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French and Japanese exhibits reveal societal influences

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[bb]WHEN THE EIFFEL TOWER WAS

NEW: FRENCH VISIONS OF

PROGRESS AT THE CENTENNIAL

OF THE REVOLUTION

At the MIT Museum.

Continues through Feb. 25.

Tuesday-Friday 9-5 and

Saturday-Sunday 12-4.

AGAINST NATURE: JAPANESE

ART IN THE EIGHTIES

At the List Visual Arts Center,

MIT Wiesner Building E15.

Continues through Feb. 18.

Weekdays 12-6 and weekends 1-5.

By AARON McPHERSON

PARIS IN THE '80s TO '90s The pictures of Paris' 1889 World's Fair, for which the Eiffel Tower was constructed, portray marvelous works of engineering, considered near miracles by the people of the day. New methods of printing had made the color poster a practical means of mass communication, and the development of techniques for combining photographs with text on the newspaper page was transforming journalism. In 1889, the pictures of the Eiffel Tower were engravings made from photographs. By 1900, only 11 years later, the photographs themselves were appearing on the pages.

In France, art and technology were firmly intertwined, component parts of one glorious culture. Technological innovation was not something that happened by chance: It was a central goal of the society. In 1871, France had lost the Franco-Prussian War to Germany, and although the reparations were completed by 1875, the sting of defeat spurred the French to greatness. France hosted two world's fairs, extravaganzas of architectural, artistic, and industrial achievement.

Militarism flourished, with the armament manufactories competing to produce ever more deadly weapons for the protection of France. The famous architect Louis Bonner devised a pavilion for the Schneider Manufactory at the 1900 World's Fair that looked like a massive gun turret. An original drawing of the pavilion by Bonner himself is on display, depicting a fearsome domed structure, with thick vapors rising from the massive dual smokestacks, a searchlight projecting from the pinnacle, and guns bristling from the edges of grimacing windows. In 1914, with the commencement of the Great War, the Schneider ideal would lose all its luster. In 1900, however, it symbolized a society on the move, on its way to preeminence in the world.

There is giddy excitement in the French art of the period, like what a child feels at Christmas. Posters loudly proclaim the virtues of the bicycle, the motion picture, and Borax, usually with the aid of scantily clad women. Individualism and diversity are simultaneously promoted. One advertisement for Peugeot bicycles shows a broad cross-section of people (all men) avidly reading an announcement of success in a cross-country race.

French art of the 1890s glorifies reality, and makes only half-hearted attempts to examine life critically. Of course, we are focusing specifically on "visions of progress," and yet there is still a peculiar innocence about the show. Gas heating and lighting is portrayed as clean and elegant, although an ad for a Tobler gas regulator shows, through its depiction of an exploding, non-regulated lamp, that gas could be dangerous as well. However, the use of a beautiful woman in a sheer floral dress to point out the regulator certainly does not draw one's attention to its mechanical nature. Machines were frequently portrayed alongside women, to make them softer and less threatening.

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AT THE LIST GALLERY, Shoko Maemoto's "Silent Explosion," one of the most disturbing works in the exhibition, is a blue, glittering hoop dress whose front has been torn open to release a torrential flood of molten lava, or blood. Behind the dress, flames shoot up to the ceiling against a background of molten green, purple, and blue. The dress is empty, as if its occupant had exploded, leaving only a hopeless, hollow shell. It is art as frustration.

Shinro Ohtake builds giant wall displays of lacquered wood, with photographs arrayed in countless rows around patches of paint and burned white cloth. He assembles scrapbooks crammed with news clippings, ads, cartoon, photographs, leaves, and painted drawings, culled from the blaze of media communication that surrounds him. Far from joyful or light-hearted, the work conveys overload, madness, and complete loss of direction. The Japanese, he seems to say, cannot enjoy their wealth, because they have no concept of where they are going. All they know is that they cannot go back.

Tatsuo Miyajima's "Monism/dualism" is a tall stack of numeric LEDs on their sides, twisting coldly in exacting combinations, counting forever to an unknown end. It communicates a feeling of life out of control, of people moving machine-like through their paces. Ironically, for all their precision, Miyajima's numbers are meaningless. They constitute a rather despairing view of the world, one that does not see much worth in the present system, and offers no hope of better times to come.

