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2013: The Year According to JoAnn Verburg

JoAnn Verburg. Photo: Jim Moore To commemorate the year that was, we invited artists, designers, and thinkers across disciplines — from painter Matt Connors and ebook publishers Badlands Unlimited to design firm Experimental Jetset and writer Greg Allen — to share a list of their most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects of 2013. See the […]


JoAnn Verburg. Photo: Jim Moore

To commemorate the year that was, we invited artists, designers, and thinkers across disciplines — from painter Matt Connors and ebook publishers Badlands Unlimited to design firm Experimental Jetset and writer Greg Allen — to share a list of their most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects of 2013. See the entire series 2013: The Year According to                                 .

While the challenges of life can be difficult, JoAnn Verburg said on Twin Cities Public Television’s MN Original last May, we’re not alone: “Yet, at the same time, you’re the only one that looks at things the way you do. I think everything I’m doing comes out of that: the fact that we’re alone and we’re not alone.” As a photographer, Verburg has used her lens to examine this seeming paradox — of intimate connection and individual experience. As MoMA curator Susan Kismaric put it when Verburg’s MoMA-organized survey Present Tense came to the Walker in 2008, Verburg’s photos are “grounded in an attention to human interaction — between the people in her pictures, and between her work and its audience — which keeps both artist and viewers perpetually approaching a threshold between searching and finding.”

Verburg took time from her schedule — which includes preparing for a show this fall at Pace/MacGill Gallery of new work shot at Italy’s Fonti del Clitunno (see below) — to share some of her “searching and finding” from the past year in a best-of-2013 list. Many of her picks show an exploration of what connects us across geography, race, religion, and time — from the pages of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son to a predawn listening session overlooking Moroccan rooftops, an artistic mashup about loving kindness at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts  to a posthumous exhibition of works by Mike Kelley, her friend and studio neighbor when she first arrived in Minneapolis in 1981.


Best rehearsals and performances


Robert Wilson, The Old Woman, 2013

One of my favorite moments of the year was experiencing Robert Wilson’s The Old Woman in a 17th-century theater in Spoleto, Italy (traveling to BAM this summer). When I see direction (“notes”) being given to an actor or the crew, it feels like an X-ray into the mind of the director. Of course, in theater, it is never as simple as one person — Bob Wilson, in this case.  Articulation is the word that comes to mind to describe how Willem Dafoe and Mikhail Baryshnikov — dressed alike, in matching white face paint, campy clothes, and plastic windblown wigs — used their bodies. Brilliantly. For us, the lucky audience. The story isn’t much more than a device that allows Wilson, via Dafoe and Baryshnikov, to stimulate and hold our attention with nonstop stunning visuals and weird sounds. By the way, why is Defoe’s tongue that color? From far up above the stage, on the ceiling of the theater, a super precisely focused red spotlight is shining on it.


Most surprising sound


Rooftops in Fez

In Fez, Morocco, not really knowing why, I was obsessed with the idea of making sound and video recordings of the call to prayer. So one night, before the sun rose, I climbed up to a rooftop terrace above the city with my equipment. I can’t describe how beautiful it looked. I waited and recorded for about an hour, and finally I had to leave when my fingers were too cold to work. Here’s what I heard: I must have had the time wrong for the call to prayer, but as black night turned to the dark grays and browns of predawn, a lone rooster called out, sounding both ecstatic about life and and disappointed at not to be able to explain it. After many cock-a-doodle-dos, a second rooster cried out, then another, and another, etc., until countless invisible sound-points defined, almost visibly, the broad bowl shape of the ancient city below.


Best architecture/installation combo

Inside the Institut du Monde Arabe

Next time you’re in Paris, head for the Institut du Monde Arabe, the sister-building of the Guthrie Theater, by architect Jean Nouvel. The exterior entrance wall sets the tone. It’s a grid of intricately patterned circles, apertures lauded for their photosensitive responsiveness, opening and closing with the sun. Inside, the installation of the exhibition is astonishing, especially the entry hall of floor-to-ceiling mirrors alternating with floor-to-ceiling video projections of daily life in various neighborhoods in the Arab world. Someone is buying spices in Cairo as you see yourself walking. It pulls you in confusingly, beautifully and instantly.


Best sacred space


JoAnn Verburg, untitled proof (Ping at The Fonti) © JoAnn Verburg 2013

In July, I went back again to make pictures at the Fonti del Clitunno, sacred headwaters of the Clitunno, where it is said that Jove mated with a mermaid. I’ve been using the idea of the park as a point of departure for an installation of photos, sound, and videos. Parks and exhibitions are both places where strangers come, walk around, look at the sights, maybe feel inspired, maybe have a conversation, and leave. I wasn’t sure what direction to go next with my shooting, but Ping Chong was teaching nearby at La Mama, Umbria, and was willing to model. I guess I don’t have language for what happened next, but the connection between stories of past visitors and our present-tense hot summer day, and also the layered feeling of earth, blue sky, cold water, human nature, conversation, ducks quacking, swans floating, trees, and so on did feel magical, if not part of something sacred. There was something about the moment his toe touched the water, sending out ripples…


Best classic novel

200px-NativeSonRichard Wright’s Native Son (1940) was on the required reading list for one of my sociology classes in college, but I didn’t read it until 2013. It is a tragic and too too relevant story about America.


