Entering Simon Starling’s At Twilight (After W. B. Yeats’ Noh Reincarnation) at New York’s Japan Society is like stepping into a spectral forest of the dead. Charred tree trunks hold faces aloft, these masks ranging from strange modernist forms to realistic human visages. At the center, a screen shows a man dancing to a gong and drum beat, his movements contracting and soaring out to animate the hawk wings that drape his arms.
Many of the exhibition’s disembodied faces represent a person connected to the moment in 1916 when Irish poet W. B. Yeats staged his At the Hawk’s Well. The one-act play featured a young and old man at a hawk-guarded well of immortality. The work, presented in the London home of the Cunards, a major shipping family, merged Irish folklore and Japanese Noh theater traditions, albeit in an imperfect translation. As the English artist Starling notes in the video below, “in many ways it’s a project about mistranslation … both on my part, but also on Yeats’s part back in 1916.”
Little documentation exists of At the Hawk’s Well — a few photographs, costume illustrations, and the script. Starling morphed these fragments into his reinterpretation. The costumes, masks, and props on view at Japan Society are from Starling’s Twilight, performed this summer in Glasgow. Alongside these objects is a sort of three-dimensional version of Starling’s displayed “memory map,” a collage of images that connects this obscure Yeats play to the broader community of Modernism at the height of World War I. At its middle is a gnarled tree. The blackened trunks that balance the masks are a reference to the brutalized environments of war, as well as the Ashdown Forest of Sussex, where Yeats and the American poet Ezra Pound wintered during their collaboration. These woods were later immortalized in A. A. Milne’s 1926 Winnie the Pooh. As a tribute, Starling added the sad donkey Eeyore to Twilight, removable tail and all.
The Noh borrowings were one element of an interest in Japanese cultural traditions in Europe at the time. Yeats encountered Noh dramas through the younger Pound, who is featured as a character in Starling’s Twilight. His mask is based on the angled stone sculpture “Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound” by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, who died in World War I in combat. Several of the masks are tributes to Modernist artists involved in either Yeats’s or Pound’s sphere, whether a gleaming steel mask after Constantin Brâncuși’s swooping portrait of Nancy Cunard (1925–27), or a “Rock Drill” character that evokes the haunting violence of World War I, echoing the Machine Age angles of Jacob Epstein’s Vorticism sculptures. Others are made in a Noh tradition, including Yeats’s own mask, with its golden animal hair and hinged mouth.
And these masks underline the fractured lens through which Noh theater was interpreted. Michio Ito, the Japanese dancer who originated the hawk guardian role in Yeats’s play, hadn’t seen a Noh play since he was seven years old, although his performance style was fueled by his “desire to bring together the East and the West.” After World War I, Ito moved to New York, working with Martha Graham in the 1920s, and meeting Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who created a bronze mask of Ito (1925–26). That sculpture informs Starling’s own mask for Ito, and in doing so completes the loop of the dancer’s cross-cultural narrative.
The Turner Prize-winning Starling regularly examines the complex intersections of the past, such as his 2010 Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima) (2010), which considered Henry Moore’s sculptures in response to the nuclear attack on Hiroshima. For Twilight, there’s definitely a challenge in forming an exhibition around relics of a performance that visitors can’t experience. The final gallery, filled with documentary ephemera and sculptures by the likes of Noguchi and Brâncuși, is successful in encouraging a deeper understanding of international exchange.
The word “twilight” indicates a liminal state; in Noh theater, the action is often set in a world of ghosts and anthropomorphic creatures. A century later, with more accessible information on Noh readily available at our Wikipedia-tapping fingertips, it’s easy to see what Yeats missed, for instance Noh’s emphasis on centuries of unchanging drama. At the Hawk’s Well was a hybrid of its time — war, Eastern art, Modernist experimentation — and Twilight positions itself in the currents of that dialogue, which have continued to flow over the decades that followed.
Simon Starling: At Twilight (After W. B. Yeats’ Noh Reincarnation) continues through January 15, 2017 at Japan Society (333 East 47th Street, Midtown East, Manhattan).