Further and Farther
- Though she’s a successful visual artist, Ellen Harvey remains obsessed with failure.
- Bharatanatyam survived colonial oppression to embody Indian identity at home and abroad.
- Xenia Rubinos’ complex music is infused with simple messages about big ideas.
- Art & Design
Coming up on Articulate. Ellen Harvey believes that art has many profound things to say about the nature of existence.
Ellen Harvey: People’s desire to say, “Look, I saw things, “I felt things, I was here, I dreamt of this”.
The classical Indian dance form Bharatanatyam survived colonial oppression, and today exemplifies Indian identity both at home and abroad.
Priyadarsini: The beauty of this art form is it adapts so easily to different societies, different languages, to different cultures. It’s beautiful.
And the complex music of Xenia Rubinos is infused with simple messages about big ideas.
Xenia Rubinos: Sometimes I’ll write a song and, you know, four years later I’ll find something out through that.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
The Brooklyn-based British artist Ellen Harvey has spent her career creating projects that challenge viewers to confront their own reality by stepping slightly outside it. Whether an imagined post-apocalyptic Earth where alien’s speculate on what drove humans to build so many neoclassical structures. A guess at what an IRS cubicle city that has been reclaimed by nature might look like. Or a collection of watercolors based on injuries in paintings. These and all of Harvey’s works are driven by one simple desire.
Ellen Harvey: I want to seduce people into thinking. I wanna open people up to say, “Oh, I hadn’t thought about it that way.”
Throughout her career, Ellen Harvey has taken advantage of her innate ability to infuse aesthetically pleasing art with deep layers of social commentary. From 1999 to 2001, the New York Beautification Project saw her painting tiny oil landscapes on top of more traditional street art.
Harvey: I’m very interested in painting as a way of looking at what art is, and what people expect from art. And that was one of the jokes about the Beautification Project. Because they were oil paintings, a lot of people were like, “Well, they’re art, they’re not graffiti,” and I was like, they’re still a pigment on a wall, it’s not really a very big difference.
AJC: Did you ever come to a resolution about that in your own head, or do you think that the powers that be ever had themselves gelled into the point where they said, actually, yeah, “All they are is different pictures made by different people from different social classes with different color skins and backgrounds.”
Harvey: I think that ended up being written about it a lot, and I think interestingly enough, a lot of the people who wrote about it assumed that it hadn’t occurred to me, which was fascinating to me. It made me realize that a lot of people have a lot invested in this idea of the artist is sort of a “holy fool,” you know, “she doesn’t know what she’s doing”, and yet, I thought, “It’s slightly insulting, but fascinating too.” It made me think a lot about what people expect from an artist, that kind of persona of someone who really is operating on a totally instinctual level, which isn’t really who I am.
She is a Harvard and Yale educated former lawyer who abandoned the field after she found her attention constantly drawn back to her obsession, making art. But after years of believing the two pursuits were completely separate, she realized that they had more in common than she first thought.
Harvey: They’re all about sort of social conventions, about what people are allowed to do, how you organize it. I mean, there’s a sort of place in society where people are artists, and they’re allowed to make things that are art. And everyone kind of agrees, like, “Okay, they’re those sort of weird people, they’re allowed to do that,” but because they’re artists, it’s okay. But it’s a convention, it’s a social convention. You could imagine a society that was set up totally differently, law is also all about social conventions. It’s all about these sort of, you know, explicit and non-explicit rules for how we organize society, how we get on. And that I find interesting. I find it interesting to look at various social situations and say, “Okay, so what’re the hidden rules here, like, what’s really going on? What have all these people agreed on without realizing that they’ve agreed on it? What is the social contract here?”
AJC: Well, or maybe even the opposite sides of the same coin. The law is all about prescribing what is and isn’t allowed, and art is all about finding out which rules to break.
Harvey: Yes, except that of course, this goes back to this idea of the artist as a sort of holy fool. Artists are allowed to break the rules because they don’t matter, in some ways. You can both see it, you can go the whole Shelly route, and say, you know, like, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” which I always thought is a lovely idea, but sadly not true. All you can say, actually, know, there’s a sort of space where people who are making creative things are allowed to exist in our society, but part of that sort of ability to do stuff comes with the idea that it’s not that important. That we both value and devalue it at the same time.
