The hold’s got a hold on me
Terry Allen’s father, “Sled” Allen, was a slick-fielding catcher who had a cup of coffee in the major leagues a hundred years ago. He played 24 games with the St. Louis Browns in 1910 and left behind a .130 lifetime batting average. “He couldn’t hit a lick,” Allen told Pasatiempo.
But he could tell stories. “My mother was a barrelhouse piano player, and my dad was a barnstorming ballplayer,” Allen remembered. “My dad was 60 when I was born, and my mom was nearly 40. Because of their earlier lives, I was caught up in this whirlwind of stories.”
The stories and the music of his parents were the fabric from which Allen created Dugout, a multimedia exhibition and performance piece “which was really based on growing up with these two very eccentric people who told great stories, and these stories changed over time. I had always wanted to build a work based on these stories. Which I did. And it became Dugout.”
Allen presented a version of Dugout at the University of Houston in 2005. The work combined writing, painting, video, sculpture, and musical theater in what Allen describes as “a love story, an investigation into how memory is invented, a kind of supernatural jazz-sport-history-ghost-blood-fiction.”
The French consul in Houston saw the show, and afterward asked Allen to come to France and create something similar there. “They invited me to do a new piece at this place called Les Subsistances, which is in Lyons. It’s a big artists’ workshop; they invite artists from all over the world to come and build pieces and perform them in progress. I had always been an admirer of Antonin Artaud and had always had it somewhere in and out of my mind to do a piece based on him.”
Artaud’s name conjures up a lot of things, among them brilliance, originality, and madness. Artaud (1896-1948) was a French poet, playwright, actor, director, musician, painter, and theorist who had an enormous influence on artists who came after him. Allen discovered him while he was at art school in California. “I had gone to City Lights Bookstore, and I saw this book. It just had this guy’s face on it. And it said Artaud Anthology on it. And I started looking through this book. I’d never heard of Artaud, and it was really these photographs of his face that completely mesmerized me. I had no money, and I remember [Beat poet Lawrence] Ferlinghetti was behind the counter. It was his bookstore, and I went up to him and told him, ‘I don’t have any money, but I’ve got to have this book.’ And he just said, ‘Take it.’ And so that kind of started this whole real intrigue for me with Artaud.”
The work that evolved out of that intrigue, Allen’s multimedia Ghost Ship Rodez, is divided into three sections. One is a musical theater piece that is scheduled to be performed at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on April 9. The other two sections fill two rooms at SITE Santa Fe as part of One on One, a suite of solo shows (the other participants are Hasan Elahi, McCallum& Tarry, and Kaari Upson). According to SITE, each artist’s work focuses on “the artist’s obsession with another person.”
To begin work on the project, Allen and his wife, Jo Harvey Allen, went first to Mexico, where “I started doing some drawings and working on ideas. Artaud also spent some time in Mexico,
and that’s pivotal in this whole body of work. There was an incident that happened to him — he’d traveled to Ireland, and found this stick that he called the staff of St. George — some people say that he called it the staff of St. Patrick, but in everything I’ve ever read, he called it the staff of St. George.
“After that, he was in Mexico, where he went to participate in peyote ceremonies with the Tarahumara Indians, which probably had very disastrous psychological consequences for him, because he was in bad shape when he got back to France. He decided that this staff of St. George needed to be taken back to the Irish people, that it was too important to take away from them. So he went to Ireland. He got into a big fight with the cops in Dublin and actually hit a cop in the head with the staff. They confiscated it, and it’s never been seen again. They put him in jail and then deported him. They put him on a freighter, theWashington, where he raised so much hell that they straitjacketed him, chained him to a cot in the hold of the ship. He says it was for 17 days. Who knows, it could have been 17 hours. But I’m sure if you’re chained and in a complete mental and emotional collapse, it felt like a long time.”
