Whispering Pines at The Kitchen
Last night to us to The Kitchen to go see Shana Moulton’s Whispering Pines. It was interesting to see this right after having seen Big Art Group’s work at Abrons, as it highlights, in some ways, the difference between “visual art performance” and theater. The description of Whispering Pines says that it “tells the ever-evolving story of Cynthia, an anxiety-ridden hypochondriac whose constant search for health and happiness leads her towards fad cures and new age kitsch, creating situations in turn comic, contemplative, and surreal.” But really there is very little in the way of storytelling – it is more like a live video installation with a performer, riffing on a sketch of an idea of a character. Moulton appears in front of a video projection and interacts with it in artless choreography. Moulton intentionally “tackles the divide between low and high production values” which creates a kind of home-spun aesthetic. I’ll admit that I was resistant and a little frustrated at first, but as the piece went on it won me over. Mostly responsible for winning me over was Nick Hallett’s playful and engaging score, ably performed by Mr. Hallett, soprano Daisy Press and harpist Shelley Burgon.
When the piece first started I was thinking, “OMG, here we go again.” But as it moved on and I realized that nothing much was actually going to happen, I gave into watching it as a moving painting, or a video installation, or abstract music video and I found myself in a pleasant state of revery. It is lightly humorous as Cynthia spaces out and goes on dream-like journeys through video landscapes. I found the low-tech aesthetic a bit distracting, to be honest. When I watched Big Art Group the tech was so seamless that you either didn’t notice it or you were amazed by it. In Whispering Pines I kept being distracted by the shadows thrown from the projections, from the cut-and-paste quality of the video work and the loose correlation between the performer and the video.
I guess the theater person in me gets a little riled up sometimes by visual art performance because it seems to assume that performance is easy. Performing – even experimental, weirdo performance art – is hard to do in a compelling way. And Whispering Pines really proved that. The musicians were top-notch professionals bringing an extraordinary level of musicianship and prowess to the proceedings. It is a shame that Ms. Moulton didn’t work with a choreographer on her movement – or, as the artist, hire an actor/dancer to play the role of Cynthia. I didn’t see a dramaturgical imperative for autoperformativity. If the video is, by choice, exploring the high tech/low tech divide, then everything else should be decidedly accomplished. Big Art Group, for instance, hires top-notch performers to bring the work to life. I get it, you know, that the artist is “saying something” by being in their own work and that her artlessness is part of the aesthetic. I just think that it is one thing to have a performer play at artlessness and another thing to embody it.
The audience – complete with art stars and downtown celebs – loved the show and I can understand why. There’s a lot to enjoy from the piece and it is clever and amusing. Also, like I said, the music was absolutely delightful. I’m glad to have been exposed to Ms. Moulton’s work and I look forward to seeing what she does next.