(Part 1:) “Sabachthani”, and the artist for the eyes

Written March 6th, 16 days before my mom’s birthday

After my “Xenakis show” I told myself to spend more time at the Broad Museum at MSU. To the uninitiated, the building is confounding to the eye, and I’ll admit that in the visual art world, like most extra-musical worlds, I’m rather uninitiated. Like with other curious minds in the East Lansing area, I find myself returning to the Museum often and ponderously, in hopes of expanding my comfort zone in the visual arts.

On January 17th, I was summoned via Facebook to the Broad for an opening. Advertised somewhat mysteriously, all I knew about the event was that the artist would ‘be present.’ The Facebook invite stated that the artist is a Louisiana-born, New York-based artist who is interested in non-traditional materials. With my interest peaked, and my hipster glasses all shined up and ready to go, I went to the opening and was hardly disappointed.

In a nicely stickered-on font, the title of the gallery sits just inside the door, reading “Sabachthani.” In one of the Broad’s smaller galleries, 14 painted-white steel panels line the walls in a spaced out fashion, creating somewhat of a horizon situated at flatly at eye-level on top of a muted deep green, mossy wall. The panels are small, I’d say about an inch thick off of the wall, 2-inches tall and about 16-inches long, all identical in proportion. Through the panels are an assortment of ‘gunshot wounds’ —yes, holes made by shooting bullets through the panels. The metal/metal physical change undergone by each of these panels is striking (… perhaps I intended that pun). I mean to say that the way a metal bullet rips through the metal panels is rather beautiful to behold. There are so many ways that a bullet can rip through things —many factors in physics alter its path of travel, start to finish — and one can clearly see that in the work, at first glance. The panels were obviously shot at different angels, with different intentions, and perhaps for different reasons —all the methods by which a painter uses a brush, or a composer her notes, or the architect his pen. Although my eyes are admittedly juvenile and inexperienced for the visual arts, my soul as an artist is seasoned by comparison, and I must state that when standing in the presence of this work for the first time, I certainly felt like it moved something within me.

 At the first experiencing, the art was peaceful to look at, and was supported thoughtfully by softly-played, ethereal, almost desert-like music. Trying to take in the gallery as a whole, I felt overwhelmingly comforted by the sense of eternity in the gallery, but also unsettled by the imaginary bullet-trajectories metaphorically puncturing all of us present —á la those weird bubble-vectors in Donnie Darko. As I stood there in wonderment of the work, the artist was being introduced by one of the co-curators of the gallery.

Margaret Evangeline stood humbly before us and spoke very candidly about her work. “Sabachthani” comes from the Old Testament, a word meaning forsaken; from the creator, from everything and everyone. Margaret also explained that she got started shooting with her grandfather at a young age, when she was growing up in Louisiana. At age 4 or so, she loved the way her grandfather’s coffee cans morphed instantly into flower-like blossoms of aluminum when shot through. Later in life, as an accomplished artist, Margaret uses those memories of the metallic aftermath of gun training as a springboard for much of her current work. At the opening, we learned, as well, that her son was stationed in Iraq in recent years. Like too many other families, Margaret expressed that she could only worry about the one she loved and his safety in the dangerous climate of war in the Middle East. In hopes of communicating with her son, her idea was to send smaller, shippable metal panels to his command, and for he and his friends to shoot through them. Trusting the process, she mailed a box of the ‘blank’ panels and waited to see what happened. From the yield of this process, Margaret selected 14 panels that tell the story of her Sabachthani

Among the most remarkable of remarkable things about the work, for me, is its communicative nature. In an age so wealthy with knowledge, the information we get is often so controlled and translated from thought to pen to page to letter to mail to mailbox to you, or from thought to text to energy to airwaves back into ones-and-zeroes to your sundry screens and then finally to you, so on and so forth. When receiving the first shipment of panels from her son, and in having a tactile experience with these objects, Margaret felt that she had really communicated with her son for the very first time. By having objects that her son shot and then held in his hands thousands of miles away, the worry for his life, the feeling of being forsaken all but drained away…

A bit about how I see the work’s obvious relationship to gun rights. The issue of gun rights is such an American thing, these days, but Sabachthani, I think, goes far beyond that. Gun ownership and the methods by which such things are made possible are topics inherent in Margaret’s Sabachthani, but at the opening some weeks ago, I sensed much more in the life of her artwork. As far as my reception of it goes, the gallery is something to behold, something that one must stand in the presence of to fully get. The work that Margaret gives us is neither sacredly religious, nor strictly social commentary. Rather, her work is subjective; my feelings and reactions to the work are purely my own, and I offer them as perspective, and also in hopes that you will journey to the Broad to witness this artwork in order to make up your own mind.

Now, the fun part (or the more fun part, for that matter). After the opening, reporters and critics gathered around the artist to ask her questions an congratulate her, etc., but I wanted to wait until the very end to speak with her. Once the crowd had dispersed, I told Margaret that I’d be in New York City at the end of that month, and would love to meet with her and perhaps do an interview for this blog. While I was in the city seeing Steve Schick perform quite the collection of percussion soli at the Miller Theater, I found the opportunity to meet at Margaret’s studio in Chelsea. She was kind enough to interview with me as I sought deeper understanding of her work, being the plebeian to visual art that I am.

A funny thing happened, though, while at her studio. Although she had various (and quite beautiful) paintings she’d done without the employment of guns in their making, I couldn’t help but gaze upon the ‘wounded-works’ adorning her walls that were so similar to the ones in East Lansing. In doing so, my brain made the connection between the white panels with black holes and your typical white page with black notes, or sheet music for non-musicians. There spurred the basic idea to return to the Broad museum and perform her gallery as a piece of music. As we brainstormed about the show, we agreed that I should go forward and compose a work of music to accompany her work of visual art. With that, we arrive at the present day where I continue to compose and structure my sonic response to Margaret’s piece. I’m titling it the same as the gallery, “Sabachthani” in hopes of bringing to one’s ears every bit of thoughtfulness and feeling that the eyes can see in the gallery. Margaret will be joining us at the Broad Museum on March 22, this year for the premiere of my work and also the ‘hard-opening,’ so to speak, of her gallery. The date, not coincidentally, is also my mom’s birthday!

To end, this time, I offer a metaphysical coda. As a person who deals primarily in sound, I always enjoy being in an audience with the composer whose music is being premiered. Thinking of artists for the eyes, I often wonder how the idea of a premiere of a musical piece must seem? Surely it isn’t like an opening where you simply ‘open’ the room or venue up for spectatorship. Margaret opened her studio to me, just as the gallery was presented to me a first time, and in both cases, that was the premiere of those places into my conscious awareness. However, both of them existed and continue to exist regardless of whether or not I’ve seen them (yet). Is there something to be said about music by a similar token? If we limit the argument to performable music, the work doesn’t exist until it has first been played and/or heard, and, I’d argue, it then ceases to really exist as soon as it stops being played and/or heard. Music happens between composer and performer, and that symbiosis is how it is created. Perhaps Margaret and I continue to nurture our own symbiosis. I think about this as I go forward with Sabachthani, which I see as a relationship between Margaret, the composer, and I, the performer/interpreter of her composition.

Zac Brunell

Hi there, I'm Zac Brunell - I'm a percussion artist, which is the umbrella term is use for what I do: from vivid/glitchy artwork and design, to electronic/Detroit-esque musique concrete, to the general approach with which I... approach the art of hitting things.