‘The Great Silence’ here ended with building closure

| January 1, 2020 | 0 Comments

PARROT is featured in the Allora / Calzadilla / Chiang “The Great Silence.”

I’ve rarely responded well to “video installations” that show at modern art museums. Fortunately, I can be surprised. I recently saw a wonderful and wrenching short film that was, to me, wholly new. It was the high point of my museum visit. And it compelled me to return for a second and third viewing.

“The Great Silence”

The piece was “The Great Silence” by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla in collaboration with the writer Ted Chiang. Allora and Calzadilla are, I’ve since learned, an artistic team that has gained much good notice. And Ted Chiang (recently profiled in “The New Yorker” by Joyce Carol Oates) has won all the major awards devoted to science fiction (including four Nebulas and four Hugos). But since these artists weren’t on my cultural radar, I had no expectations to spoil the sense of discovery. I watched, listened, read and felt. Together, the images, sounds and the words (all subtitled, nothing spoken) worked to raise profoundly simple questions. Do we hear what is close to us?  Are we oblivious to impending tragedies?  Can we understand beings other than ourselves?

Arecibo Observatory

The film is set at an extraordinary structure in Puerto Rico’s Rio Abajo Forest: The Arecibo Observatory, a facility of the National Science Foundation. This huge radio telescope provides sophisticated data important to climate scientists, astronomers and physicists. For the purposes of Allora, Calzadilla and Chiang, everything centers on the observatory as a cosmic voice and ear. Arecibo sends signals to the deepest reaches of space and listens for anything another life form might send us in return.

Parrot narrator

That grandly quixotic undertaking unfolds amidst a population of wild parrots that have long made the forest their home, and it is a parrot that narrates (not through a voice, but through subtitles). The irony is plainly foregrounded: humans are seeking to communicate with presumed beings light years distant and are not listening to a species of vocal learners who live nearby. Sadness falls with the fact that we won’t be neighbors much longer. The parrots, and with them their voices, will soon be part of the Great Silence.

There is a genuinely affecting sentimentalism operating here. Allora, Calzadilla and Chiang don’t manipulate or exploit emotions; they provide grounding for emotions and call feelings to attention. I wanted to encourage readers of the Larchmont Chronicle to see their powerful collaborative work. Unfortunately, the particular viewing that I so enjoyed isn’t now available; it has disappeared more quickly than the parrots.

Silence at the Marciano Art Foundation

I caught “The Great Silence” at the Marciano Arts Foundation, and now — with its abrupt closing — can only recommend you Google the artwork to see it online or order Chiang’s terrific book of stories, “Exhalation,” at Chevalier’s Books. “The Great Silence” appears in that collection, and it reads very well by itself. But you won’t benefit from the dark room, the resonant sound or the evocative images on the large screen. You’ll miss out on the mood created within a specific space and enriched by that space. You won’t have the pleasure of making your viewing part of a museum experience in the neighborhood.

That’s all a much smaller thing than the death of a species, and perhaps less final. While the Marciano Arts Foundation recently announced that the Foundation (meaning the building at Wilshire and Lucerne) will remain closed to the public permanently, we can hope that the structure itself will be well maintained as the Foundation continues to house its private art in its private space.

By Bruce Beiderwell


Category: Entertainment

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