NEW EYES ON PEABODY ESSEX
María Magdalena Campos-Pons
María Magdalena Campos-Pons will not be painted into a corner, framed, cast in brass, or otherwise confined. Her work is Protean and also provisional. She might appear to the accompaniment of Yoruba chants, carrying a birdcage on her head, her face powdered white, her dress an amalgam of cultures as she did in the Piazza San Marco during an electrifying moment at the Venice Biennale last spring, or she may disappear behind an installation of vertical spears each resting on an African stool and impaling disks of cast glass and palm sugar as in her installation at the Tufts Art Gallery in Boston this past fall. Perhaps she will reemerge elsewhere in a photograph or a video. Each of her constructions or performances is a question, an approximation, a moment in her long journey to account for her mixed Chinese, African, and Spanish heritage and to carry it forward from her native Cuba to Boston, where she is on the faculty at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. None is definitive.
"I see things hiding in places that other people don't see," Campos-Pons says. "I see the theater in things and the narrative that draws them together." Even the armorial porcelain plates lining the vitrines in the Bartlett Gallery at PEM suggest stories to her. "Circle, circle, circle," she says looking at them. "I love the sustained repetition but there are stories in them too. They are full of the people who touched them-the makers, the servers, the users." When Daisy Wang, curator of Chinese and East Asian Art at PEM, brought out a portable Buddhist shrine to the goddess Guanyin, Campos-Pons was enthralled by its intimacy. Her imagination prompted her to reach back to a time when this small reliquary, almost like a purse, had been the portable home for an entire tradition and set of beliefs. "It is sustenance," she says of the little shrine, "it contains the energy and power that kept someone who carried it going." Asked what keeps her going, Campos-Pons replies that curiosity, hunger, and a sense of duty all play a part in helping her do exactly what the shrine must have done for its original owner.
She and her husband, musician Neil Leonard, who is her frequent collaborator, were also drawn to Yin Yu Tang, the two-hundred-year-old Chinese house that PEM brought over and re-erected in 2003. For Campos-Pons the house links the Chinese and African parts of her heritage in a particularly appealing way. "People of African heritage were stripped of a sense of place, of dwellings, when they crossed the Atlantic as slaves. In a way, entering the house is a paradigm of my journey reconnecting elements of the past."
Campos-Pons finds the FreePort exhibitions at PEM compatible with her approach to her work. "What Trevor Smith is doing is looking at tradition with artists and allowing them to construct a way of engaging with it in the present." The challenge, she says, is to do this without making work that in any sense seems ethnographic. "We are here with antiquity. How do we look at it with a new eye," she asks knowing that her answers to that dilemma will be many and varied.
"What you can't say you can't whistle either," the Wittgensteinians say, laying down the limits of rational discourse. Somehow in his almost four decades as a musician and frequent collaborator with visual artists Neil Leonard has called the philosophers' axiom into question. Along with multimedia artists such as his wife María Magdalena Campos-Pons and Tony Oursler, he has made a specialty of expressing the seemingly inexpressible.
Leonard grew up in the Philadelphia area interested in both art and music and he came of age without making strict distinctions between the two. After attending the New England Conservatory of Music he settled on the definition of himself as a musician, a sax player to be specific, and is now a professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he heads the department of Electronic Production and Design. Computers, electronic music, film, traditional jazz, the spoken word all play their part in the work of a man who does not make hierarchical distinctions between disciplines, modes of expression, or most particularly past and present. No wonder that a formative influence on him was the multisensory, visionary jazz musician Sun Ra whose solar Arkestra of costumed musicians, dancers, singers, and intergalactic kookiness rattled the jazz scene in Philadelphia and New York during the 1960s and 1970s. "I thought he was normal," Leonard recalls.
In 1988 he met Campos-Pons, who was then an exchange student from Cuba. She asked him to do the music for her ten-minute film Rite of Initiation, something he was uniquely qualified to do having been to Cuba and having a longstanding passion for Cuban music. Thus began their personal and professional collaboration.
At the Venice Biennale last June Leonard composed the music for Campos-Pons's performance. Inside the pavilion he reworked the street cries of Cuban vendors into sound collages and added to them interviews with ordinary Cubans. Fifty-five monitors and eighteen speakers, some of them installed in the dozens of birdcages, by all accounts it was an extraordinary experience.
Hearing art, seeing music, this is second nature to Leonard, who seized on a seventeenth-century Japanese helmet at PEM that reminded him of a horn. He could almost hear the music it would make, just as he can envision the sound piece he and Campos-Pons might create based on their visit to the museum's Yin Yu Tang house. If you spend a little time with these two you can almost hear it too.