The Quenching of Salted Bones

This post is the first for The Northerner, a multisensory dinner performance series by Max La Rivière-Hedrick.

Art by lettering artist Candice Obayashi, in collaboration with Brian Scott

Looking through his sightglass, Capt. Morehouse of the British brigantine Dei Gratia could tell something was wrong, and he dispatched an emergency boarding party. In the distance, the Mary Celeste was yawing, under short canvas, eerily with no crew on deck. She was a ghost ship.

It was December 4, 1872, between the Azores and Portugal, towards the Strait of Gibraltar. The boarding party confirmed that the Mary Celeste crew was missing and "the whole ship was a thoroughly wet mess.” They discovered the ship had taken on three and a half feet of water, but in general was seaworthy. Her valuable cargo of 1,701 barrels of alcohol was intact, and there remained six months of food, fresh water, and supplies.

With sails flapping and rigging clacking, the boarding party found the crew’s personal belongings, rain gear, oiled boots, and smoking pipes next to their berths. The cabin skylight was open, and the working charts untouched. The rosewood harmonium, which must have belonged to the captain's wife, was dry and in perfect condition. They obviously had left in a hurry.

There are many theories that attempt to explain the ghost ship: explosion, seaquake, drunkenness, mutiny, piracy, gale-force wave, even sea monster. In 2007, The Smithsonian concluded after a thorough investigation involving a group of international experts that the explanation was, ultimately, “premature abandonment.”

We will never know what happened on the day the ship’s crew disappeared, but imagine if you could step onto the Mary Celeste. As you walk over the pine planks, hands running along cabin walls, you let her spirit talk to you, and she provides tantalizing hints if not outright answers.

We have identified a ship spirit that we want to coax into talking to us, and to you. We will pour boiling water over its salted bones, quenching the dry oak. We will use sound, scent, libation, and food to coerce her spirit out of suspension, to stir once more, to spill out tales of brotherhood, the Gold Rush, pirates, wool races, smugglers, Cape Horn, privateers, and transoceanic trade routes rich with opium, tea, coffee, and spice.

Her name is The Northerner. She was a majestic California clipper ship, and her bones were once upon a time salvaged and repurposed in the construction of a San Francisco warehouse: this is where it happens.

Once Upon a Cuarentañera

Jenifer is an artist, illustrator, educator, and a member of E43. We were honored to host and collaborate on her humorous spectacle: La Cuarentañera. Having recently disassembled the large cheese, I felt it necessary to process the absurdity with Jenifer to better understand what had happened.

Max: It was dark in the kitchen. I struggled to stack multiple bottles of just-opened Champagne and glasses into my arms before heading back into the crowd. Paolo appeared out of nowhere. “You must really love her,” he said. My mind couldn’t help but downshift into first gear. It played back the time you got your lip stuck in a coffee Thermos lid while driving — it had snapped on like a turtle. “Yes,” I said to Paolo, “she is family, and the one friend I have known the longest.” And this is why I agreed to host a “Cuarentañera.”

Jenifer: The Thermos incident was a dark day that has since become comedy gold. I’ve known you almost 20 years, and you are most assuredly family. I trust you with my life, and I also trust you to laugh at and tolerate my hapless ridiculousness. You understand that one of my key strategies for getting through difficult or awkward times is to apply my sense of humor to them. Hence, the Thermos incident, and the Cuarentañera. I was not at all looking forward to turning 40. Getting older can feel complicated and even a little dreary, on the bad days at least. As this milestone loomed ever-larger, my only two options were to either hide under a rock, or … meet it head-on. I decided to go full-force with the latter, with your and Carmen’s generous support. After all, clichéd but true: laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone.

Max: Ha! The quinceañera, “one who is fifteen,” and the Philippine debut are both coming-of-age celebrations for young women: fifteen in Latin America, eighteen in the Philippines. In this case, your cuarentañera, “one who is forty,” was more of an absurdist take on the notion that she was now “of age.”

Jenifer: Well, coming-of-age rituals are basically about acknowledging the passage from childhood to adulthood. And absurdity is my middle name. Since I chose a less-than-normal version of adulthood, it seemed only natural to have some fun with notions of what this passage might look like for someone who’s still fumbling with growing up, to some degree. I also wanted to acknowledge the traditions of two cultures I’m fond of and part of, but to re-frame them to suit my preposterous purposes.

Max: Luckily, those cultures involve families that believe in large volumes of tasty food. In our neighborhood, we often can smell carnitas being fried at 9:00 in the morning for later in the day, and huge pickup trucks are regularly double-parked in the street with beds full of aluminum trays for delivery. These neighborhood parties are ongoing, with large families and extended community—your mother, your Tita Lety, and your family fit right in with the food they cooked and shared.

Jenifer: Well, any proper gathering should involve sharing a great meal, such as the abbondanza my family prepared, and often sharing a drink, such as the delightful Tequila Sunrises you served. Since the party theme colors were festive tropical shades of orange and pink, Tequila Sunrises fit the aesthetic!

Max: I will have to look up what abbondanza means. Speaking of orange and pink, what about your dress?!

Jenifer: Which one? There were four! When greeting guests at the beginning of the party, there was the Pepto-pink “terno,” a traditional Philippine gown. Then there was a monstrously awesome pink and orange organza ballgown. Then there was the orange inmate ensemble. And lastly, the vintage white and orange Hawaiian floral number.

