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Ellen Pearlman

Buddhism in Havana

Cuba’s revolution is slowly dissolving, like rain-soaked plaster into a mud-soaked puddle of Ché and sex, rations and Rum, Marxism and Santería, Soviet-style minds and Tropi-Cola enterprises.

Docs in Sight: Jennifer Fox is Flying

“I had to keep filming to figure out this modern crazy life,” Jennifer Fox says at the beginning of Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman. In 2002, she was at a crossroads and needed to make a different life for herself. The result is this eerily convoluted but totally engrossing six-hour epic.

In Conversation

Cai Guo-Qiang with Ellen Pearlman

While he was installing his current retrospective I Want To Believe at the Guggenheim Museum (on view Feb. 22nd until May 28th, then traveling to the National Museum of Art in Beijing in time for the Summer Olympics), Cai Guo-Qiang took time out from his busy schedule to sit down and talk with Rail Editor-at-Large Ellen Pearlman about his work.

Life at the VSC

When Le Quoc Viet smiled, his lips parted like a theater curtain revealing his glistening jet black teeth, shining like opalescent pearls harvested from a deep beneath the ocean floor. It was such a disconcerting sight I glanced away hoping when I returned my gaze to his shy face his teeth would actually be white. But they remained black.

American Effect = Death Threat: The Art of Saira Wasim

Saira Wasim’s Mughal style paintings, part of the recent American Effect show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, are delicate, painstaking, intricate Persian miniature gouaches in layered tones laced with political and activist causes that use traditional spatial compositions with a photo realist overlay.

From da ’Hood to da Whitney: 3 Artists from Williamsburg Make Good

Julianne Swartz uses light, motion, reflection, sound, and ambience as sculpture to take the ordinary and mundane and bump it up into the extraordinary and profound. She employs utilitarian and commonplace objects like conduits and condensers, mirrors, tubes, fiber optics, and lenses, and transforms matter that has no palpability or physical presence and gives it sculptural form. She works at the most delicate of intersections, where the fulcrum point of what is solid meets what is not.

The Fallacy of Utopia: the Art World and Current Dialectic in Havana, Cuba

Taania Bruguera is eating dirt. Real dirt. The kind of dirt you find in your yard or on the ground around the base of a tree. She’s kneading it into small balls with the saltwater of tears, lifting it to her lips, popping it in and chewing it and swallowing it with a big, forced, throaty gulp.

Breakthroughs in Light: The Work of Tony Martin

Tony Martin has always been first with light. He is the inventor of the original light show, as well as interactive media and the first implementation of projected, scalable vector graphics.

Interviews With Alison Knowles, July-October 2001, New York City

Knowles: Ellen, it was great you came to the performance last night (At the Drawing Center). Tell me what you thought of it?

Strange, Dark Places

Anne McDonald is one of the 60 artists living on Water Street in Dumbo that were tossed out on the cold nights of December 17, 2000 at 11pm, by the Buildings Department.

Whitney Biennial 2006: Day for Night

The 2006 Whitney Biennial had the potential to harness a subversive undercurrent with only a slight (if radical) reinterpretation of its curatorial premise, Day for Night.

Performa 05

Performa 05, the first biennial ever of “new visual art performance,” that ambiguous yet agreed-upon term encompassing spoken word, theater, film, video, computer art, photography, music, sound, travel, and lectures, stormed across the alleyways, byways, hallways, and city streets of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Governor’s Island, revitalizing the tattered memories and hearts of that even more ambiguous thing referred to as “downtown.”

Japanese Anime, Expo 2005 and the Future of the World

I have seen the future: it is soft, green, and fuzzy. The future is named Morizo and Kiccoro, the mascots of Expo 2005 in Aichi, Japan, the first World’s Fair of this century. Morizo and Kiccoro, typical yruchara anime characters, cleverly designed public relations devices, are distinctive postwar “cute” (kawaii) creations. Possessing tiny limbs and unable to speak or be mobile, with vacant features and no emotion, yuruchara are introverts even the shyest Japanese can relate to. “Hello Kitty,” an yruchara most Americans are familiar with, was one of many originally created during the l970s to lasso young girls into Japan’s rapidly expanding postwar consumer culture.

The Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art

There was a full-blown, fourth of July style fireworks display exploding over my head in what could only be termed a spectacular moment of serendipity.

In Conversation

Xu Bing with Ellen Pearlman

Xu Bing is one of the most important expatriate Chinese avant-garde artists. Winner of a 1999 MacArthur (“genius”) Fellowship for A Book From the Sky, which consisted of thousands of characters from an invented language printed on scrolls from hand-carved woodblocks, in 2003 he was awarded the Fukuoka Asian Culture and in 2004, he received the first Wales International Visual Art Prize, Artes Mundi, for Where Does the Dust Collect Itself, an installation incorporating dust collected from Ground Zero.

Letter from China

“In Beijing they shit ice cream and piss lemonade,” says Robert Bernell, one of the founders of the Dashanzi Art District, also known as the 798 Art Zone, and of Timezone 8, a bookstore and publishing company.

Performa 07

Rose Lee Goldberg the director of the visual art performance biennial Performa 07 deserves an honorary key to the City from Mayor Bloomberg as a high/middle/low/brow cheerleader for the arts.

Electronic Media Performing Arts Center

The opening of EMPAC (Electronic Media Performing Arts Center), a 200-million-dollar, 220,000-square-foot glass, steel, and cedar building is a massive step forward in developing the intersection of technology, media, and the performing arts.

The Third Mind—American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860 – 1989

The Third Mind, a sprawling exhibition, tackles the vastly neglected subject of how Asian thought, defined as the eastern religions of Hinduism, Tantric Buddhism, Chan/Zen Buddhism and Taoism, as well as classical Asian art forms and the living performance traditions of Japanese art and Zen Buddhism, has influenced many forms of American modernism for over a century.

Digital Avant-Garde: Celebrating 25 Years of Ars Electronica

Now that the hype of the Internet, with its faded IPOs and stock market roller coaster ride is over, and media conglomerates are gobbling each other up on the broadcast food chain, whom can we look to for inspiration and innovation?

Swoon: Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea

Swoon—a street artist whose moniker shields her from potential prosecution on vandalism charges—sailed her ragtag Burning Man on the Hudson-like flotilla of seven sculptures nee boats to landfall in front of a cheering crowd of hipsters on the docks of Deitch Projects in Long Island City.

Zhang Huan Altered States

n 1994, the pinnacle of China’s post-Tiananmen “Shock Art” phase, Zhang Huan lathered his nude body in honey and fish oil and sat down on a roughhewn latrine seat in a public bathroom in Beijing’s East Village art colony, offering himself up as a tasty lunch to hoards of swarming flies and insects.

Contemporary Asian Arts Week

Contemporary Asian Arts week, held since 2002, is dedicated to showcasing the best of Asian Art through a consortium of 28 participants. Though the week is pan-Asian, Chinese artists in particular are gaining rapidly in the New York art world. Galleries like Jack Tilton, Art Projects International, Ethan Cohen, and Max Protetch are infiltrating China as well by developing programs and residencies based on cultural exchange.

Railing Opinion: Mao Is Like So Over

“Mao Crazy,” Jed Perl’s critical essay about contemporary Chinese art in the July issue of the New Republic, deals with commonly understood but not often voiced criticisms of post-Maoist political pop and cynical realism.

Ellen K. Levy

Ellen Levy’s newest set of paintings at two solo shows, in New York and New Jersey, use optical and cognitive brain research to tackle issues artists have been obsessed with since the Renaissance; how to portray depth and perspective by rendering three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional plane.

