces, despite their countries of origin, seemed to share the same struggle—the careful calibration of content, form, and performance. And certain local talents held their own against foreign competition.

Take, for example, a trio of musicals, one hailing from Poland, two more or less homegrown, barring an Edinburgh tryout last August for the TEAM’s Mission Drift. In the Solitude of the Cotton Fields is Polish director Radoslaw Rychcik’s musical play based on a script by Bernard-Marie Koltès, a nihilistic French author too rarely revived. In this dark allegorical piece, staged at La MaMa, a Dealer (Wojciech Niemczyk) and a Client (Tomasz Nosinski) meet in a deserted place and undertake a violent and erotic pas de deux, backed by an electro-house quintet, the Natural Born Chillers, all garbed as Breton fishermen.

The script teems with poetic menace, and both actors move with an intensity as ferocious as it is precise. But Rychcik has them repeat the same gestures even as Koltès’s lines force them to repeat the same words, and all the songs (played at tooth-rattling volume) begin to blend together. As story and character stifle, these cotton fields come to resemble a mire, never more so than during an unnecessary video sequence.

Similar storytelling problems afflict Goodbar, Waterwell’s glam-rock musical at the Public, based on a cautionary tale about a schoolteacher’s murder. (The caution: Nice girls shouldn’t go picking up men in bars since they’ll be raped, killed, and raped some more.) As in Solitude, the songs—voiced by the compelling Hanna Cheek as the doomed Theresa and the caped Kevin Townley as the various men in her life—don’t do any of the narrative heavy-lifting, and the dancers are even less necessary. Here, any plotting is accomplished via video sequences, notable mostly for the cameos—Ira Glass as a naughty professor, Under the Radar’s artistic director Mark Russell looming over a drug party.

While no famous names enliven Mission Drift, it nevertheless succeeds in staging a staggeringly ambitious saga—400 years in the life of American capitalism. The script, by the TEAM and playwright Sarah Gancher, focuses on two couples: Dutch immigrants Catalina and Joris, parents to the first child birthed in New Amsterdam, and contemporary Nevadans Joan and Chris, a dismissed cocktail waitress and a displaced cowboy.

As these players cavort on a set of sand, Astroturf, and lawn furniture at the Connelly Theater, Heather Christian—a singer-songwriter with a throaty voice like an emphysemic angel—leads an astute musical commentary on the action. Director Rachel Chavkin could stand to cut 20 minutes from the second half and downplay various metaphors, but it’s the liveliest lesson on desire, destruction, and economics that you’ll see in many a year, far more boom than bust.

Neither can you fault Alexis. A Greek Tragedy for its aspirations. The Italian company Motus aims to describe the Greek financial crisis and subsequent unrest, which led to the shooting of Athens teenager Alexis Grigoropoulos, while also examining Motus’s own artistic practice and its work on the ancient play Antigone, another piece about a young victim of social protest.

In La MaMa’s sprawling Ellen Stewart space, Daniela Nicolò’s script proves elliptical and fragmentary, sending the actors scrambling toward a new idea well before the last one has settled, giving each topic rather less consideration than it deserves. And yet these actors—the long-limbed, excitable Silvia Calderoni particularly—are so present, so athletic, so pliant, they make the work appear better integrated than it actually is.

Of course, some pieces can have too much structure, such as the Builders Association’s Sontag: Reborn at the Public and Hideki Noda’s The Bee at the Japan Society. In Sontag: Reborn, Moe Angelos, a dynamic and clever performer, plays Susan Sontag as both a febrile teenager scribbling in her diary and as the graying lady of American letters, commenting on those same journals. That older Sontag appears only on a scrim, one of two that Angelos perches between, her words accompanied by images of Sontag’s writing and live video feed of her own hands and torso. At almost every moment, two or three separate projections compete with the live performer, reducing the piece’s spontaneity, creating a stasis that Angelos’s fervor and the energy of the prose struggle against.

Noda’s The Bee also fights against its own fixity. An absurdist comedy, co-written with Colin Teevan and somewhat in the style of Max Frisch or Eugene Ionesco, the play concerns Ido, a salaryman (played in button-down drag by Peter Brook regular Kathryn Hunter) who returns from work to find that a notorious criminal has invaded his house and made hostages of his wife and son. In retaliation, Ido enters the criminal’s house and does the same. The four actors are strong (Noda himself stars as the criminal’s gogo-dancer wife), but each moment feels too rehearsed, too canned, and the gender-switching undercuts the violence at the play’s core.