But we’re jumping the gun a little. We should probably explain about The Presentation —  the dance performance portion of the evening’s antics — that some of these get-ups were for.

Max: I think the tear- and cheer-inducing slide show of your life paired with Britney Spears’ “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” was a good set-up for the impending dance. Basically, there were two acts and an intermission. Act One was a presentation by awkward teenagers, followed by a communion intermission, and Act Two was liberation in adulthood.

Jenifer: The Britney song choice and video montage was completely tongue-in-cheek: I was a little embarrassed that our guests actually found the slide show so touching! Anyway, the montage was what was played to warm up the crowd prior to The Presentation.

In keeping with the conventions of a quince/debut, I assembled a Corte de Honor—court of dancers—to rehearse and perform a medley of dances with me at the party. Happily, I had a large crew of enthusiastic dance-happy extroverts willing to be part of this: dear friends, fellow artists, former colleagues, and former students, as well as a new friend, a professional choreographer, who was willing to abet this goofy endeavor with real choreographic expertise.

The Presentation was essentially a cockamamie tale of my journey to adulthood in two acts. Naturally, this meant that Act One led with a semi-traditional “entrada” waltz by the Corte de Honor, during which I burst forth from a large cheddar cheese wedge on wheels. The Corte de Honor, all dressed in white, symbolized the dairy product that, collectively, had matured me into fine cheese. Following my cheese emergence, there was, logically, a very lively salsa number. After this, we all exited the dance floor and the Intermission Communion commenced.

Max: You have thought about this a little too much. You were very pretty, even when your dress hoops rose and revealed you on our lift.

Jenifer: You are too kind. And yes, I thought about this too much. It’s not every day a girl turns 40, after all. Plus, given my practice as an artist, I approached this as an art piece as much as a big party, so it needed to feel conceptually solid — if still completely bananas.

While the Corte de Honor made a costume change in back, three High Priestesses administered A Communion of Cuarenta to bring the whole congregation into the fold: the Eucharist took the form of Cheez Balls and pill cups of malt liquor poured from 40oz bottles, as well as a blessing, offered to a long line of all guests.

Act Two resumed with the Corte re-emerging in all-orange outfits inspired by the Dancing Inmates of Cebu Prison. Here I struggled with the chains and hardships of adulthood, before breaking free and ultimately being liberated by my fellow prisoners in a big number incorporating bhangra, Janet and Michael Jackson, zombies, and Xanadu.

Max: I am not quite sure what you are talking about. After the choreographed dance, mock formality gave way to straight-out weird, and then it was time for the cake. We presented a full sheet-sized ice cream cake with fluorescent orange and pink icing framing your head on a 15-year-old girl’s body. And then you ceremoniously cut into it and served yourself. Jenifer, now that you are old, how do you feel?

Jenifer: Well, since I got to pop out of a giant cheddar cheese, dance the dance of Filipino prisoner liberation, and share and eat a cake with my face on it while surrounded by dear friends and family on my fortieth birthday, I think I’m set until my cincuentañera — although, I should warn you, that next milestone party might get a little weird.

Forty’s not so bad, as it turns out: as with many things, the dread and anticipation of the thing is far worse than the thing itself. And anyway, youth may fade, but immaturity can last a lifetime.

Act I


Act II


Why the Pigs Are on the South Side

Julio and I were honored to be invited by Albert and Dan McCabe to their four-day javelina hunt. The men of the hunt have known each other for many years, Dan and Sergio the longest at over a quarter century.

Photo courtesy of Albert McCabe

Nogales, Arizona, is a shared hunting ground. Border patrol collaborates with ICE, Homeland Security, and the National Guard. Together with their SUVs, heavy firepower, and technology they track immigrants who have crossed the border from Mexico. And in the same rugged, high desert land, hunters with their SUVs, heavy firepower, and technology hunt wild pigs called javelina. We are the among latter group of hunters.

Nogales is derived from “black walnuts” in Spanish. It was named for the walnut groves that used to grow between Nogales and Sonora, Mexico. Nogales sits along one of the heaviest corridors for immigration from Mexico. It’s alarming to be deep in harsh nature with extreme temperatures, both day and night, and to stumble upon a pile of abandoned clothes or maybe an empty beat-up one-gallon water jug. From our ridge we can see Sonora in the far distance.

It’s just past sunrise, 7:00am, and several javelina are spotted amid the trees of the ravine below. The wind is warm, slow, steady, and coming up toward us, buffering our scent. In hushed words, it is decided we will split up. Claudio and his teenage son, Alexandro, along with Julio go straight down, and Eddie and I go far right, down a finger, to hook around.

As we make our way, the sun moves fast. Long shadows are being compressed, and it’s getting warmer. Colors go from blue and orange to yellow. I concentrate on moving swiftly, quietly, but struggle with shortness of breath due to the altitude. As we close in, Eddie and I switch to hand signals. We step on large stones to reduce our sound. The one who spots the animals makes the call. This time it is Claudio. Binoculars in hand, I glass for Eddie, as he calls on the radio to Claudio for permission to take the shot.

I admire the honor and code of conduct of this tribe. There is no alpha male, only cooperation. Problem-solving is done as a group. Everyone contributes on projects. We collect firewood together. There is strong friendship and tradition. The group leaves things better than found: fixing fences, collecting litter. The experienced members are patient educators, explaining, for example, why the pigs are on the south side of the hills in the morning. (It’s in order to warm up.)