Lust and Debacle

Lust and Debacle seem to be on the mind of a coterie of avant filmmakers these days. First there was the Whitney Biennial and Francesco Vezzoli’s _Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s “Caligula,” _ which used fresh man juice as skin crème, then Matthew Barney’s _Drawing Restraint 9, _ where Bjork and Barney sliced and gobbled each other up alive, and now Eve Sussman’s _Rape of the Sabine Women, _ an 82-minute visual musing on the look and feel, if not the actual rape, of the ancient Sabine women. Sussman,

Art and China's Revolution

A collection of mostly Social Realist paintings about Mao and the Chinese Revolution, spanning the 1950s through the 1970s, is quite honestly nothing revolutionary to look at. But, like the Shroud of Turin, the history behind the image is what pulls together these never-before-exhibited works.

Letter From BEIJING

A maximum-strength firefighter’s hose spews voluminous blasts of water, uncoiling and smacking against the insides of a sealed room. The hose, powered by a hydraulic pump and suspended from a thin ceiling cable, obliterates the view from the special double-paned observation windows with a whacking, cascading torrent.

Lost Gravity – the Photographs and Performances of Li Wei

Li Wei, a short and stocky man, clambered up a metal ladder ten feet, sticking his head deep into a hole in the wall. Two somber assistants using wire pulleys clipped mountaineering carabiners to his waist and feet, causing him to dangle horizontally, his hovering body a metaphor for pre-Olympic China—headless, suspended, and hurtling towards an unknown future.

Letter from ULAN BATOR

Mongolian artists, freed for little over a decade from the long, dreary shadow of Soviet rule, employ a bold, in-your-face Genghis Khan kind of style that gives them my vote as the hip hop gangstas of the Asian art world.

Geisha, A Life

So, what was is the life of a geisha really like? Not the made up fantasy of a Western man’s best seller on the subject, but an authentic geisha, or “artist” in Japanese.

Breaking Open His Head

Daniel Pinchbeck, Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism (Broadway Books, 2002). I am writing this review of Daniel Pinchbeck’s new book, Breaking Open the Head, while in Graz, Austria, a lederhosen kind of town that just hosted 10,000 mostly, but not totally, Anglo Tibetan Buddhists from all over the globe for the Kalachakra Initiation for World Peace performed by His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama.

Sparks in Nevada

Drama in the Desert: The Sights and Sounds of Burning Man, based on the images of Holly Kreuter. A Raised Barn Press Production ( I’m a virgin. At least I am according to the standards of Burning Man, because I’ve never been there before.

Anne Waldman, as told to Ellen Pearlman

Anne Waldman just had a major retrospective work, In the Room of Never Grieve, published by Coffee House Press. She co-founded the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, as well as co-founded the Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University with Allen Ginsberg.

Diane di Prima’s New York

Beatnik girls. You know the types, they wore tight Capri pants and lace-up throng sandals, hid in the shadows, cooked the meals, raised the babies, mopped up the messes and slyly wrote poetry – now aging, they are for the most part forgotten.

Stamps and Beats

I started reading The Letters as Peter Orlovsky, poet and longtime lover of Allen Ginsberg, was dying in a hospice in Vermont on May 30, 2010, and began writing this review after his memorial at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery two months later.

Photography: A World to Warhol

In 1982, before it was hip, fashionable, or barely possible, Andy Warhol tripped off to China with young photographer Christopher Makos, who documented the fabulous but anonymous Andy in Mao land.

Off The Shelves

Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet’s bible is not a monolithic mirror reflecting the state of religion in America post 9/11 but more like a disco ball:

The New Psychedelia

Three books have appeared, heralding a quiet resurgence in certain circles of the use of hallucinogenic drugs for spiritual or visionary purposes. ...

Soul Not on Ice

Michael Brownstein’s new poetic book-length masterpiece, World On Fire, did exactly what it was supposed to do to me, but we’re not talking metaphors here. Rather, it short-circuited my new T23 IBM laptop computer, leaving me temporarily keyless to pen this review.