And, she says, this paradox persists in the way we decorate our public spaces.
Harvey: We live in this world where ornamentation has become sort of a dirty word. You know, you make a public space, and it should be as clean as possible. And yet, all those clean surfaces just get covered with advertising, and it’s as though the public person exists only as a consumer. You don’t exist as a person who thinks, who feels, who dreams, who might long for beauty, who might want something that says, you know, “You matter as a human being, as a citizen.”
And so was born Ellen Harvey’s latest fixation.
Harvey: The ornament has always been seen as this sort of reactionary prettification of things, and I thought, “What if the ornaments go bad?” Ornaments on a rampage, they’re taking over the public spaces that they’ve been kicked out of, and saying, “You know what, we’ve got something to offer! We wanna make a point.” So, in this case, this comes from my walking along far too many subway posters advertising various things, and then imagining that all the ornamentation that once a public space would’ve had comes back and just kind of tries to sort of take over all of this advertising, that’s colonized our public spaces.
In truth, Ellen Harvey doesn’t expect to start a worldwide revival in ornamented architecture. But that, she says, is not the point.
Harvey: Art is something that is really about people’s desire to say, “Look, I existed. I saw things. I felt things. I was here, I dreamt of this.” And those are the things that motivate people. Those are the things that actually do create some kind of change. You know, in small ways, but everything starts somewhere.
Priyadarsini: It’s like a magician. With one movement, I make people believe there is something over there.
Priyadarsini is a superstar of Bharatanatyam, in Hindi, literally, “Indian Dance”.
Priyadarsini: It’s actually projecting a larger than life image. So when I dance, it’s like I fill the space around me.
Each of the seven classical dance forms of India is characterized by percussive rhythmic movements, exaggerated facial expressions, and intricate hand gestures called “mudras.” Shaily Dadiala has been honing her craft since she was four.
Shaily Dadiala: Bharatanatyam to me stands out because it has this component of masculine and feminine. Some movements are very sharp, athletic, and then some are very delicate. It’s a language, you can make your own poetry.
Traditionally, Bharatanatyam was used to tell epic Hindu stories, and was performed exclusively to Carnatic music, the traditional classical form of Southern India. Today, especially in the diaspora, the boundaries of what music and what stories that dance can tell is expanding.
Anwesha Dutta: Either you wanna go, you know, do something, women’s issues, that’s controversial, go for it! That’s what you’re passionate about. Go for the topic that you wanna communicate to your audience.
At the Nava Nritya Dance Academy, Anwesha Dutta offers her students not only dance training, but help in navigating their cultural identity.
Dutta: The kids, as they grow up, a lot of times this is their only, only connection to their motherland. And it’s a cultural milestone to say, my family actually has preserved the traditions and we have evolved with time, so we are doing Bharatanatyam to different music now, but to them, it’s basically saying, “Even though I have never really been to India, I actually feel Indian.”
Indeed, dance was one of the main ways that Dadiala stayed connected to her homeland after coming to the US in 2000.
Dadiala: Immigration is not as easy as we like to think. Especially the stories we are told when we leave our native countries. That you are, you’re told, you’re sold, America has a great marketing plan. You’re sold of all the great things, but when you come here as a young person someone who’s 22, and who doesn’t know anything about real life, let alone, America, you realize that every day is difficult. It’s alienating, so you cannot regress. That’s what happened to me, I went back to bare bones of what do I know. I know that I’m Indian, and I had Bharatanatyam. That is something I don’t have to make a conscious effort, I did it as a child. So it became more important for me to do that. I had survival to keep being Indian in my life.
Yet, in colonial times, it was a struggle just to keep the form itself alive. Bharatanatyam was a holy dance practiced by Devadasees, women whose lives were dedicated to a temple instead of a husband. In addition to performing, they were expected to service noblemen. This so offended Victorian morality, that the British set about wiping out the entire system.
