“Sunny in the Furnace”
New York, NY
March 8, 2014
by Martha Sherman
copyright © 2014 by Martha Sherman
All the stuff on the stage of Aki Sasamoto’s work has meaning – it’s just hard to figure out quite what that is. In “Sunny in the Furnace,” Sasamoto tells the story of a friend’s suicide, played against the 1966 pop tune “Sunny,” by Bobby Hebb, which he composed in 1963 in the 24 hours after both the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the murder of his own elder brother. The song stares down grief with hope; Sasamoto does the same, using images, words, physical landscape, and movement to create a dense collage about the human condition of coping. While she’s at it, she has plenty to say about artists’ condition of coping, as well.
Sasamoto’s work often feels like a walk through a surreal landscape. She uses commonplace things in uncommon ways and pairs unexpected ideas with objects and movement. In “Sunny,” the physical world of the set (constructed by Sam Ekwurtzel) includes two battered desks (one that becomes Sunny’s furnace, as coal is shoveled in,) two long spiraled logs, dozens of concrete footprint molds, and a ten-foot high cone sometimes pierced with a broomstick to create wooden steps.
As intriguing as the confusion on the floor, the elements in the air often stole the audience’s attention. Jessica Weinstein towered over everyone (like Sunny: “Now I feel 10 feet tall”, as Hebb’s song croons) or perched on an office chair high on a metal lift. As the work opened, the stage was dark, with the shadowy objects barely visible, and a red line, spookily lit and strung from the ceiling to the wall (Madeline Best did the evocative lighting.) Weinstein entered on stilts, stalking back and forth on the shadowed stage wearing a dark pointed hoodie; a child in the audience asked aloud, “Who is that man?” It was Death, and he was pacing.
High above the stage, on the sound booth balcony behind the Kitchen’s stadium seats, Pau Atela, a professor of mathematics at Smith College, lectured us (using a blackboard of equations) on the geometry of “Catastrophe Theory.” He talked about the precarious state of things and how easy it is to slip from a normal state to catastrophic – as proven by incomprehensible geometric equations. Our necks stretched behind us to listen, then we were called back from the intellectual to physical manifestations of that precariousness.
On the main stage, Sasamoto used her props and her words to shift between physical and verbal contortions. Threading her body through a wooden desk, she wrote pairs of opposite ideas in chalk on the surfaces, talking about them as she slid in and out of the openings. In the two drawers were the words “Charisma” and “Strategy,” which later became the centerpiece of a lecture that she gave, perched on the high office chair, on the two ways that artists survive – by Charisma or by Strategy, and the pros and cons of each.
Mixed images continued to weave through her story, as Sasamoto shoveled coal into the suspended desk while Weinstein counterbalanced the weight of it from a swing on the far side of the stage. John Bollinger, the final cast member, drummed with the objects on stage, meeting Sasamoto to punch colored markers into white paper canvases (making art?) and then drumming the paper with oranges suspended from the top of the artwork.
The stage was wrapped in strings and chains, and weighted down by concrete footprints. Spinning treated fishing line in long streaks across the floor, Sasamoto flicked the line, and fine powder left streaks along the floor. Later, she distributed the concrete footprints around the stage, and when the blood red lines from the ceiling fell to the ground in long loops, they wrapped underneath to turn the footprints into concrete shoes—the kind that might be used to sink victims to the bottom of the sea. When Sasamoto donned a pair, she was slightly elevated, but she staggered with the weight. Later she traded for boots on metal lifts; again, it was purposefully awkward, as she tried to lift herself, move, and stay in balance.
The chaotic imagery didn’t let up. Just as the audience got comfortable with one vector of oddness, it was scrapped for another of a different ilk. If we expected physical puzzles, we were met with geometric equations; as we relaxed to the melody of “Sunny,” we were faced with images of death. And that was the point. Sasamoto struggled off the stage, amidst the cacophony of images, and she grinned. As Hebb sang of his own struggle, “You smiled at me, and really eased the pain.”
Photos by Julieta Cervantes