Artaud’s trip back from Ireland in chains inspired Ghost Ship Rodez. “After he returned to France, he was never really out of mental institutions again,” Allen said. “And one of the institutions, where he received numerous electric shock treatments, was Rodez. So that’s where I got the name Ghost Ship Rodez. But the idea of the piece came from what might have happened during that 17 days.”
One room of Allen’s presentation at SITE features works on paper that he calls the Momo Chronicles. “Artaud called himself ‘Momo,’ which is kind of a charmed idiot,” Allen explained. “And these chronicles are a very fictionalized journal of his Mexican trip. It’s kind of a log that starts with him coming from France to Cuba to Vera Cruz to Mexico City, and then taking a train to Chihuahua, and then horseback into the land of the Tarahumara, and doing the peyote ceremonies, and it pretty much ends there as far as the chronicles go. You’ll hear the audio coming in from the next room, and the audio is text that’s available for you to read on the drawings.”
In that adjoining room is a sculptural figure called Momo lo Mismo. “This figure is kind of like a big video puppet. It’s about 17 feet tall; it’s got a monitor for the head, a monitor for the chest, hands, and feet, so it’s six monitors. But it’s all one face, so the hands are the eyes, the head is a forehead, there’s a nose that’s the trunk, and then half of the mouth on each foot. It’s a full body, and it’s a face. And it speaks. All of the text that’s in the chronicles is read by Jo Harvey, my wife.
“Then there’s a ship, which is also one of the main props in the piece. It’s like a metal cot with sails that videos are projected on. I’ve pulled images from films that Artaud was in, like (Abel Gance’s 1927) Napoléon, where he played Marat, and (Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928) The Passion of Joan of Arc, where he plays the priest. And those are kind of fragmented, the way they’re projected on the sails.”
The fragmentation is a reflection of Artaud’s artistic vision. Artaud writes: Who am I? Where do I come from? I am Antonin Artaud and I say this as I know how to say this immediately you will see my present body burst into fragments and remake itself under ten thousand notorious aspects a new body where you will never forget me.
“Another thing that had a big impact on me when I would read Artaud,” Allen said, “was this quote: ‘ The human face is an empty power, a field of death.’ He said it was a black hole. Which probably came from some of his experiences with the Tarahumara; when he’s traveling there, he sees fragments of animals and faces in the rocks. “
Of the musical-theater component of Ghost Ship Rodez, Allen said, “Jo Harvey plays a character called the Daughter of the Heart. Artaud considered all the women who were important in his life his ‘ Daughters of the Heart to Be Born.’ That’s what he called them. These women were girlfriends, hookers, his mother, his sister, it was every woman with whom he had some intense emotional connection. So Jo Harvey plays this kind of chameleon clairvoyant, and literally, these images of these women, these different personas, go through her. She’s like a vehicle for these different women. But then she’ll be Artaud for a few minutes. And she’ll be these women. She shifts. But it’s focused on autobiographical aspects of Artaud. Jo Harvey is phenomenal in it!”
Allen is fascinated with Artaud, but he insists he’s not obsessed. “His failures, his legacies, his influences— all of this stuff is incredibly mysterious and curious to me. The way I work is I throw myself into the idea of investigating something, but always from the point of view of fiction. I’m always making stuff up. I’m not trying to be a biographer. But I think Artaud was a climate— an intense climate that you can go into, and things happen in there. It’s like a storm, but it can also be like something incredibly beautiful.
“I have no idea how people will respond to this work. I hope that people are curious, and that they respond to their own curiosity. But the idea of trying to get them to leave with any specific thing, I learned long ago that’s just a waste of time.”
Terry Allen: Study for Momo lo Mismo, 2009, graphite on paper; courtesy the artist and L.A. Louver Gallery Opposite page, Ghost Ship Rodez installation (work in progress), 2009, books, bed frame, video projection; courtesy the artist and L.A. Louver Gallery Vaunted but haunted: Antonin Artaud (1896-1948)