“This was a wet dream.”
Artist/musician Lizzi Bougatsos stands on a low stage brandishing a pair of mallets. Sometimes she speaks a few lyrics, but most of her vocalizations are pure expressions of emotion. As she massages a set of kinetic sculptures to life, her shrieks reverberate through an effects box and around the room while images of Bernie Sanders and the Black Lives Matter movement are projected in the background. It's a one-time-only exorcism and Bougatsos makes it count.
In an effort to enrich the exhibition Atmosphere for Enjoyment: Harry Bertoia’s Environment for Sound, Katerina Llanes, Manager of Public Programs at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) commissioned artist, and Gang Gang Dance frontwoman, Lizzi Bougatsos—as well as Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, a.k.a., Lichens, who takes the stage July 15—to create performance pieces utilizing the “sonambient sculptures” of the late Harry Bertoia. While looped recordings of Bertoia’s performances give visitors some idea of what the sculptures sound like, the performances allow guests to experience them as Bertoia intended.
After spending some time at the Pennsylvania barn where many of the sculptures are warehoused by Bertoia’s son Val, Bougatsos chose to harness their naturalistic qualities in service of an explicitly political—if somewhat general—message.
“The first thing I related to was his respect for the land,” recalls Bougatsos. “There was one particularly that was just two strands, and at the top there were these mallet-like things, it mimicked an exact tree, so I think he sort of saw them as trees.” They also resemble reeds or tall grass. “That’s how they relate to nature, how they play themselves with the wind,” she muses, noting that she had to remember to be gentle with them: “I think that for me, with my background of drumming and being sort of an anarchist on the drums, I just attacked them [at first], so I have to remind myself that these are calm wind instruments. They’re also meditational.”
From these earthy qualities, Bougatsos took an environmentalist, anti-consumerist message. “When you have a true artist, they just hate capitalism, you know what I mean?” she explains. “You can tell through his gentle spirit, he didn’t really care to capitalize on his work and make a buck from it. He saw some gypsies playing pots and pans, and that’s what made him make these sculptures.”
And so, deeply affected by “inhumane despicable activity” like police violence, corporate welfare, and neoliberal austerity politics, as well as the belief that “the only way to change things is to take the rich down,” Bougatsos channeled her feelings into a partially-improvised piece called The Last Hope, which she performed to a packed crowd at in MAD’s temporary galleries last Friday. (She acknowledges the irony of doing this in a well-endowed institution located in the seat of American empire, but says she hopes to “change it from within.”)
Barefoot and wearing a long, white dress, the artist coaxes tones from “chime-y” to “booming” out of Bertoia’s metal plants as she lets loose her trademark vocalizations, from percussive has to operatic wails. Equal parts feral and feminine, Bougatsos seems a natural heir to the avant-garde tradition of Yoko Ono. When the need to pound something grows too strong she uses her own tri-toms and chimes, plus a hand-held drum she struck against the floor. Slogans like “we can’t afford the rich anymore” display behind her as she waves her arms like Abbie Hoffman trying to levitate the Pentagon.
The piece crescendoes to a clattering climax, and then, just like that, all is silent. A moment later, some tinkling chimes and dreamy “aahs” trickle the piece to its conclusion. Sure, art remains a commodity, and the world a terrifying place, but at least in this still, echoing moment, it doesn't seem beside the point to care.
Atmosphere for Enjoyment: Harry Bertoia’s Environment for Sound will be at MAD through September 25