Priyadarsini: They separated the art from the lives of these women. But, in a sense, the art was very much intertwined with their lives.
But after British rule ended, Bharatanatyam experienced a renaissance. Today there are still aspects that to Western eyes might appear somewhat sensual, but, says Dutta, it’s not just about human affection.
Dutta: We actually work on nine different emotions that are very distinctly taught and nurtured throughout the whole progression of learning. So it’s less about, you know, it being erotic, and more about how do you interpret love in different contexts and tell your story.
AJC: And on those nine emotions you’re talking about, are they all nine positive emotions? Are they all nine emotions related to lover’s anger and sadness?
Dutta: No, there is anger, fear, sadness, happiness, peace, or calm, compassion, and wonder.
AJC: When you’re teaching very young children who may not yet have a grasp of what those words mean, does the dance make it easier for them to gain understanding of the emotions behind those words?
Dutta: Absolutely they do, and we actually have to relate to things like animals and princesses, things that they’re learning as a part of growing up being in America, we interpret it that way. So by the time they’re a little bit older and they can actually emote, you bring in the Indian stories and you merge it and then it makes sense to them.
And teachers like Dutta who are constantly innovating are only adding to a dance form that has been evolving constantly throughout its 5000 year history.
Priyadarsini: It doesn’t matter that we moved out of the country, or it doesn’t matter that we have moved out of the source. The beauty of this art form is it adapts so easily to different societies, to different languages, to different cultures that when you adapt it and then you have another form comes out, it’s beautiful.
From the beginning, Indian dance has been defined by three main tenants.
Priyadarsini: Natya, Nritta, and Nritya. Natya is theater.
Dutta: I may not be dancing, I’m just saying, “Hello, how are you?”, there’s hardly any dancing. But it’s a pure acting part, so that’s where the actor and the actress gets filled.
Priyadarsini: Nritta is pure dance.
Dutta: Which is basically just being able to keep up your beats and posture and hand angles, and things like that. Very precision in your movements. And the third is Nritya, when you combine the two. So now, to say, okay, you have trained in technique, you have trained in drama, or theater, now let’s bring the two aspects together.
Priyadarsini: You create a mood, you create a feeling, you create an emotion. The audience plays as crucial a role as an artist. In Indian theater, which we call “Rasa,” or the art of enjoyment. Just as the artist performs, the audience enjoys.
But however enjoyable in it’s final presentation, Bharatanatyam takes years of dedicated training. Though it’s physical ambitions are the polar opposite of it’s Western classical counterpart, ballet.
Dadiala: From what I understand and what I have seen, ballet is anti-gravity, that’s the whole point. And Bharatanatyam, and most percussive Indian classical dance forms, are more with gravity. So you lower yourself to the ground. So our equivalent of the “Plie” position which is called “Ardhamandala” is knees slightly pointed outwards, and hand up, arms out here. The mudras change, but you are in the squat position, bent down. And you stay in that, so you hold your spine upright, your abdomen upright, shoulders upright, and but you isolate, so when your legs move, your top half doesn’t move. And then there’s the “Complete Plie,” where again, knees pointed out, heels together, and you squat down completely on to the floor. But you stay on the balls of your feet, and then you dance in that position. So that takes years, and I don’t think that there’s any destination. It’s a process, always.
Add to that process a final fickle element that separates the master from the novices. Bells are how dancers coordinate with the musicians on stage.
Dutta: It has a lot of significance with maturity, too, so you will see little kids who are off rhythm, they’re trying to hear each other and say “Am I on beat?” versus somebody who’s been dancing for 7, 10, 15, 20 years, there is precision in that bell sounds.
AJC: And the better you are, the more bells you get?
Dutta: That is true, since you grew up, so junior bells are like two rows, as you grow up, you get more bells, and they’re heavier too. Because you’re more intricate, you have more control over rhythm, so when you go super fast foot work, you know, you can hear it completely clearly.
For a people so widely dispersed yet so deeply connected to their cultural heritage, Bharatanatyam represents a continuity of Indian identity for the ages.