Boom! Eddie’s rifle shot is deafening, and through the binoculars, beyond the tree foliage, I can see a black javelina struggling — and its drops. A few seconds later, I am confused. The javelina appears to be back up and to struggle and to then drop again.

Boom! Claudio’s rifle echoes throughout the canyon. Eddie is tracking the other javelina escaping on the opposite hill just as one flies past us, and I open fire with my .357 pistol.

Boom! Alexandro echoes next as we move in. Eddie and I arrive and discover his single shot took down two javelina.

Alexandro’s pig is still alive. Code of conduct: if it’s your shot, it’s yours to finish. Alexandro, a young man under his father’s guidance, finishes off the javelina as it stares down Julio.

The team field dresses the pigs. They are for eating, just not for now. Code of conduct: you carry back your kill. Pigs are hauled up the hill and piled upon the roof of Dan’s truck. Julio notes the javalina meat is the same crimson as the wild board we used in Flora & Fauna.

Later that night, around the camp fire, I am moved again by the strong and positive male character. Fathers talk to sons, sharing some life lessons, some advice, something about their own fathers and how they didn’t tolerate bad behavior, sometimes with a smack or more. I think about the strong men in my life, almost all chefs: sensitive, civilized, caring. Gold wedding bands. They have a calibrated judgement to know when to call you over to watch and learn silently, how to break down wild rabbit while searching for shotgun shot, to learn by example. Or to tap your arm with a scorching sauté pan to get your attention back to where it should be.

Boom! Dan sets off fireworks that blow up before launching into the air. He cooks breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day. Dan is the engine. When we return from six hours of tough, exhausting hiking, Dan has a plan and some remaining energy, Dan takes care of us. Eggs are cooked perfect. Burgers are huge hockey pucks, stuffed with pepper jack cheese. Rib-eyes are marked and rested to ideal. He consistently shows by example how it should be done.

Upon our return to civilization, as we pass though a border patrol check point, I take in our condition. Blood has dried to black on clothes. Scratches with red halos mark our arms. Our ears still ring. Our hands are dirty, scented with sulfur. Our clothes and hair are peppered with thorns and perfumed with firewood and cigars. At that moment, I decide if I ever have daughters, I definitely will ask them to come and be members of the tribe.

Photo courtesy of Julio César Morales

Photo courtesy of Julio César Morales

Photo courtesy of Julio César Morales

Photo courtesy of Julio César Morales

An Unintended Turn

This post is the final of six for La Alquimia de los Sueños (The Alchemy of Dreams), a multi-sensory dinner performance by Julio César Morales and Max La Rivière-Hedrick, in collaboration with Frey Norris Contemporary & Modern.

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Our ears perked at the idea of counterfeit caviar. Art historian and curator Tere Arcq told Wendi, Julio, and me a story about Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington. In the 1940s in Mexico City, Varo and Carrington were friendly with the Russian Consulate and were expecting members of the delegation for dinner. The mischievous artists served tapioca colored with squid ink as caviar to their unsuspecting Russian guests.

Varo and Carrington hosted regular Saturday night dinners, together using their kitchen as a laboratory to conduct pseudo-scientific, often playful or ludicrous, experiments. They built recipes with the promise of magical results and access to extraordinary realms of experience.

Julio and I found inspiration in their use of alchemy, science, and art, and by invitation we created La Alquimia de los Sueños to pair with the exhibit Remedios Varo: Indelible Fables at Frey Norris Contemporary & Modern.

La Alquimia de los Sueños is a dinner performance with six courses, each course a magical spell. We wished to keep faithful to Varo’s personality — playfulness, humor, a love for experimentation — and to create an experience that Varo, in her period and place, would have enjoyed and appreciated herself. To prepare, we did much research and looked at past surreal dinners.

In 1941, at the same time Varo was in Mexico, Salvador Dalí hosted “Night in a Surrealist Forest” at Hotel Del Monte in Monterey, California. This event was a benefit to help refugee European artists displaced by World War II, not unlike Varo and friends. Dalí had courted Hollywood for sponsorship, props, socialites, and stars (among them Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Ginger Rodgers). Costumes and installations were to represent the guests’ bad dreams and were “to give a depressed feeling.”

A possible modern version of the above, just as sensational and full of Hollywood and pop culture, was Marina Abramović’s 2011 MOCA gala. Abramović brought 85 performers to serve as human centerpieces on dinner tables and she served life-sized cake versions of herself and of her co-performer, Deborah Harry. My favorite detail of the evening: her invitation suggested guests wear “festive” clothes, and then when they arrived, lab coats were offered (and enforced) to cover them up.

Probably the closest thing to an ongoing surreal meal is what Grant Achatz and his team at the restaurant Alinea, in Chicago, are developing. Building from and compounding ideas, techniques, and styles from Europe, Achatz has challenged every aspect of the dining experience and the form of food. Alinea clearly has picked up the baton from elBulli, the now closed Spanish food institution.

After we had researched Surrealism, revisiting Varo’s work and history, a clear vision presented itself: the dinner would be modest, positive, playful, fairytale-like. It would require imagination but not obfuscate, and it would be meticulous, but not fussy, rich but informal. Knowledge would be encoded, just to the point of being frustrating. The dinner would evidence Spanish, French, and Mexican influences based on Varo’s travel path in life, and the imagery and costumes in her paintings.

Our dinner starts with Course 0. Available all night are Mexican sachet powders and imbued waters, charged with sounds and emotions of erotic passion, sublime love, patience, fortune, and creativity.