Threat is part of the scenery in "Pleasure Life," a piece by Japan's Dumb Type performance ensemble. They have constructed a gridded floor, on which are placed light stands with circular, fluorescent tubes and rotating, clear plastic discs which blink on and off to a pre-determined pattern. Video monitors recreate the performance, in which life is presented as a stream of information, fed to people in orderly fashion, but without intelligence. The actors on the screen move like robots, then suddenly scream and run across the stage without warning. Again there is a feeling of pent-up frustration, of a need to reassert one's humanity in the face of so much order and perfection.

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Amid the muddy trenches of World War I, France's great society met its end. There is more hope for the Japanese, if only because they can see the dangers inherent in their success. By breaking with tradition, and insisting upon the creation of a modern artistic tradition that is uniquely Japanese, they hold the promise of even greater magnificence to come. The brilliance of the French is their, and our, inspiration.

JAYME KOSZYN

An interview with the director of MIT Dramashop's

Cloud Nine.

By AARON McPHERSON

CLOUD NINE IS DIRECTED by Jayme Koszyn, who works locally in Boston and has worked in Washington, DC, and in New York City. She is currently employed as a Literary Associate at the Huntington Theater Company, responsible for the research and written materials provided to artists working at the theater.

Who is Caryl Churchill [the author of

Cloud Nine]?

Can you describe the characters a little? It seems it's a very character oriented play.

It's a very political play. And it's a very personal play. The play has very needy yearning, hurting characters. Every single one of them is in bad shape. The reason they're in bad shape is that there is the tension between a kind of box that everyone operates in, a way that everyone is supposed to behave. You're the "good daughter," you're the "doting wife," you're the "slave," you're the "master," you're "straight," and everyone tries to operate within these very strict parameters. What Churchill has done is put these people in boxes in the strongest societal box of all, Victorian England, and the struggle and central conflict of the play is between the true selves of these people, trying to break through the box. That struggle is very violent in some respects.

You have the son, Edward, who wants to be a girl, and is actually played by a girl, constantly fighting between trying to be a good little master's son and wanting to make love to Uncle Harry. Betty, who is supposed to be a kind of canine creature for her husband and do everything he says and do everything her mother says, has unbelievably potent sexual passions. [There are only two people], Maud, the mother of them all -- who represents, I suppose, Queen Victoria -- and Clive, the white, upperclass British male, whose true selves are

their boxes. So, in a sense, they're the most frightening characters of all.

The way this translates into Act Two [where the setting changes to contemporary England] is that although society seems to be less box-like, the characters have traded one box for another. There is a gay relationship in Act Two, which there could never have been in Act One. Yet their relationship is so characterized by the principles of dominance and submission -- just like a stereotypical heterosexual relationship, where one is playing the wife and one is playing the husband -- that they operate within Chinese boxes, hopping from one to another.

How much do you think these "boxes" are the creation of other people, their expectations, and how much do you think it's an attempt to achieve any self identity?

I think that people are mainly put into boxes by other box people. Clive actually says The way the box activities were initiated is you are put into the box by your parents. The theme of parents and children in this play is extremely significant. Not only the relationship between parents and children, but how children then duplicate their parents' boxing them. . . . It's especially a big theme in Act Two, because it's all about parents and children, and even metaphoric parents and children. . . . Once you get out of the box, life is very scary. What happens in Act One is that when people are behaving the way they're supposed to behave, everything is very funny and interesting and quirky and campy. But then as soon as people start revealing their true selves, things get darker. Facing the true self is not easy.

I think that the notion of the "cloud" -- the reason that the play has the title that it does -- is that, at least in Victorian England, the structures of the box are very clear. It's a very bleak vision, even though the play is How has it been, working at MIT? What do you think is special about students, as opposed to professional actors?

(Aaron McPherson '89 served as IAP campus arts coordinator for the MIT Office of the Arts, which arranged this interview.)