2016 was a big year for William E. Jones: the Ohio-born, Los Angeles–based artist, filmmaker, and writer published a new book, True Homosexual Experiences: Boyd McDonald and Straight to Hell, appeared in the Walker-organized exhibition Ordinary Pictures, and began a new film, based on his visits to the ruins of the home of Greek art collector Alexander Iolas.
A prolific artist, he has made two feature-length experimental films, Massillon (1991) and Finished (1997), the documentary Is It Really So Strange? (2004), videos including The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography (1998), and many installations. His work has been the subject of retrospectives at Tate Modern (2005), Anthology Film Archives (2010), Austrian Film Museum, and Oberhausen Short Film Festival (both 2011). His group exhibitions include the 1993 and 2008 Whitney Biennials, the 53rd Venice Biennale (2009), and Untitled (Death by Gun) at the 12th Istanbul Biennial (2011). His books include Is It Really So Strange? (2006), Tearoom (2008),“Killed”: Rejected Images of the Farm Security Administration (2010), Halsted Plays Himself (2011), Imitation of Christ (2013), and Between Artists: Thom Andersen and William E. Jones (2013).
Here, as part of 2016: The Year According to , Jones shares his top cultural encounters of the year, in alphabetical order.
Roberto Arlt, The Seven Madmen
Written in Argentina on the brink of economic depression and military dictatorship, The Seven Madmen reads like an attempt to rewrite a book by Dostoevsky as a pulp novel, which is indeed what it might have been. Roberto Arlt (1900–1942), an autodidact raised by immigrants in the slums of Buenos Aires, anticipated Theater of the Absurd in his dialogue and David Lynch’s Eraserhead in his mise-en-scène. His characters, like a hefty chunk of the American electorate, are propelled by acute class resentments and a haywire libidinal energy. Arlt supported himself mainly as a journalist and wrote volumes of essays called aguafuertes (etchings) about political and cultural life in South America and the Spanish Republic. Arlt (unlike Jorge Luis Borges, the Anglophile) knew no English, and has received little attention outside of Argentina. As for the English-speaking world, the only literary equivalent to Arlt I can imagine would be the bastard spawn of Jim Thompson and George Orwell. Two of Arlt’s novels, all of his plays, the majority of his short stories, and virtually all of the aguafuertes have yet to be translated into English. In response to this lack, Arlt himself would probably have said, “Get to work, you bums!”
Cleveland Museum of Art
The Cleveland Museum of Art undertook a large-scale renovation in time for its centennial this year. The vast, airy atrium by Rafael Viñoly, linking the original 1916 Beaux Arts–style building to the 1971 Marcel Breuer addition, is a complete success—an inviting, climate-controlled space for people to gather and relax at any time of year. The great permanent collection galleries lie beyond the atrium, up the escalators. There is no overcrowding, no hard sell, no condescension, and best of all, no admission fee to this museum that remains truly devoted to art and welcoming to the public.
Countertenors at the Los Angeles Opera
This year’s triumphant Akhnaten by Philip Glass starred countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role, completely nude, covered in brocades, as a deity, and finally, as a museum exhibit. This production proved that Los Angeles Opera can make a serious commitment to modern music. Akhnaten reached a visual and musical climax with the hymn that ends the second act, sounding to me like a vaguely Baroque version of the song “Dirt” by Iggy Pop and the Stooges.
Another wonderful clash of the Baroque and modern came in 2014’s production of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, paired with Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, and given a minimalist staging by Barrie Kosky. I fantasize that John Holiday, my favorite countertenor, will return to Los Angeles to perform in another opera some day soon. He combined menace and sex appeal as the Sorceress who sings the haunting aria “Wayward Sisters” then throws a boot into the orchestra pit in a fit of pique. Dido and Aeneas’s witches made history that evening: three African American countertenors had never shared an opera stage before.
Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer, Into the Inferno
I confess to having been a Werner Herzog skeptic for decades; I never cared much for his fiction films. He has become a great documentary filmmaker in his old age. (Perhaps if Mick Jagger had made a brilliant success of Fitzcarraldo, things would have turned out differently, but I for one am glad they did not.) Made in collaboration with Cambridge volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, Into the Inferno is filled with sublime and bizarre moments. In historical footage, French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft seem to walk right into streams of molten lava. Later, we see the pyroclastic flow that killed them instantly. Scenes in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea do not come across as piteous or comedic, as they often do in the western media. Herzog shoots students singing patriotic songs at the rim of the dormant volcano Mount Paektu (claimed by the DPRK as the birthplace of Kim Il-sung) and says that such behavior would be unimaginable on a California university campus. All active volcanoes are connected to some kind of worship, he asserts, because it is profoundly humbling to realize that the ground beneath our feet is not solid but constantly shifting. For humans living near volcanoes, this knowledge is unavoidable. The film also contains valuable advice: never turn your back on an active volcano; if lava is ejected into the air, keep your eye on its trajectory and calmly step out of the way.
