Ravi Shankar at the Monterey Pop Festival, June 1967.
BEFORE THE MID-1950S, the eternal drone and circadian rhythms of Indian classical music seldom reached Western ears. The unfamiliar scales and dynamics of the raga and the surging buzz of the sitar remained exotic and misunderstood feats of endurance. But while it was less likely to cause as much upheaval as Bill Haley & The Comets’ “Rock Around The Clock,” Ravi Shankar’s European and American tour of 1956 can be seen as an equally epochal cultural turning point in that year. While in London, he recorded the influential Three Ragas LP—the hip connoisseur’s introduction to Indian music—and within ten years, Shankar’s presence resounded across the musical landscape, from pop and rock to classical and jazz.
Born in 1920 in Varanasi, India, Shankar absorbed his instrumental skills and musical sensibility from the legendary Bengali music teacher Baba Allauddin Khan. Legacy and inheritance are key attributes of the Indian musical tradition; Shankar’s genius was to transfuse that previously hermetic lineage into the Western cultural bloodstream via performance, recordings, education, and the quietly insistent force of his personality.
The most famous instance of the Shankar effect occurred in 1967, when his four-hour onstage marathon at San Francisco’s Monterey Pop Festival helped set the countercultural tone for the remainder of the decade. In the audience were members of The Byrds, whose emerging raga rock sound was triggered after guitarist David Crosby attended a Shankar recording session in Los Angeles. Meanwhile George Harrison, who had studied the sitar with Shankar the previous year after its tentative tryout on “Norwegian Wood,” worked its sinuous tones into “Within You Without You” on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, one of the first Western pop tracks to betray a decisively Indian influence. Shaking off associations with hippiedom, Shankar pursued his instrumental collaboration with English violinist Yehudi Menuhin and composed 1970’s Concerto For Sitar And Orchestra with the London Symphony Orchestra.
A true omni-musician, Shankar ably straddled multiple worlds. His vision of “West meets East” speculated how music might unite the planet’s scattered tribes, and made artistic categories redundant. He was the first to speak up for the dignity and serenity of Indian music, qualities that could equally describe his character. His death in December 2012 leaves behind a family dynasty and a recorded legacy, the impact of which can still be felt by all who expose themselves to Pandit Ravi’s sitar in full, untethered flight.
Rob Young is a writer, editor, and music critic who currently lives in Oslo.
IT’S FUNNY HOW, when you listened to Leb sometimes, you might conclude that, intellectually, he was extremely pessimistic. A cynic even. And yet when you look at the work, the ambitions for architecture, the precision, and the density of the drawings transcended any sense of pessimism. Quite the opposite. The act of doing that work makes Leb an enduring voice for the prowess of architecture as he insisted it be defined. Drawing transformed him, and he transformed drawing, and together they transformed the discourse. We ain’t forgetting.
IT SEEMS DIFFICULT to understand the work of Lebbeus Woods without reference to the “Derrida moment” in architecture, which was marked by the rapid shift from postmodernist to deconstructivist design in the late 1980s and 1990s. The Museum of Modern Art’s 1988 exhibition “Deconstructivist Architecture” inaugurated a specific roster of celebrity architects—Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, and others—that has scarcely changed in almost twenty-five years. These figures quickly became mainstays in the field, even if they design a miniscule fraction of what actually gets built. They represent a kind of theory-soaked design discourse that the more meat-and-potatoes wing of the architectural profession dismisses as “talk-itecture.”
Woods wasn’t in that landmark exhibition; he hadn’t yet made a name for himself. But in the years since he has perhaps done more than anyone to carry forward the experimental spirit inaugurated by the show, becoming not only a constant presence in the field but a provocation to its establishment, prodding and daring architecture to realize the elemental destabilizations wrought by poststructuralism. Complex, chaotic, sometimes violent, and relentlessly avant-garde, Woods’s drawings and installations explode with a kind of cosmic beauty. Shards of glass and steel morph and recombine into metallic animal-machines that walk high above cities. Buildings tear and bleed, only to grow scabs and heal into new form.
Annihilation was at the root of his special beauty: Woods recognized that we live in the age of annihilation, on a planet rocked by endless warfare, social disintegration, urban upheaval, and climate catastrophe. Woods was a classic progressive in this sense. He wanted his work to matter in places like war-torn Sarajevo or Berlin after the GDR. He was a conscience to many, particularly within the architectural profession, where budget constraints and client demands generally triumph over avant-garde militancy. Even if they didn’t seek to emulate him, many architects were glad that Woods existed, like a kind of sacrificial offering to the gods of unwavering principle.
Why don’t you build anything? Are your designs unbuildable? Again and again these questions came from naïve journalists and curious fans. No, Woods would answer, on the contrary, they are not unbuildable enough!