Course 0
To guarantee colored dreams

Scent: smoked cumin, hot wax
Sound: XECATL (simulated gigantic ice flutes) independent white noise frequency bands oscillating randomly in chaos.
Fare: Tequila, cumin, citrus

The dinner is a linear journey. You enter one point, but exit another. Bring knowledge and experience with you. Life will not be the same. Course 0 is like taking an unintended turn while traveling at night in the fog (neblina) and ending up in a magical place.

Course 1
de Varus
To temporarily speak Esperanto

Scent: smoky caramel (cade or smoked juniper, Peru balsam)
Sound: Introduction of 50 Hz.low frequency modulated by 260 Hz. and 2.5 Hz. LFO simultaneously resulting in sudden architectural shaking.
Fare: fowl, roses, pistachio

Varo’s father was from Córdoba, Spain, and he suggested to his children that they were from a noble ancestry. Varo discovered a Roman general named Varus who had taken refuge in Andalusia, Spain, in 45 BC. Throughout her life she recorded in her notebooks research of her presumed noble ancestry.

Course 2
To soften and shape ivory

Scent: earthy, musky, sweet (vetiver root, ambrette seed, pine needle)
Sound: Harmonic content evolving from Erik Satie’s Gnossienne #1 as if reproduced by echoing crystal feathers.
Fare: roots, mustard, watercress

A teenage Varo wrote to a Hindu to get a mandrake plant (mandrágora) because she had heard that it possesses magical properties, such as lucid dreams. The mandrake is often used to pull bad spirits or illness out of humans.

Course 3
To spark erotic dreams

Scent: mushroom, floral, dirty (cèpes, tuberose)
Sound: Multiplication of Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater as if sang by a bleeding heart.
Fare: Hen-of-the-Woods

An interpretation of an actual Varo/Carrington recipe, our version uses baked clay as the brick and Hen-of-the-Woods mushrooms for the chicken. Omitted from our version: “broken mirror, hats to taste.”

Course 4
To become a five-pointed star

Scent: rich, intoxicating, deep floral (jasmine, saffron, wild fir)
Sound: Intermittent triple drone in Eb and recurring patchy electric glitches emanating from pure electricity controlled by light boxes. Agustin Lara’s Veracruz emerges from the minuscule speaker of a transistor radio.
Fare: steer, Mexican chimichurri

Varo created a mythical creature she called Homo Rodans, which had a wheel for legs. We imagined we came across a herd in the wild and this is what it would taste like roasted in a wood-fired hearth.

Course 5
To wear a cape of the fourth dimension

Scent: citrus, spicy, honey (wild sweet orange, black pepper, fresh ginger, linden blossom)
Sound: Modulated low frequency enters the 20 Hz realm as if entering subsonic levels.
Low frequency joins polyrhythmic mass reaching a climax buildup made of electronic glitches and samples of heavy metal distorted guitars doubled with baritone sax reaching 120 bpm plus tempos. The sonic storm breaks into total silence.
Fare: coconut and cajeta

It’s time to cross (atravesar) back to your dimension, but you bring with you the scent and textured memories of the other side. Now, come and get an ointment behind your ears in order for you to visit your new friends later tonight.

Norma, Julio, and I were honored by the 45 guests who joined us at Engine 43. The success of a dinner is measured not by the proffered food or libation, but by the guests interaction with each other.

Thank you all for your contribution of skills, knowledge, and passion: Wendi Norris, Raman Frey, Miles Ake, Tere Arcq, Carmen Benavides, Melissa Bernabei, Mirjana Blankenship, Travis Brinster, Stephen Bronstein, Pio Bujak, Rocket Caleshu, Joe Evans, Guillermo Galindo, Karina Hodoyán, Myleen Hollero, Lindsay Keach, Andria Lo, Jennifer McCabe, Catie Patton, Abigail Reser, Paolo Salvagione, Brian Scott, Alysoun Quinby, and Marc Weidenbaum.

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Sitting for a Dream

This post is the fourth of six for La Alquimia de los Sueños (The Alchemy of Dreams), a multi-sensory dinner performance by Julio César Morales and Max La Rivière-Hedrick, in collaboration with Frey Norris Contemporary & Modern.

Remedios Varo. Detail of Retrato del doctor Ignacio Chávez, 1957. Oil on masonite. 91 X 156 cm.

This is an imagined scenario for the commission of the painting “Retrato del doctor Ignacio Chávez” (1957) by Remedios Varo.

Only a handful of things had the capability of troubling Dr. Ignacio Chávez of Mexico City.

He did not like the bureaucracy at the hospital, where as Director of Cardiology he all too often observed paperwork and politics clogging the institution’s arteries.

He did not like it if his lunch or dinner was tepid in temperature when delivered to his office.

And, most of all, he did not like disappointing his daughter.

All three of these things had now occurred. Dr. Chávez had been overwhelmed by the documentation necessitated by the planned installation of a skylight in the hallway to the children’s ward. He ruminated in his office without any fear of his dinner going cold, because it had arrived cold. And by working late, he had ensured that he would not make it to his daughter’s art opening that evening at Galerías Diana.