There’s violence, too, as well as rage, bewilderment, and despair, in the other show at the Japan Society, Chelfitsch Theater Company’s poignant and sly Hot Pepper, Air Conditioner, and the Farewell Speech, a triptych of short office-set plays by Toshiki Okada. But in these pieces, any strong emotion is buried so far beneath shrugging ambivalence as to seem almost undetectable. Here, four temporary employees and two full-timers at the same nameless company cover over their distress with futile babble. Yet their spastic gestures and the stark lighting design suggest the desperation lurking below their conversations about temperature settings and dish detergent.

Okada makes a virtue of diminishment, yet the same can’t be said for Robert Cucuzza’s Cattywampus at the Incubator Arts Project. This line-by-line adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie still concerns a racy dame (Jenny Greer) who falls for a social inferior (DJ Mendel). But Cucuzza has updated the script to contemporary backwoods America, a place with more fluid class structures, and it has made Julie a dissatisfied housewife rather than the earlier play’s putative virgin. Consequently, her dalliance with a detailer at her husband’s failed car lot lacks tragic consequences, forcing the ardent actors to strain for emotive effect.

Greater stakes are evident in Lick But Don’t Swallow!, a play by Turkish company Biriken at La MaMa. An angel (Ayça Damgaci), who longs to keep her heavenly status, must descent to earth for 24 hours and in that time convince at least one person to turn toward righteousness. Things are made more difficult when she discovers her terrestrial identity—a porn star famous for her inventive postures. It’s a fine concept, but the play falters in the execution. Repetitive scenes occur in which Damgaci fakes copulation while chattering on about the plight of Africans.

If Lick’s porn star mourns the fate of a continent, Chimera—a wily gloss on the solo show by Philadelphians Suli Holum and Deborah Stein at Here—concerns itself with only a single woman. Or is that two women? While a mythological chimera is a beast with a goat’s head, a lion’s torso, and a snake’s tale (what a thing that would be to see onstage!), Jennifer Samuels (Holum) is a medical chimera, a scientist who discovers that she possesses two distinct sets of DNA, her own and that of the twin she absorbed during gestation and who has colonized several of her organs, including her ovaries. Chimera is focused, precise, and clean—white costumes, white set. It is also expertly assembled and performed, a show with very good DNA. Indeed, it offers audiences the satisfaction of seeing plot, structure, and performance twine together—a triple helix as beautiful as anything.

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Paul Thek Gets a Major Retrospective at the Whitney

We live in an age ruled by a suspicion of institutions—financial, cultural, and governmental—in which institutions rule. This is particularly true in the art world, which invented the term “institutional critique.” So it’s not surprising that Paul Thek (1933–1988), who exhibited in museums in the ’60s and ’70s, then disappeared from art history, is being reintroduced now with a major museum retrospective.

Thek was offbeat, but not a complete outsider. Peripatetic and gay, he moved between continents and mediums. But he showed at the Stable Gallery—which also showed Andy Warhol and Cy Twombly—and Susan Sontag, a good friend, dedicated her seminal Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966) to him.

Sontag and Thek eventually parted ways. But Against Interpretation‘s thesis, that art started out as transporting magic and ritual and got ambushed by intellect and interpretation, applied to Thek. The eponymous essay’s last sentence could serve as his template: “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”

Thek’s erotics quickly became death-tinged, contesting the reigning coolness and rationality of ’60s Pop and Minimalism. The Technological Reliquaries (a/k/a “meat pieces”) from the mid-’60s, about a dozen of which are included in the Whitney Museum’s “Paul Thek: Diver, a Retrospective,” are boxes made of slick industrial Plexiglas. But then Thek polluted these primary-structure geometries with cross sections of fake meat, meticulously crafted with wax, resin, paint, and hair. One turns a Warhol “Brillo Box” into a gory showcase, with Plexiglas fitted into the ends of the plywood.

A series of chairs made for a 1968 show in Essen, Germany, was outfitted with s/m-ish straps and large apertures in the seats. Taxidermied buzzards and crows hover on the backs of the reconfigured furniture. Corpses and body parts show up in works like The Tomb (1967), later rechristened Death of a Hippie, a pink ziggurat housing a wax cast of the artist’s body with his tongue dangling out suggestively.

When you read about Thek’s visit to the Capuchin catacombs near Palermo, Sicily, in the early ’60s, the later sex-death drive registers even more keenly. Inside a corridor lined with windowed coffins, Thek wrote, “I opened one and picked up what I thought was a piece of paper; it was a piece of dried thigh. I felt strangely relieved and free. . . . We accept our thing-ness intellectually but the emotional acceptance of it can be a joy.”