Art: A Time to Remember

In October 1975, New York, hopelessly mired in bankruptcy, got down on bended knee and in uncharacteristic humility, begged the Feds for help. Ron Nessen, Gerald Ford’s press secretary, snidely countered by comparing the city to a drug abusing child—“You don’t give her a hundred dollars a day to support her habit”—leading to the now-infamous Daily News headline: “Ford To City: Drop Dead.”

Biography: What Becomes A Legend Most?

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, though certainly not the only Tibetan Lama hounded out of Tibet by the Communist Party’s pogrom of Buddhists, was undeniably the one who packed the most wallop, stirred up the most controversy and built the largest and best-known organization in North America.

Investigative Reporting: Squatter Nation

And what about all those NGOs and government organizations? What are they doing? Neuwirth hooked up with UN Habitat, bloated with conferences and studies but not with anyone who got down and dirty with the squatters, an especially vexing fact since they were within a stone’s throw of the Kibera slums in Nairobi.

The Rebirth of DJ Spooky

Paul Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid, presented "Rebirth of a Nation," an audiovisual remix of D. W. Griffith’s wildly racist 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, at the Lincoln Center Summer Festival.

All Cage, All the Time (with a bit of Merce, Nam June, Shigeko, and Charlotte)

The five-day Cage-o-rama presented jointly by Anthology Film Archives and the John Cage Trust in January showcased thirty-three films of the legendary musician and composer, spanning the decades from the forties to the nineties. The material for,

Azúcar! Celia: The Life and Music of Celia Cruz at the New World Theater

Celia Cruz, affectionately known as “La Reina de Salsa,” was a force of nature, an irreplaceable, once-in-a-generation female singer whose life and music echoed for over sixty years the trajectory of the Cuban Diaspora’s effect on Latin American and world culture.

The Whole World’s Listening

First established after 9/11, when rampant xenophobia in the U.S. made visas for foreign musicians almost impossible to obtain, globalFEST this year showcased a smorgasbord of international music, with both relative unknowns and the kinds of world-class stars who fill gigantic stadiums at home.


Jeremy Owen Turner has over nine years’ experience producing content in virtual worlds, which makes him a bona-fide doyen and agent provocateur in the field of emerging technologies.


Bora Yoon is a sound architect/conjurer who stirs into her acoustical cauldron circuit boards, hand-cranked emergency-frequency radios, turntables, feedback loops, oodles of wires, metronomes, windup toys, and whispers.

Argentina's Diamond, Finally Mined

It is unforgivable that Gerardo Gandini, the most famous modern composer and pianist in Argentina, is virtually unknown here.

Nik Bärtsch’s Ritual Groove

Nik Bärtsch is an unsung wunderkind of European new music. I first heard him in Graz, Austria, with his trio Ronin; they played tightly arranged jazz and funk riffs with Loten Namling, who surely must be the world’s first Tibetan rapper, and Nawang Kechog, a Grammy-nominated Tibetan flute player, guest-starring. Saturated with global influences, the music was arranged with a fresh and original sensibility. Not since the late Quwali maestro Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Michael Brook released Night Song, their breakthrough 1995 collaboration, have I listened to such a complex effort presented so innovatively.

Cuba and Its Music

In Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo, Ned Sublette has taken on no less a task than rethinking and rewriting Western musical history, going back to 1191 A.D., from a Cuba-centric point of view. After a whopping 700 pages, he has still only come as far as 1952 and is already busily working on Volume Two.

Bow Becomes Breath

The newest strand in Meredith Monk’s endless creative braid is the string quartet Stringsongs, commissioned by the Kronos Quartet, which had its United States premiere at Zankel Hall on February 5.

Ze Cat’s Meow: Pamela Z: “ New Strategies with DJ Spooky” at Symphony Space, the Cutting Room, and the Stone

Sporting spiky, orange-tipped dreads, and gesticulating like a rainmaker; conjuring invisible forces with her impeccable bel canto voice, feedback loops, and a MIDI-controlled device called the BodySynth, Pamela Z recently parachuted into town from San Francisco.