Disappointing his daughter unnerved him, made him sick. His stomach contained a dark vacuum. His forehead was constricted by a vice. He was not sick because he was unnerved. He was unnerved because he was sick, for he knew this sickness could not be cured by any doctor. Sick this way, he felt helpless. He, the city’s great medical practitioner. He, who during school had cleaned this very hospital’s bathrooms to afford rent. He, first in his family of farmers to attend college. He, who under his starched white lab coat wore a thin necklace from which dangled two of his grandmother’s little tin figurines: a foot and a heart.

The tin foot in particular always brought Dr. Chávez some comfort. He reminded himself that the exhibit he would miss was, technically, not his daughter’s. She had been involved merely with hanging the work. Still, the show meant a lot to her. She was always newly caught up in one artist or another, but her passion for this artist — named Remedios Varo — was unlike all previous such fixations. Dr. Chávez was familiar with the artist, this Varo woman, because she had caused some trouble recently at the hospital. After presenting extensive plans for a mural, and receiving tentative yet warm approval from the hospital’s board of directors, of whom he was one, she had quite suddenly withdrawn her proposal. Her explanation was simple: she deemed the project too complex. A project she herself had come up with! Artists, he fumed — not really frustrated with Varo, just parentally fearful of the path that his daughter seemed to have chosen for herself.

A few days later, Dr. Chávez made his way to Galerías Diana and spent his lunch hour looking at Varo’s work. The images were strange. There were everyday objects infused with a spectral beauty. There were characters drawn from a mythology as dense as it was personal. There were stark imaginary environs that seemed to have more in common with a chest of drawers than with an actual city.

Dr. Chávez knew little about art beyond what his daughter had indirectly taught him, but he did know the human body. The bodies he saw in Varo’s paintings were both unfamiliar and familiar to him, and the grey zone between their crepuscular peculiarities and their terrestrial realism was mesmerizing. He was especially attracted to a picture in which priestly men stood below a goat hovering in some odd sky carriage. When he inquired as to its asking price, he was informed that the piece had already been purchased. Another work rendered a mischievous anthropomorphic bee in gold leaf. It, too, was spoken for.

At dinner that evening, Dr. Chávez’s daughter blushed. What else could she do when her father reported that he had visited the gallery. That he had timed his visit to her lunch hour, knowing she wouldn’t be present. That while there he had looked into purchasing one of Varo’s pieces. She was embarrassed by him, as all good daughters are by their loving fathers. But as he went on and on about the fine lines in the wings in one painting, and the geometrically abstract shadows cast by buildings in another, her embarrassment revealed itself as pride. And when her father asked if the artist — “this Varo woman,” as he put it — did commissions, she did not hesitate. She promised him she would ask. She had, in fact, heard that such a request wasn’t impossible. And though she had never told her father, she knew Varo had been touched by Dr. Chávez’s conciliatory response when the mural proposal was rescinded.

A week later, as his car slowly made its way across town, Dr. Chávez tried to commit to memory everything he and his wife, at her suggestion, had discussed in preparation. He was to have his portrait painted, and there was much to be decided in advance of his first seating: What property of theirs would serve as the background? What object in the foreground would symbolize his heritage, and what object his profession? Perhaps a stethoscope, or a piece of surgical equipment? Would he insist on embedding some of his treasured Masonic imagery? In his breast pocket was a carefully folded list of all the symbols that he and his wife had decided on. But as the car approached Varo’s home, he came to think better of it. Something about the list seemed inappropriate, indelicate, almost offensive. Varo’s works were invariably collections of objects, weren’t they? But somehow, he sensed, they were not really concerned with the objects, not in any literal manner. And so he left the paper in his pocket, and entered Varo’s studio.

A woman met him at the door, but not the woman he remembered from the mural discussion. She had on a lab coat, like the one he would wear at the hospital, and her hair was pulled back. She smiled at him and introduced herself as Leonora. She took his hand in hers and silently led him through several chambers, each its own little world. One was dark and painted like a jungle. Another was covered, walls and ceiling, in billowing cotton tarps that filtered the daylight. He entered the final chamber by himself. Varo stood on the far side, directly opposite the doorway through which he had just walked. She, too, wore a lab coat, her hair pulled back. The room was almost empty. In the center there was a medium-size wooden frame suspended from the ceiling by pulleys. On either side facing the frame was a single chair. He walked toward the frame, and as he approached, so did Varo. He realized she was mimicking him, but not in a rude way. If anything, it was flattering to be the subject of such attention. He walked toward the closer of the two chairs. She approached the other, copying his gait, adjusting her posture to match his.

When they reached their chairs, they both sat down, looking at each other through the frame, as if at a painting. She gave him a little smile, which he acknowledged by removing his hat. In turn, she pulled from her coat pocket a deck of cards. She selected one card, seemingly at random, and turned it toward him. It showed an old sage with a stick, and below it, in English, was written “The Hermit.” She then pulled another card, this one in Spanish. It read “El Corazon.” It was his turn to smile. He recognized it from the lotería. The next card was “La Pera,” and he recalled the tree from the ill-fated mural she had proposed. She saw the recognition in his face, and her shoulders relaxed. Then his shoulders relaxed. Somehow, he found himself now imitating her, unintentionally but naturally. Varo reached under her chair and lifted a small goblet. Taking the hint, Dr. Chavez did the same. Again, he found himself mimicking her — how simply she had cast her spell. She took a sip. He took a sip. He tasted jasmine and habanero, and other flavors he could not name. And then, finally, Varo spoke.