Alter-ego effigy works like Hippie and The Fishman (1968) echo that experience. But thing-ness began to dissolve in the late ’60s as Thek worked collaboratively to create ephemeral installations, often in museums in Europe. It was a period with more institutional latitude than the present. Thek would cover museum light fixtures with bags and light the show with candles to create a theatrical environment. In 1971, Thek and his band of artists were given the keys to Stockholm’s Moderna Museet and allowed to come and go as they pleased. (Try running that past a museum legal department today.)

Not all the work here is remarkable; in fact, much of it isn’t particularly satisfying except read through the lens of poetic absence. Major works—including Death of a Hippie and the Ark, Pyramid installation for “documenta 5” in 1972—were disassembled and/or lost. In the ’70s and ’80s, Thek returned to painting, making brushy, abstract-expressionistic works on newspaper, which are intermittently interesting. One painted over a New York Times article provides a stunningly fitting subtext, however. It reads: “John Wimber’s blond curly hair and bushy beard are turning gray now, but he retains the countercultural verve of the 1960’s. A rock musician, about to leave on a nationwide tour, he became a convert to the evangelical ‘Jesus’ movement. He never made the trip, he says, because the Lord led him in another direction.”

The beauty of Thek’s career—although this show unfortunately posits him more as an object maker than a creator of theatrical, ephemeral environments—is that his trajectory led perennially in another direction. And it didn’t end in his own, singly authored work or collaborations, but in its contiguity with and (sometimes indirect) impact on others: Marcel Broodthaers, Ed Kienholz, Paul McCarthy, Franz West, Kiki Smith, Robert Gober, Mike Kelley, Damien Hirst, Matthew Barney, Mark Dion.

Many of these artists, interestingly, are included in the current installation of the permanent collection on the Whitney’s fifth floor. It, too, is a slightly frustrating display—limited, in this case, to what’s on hand in the collection. But you see in some of the works the reverberations of Thek (and to some extent Sontag), who viewed art not as a text or discrete, formalist object, but as a liminal process and that messiest of entities: a vehicle for spiritual transportation.

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17th Annual African Diaspora Film Festival

Homecomings, corruption, and applied radicalism recur as concerns throughout the customary big-tent selection of this year’s African Diaspora Film Festival. For the 17th edition, the 101-film girth and 46-country reach chart collective narratives and individual strivings, but (with the caveat of selective previewing) the greatest artistic variety amid all the globe-trotting emerges in the nonfiction lineup.

Unusual for its stubborn outside-looking-in perspective, Glorious Exit follows a half-Swiss stage actor summoned from the States to bury his Nigerian father. As the eldest, he must preside over an exorbitant funeral and receive tribal delegations, leading to nerve-wracking values clashes as the possibility of noble failure stares him in the face. In Utopia and Barbarism—a sort of reoriented Grin Without a Cat—veteran Brazilian remixer Silvio Tendler plots postwar trends in revolution and conscience, with insight from fellow filmmaker Fernando Solanas, Susan Sontag, and many others. Nova Scotian chronicler Sylvia Hamilton gently counterpoints voices from past and present to remember her country’s segregated schools in Little Black Schoolhouse, while Katanga Business offers a selective Economist-style rundown on the Democratic Republic of Congo’s fraught mining industry in the wake of mind-boggling war. And at the top of the bill, opener Wole Soyinka: Child of the Forest fetes the Nigerian Nobelian, but glimpses of his mordant wit are the main highlight.

Baldly stated themes serve the fiction features less well. Set in South Africa circa the 2000 Truth and Reconciliation amnesty of apartheid assassin Craig Williamson, Nothing But the Truth, lauded in its stage version, feels schematic onscreen. Likewise for The Harimaya Bridge, despite the strikingly cruel resentment of its American protagonist, reclaiming his expat son’s paintings in Japan. Lastly, the frank The Armchair and the careening Skirt Day let loose two women who’ve had enough: the upright new head of a back-scratching government ministry in an anonymous African country, and a French inner-city teacher gone postal—played by Queen Margot herself, Isabelle Adjani.

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Beauties and Beastliness

In one corner is Juergen Teller’s 2005 color photo of Hitler’s Nuremburg podium, the concrete now uneven and stained, and his shot of an animal—stripped to orange ribs and carbonized pelvis—on a rotisserie spit at a German festival. This theme of regimented, mechanized beastliness is countered by Dash Snow’s digital prints of what look like enlarged Polaroids; although taken in recent years, these shaggy guys fighting with feather pillows or thrusting out of water with bare-breasted beauties on their shoulders radiate hippie hijinks. Jeffrey Vallance stakes out the middle ground in this show of nine diverse artists, constructing witty reliquaries that range from a standard collection of religious medals and dice (representing lots cast by Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross) to The Gods of Las Vegas, a black box containing rhinestone pins spelling out “Elvis,” “Nixon,” “Liberace,” and “Jesus.” There’s also Lenin in a red cupboard, basking in the glow of lacquer pins from the Soviet era, and a Coral in the Shape of Connie Chung. All await your veneration.