Bryan McCook, aka Katya Zamolodchikova, has been my favorite queen of all from RuPaul’s Drag Race. An alumna of Massachusetts College of Art, she’s smart—speaking fluent Russian, a language she learned just for fun—but without so much as a whiff of art school attitude. She is forthcoming about her past as a full-time drug addict and part-time prostitute, and this vulnerability made her an overwhelming audience favorite. With characteristic frankness, Katya also describes many of her reality television colleagues as sociopaths. By her own admission, she was “like a bag of nerves and sadness” on RPDR. This phrase comes from a crucial Katya ur-text, her Hey Qween! interview, by far the longest one that Jonny McGovern, the host of this YouTube program, has ever done. It is a remarkable stream of non sequiturs, prompting co-host Lady Red Couture to ask repeatedly, “What is going on?” During the interview (which took place in April), Katya announced to the audible disgust of those in the studio, “If I was the First Lady, if I was Melania Trump… my platform would be to reverse the War on Drugs… Legalize them already. All of them. Portugal did it, and they’re doing fine.” She summed up her position with the most sensible comment of the evening, “Drug abuse is a public health issue, not a law enforcement issue.” I’m now convinced that the “dirtbag with a tumbleweed on his head,” as she called the future president, married the wrong Slavic supermodel—Katya Zamolodchikova for First Lady.
Jarett Kobek, I Hate the Internet
How can I not love the first self-published book reviewed by the New York Times? Jarett Kobek is a polemicist of fearsome power because he knows the tech beast from within, and let’s face it, almost every human who is “online” has come to hate this fetid swamp, this echo chamber, this destroyer of privacy and self-esteem called the Internet. In a recent issue of The Spectator, a plagiarist of Jonathan Lethem’s cover blurb asked if the author of I Hate the Internet is the “Houellebecq of San Francisco,” not acknowledging that Kobek, who is the son of a Turkish immigrant, lives in Los Angeles and writes books that have little in common with Michel Houellebecq’s fatuously pornographic descriptions of la France profonde ineffectually fighting off the Islamic hordes. Now in its third printing with a cover ready for the shelves of Hot Topic, I Hate the Internet offers us a whole heap of bad writing attacking the rich and powerful of the “knowledge economy,” a deviously Orwellian term for the latest capitalist scams. This is literature an American can be proud of, especially if Kobek winds up on the next president’s list of bad guys by virtue of his dad’s religion.
Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, local boy made good, had a giant retrospective shared by two Ohio museums this year. Akron Art Museum exhibited Mothersbaugh’s visual art, while MOCA Cleveland exhibited music-related material, including rarities from the archive such as the long out-of-print little red book, My Struggle (1978), a rambling text accompanied by tabloid-derived collages, and the original East German-manufactured mask that inspired the character of Booji Boy, whose blonde and orange plastic features bear a resemblance to the American president-elect of 2016. According to the True Devo Bio by Gerald Casale (coauthor of the Devo gesamtkunstwerk), “The band developed from a long line of brain-eating apes, some of which settled in northeastern Ohio around Akron, where [Devo] eventually appeared.” The doctrine of de-evolution seems as relevant now as it was when the band invented it—or appropriated it from Bertram Henry Shadduck’s 1924 tract, Jocko Homo Heavenbound, which they found in a thrift store as undergraduates at Kent State University during the early 1970s. This astonishing relic was also on display in Myopia.
Zanele Muholi, Personae
Having missed Zanele Muholi’s prize-winning US debut at the Carnegie International in 2013, I caught up with this exhibition at National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which combined two bodies of work: Somnyama Ngonyama, Muholi’s staged self-portraits, and Faces and Phases, her portraits of South African lesbians. The women in the latter photographs face constant danger in a country where there is no law specifically proscribing hate crimes, and where so-called “corrective rapes” occur, often converting women to HIV-positive status but never converting them to heterosexuality. Muholi’s lush black-and-white prints emphasize the defiance and sartorial flair of the portrait subjects. Muholi herself has some of the same attitude, as she tries out costumes, headdresses, and even a Louis XIV fright wig in hotel rooms where she stays while traveling the world for her exhibitions. An activist as well as an artist, Muholi has been attacked by politicians as “immoral,” robbed, and harassed at home while achieving art stardom abroad.
Deborah Stratman, The Illinois Parables
“Parable” suggests a biblical story, an interesting word to apply to the state of Governor Blagojevich and Speaker of the House Hastert, as well as murderers John Wayne Gacy and Richard Speck. Deborah Stratman takes up other, less lurid subjects in her film The Illinois Parables: the power of the ancient Cahokia Mounds, the mass deportation of Native Americans along the Trail of Tears, the persecution of Mormons forced to flee to Utah, the establishment of a utopian socialist community by the Icarians, and, within living memory, the murder by law enforcement officers of Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton. Stratman directed, shot, and edited The Illinois Parables, but it is her sound design that contributes to the film’s most powerful moment, a long shot of Gorham and Crossville from the air after these towns were devastated by a 1925 storm, accompanied by the song “Sweet Hour of Prayer” by the Lunenberg Travelers mixed with radio warnings of an immanent tornado.
Villa Iolas in ruins
In 1982, I visited legendary art dealer and collector Alexander Iolas (1907–1987) at his home in Greece. In May of this year, I returned to the suburbs of Athens to find the place where Iolas had lived and to see what was left behind after art thieves and vandals invaded the house in the wake of Iolas’s death. I was overwhelmed and became physically ill at the first sight of what had once been a showplace of art. I returned a second time during my trip and photographed this modern ruin. These images, along with many others, form the basis of a new film, Fall into Ruin, forthcoming in 2017.