Years later Dr. Chávez would still tell this story, and years after he passed away his daughter would herself keep the tale circulating. How he had come home from that first, and it turned out only, portrait seating in something of a daze. His wife had been prescient: Varo did ask questions to inform the painting. But the couple hadn’t prepared the right answers. How does one prepare an answer to a question like, “How many scoops of stars are appropriate for a cake recipe calling for a bushel of wishes and ten clothespins?” Or, “Which species of bird are you least likely to allow your eldest son to apprentice with?” Or, at one point, a string of nonsense syllables that suggested Varo had, momentarily, been possessed.

And yet when the completed painting was delivered, it was exactly as Dr. Chávez had imagined, as if Varo had transcribed one of his dreams. The seating had felt, in retrospect, like he was having his fortune told, and in the painting Varo had indeed laid a clear path for him. She had depicted him holding a key and inserting it into the chest of what he took to be one of his patients. When Dr. Chávez’s daughter hung the work in his office at the hospital, she also presented to him a tiny tin key, and the key would rest alongside the foot and the heart until the day he died.

Remedios Varo. Esudio para doctor Ignacio Chávez.

Remedios Varo. Retrato del doctor Ignacio Chávez, 1957. Oil on masonite. 91 X 156 cm.

Dancing at Gunpoint: Surrealism and Revolution in Mexico

This post is the fifth of six posts for La Alquimia de los Sueños (The Alchemy of Dreams), a multi-sensory dinner performance by Julio César Morales and Max La Rivière-Hedrick, in collaboration with Frey Norris Contemporary & Modern.

In contrast to the “assimilate or get out” approach that currently characterizes life in the United States and in Europe, Mexico has repeatably proven that tolerance and inclusion yield invaluable byproducts. Karina Hodoyán discusses this in the historical context of art, sex, and Surrealism.

The arrival in Mexico of Spanish exiles such as the artist Remedios Varo amid the context of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and World War II (1939-1945) was a stimulus to Mexico’s economic and cultural development. Mexico was politically positioned to support these exiles due to President Lázaro Cardenas’ (1934-1940) progressive policies, which were based on the ideals of the Mexican Revolution. That framework built on the country’s connection to Spain without necessarily bypassing the history of colonization (we can’t deny our Iberian heritage); it speaks to what Roberto Fernández Retamar describes as “the other Spain,” not the clerical and ultra-reactionary one, but the one of 16th-century figure Bartolomé de las Casas and the 20th-century fight for the Spanish Republic[1]. It’s simply mistaken to assume a single totality for a nation as linguistically and ethnically diverse as Spain, what with its Indo-European and North African roots. The era of Varo’s arrival enjoyed a shared vision of revolution and social change, a vision aligned to global political and social movements outside the imperialism of the West.

So, while Mexico benefited from these migrations, we could also argue that Spain and the rest of the world benefited from the work produced by these artists and intellectuals during their asylum in the vibrant post-revolutionary intellectual and cultural climate. Thus, it is well know that Varo (1942-1963) produced her most mature and successful work in Mexico, a haven where she admitted to finally finding “tranquility”[2]. The lingering question is: How did the political and aesthetic positions of the Spanish intelligentsia and the artists of the Revolution align themselves?

As leftist artists and intellectuals, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo distinguished their art and politics from that of the metropolis, yet one could argue this had been happening elsewhere in Latin America since Independence. In the last century, the insistence on a uniquely Latin American aesthetic that broke with European influence was defended by the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, who criticized European Surrealists for basing their art on “dead” culture, in contrast to the vibrancy and anachronistic landscape of the Americas, of baroque jungles and tremendous architecture such as Haiti’s San Souci[3]. Famously, it was André Breton who declared Mexico as the ideal location for Surrealism and described Frida Kahlo as “a ribbon around a bomb.”[4] Yet, Breton tried to assimilate Kahlo’s aesthetic into the Surrealist canon by making her a muse, instead of recognizing her as an actual creator of art. The same can be generalized for the movement as a whole; it tended to describe women as child-like or as femme fatales, as muses or goddesses, instead of seeing them as creators working on their own terms. Nonetheless, women artists did delve into Surrealist aesthetics, creating art based on personal narratives, their subconscious, and dreams.

How did Varo position herself as an artist and a woman? Did she subscribe to the Surrealist movement’s image of beauty and youth? Did her preoccupation with physical desirability make her prey to such categories? Maybe we can understand her position by briefly looking her painting “A Visit to the Plastic Surgeon” (1960), in which a woman with a veil covering an uncharacteristically large nose is about to enter a doctor’s office. The woman looks very much like Varo, with her reddish hair and rather slim build. The sign on the door announces (via a play on words) “Plasto-swelling” (Plastoturgencia), while in the window a doll featuring three pairs of breasts of different sizes beckons her with the ad “En nuestra gloriosa era plastinylonítica no hay limitaciones. Osadía, buen gusto, elegancia y turgencia es nuestro lema. On parle français.” (“In our glorious era, there is no limit to plasto-swelling. Daring, good taste, elegance and firmness is our motto. We speak French.”) In this painting, the play is on the irony of the double creation, as an artist and as a woman, manipulating and recreating in order “to surpass nature,” all in the name of good taste and turgencia (“roundness”). The desire to subscribe to a certain ideal is definitely present and clearly referring to the social technologies that offer this ability. Does the “parle français” reference her days in France among the Surrealists? It might. One thing for certain is how she contextualizes that received ideal using Surrealist techniques, such as employing autobiography as the base of representation, while addressing, in an ironic sense, those “daring” (osadía) desires in this “glorious era.” In the end, though, it remains a choice: the woman touches the door tentatively, while looking back behind her towards possible witnesses. Will she be the manipulator of material reality? Will she respond to the calls of good taste? Or will she unveil the hidden “undesirability” through her own visual creations?

