Performance

Mining Robert Mapplethorpe’s Legacy, With Missteps

Though its music, and use of Mapplethorpe’s photographs and texts by Essex Hemphill and Patti Smith were impressive in their own rights, the performance Triptych (Eyes of One on Another) ultimately appeared cheap, forced, and self-congratulatory.

Triptych (Eyes of One on Another), directed by Kaneza Schaal, BAM (all images courtesy of BAM, photos by Richard Termine)

Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography may have lost its spectacular shock value in the thirty years since his death, but it hasn’t lost its power to transfix. Triptych (Eyes of One on Another) — a multimedia performance combining projections of Mapplethorpe’s photos with music by Bryce Dessner and texts by Essex Hemphill and Patti Smith — attempts to dramatize the voyeurism of Mapplethorpe’s work. If only it got out of its own way.

Three decades after Mapplethorpe died from HIV/AIDS-related complications, and nine years after Patti Smith tenderly eulogized him in Just Kids, everyone wants a piece of the memorialization. There was the 2016 HBO documentary Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, last year’s Matt Smith-starring Mapplethorpe, and this year’s Guggenheim exhibit Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now. Most recently, BAM co-commissioned Triptych (Eyes of One on Another).

Throughout Triptych, works from Mapplethorpe’s X, Y, and Z portfolios are projected above and around the musicians. Much has been made over the past few years about the fact that his work reads as less scandalous than it once was, but it’s still extraordinary to see the photos in this setting; blown up to cover the proscenium of BAM’s opera house, the photographs’  Renaissance inspirations are magnified. The nobility of queer sexuality that he captured morphs into a sort of religious reverence for the men and women of the AIDS crisis. By presenting them like this, the performance casts the subjects — despite Mapplethorpe’s objectifying intent — as martyrs and saints. It is a tendency that, as other elements of the show compile, eventually becomes overwrought. 

Triptych (Eyes of One on Another), directed by Kaneza Schaal, BAM

Dessner’s music incorporates an impressive array of styles, including overtone singing (a technique in which singers shape their mouths to bring out various overtones of a pitch, creating the sense of each person singing multiple notes at once), Renaissance-style cadences, rock-like harmonic structures, and modernist tone clusters. The extraordinary vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth delivered a superb performance — at times stationary, at times moving around the stage in simple, yet effective choreography by Martell Ruffin. 

Carlos Soto’s minimalist, monochrome set design served as an engaging canvas for the multimedia nature of the show. It included various translucent and opaque screens onto which Mapplethorpe’s black-and-white photographs were projected, sometimes in front of the singers, sometimes behind them. During some numbers, the singers were visible only through the dark passages of Mapplethorpe’s photographs, which allowed the images to be in dialogue with the performance, rather than a mere slideshow running in the background. 

But there were moments in which the use of Hemphill’s and Smith’s texts did not fit with the music. An embarrassingly pedantic one employed Essex Hemphill’s poem “The Perfect Moment,” which begins “Aesthetics can justify desire, / but desire in turn / can provoke punishment.” The music introduced these lines with awkward, punctuated vocal stabs of each syllable: “Aes” — “thet” — “ics.” Set to another text, the music would have been brilliant, but this pairing was a misstep.

Most awry was the final number, which sets Hemphill’s poem “American Wedding” to a power ballad. For about 5 minutes, the singers repeat a chorus of the text “In america, / I place my ring / on your cock / where it belongs.” It starts as a saccharine line sung by the soloist Isaiah Robinson, and after far too many repetitions becomes an antiphonal chorale intoned by the full vocal ensemble and repeated to the point of madness. Dripping with sincerity in an apparent effort to be oh-so-woke about gay marriage, the music blithely ignores the ironic edginess and bitter social critique of Hemphill’s text. Without the rest of the poem, the line exudes camp. But it didn’t sound campy — it sounded like it was trying to mimic Mapplethorpe’s objectifying reverence for beauty. The result was funny, and not in a good way — it made for a whole less than the sum of its parts.

Triptych (Eyes of One on Another), directed by Kaneza Schaal, BAM

Mapplethorpe’s work has always been invested in the excitement and paranoia of voyeurism. Reviewing the Guggenheim exhibit for this website, Zachary Small wrote about the phenomenon by which viewers become aware of their own spectatorship, which could in turn reveal something about themselves. Triptych attempts — at times, successfully — to amplify this experience: by confronting the audience with its collective voyeurism, it hopes that we question our lingering pride or prejudice and acknowledge our desire. Instead, marrying this music and libretto with these photographs sentimentalizes their depicted sexuality, so much as to neuter it. The effect is cloying and exhausting, like an award show’s In Memoriam segment. No wonder the photos have lost their shock value.

Overall, the show felt like an odd patchwork. Taken individually, the photography, music, and texts were impressive in their own rights — as, no doubt, were Dr. Frankenstein’s raw materials. Is it enough for a show to touch upon topics like race and queer identity without meaningful engagement with their complexity? Or without leading the audience to think deeper about their relationships to these topics? Triptych seems to think so, and ultimately appears cheap, forced, and self-congratulatory. Case in point: after a solo vocal number, one of the performers (a perfunctory “observer” who stands in for the audience and later executes a single ballet move) jumps up from a spotlighted seat in the auditorium, clapping and cheering wildly for his co-star. In our performance, no one joined him. 

Triptych (Eyes of One on Another) was staged June 6–8 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). The piece was produced in residency with and commissioned by University Musical Society, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI. It was co-produced by Los Angeles Philharmonic; co-commissioned by BAM, Luminato Festival, Cincinnati Opera, Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, Cal Performances, Stanford Live, Adelaide Festival, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, ArtsEmerson, Texas Performing Arts, Holland Festival, Wexner Center for the Arts, The Momentary, and Celebrity Series; and was developed in residency with MassMOCA.

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