Best movie Q&A

McQueenSteve McQueen at the Walker. I’d been intrigued by comments made by the actors in 12 Years a Slave. For example, given how unmitigatingly horrific most of the film is, that McQueen says that for him, it is a film about love. Love? Love. Yes, and that the actors felt trust and support and safety, and thus, were able to go deeply — even into their darkest selves — to perform their roles. Seeing McQueen in person at the Walker was a glimpse into the mind — the man — who needed to create extreme and obsessive hate, desire, and shame in 12 Years a Slave (and his movie Shame) and who, as a visual artist, had developed the discipline and skill to do it. Thank you to the Walker and other Minnesota institutions for bringing our artists into town: our artists dealing with our ugly problems and the exquisite beauties, too, of this moment.


Best explanation

more Xmas tree

Christmas present

In Destiny Disrupted, Muslim author Tamim Ansary walks his readers through the origins of two different world views: Western and Islamic. To oversimplify his simplification, what we Westerners think of as “world history” has remained remarkably distinct from Islamic versions of what’s been happening within the same boundaries during the same 1,500 or so years. While our seafaring, sea-trading ancestors were developing and spreading our religions and ideas from port to port, a second set of religions and attitudes was simultaneously developing along overland trade routes. Certainly, there were points of overlap, but the mountains and other geographical barriers to travel and trade were overwhelming enough that surprisingly distinct cultures have survived. When many of us woke up on 9/11 with the questions “Is this really happening?” and “Why?” it was without much understanding of Islam, Islamic governments, or Islamic attitudes about science, individualism, human rights, and so on. For a long time — for other reasons — I’ve wanted to travel to Turkey, and this book pushed me over the edge. Jim and I just got back from two trips to Istanbul and Morocco.


Best auditing


American and Moroccan students presenting their report on Sidi Moumen at CCCL (مركز تواصل الثقافات or Center for Cross Cultural Learning)

Mary Stucky’s journalism class in Rabat, Morocco. Fifteen American journalism students partnered with as many English speaking Moroccan journalism students. After weeks of immersion and training, each pair ferreted out a story idea and interviewed Moroccans ranging from a 21-year-old man with AIDS to a sub-Saharan woman trying to escape the sexual slave trade, not to mention the only woman competing as a break dancer in a hajib (scarf). It’s thrilling to see hopeful brave optimistic American kids open themselves up to the big world, bonding with their new Moroccan partners, stumbling through language barriers, absolutely game. And lucky me, I got to listen.


Best saddest exhibition


JoAnn Verburg, With Michael and John in Minnesota, 1983. Collection of the Museum of Modern Art

Mike Kelley’s retrospective at PS1. Mike and I both moved to Minnesota in 1981 for one-year positions as visiting artists at MCAD, the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. For that year, we had side-by-side classroom/studios and spent a lot of time looking at each other’s work, photo-ing (me), creating performances (him), going to see visiting filmmakers at Film in the Cities, and taking day trips to funny Minnesota places in my car. Mike’s performances were unique and ugly and powerful. In 2013, I kind of had to drag myself to Queens to see his post-suicide retrospective. It is worse than painful that Mike got himself into a corner he couldn’t gracefully exit, and it was impossible for me to see his exhibition without that filter. The drawings and videos from our shared year in Minnesota held such promise. He established his voice and his career. He was so dear and funny and ironic and pissed and sad, and I’m glad all those qualities live on in the work, but what a waste. Oh, and we had done a collaboration, a triptych of him as the Banana Man, but I’d never seen the finished video, which for about an hour, wonderfully brought him back to me.


Best re-mix


Jan Estep, Are You There, Guanyin? 2013, as installed at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

At the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, a beautiful large wood sculpture of a bodhisattva is the only visible artwork (although it wasn’t originally made as art) in a darkened room. There are benches, so it is possible to sit and contemplate this beautiful transporting figure. And there’s more. Local artist Jan Estep has created an audio piece of voices reciting the loving kindness meditation. It’s an extraordinarily effective example of putting two artworks together in such harmony that neither one detracts or distracts from the experience of the other. In fact, for me, the sculpture focuses my seeing, and the rhythmic sound keeps my mind from wandering. I can’t wait to go back.

For more on the artist, read the September 2012 interview “JoAnn Verburg on Newspapers as Portals to the Political.”

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