Varo’s lover, the French surrealist poet Benjamin Péret, was once forced at gunpoint by Diego Rivera to dance the Mexican zapateado. That image could be read as an example of how the exile community “adjusted” to Mexican life, but it might also refer to the aesthetic and political differences between revolutionary artists and the Surrealists. Despite clear connections to the political turmoil of the era, Surrealists were not necessarily overtly political in their work. It was Breton, in fact, who broke early on with Stalinist communism. Yet the notion of political and personal exile appears in Varo’s paintings in the figures of travelers and wanderers crossing and inhabiting worlds of fading memories and dreams. Her figures always found themselves on the threshold — just like the woman going into the plastic surgeon’s office — between being outsiders and fashioning themselves to fit, or perhaps to question, a ruling aesthetic. It was true of Varo herself, in regard both to her creative work and her own physique.

[1] “Against the Black Legend” in Calibán and Other Essays (University of Minnesota Press, 1989). Translated by Edward Baker.

[2] Some critics convincingly argue that it was more than tranquilidad, rather the predominance of narrative painting and the flourshing of occultist movements in Mexico (e.g., G.I. Gurdjieff). Lois Parkinson Zamora, El laberinto de la solidaridad: Cultura y política en México (1910-2000), pp. 57-87 (Foro Hispánico, 2002).

[3] Alejo Carpentier, El reino de este mundo (Editorial Seix Barral, 1967).

[4] André Breton, Surrealism and Painting (MFA Publications, 1965). Translated by Simon Watson Taylor.

Karina Hodoyán is an Assistant Professor in the Modern and Classical Languages and Latin American Studies Departments, as well as Director of Latino/Chicano Studies, at the University of San Francisco. Her specialization is 19th and 20th century Mexican, Border, and Chicano Literary and Cultural Studies, with an interest in Performance and Feminist Studies. Her recent work focuses on Literature and Performance Art at the US-Mexican Border. She has a Master’s degree in Comparative (Interamerican) Literature from SFSU and a Doctorate from the Department of Spanish & Portuguese at Stanford University.

The Spell of Fashion

This post is the third of six for La Alquimia de los Sueños (The Alchemy of Dreams), a multi-sensory dinner performance by Julio César Morales and Max La Rivière-Hedrick, in collaboration with Frey Norris Contemporary & Modern.

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

It was one of those Bay Area days when you can just breathe in the fog, when there is a beautiful film, a nostalgic haze, covering everything. Peonies had just started appearing at the florists, and I was debating whether to spend the last three dollars in my pocket on a single flower or on a latte. Then I felt a gentle touch on my shoulder. There was a much older man standing next to me. “Buenos dias,” I said. He took my right hand and placed it between both of his, and then he looked at me with his blue eyes. They were leathery and moist. In almost a whisper he said, “Thank you for taking the time to dress up. You are a beautiful gift. From now on, for the rest of the day, I will only see beauty. I’m under a spell.”

Since I had no interest in breaking that spell, I didn’t trouble the gentleman with how my day had begun. Just back from Europe, I had woken to find my vacation bliss wearing off even more quickly than expected. In its place were various harsh realities: I had no work, no money, no prospects, and, for the moment, little in the way of hopefulness. I was sitting on my living room’s sofa feeling quite sorry for myself. The doors to my bedroom were wide open, and I could see the fabrics of my dresses peeking out from the closet: the flowers from my Japanese indigo, the golden silk from a treasured 1940s piece, the purple from the one I bought in Austin a lifetime ago, the Carla Fernandez, my pink linen. In a state of hypnosis, I got up and walked toward them, pulling out my favorite hat, dress shoes, and gloves. I got ready. And at that moment I felt perhaps but a fraction of what the women of the early 1940s must have felt in their beautifully tailored suits: looking pretty as they faced an uncertain, even frightening, future.

Fashion is many things. Key among those is a means to express dignity during hard times. To wear decent apparel in a creative and responsible way is to build the morale of a society in crisis. Fashion also reflects the values and lifestyles of a society. During Remedios Varo’s time in Mexico, the fashion worn and developed by her fellow exiled artists reflected a hopeful and optimistic, if naive, view of the world. The relationship between fashion and art encouraged a natural collaboration between designers and surrealists, as they formed an alliance to discover new sources of inspiration. In the process, they seduced each other. Surrealism suggests that the artist’s whole existence must be in harmony, how they conduct themselves in every aspect of life. Thus an artist’s attire was considered a facet of her or his artistic point of view.

There are numerous ways in which World War II affected fashion. In 1941, a series of restrictions on the production of clothes was introduced throughout Europe. The length of skirts was regimented, the number of pockets curtailed, pleats and buttonholes limited—all due to the reduced supply of fabric. The military look became the norm, and with it the widespread use of dull colors. The biggest change, however, was in the psyche of women. Simultaneous with these restrictions, a middle class was being born. Women who joined the work force now had disposable income. They were able to purchase fashions that had once been the exclusive province of the more affluent classes. Working-class women were, for the first time, seen in the streets wearing hats and gloves. Fashion gave them a sense of pride. Fashion gave them the freedom to express their individuality and their power.

