A year ago on this blog I described seeing the recreation of a 1960s Aldo Tambellini happening in Manhattan on 20 October 2011:
…headed up to the Chelsea Museum for a performance of Aldo Tambellini’s Black Zero – a recreation of a happening performed by Group Center several times between 1963 and 1965. Black Zero featured some recorded sounds, including the voice of poet Calvin C. Hernton who couldn’t be there in person because he was dead. One of the improvised elements was Henry Grimes on double bass and Ben Morea on power tools adapted as musical instruments – and they were fabulous together! There were film projections all over the place and a very good modern dancer, who amid apocalyptic verse about racism and nuclear holocaust, eventually fell down into an erotic death pose: at this point Tambellini entered the stage area with a pen knife and popped a balloon onto which film was being projected, and that was the end of the performance. I was knocked out by the event, describing it in words really doesn’t do it justice.
From 9-14 October 2012 Tambellini was at Tate Modern under the banner of Retracing Black. In The Tanks for six days there was a Tambellini environment with film and slide projections, film on TV monitors and an audio loop lasting about 22 minutes. On the evening of Saturday 13 October there were screenings of individual films and the re-staging of two happenings. Tambellini’s strength in the 1960s lay in collaborating with others and collaging different mediums into environments and happenings – and while we’re at it let’s not forget he played a key role in creating a vibrant cultural scene in New York’s East Village that flourished precisely because it kept itself utterly separate from the institution of art!
The Tate’s screening of various Tambellini shorts allowed me to get a better understanding of some of the elements that make up his mixed-media collages but for those new to Tambellini (which seemed to be the case for most of the audience) then seen in this format they didn’t make for a good introduction to his work. The films were mostly abstract and black and white, to fully appreciate their fast flicker in a cinema environment you don’t want distractions from other light sources… unfortunately a number of people on both sides of me were using smart phones during the screening and even in silent mode such coloured flashing really lessened the impact of Tambellin’s work. Nonetheless you could still see there were a lot of parallels between Tambellin’s mid-sixties shorts and lettrist cinema of the early nineteen-fifties. The scratching of film stock and the soundtracks at times being dissociated from the imagery being just two examples of this.
To really grasp what Tambellini is about you need to experience one of his mixed media happenings. In this context his films become part of a complete sensory overload in an electromedia environment. Moondial recreated from 1966 was an improvisation on the part of a musician and dancer with film and slide projections by Tambellini. The costume worn by the dancer – originally Beverly Schmidt but at the Tate Tanks Daliah Touré – with its wild headdress and reflective parts, brought to my mind the Afro-Futurism of Sun Ra and others. Obviously Tambellini’s mixed media happenings are always to an extent an improvisation and are never going to be exactly the same twice. I was, however, surprised at just how different the version of Black Zero I saw at Tate Modern was to the re-staging I’d witnessed in Manhattan a year earlier. There was more space for the projections, Seth Woods playing the cello rather than Henry Grimes on double bass, and recordings of Ben Morea rather than the man himself improvising live with his ‘noise machines’, fewer recorded words from poet Calvin C. Hernton (nothing about nuclear holocaust at Tate but still plenty about racism), less on stage action in general in terms of performers too.
What was more impressive at Tate Modern than Chelsea Museum was the balloon which Tambellini pops at the end of the performance – this was gradually inflated throughout the event to a huge size (whereas in Manhattan a year earlier it was much smaller). That said I preferred the more cluttered first performance I saw and thought that while Seth Woods was good, Henry Grimes playing live with and against Ben Morea was way more sonically impressive. I also preferred the longer selection of Hernton recordings since his anger at the racism and stupidity all around him is not only deeply felt but theoretically incisive (as anyone who has read his non-fiction books about race in America will already know). Hernton’s poetic style owes something to the beat generation but at the same time he is way better than Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs rolled into one! Tambellini’s mixed media events are at a midway point between beat and psychedelic culture and all the better for not being frozen into one period or the other.
Even if I preferred the version of Black Zero I saw re-staged at Chelsea Museum, it was still great to see it again at Tate Tanks. And the audience at Tate Modern applauded wildly at the end of both pieces, many were clearly ecstatic. Likewise, the Retracing Black environment was also an absolute triumph, providing a great introduction to Tambellini for anyone who wanted to be able to wander in and out without necessarily watching an entire happening. What Chelsea Museum in New York had last year that wasn’t at Tate Modern was a good selection of Tambellini’s Black Paintings, so these really do need to be shown sometime soon in London….
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!