Funky But Sleek: Nik Bartsch's Ronin: Holon (ECM)

Swiss pianist Nik Bartsch and his neo–jazz-funk ensemble Ronin play music unlike anyone in recent memory.

Mass Destruction at the Met: Dr. Atomic at the Metropolitan Opera

Dr. Atomic, the opera composed by that dynamic duo John Adams and Peter Sellars and premiered in 2005 in San Francisco, has been reworked for its premier at the Met. A whopping three hours and twenty-five minutes long, it enacts the creation of the mother of all weapons—the A-bomb, the reason Japan surrendered to the Allies and the world got stuck with plutonium fallout and radiation sickness.


The Bessie award-winning Descent, created, directed, and ingeniously costumed by Noémie LaFrance, with a score by Brooks Williams and vocals by Shelley Hirsch, put me under its influence before the performance even began. Walking past the usually active, but now dozing, bomb and metal detectors flanking the entrance to the Criminal Court System in the City Court Building’s Clock Tower, I was whisked up twelve stories to a florescent-lit, linoleum-floored hallway. There, LaFrance, the petite, beret-clad impresario rounded up approximately thirty people to lead us, like Alice in Wonderland, through her looking glass,

Sound Itself Is No Sound: A journey into process and performance with Meredith Monk

I never imagined waking up in total silence at Zen Mountain Monastery in the Catskill Mountains and rolling out from the top bunk of a freezing cold bed in absolute darkness at 4 a.m., all so I could understand the secrets of Meredith Monk’s work. I never thought of using my soft city hands to rake a wide expanse of freshly mowed lawn in the blazing sun until huge blisters appear on my tender palms, all to penetrate the source of Meredith’s celestial songs. But I did.

In Conversation

Meredith Monk with Ellen Pearlman

Ellen Pearlman (Rail): You said that there was no separation anymore between "my work and my life." What do you mean by that? Meredith Monk: Well I think it has always been a goal for me to not separate the moments of our lives that include art. I am now realizing that my [meditation] practice and my art are not two separate things. I am more conscious about the fact that one’s art is also a bodhisattva practice.

Hail, Baryshnikov: White Oaks’s Judson Dances at BAM

Only the force and persistence of the greatest living dancer, Mikhail Baryshnikov could have gathered the resources necessary for restaging a retrospective of the seminal Judson Dances.

In Conversation

JUDITH MALINA with Ellen Pearlman

In 1947, Judith Malina, along with her late husband Julian Beck, founded The Living Theatre, a radical and controversial ensemble. Judith, the daughter of an Orthodox Jewish-German rabbi, had become involved with Beck at age 17 and attended Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop at the New School on a scholarship.

Non-Stop Foreman

Maria del Bosco: A Sound Opera (sex and racing cars) Written and directed by Richard Foreman

Spalding Gray on Zen and the Downtown Theater Scene

Ellen Pearlman, who is writing a book on the relationship between Zen Buddhism and the American avant-garde, spoke to Spalding Gray this past summer at his home in the Hamptons.

Reverend Billy's Other Love

“What is peace?” Reverend Billy asks his audience as he blasts out onto the stage of the Ontological-Hysteric Theater in Other Love, his new one-man show directed by Tony Torn and Savitri Durkee.

In Conversation

Rikki Ducornet

Rikki Ducornet spent her childhood in Cuba and Egypt. In addition to a Lannan Literary Fellowship, she has also received grants from the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the Ontario Arts Council, and the Eben Demarest Trust. She has written novels, poetry, two collections of short stories, and two children’s books (Phosphor in Dreamland and The Word Desire). Her novel The Fan-Maker’s Inquisition was chosen as a 1999 best book of the year by the Los Angeles Times, and her novel The Jade Cabinet was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

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