The music of Xenia Rubinos is complicated in all kinds of lovely ways. Take her complex rhythms. They’re difficult to dance to, but you may still be tempted to try. Like this, a 7/4 time signature in “See Them.” Or her song “Right”, from her latest album, Black Terry Cat. It’s actually a traditional 4/4, but subdivided into strange poly rhythms that are hard to pin down. But for all this rhythmic complexity, she’s not counting.
Xenia Rubinos: I’m not really thinking about, you know, the time signatures or anything like that. I’m just kind of feeling, my writing starts from improvisation and singing, mostly. A lot of times, the beats come first, you know. I’ll sing a beat, or I’ll sing some kind of a groove, and I’ll add lyrics later on. Lyrics were always the last thing for me when I was writing a song. This time around I wanted to challenge myself to grow and to be a little bit more specific. And to not shy away from being literal, which I used to find trite or corny or cheesy to be literal, and I just wanted to try and see what it would be like. So I think some of the lyrics on this album are much more literal than I have been in the past. You know, ultimately, I love making music, and I love writing songs — and lyrics are a part of that, but I do see them as another texture. And I just see them as, you know, just as important as the bass line is or a drum groove is, or the sound of a vocal.
Xenia studied jazz composition at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, and it shows! Expect in one regard, her songs are about social issues instead of more traditional statements like love and romance.
Rubinos: Our culture right now is, it’s not so much into the subtleties of romance. I don’t think that it will ever go out of style, I don’t think it will ever be obsolete, because that’s impossible. You know, we’ll always, I think if anything we really need that now, romance and subtlety. And I think it’s very hard to do in this culture to create something with that sweetness.
Rubinos discovered another kind of sweetness when she reconciled with her father, a proud older Cuban man who she says was often baffled by his little girl, particularly during her teen years. When she was 20, Xenia became his primary caregiver as he battled a degenerative illness.
Rubinos: That whole experience was about 10 years of just learning how to deal with that. And throughout that, I was in my early twenties myself, a lot of times I just didn’t know what to do. But I learned a lot from it, and I told him, and I’m happy I told him this, and I believe it today, that I was grateful for that opportunity, actually. I feel that even in the scope of everything that was going on and his illness, it actually brought us together. And I don’t think I would’ve known my dad on that level if it weren’t for his illness. “Black Stars” came out of some of that period of me taking care of my dad and kind of, just being emotionally pretty raw and exhausted. And it was just a trip a couple years ago, and I came back to Brooklyn, and that piano part was the first thing that came out, and there were no lyrics, really, but then I started singing that “Black Stars” lyric.
You’re a million black stars
In that fearless black night again
Rubinos: Just learning about the fact that if you look up at the night sky you might be seeing a star that’s already gone, but you still see the light shining. And the Mike Brown case was happening also at that same time I was finishing the song, and thinking about telling my dad, like, “you’re gonna live forever,” and you know, “we’ll never die and we’ll always be here,” and thinking about the loss of all of these black lives and what their family must be going through.
Like an evening star on that evening sea
What you’re feeling what you’re feeling’s all over
Like a midday sun on that midnight sea
Now it sounds like “Black Stars” have very specific purposes, Xenia Rubinos says that sometimes her songs take time to reveal their true meanings, even to her.
Rubinos: Sometimes I’ll write a song and, you know, four years later I’ll find something out through that. But ultimately, all of this writing and all of this and playing and meeting people and talking and traveling, all this, is constantly facing, what it’s doing for me is constantly facing myself and things that I’m not good at or things that I wonder. Facing others. And that’s the ultimate process that is, I think, helping me to try to be a better person or a person that I aspire to be.
AJC: So tell me something that you have learnt about the world, that you believe to be an absolute truth.
Rubinos: There’s a lot of good people in this world, and I think a lot of times we lose faith in each other, in people, and we judge each other, and we judge people in different circumstances. But what I found is that people want you to succeed, people want you to be good, and people want to love you and people want to be loved. And they want to succeed, and they want to be good and happy, you know.
And it’s with this unflinching faith in the goodness of humanity that Xenia Rubinos continues to forge her own unique path to happiness.