Then, finally, at the end of his life he built something: a collaboration with Christoph a. Kumpusch called the Light Pavilion. Located fifty-four feet above ground level, the pavilion is a wild thicket of glowing beams grafted into the exposed flank of a large hotel and office complex designed by Steven Holl in Chengdu. The Light Pavilion is “an experimental space,” Woods wrote in the months before his death. “Whether it will be a pleasant or unpleasant experience; exciting or dull; uplifting or merely frightening; inspiring or depressing; worthwhile or a waste of time, is not determined in advance by the fulfillment of our familiar expectations, because we can have none, never having encountered such a space before.”
Alexander R. Galloway teaches media theory at New York University.
WHEN I WAS INVITED last spring to chair a roundtable discussion of the work of Hans Josephsohn at Lismore Castle Arts, in the south-east of Ireland, I had no idea it would prove to be such a resonant occasion. That the exhibition whose opening it marked would turn out to be the last in Josephsohn’s long life was unexpected, though hardly shocking. He was, after all, ninety-two years of age; still active, but not robust enough to travel, we were told by his hardworking assistants. These were the assistants, I gathered, to whom he had finally entrusted aspects of the manual facture of his works, which it must have pained such a hands-on sculptor to relinquish. (For most of his life he worked without assistants.)
The exhibition was a triumph, a perfect fit between work and venue. Lismore Castle Arts is a contemporary art gallery set in the west wing of a Gothic castle, originally built in 1185 and once owned by Sir Walter Raleigh before passing into the family of the Duke of Devonshire in the late eighteenth-century, who remain its custodians to this day. It presides over a small, idyllic “heritage town” in the Blackwater Valley, in County Waterford. The castle’s gardens, laid out on several levels within its outer defensive walls, are believed to be the oldest in Ireland. Gallery and gardens alike were put to effective use in presenting a well-chosen selection, spanning six decades, of Josephson’s sculptures, reliefs, and drawings. The rich, meandering history of the place seemed strangely complemented by the work’s innate sense of endurance and obdurate indifference to narrative.
All of this would have been reward enough for making the trip. What made the day especially memorable was the discussion that preceded and exceeded the official opening of the show. The first to speak were Josephsohn’s gallerist Iwan Wirth and the critic/curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. Early in their respective careers in 1990s Zurich, both had been steered by the ever alert and collegiate Peter Fischli and David Weiss (of Fischli/Weiss) toward the unsung local treasure that was Hans Josephsohn. (This revelation gained a certain poignancy by the fact that David Weiss had passed away only two weeks earlier.) Their remarks and reminiscences were followed by contributions by Thomas Houseago, Rashid Johnson, and Matthew Day Jackson. Though all three artists are sculptors of a similar age, who are based in the US, seem to know one another well, and are represented by the same European gallery (Hauser & Wirth, who co-organized the show with Lismore Castle Arts), their unrehearsed responses to Josephsohn’s legacy could hardly have been more divergent. The panel discussion was officially wound up after a couple of hours. Yet the conversation spurred by the mute, majestic presence of Josephsohn’s sculptures continued, unabated, by my reckoning, for a further fourteen hours. That’s saying quite a lot.
Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith is a critic and curator who teaches at University College Dublin, Ireland.
THE LAST TIME I saw Donald Young was in January of last year. We were sitting in his attic study in the beautiful Stanford White apartment on North Astor in Chicago that he and Shirley had bought a couple of years earlier. They were scaling down, having moved there from their big house in Lincoln Park. Donald had scaled down the gallery too—he wanted to focus on smaller, publishing-related projects like the wonderful series of shows organized around Robert Walser that turned out to be his last.
It was January 20th to be exact. I know this because of the notes on my phone. They are dated and list the books that Donald recommended to me so enthusiastically that day (Joseph Brodsky’s book on Venice, a book on Montmartre Cabaret, Herzog on Fitzcarraldo), selected from the many that were all around him in this intimate place—so much like the garret of a student or an artist! I smile when I think about another recommendation of Donald’s that afternoon: a tailor in Seattle. He loved clothes as I do. Earlier we had visited his favorite hat shop on the South Side. Donald had used the chemo-related hair loss as an opportunity to get a Trilby, a Bowler, a Homburg, and something called a Rush Street, which is what I ordered that day. How can I not think of him every time I wear it?
I had to head to the airport and there was a really intense Chicago-style snowstorm raging. As I bundled up, Donald—apparently admiring my technique—inquired as to how exactly I knotted my scarf. This memory is particularly intense and it filled me with emotion at the time as it does now. A compliment from Donald is something one treasures because everyone knows his eye was sharp, and critical. I must have knotted that scarf just right.
I spoke with Donald a few times after that and we texted, but not enough. Then in April Christine Burgin called me and told me that Donald had died. We all miss him.
Rodney Graham is an artist living and working in Vancouver.