Remedios Varo shared this sense of freedom. Her sensibility as an artist led her to experiment with fashion. Her love for Paris and the time she spent there were no doubt crucial to her personal aesthetic. I wonder what it must have been like for her to arrive in Mexico, a country with its own ancient textiles tradition, a country free of war rationing. From photographs we know that she never lost her European essence; the classic styles of the 1930s and early 1940s stayed with her. But then there are paintings of hers like “Centro del Universo” that immediately make me think of Chamula wool, of the traditional garments of the Chamula men in Chiapas. I wonder if Varo’s art was influenced by Mexican fashion traditions. And if her artistic creation can be understood as a tool for the search inward, I wonder what her fashion means as an extension of her work.

Thank you MERCY vintage, Mystery Mister, and Paul’s Hat Works.

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

Photo courtesy of Andria Lo

The Sound of Dreams

This post is the second of six for La Alquimia de los Sueños (The Alchemy of Dreams), a multi-sensory dinner performance by Julio César Morales and Max La Rivière-Hedrick, in collaboration with Frey Norris Contemporary & Modern.

Remedios Varo. Detail of Solar Music, 1955. Oil on masonite. 91 X 61 cm.

Guillermo Galindo is a Mexico-born, San Francisco–based musician, sound artist, and educator. His work ranges from solo performance to orchestral endeavors, from originally designed instruments to fully immersive installations, from improvisation to sound design. For La Alquimia de los Sueños he pondered the interest that Remedios Varo had in resonance for resonance’ sake. This led him to, among other things, develop a system to turn the hall in which the event takes place into something akin to a single, over-sized speaker cabinet. An adjunct professor at the California College of Arts, he spoke in advance of La Alquimia de los Sueños about the influence of Varo and the surrealists on his work, about the manner in which water can be imbued with special energies, and about the role of sound in dreams.

Marc Weidenbaum: Can you talk a bit about how surrealism might have informed your work over the years?

Guillermo Galindo: As André Bretón mentioned it several times, Mexico is the ultimate surreal location in the world. I grew up with surrealism. I read Jodorowsky’s Fabulas Panicas comics at age 7, around the time when I first saw the paintings of Remedios Varo, Leonora Carrington, and Sofía Bassi. Alejandro Jodorowsky — who has influenced my musical, conceptual, and, compositional work — had a close relationship with Remedios Varo. I have also used in my work Markov chain narrative techniques, which I first experienced in the films of the surrealist Luis Buñuel. The use of symbolism and archetype, both visually and aurally, have been the axis of my work for many years. I see the Tarot as a means of communication through collective unconscious, and the understanding of dreams as a means of “individuation” and personal realization.

Weidenbaum: Can you discuss your early impressions of Varo, and what she and her work have come to represent to you?

Galindo: I remember being exposed to Varo’s paintings at a very young age. I believe that that my father showed me one of her paintings printed in the Mexican newspaper Excelsior. I must have been about 6 or 7 years old. All I know is that this experience left a big impression on me. Without any doubt, she is a seminal influence in my present work and in my present interest in archetypes and dreams.

Weidenbaum: Do you have a sense of what you will be doing for the project? Last we spoke, you were exploring using the firehouse as a resonating space.

Galindo: I will be doing a brief piece resonating the building with low frequencies controlled at will, possibly using a Wii controller. 2. A virtual bar of charged clear water: between 3 and 5 crystal bottles containing water imbued with different energies and served as a substitute for alcohol. 3. Performing my six ciber-totemic boxes, which emit sound in response to light. 4. Possible conceptual Tarot readings.

Weidenbaum: What, please, is water imbued with different energies?

Galindo: There are 3 to 5 bottles of water that will be charged with different energies. It is known that the structure of water changes when imbued with particular energies. I can assure that the waters taste different when charged and can take you into altered states of awareness. An initial idea is myself running a bar with these infused waters. The bottles will be presented neatly and will be labeled accordingly.

Weidenbaum: Regarding the relationship between Tarot and the collective unconscious, can you talk a bit about specifically the role of sound in dreams?

Galindo: I have found that for most people it is difficult to remember the sound, or sounds, of their dreams. Most people, including me, have an easier time remembering music: music that accompanies the dream, music that is played by someone or, in my case, composition ideas that appear by themselves or performed by myself or someone else. As in real life, dream components have sounds: an explosion, someone walking in high heels, the sound of the rain etc. Having said this, I do think that sounds have their own significance in dreams — a significance not necessarily attached to the visual or narrative elements of a specific dream. In other words, I believe that sounds in dreams do have their own specific symbology.

Weidenbaum: Are there parallels between food and sound you’d like to discuss?

Galindo: I had a Chinese music student who, in order to reconnect to her homeland memories, recorded the sound of herself cooking of Chinese dishes, which she would cook one day each month. Then she would present random photographs of the dishes with the audio of the cooking sounds. Different foods have different textures of sound when one cooks them. This provides information about their physical nature and about the chemical reaction that they have when mixed over the fire with other elements. I think that the purest and most enjoyable “food” sound is the sound of water. I think that the sound of the water falling into a glass is a vital element when enjoying a good drink of water, not to mention the “clink” of the wine glasses, the sound of silverware, or the sound of clay, wooden, or ceramic plates and bowls.

– end –

Remedios Varo. Solar Music, 1955. Oil on masonite. 91 X 61 cm. Private collection.