Kamp K48

Hrafnhildur Arnardottir’s 2-D, life-size sculpture The Hairy Hunchback is made of tangled human hair braids and sports a face-size hole like those photo ops on the boardwalk—grotesquely funny, it sets the tone for this wide-ranging, multimedia jaunt through the horrors of summer camp. Borna Sammak has laser-burned scenes of flaming skyscrapers and swaying palms onto a fluorescent-pink skateboard (Escape From Miami, 2006); Brendan Fowler’s angry letter to rival campers uses cagey misspellings (“our squad has every rite to our space”) to channel tear-blinded teen angst. And don’t miss Noah Lyon’s homemade buttons, sporting such bons mots as “Get a Job Hippy!” and “Harmony Kareem Abdul Jabar.” John Connelly Presents, 625 W 27th, 212-337-9563. Through Aug 30.


Arcadia

David Hilliard’s five-panel photograph of a store aisle begins on each end with masses of large red and white flowers; the foliage gently curves toward the center panel, with its stacks of plastic goods and gardening merchandise. This group photo exhibit about humanity confronting nature also includes Justine Kurland’s shot of a pine forest populated by nude women and wandering children, their soft pink bodies vulnerable to spiky tree trunks, and Jim Cooke’s Eden Project, a wide-shot of geodesic domes and undulating, grass-clad buildings under England’s steely skies. Yancey Richardson, 535 W 22nd, 646-230-9610. Through Aug 25.


Wild Girls

In this show of work by more than two dozen women from around the world, Maria Piñeres provides tart commentary on celebrity foibles with hand-stitched mug shots of Lizzie Grubman and Lil’ Kim. Jaishri Abichandani’s “Khajuraho” sculptures feature whips, dildos, latex pussies, and other sex toys covered with velvet, crystals, and glitter—a disco fever update of the erotic reliefs that festoon the ancient Hindu temples. Ogechi Chieke’s video Thee Creation Theory runs backward: black, red, and white liquids poured over the artist’s face and breasts magically rise up from her skin in a narrative of birth and, perhaps, relief from the myriad fluids that shower women in porn. Exit Art, 475 Tenth Avenue, 212-266-7745. Through Aug 26.


On Photography: A Tribute to Susan Sontag

Eli Lotar’s 1929 photograph of dozens of large, cloven hooves, sheared off just above the ankle and propped in rows against a stone building, is hung next to a wall text excerpting Sontag’s 1974 essay “Melancholy Objects,” which observed that the camera’s view of reality is “narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision.” Examples of Edward Weston’s silver prints of peppers and nudes hang next to an excerpt questioning whether the vegetables are, in fact, more voluptuous than the naked women. This combination of Sontag’s words with 150 years of images by numerous photographers makes for an insightful memento, a book of revelation upon the wall. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave, 212-535-7710. Through Sept 4.


The Art of S. Clay Wilson

Gnarly pirates brawl with leather-clad bikers; weeping (and salivating) nuns bend over to receive monstrous strap-ons; leprous zombies hit on beatnik chicks: They’re all denizens of this legendary underground cartoonist’s strips—including Can Capers, wherein saucy cannery girls slaughter and castrate men for “Cream of Crank Soup.” This new coffee-table book features myriad human orifices being plundered and defiled in scenes that would be disgusting on video, yet become morbidly hilarious in Wilson’s big-foot cartoon style (which achieves a Pollock-like intensity through his densely entwined crosshatching). As Wilson once noted in an interview, “Just because you depict evil, doesn’t mean you are evil. . . . People show up in leathers and shit, looking like my characters, I won’t let them in my house.” tenspeed.com

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Memento Mori

“All photographs are memento mori,” Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography (1977), her groundbreaking collection of essays. So one could hardly imagine a more fitting memorial to the writer, who died two years ago, than this show of photographs organized around her reflections. In that book, Sontag pinpointed the moment when she lost something akin to her critical virginity, at age 12, while looking at “photographs of Bergen-Belsen and Dachau which I came across by chance in a bookstore in Santa Monica in July 1945. Nothing I have seen—in photographs or in real life—ever cut me as sharply, deeply, instantaneously . . . I felt irrevocably grieved, wounded, but part of my feelings started to tighten; something went dead; something is still crying.”

