For Liliana Porter's first web-based project, a chorus of chicks sing "La donna è mobile" from Giuseppe Verdi's opera Rigoletto.
Music: Sylvia Meyer
Videography: Thomas Moore
Sound mastering: Robert Bard
Programming: Pravin Sathe and Smita Sathe
Chick solos (from left chick):
1. Panhellenic Guitar
2. Slow Pericón
3. Antagonic Solo
4. Alarm Clock
6. Enrico Caruso (version 1907)
Funding for this series has been provided by the New York State Council on the Arts.
For her first web-based artwork, Liliana Porter presents Rehearsal, a choir of seven yellow toy chicks singing "La donna è mobile" from Giuseppe Verdi's 1851 opera Rigoletto. The viewer can click on each chick to see a close up and hear a "solo" - one of seven variations on the familiar canzone including a march, a tango, a version with a panhellenic guitar, and a 1907 recording by Enrico Caruso. The music was composed and performed by Sylvia Meyer, with whom Porter has long collaborated on her video projects.
An inherent disconnect runs through the music and image of Rehearsal on every level. The image of chicks standing attentively in choir formation is absurd, yet they stand with such seriousness and apparent focus that one feels compelled to hear them out. The song's intrinsic incongruity lies in the fact that the music is comical and light-hearted, yet the lyrics are spiteful:
Woman is flighty,
Like a feather in the wind,
She changes her voice - and her mind.
In tears or in laughter, - she is always lying.
The Duke of Mantua, a cold-hearted male character who is himself quite fickle, sings this at the tragic moment in the opera when Rigoletto discovers his daughter was killed by the assassin he had hired to kill the Duke.
At first glance the combination of image and music feels fitting: the humorous, catchy tune matched to cute, fluffy metaphors of innocence has a playful feel. But knowing the lyrics or the song's operatic context suggests something different. Moreover, the chick's lack of obvious gender lends them an apparent neutrality, leaving one to ponder whether they are lamenting the opposite gender or disparaging their own. Despite the negative lyrics and context of deceit and betrayal, it is hard to be anything but amused with such gentle performers.
The chicks come from a vast collection of figurines and knick knacks that Porter has carefully gathered over years, objects from mass culture that include religious and political figures (saints, choir boys, Che, Mao). Women, men, children, animals and cartoon characters, they are made of materials including plastic, wood, wax, porcelain, and in this case, feathers. Some are solid statuettes, others have wind up components and play musical instruments, still others are utilitarian, whether used for shaking salt and pepper, cushioning pins, or holding pencils. Of her selection process Porter says, "I am interested in their having eyes that look." 1
Porter, who was born in Argentina but moved to New York in the 1960s, focused for many years on questioning the boundary between reality and it representation, but that concern was superseded by what Ines Katzenstein calls the artist's "technical intuition": "Porter sensed that after a certain degree of social evolution of technology, the idea that there is something real and something virtual, the surprise and magic of producing connections between these planes, would cease to be meaningful." 2
Shifting her focus to her collection of figurines in the early 1990s, the artist began to present them with masterful simplicity: shooting them against monochromatic backgrounds devoid of any contextual reference; moving past distinctions between representation and reality to examine the fiction inherent in the objects themselves, and in our attempts to understand them.
Fellow artist Ana Tiscornia describes Porter's visual articulations of her concerns as a process that "looks very much like a philosophical exercise that she carries on without desperation, with a sense of humor and a calming spirit towards the viewer. Because just as she makes patent uncertainty and the resulting angst, she manages to convey her faith that 'the explanation is there.'" 3
Writing of the influence of literature on Porter's work, curator and critic Gerardo Mosquera remarked, "Liliana Porter is the great illustrator of the Chinese encyclopedia," referencing the Argentinean writer Jorge Louis Borges' celebrated example intended to demonstrate that all attempts at classification of the universe are either arbitrary or conjectural. For him, "Porter's art has to do with an awareness of the unknown and of the impossibility of knowing. In colloquial Spanish we say that something 'is Chinese' when we don't understand it, as English people say, 'It's all Greek to me,' connecting the remote cultural otherness with our own ignorance. The classification belongs to a taxonomy of the not knowing instead of knowing." 4 Porter's penchant for illuminating "not knowing" is evident in works like the drawing of the rabbit gazing at us from a piece of paper, completely unaware of the rock whose trajectory will take it straight to its head. Or, in those photographs where she juxtaposes figurines to suggest fascinating conversations that we can imagine but never know. Or, in a video of adorable chicks singing a catchy Italian tune.
Porter's artworks are like artifacts of play, reminding adults of the satisfaction of having control over subjects that stand in for ourselves. Whether in photography, video, painting, sculpture, collage, or a combination of the above, her casts appear throughout her oeuvre in scenes as diverse as the figures themselves. Sometimes they are in peril, other times amorous, mournful, outraged, coy, or courageous, pulling the viewer in with a hook of empathy or intrigue.
1. Ana Tiscornia. "A Rabbit That Escapes: Interview with Liliana Porter," in Liliana Porter. Fotographía Y Ficción, (Buenos Aires: Centro Cultural Recoleta 2004). P211.
2. Inés Katzenstein. "Liliana Porter. Photography and Fiction," in Liliana Porter. Fotographía Y Ficción, (Buenos Aires: Centro Cultural Recoleta 2004). P201.
3. Ana Tiscornia, op. cit, P209.
4. Gerardo Mosquero. "Liliana Porter: Shaking Hands with Mickey," reprinted in Liliana Porter. Fotographía Y Ficción, (Buenos Aires: Centro Cultural Recoleta 2004). P247.