Much of her work negotiated the distance between extremes of feeling and intellect. Many were offended by an article she published just after 9-11, noting the “courage” of the hijackers who crashed into the World Trade Center; but as we seesawed in those weeks between grief and numbness, who could forget her (radical) exhortation: to think. Sontag touched upon 9-11 again in her last book,
Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), a brilliant extended meditation on the uses and abuses of photographs of war and disaster. No mere political diatribe, it ranges widely across history, from the Victorian photographer Roger Fenton’s staged tableaux of British soldiers in the Crimean War to the horrors on display in this morning’s newspaper, uncovering in the process the double standard that underpins our relationship, in the developed West, to images of suffering.

Shows about critics are a tricky business. There’s a tendency for the writer’s words, reproduced in wall texts or captions, to eclipse the pictures, narrowing their meaning to a single interpretation. With one notable exception—Robert Capa’s
The Falling Soldier (1936), an icon of Republican heroism in the Spanish Civil War whose veracity has recently been challenged—curator Mia Fineman wisely leaves out specific photographs Sontag dwelt upon at length, preferring instead allusive juxtapositions of word and image.

Sontag’s aphoristic style, heir to Walter Benjamin’s epigrammatic insights, works particularly well in this context. (She was heir to Benjamin as well in her preoccupations with surrealism, the politics of the image, and the 19th-century as the cradle of modernity, while Roland Barthes was like her sentimental
Parisian cousin in their shared obsession with
photography’s whiff of mortality.)

So her reflections on the surrealism that “lies
at the heart of the photographic enterprise” accompany a picture by Buñuel’s cinematographer Eli Lotar, whose
Slaughterhouses at La Villette shows severed rows of cattle hooves, lined up in the calm light of dawn like shoes at a Japanese bathhouse. “Seen through photographs, people become icons of themselves,” Sontag wrote. Well, none more so than the beautiful 32-year-old author herself, who reclines in Peter Hujar’s 1975 portrait and projects an aura of serene self-confidence and domination. (At the Met, she’s the last in a delightful line of sacred monsters, from Napoleon Sarony’s silk-stocking-clad Oscar Wilde to photo-booth self-portraits by Andy Warhol.) And her thoughts on fascist pageantry find an echo in Leni Riefenstahl’s showstopping aerial shot of endless lines of insect-sized, seemingly identical German athletes doing push-ups at the Berlin Olympics in 1936.

One might quibble with Sontag’s assessments of specific artists; her harshness, for example, toward Diane Arbus, whose posthumous 1972 retrospective at MOMA occasioned one of the writer’s more spectacular failures of empathy. But the power of her impassioned amateur’s stance remains an inspiration. “Space reserved for being serious,” she wrote toward the end of her life, “is hard to come by in a modern society, whose chief model of a public space is the mega-store (which may also be an airport or museum).” Or, one might add, a Chelsea filled with art galleries. But “space for being serious” was precisely what Sontag preserved in her writing—and in the frantic rush to consumption, with most critics simply providing (or withholding) seals of approval on the cultural assembly, line, we would do well to follow her.

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Dungeon Masters

For up-to-the-minute analysis of the quagmire in Iraq, go to the Public Theater, where David Hare updates his play Stuff Happens as events warrant. But for a provocative explanation of how the U.S. and the U.K. lost their moral compass, go three blocks south to the Culture Project’s Guardians. A hit at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Peter Morris’s spare play—a pair of monologues, really—is every bit as potent as its neighbor, if not more, with only one-tenth as many characters. Morris focuses on two sets of unseen photographs: real ones, such as those taken at Abu Ghraib, and staged ones, such as those published in the Daily Mirror that forced its editor to resign.

In her 2004 essay about Abu Ghraib, “Regarding the Torture of Others,” Susan Sontag wrote, “The photographs are us.” But Morris explores a sexual component to the pictures that Sontag barely hinted at. An unnamed Lynndie England character (Katherine Moennig) joins the army, the only ticket out of her dead-end hometown, and finds first love in a sadistic officer with a photo fetish. And at a London tabloid not unlike the Mirror, a reporter (Lee Pace) finds the ticket to his dream job as a broadsheet columnist through a submissive soldier he meets in a Dantean s/m club. “Journalism is pornography,” he quips.

Excuses like “I was only following orders” and “Give the readers what they want” become moral imperatives, and democracies are betrayed by the same institutions that have pledged to defend them. That Pace and Moennig find the humanity in such inhuman characters is nothing short of remarkable.