In my conversation with Andrew Rossi we linked Okwui Okpokwasili's creative process for her Bronx Gothic (with visual and sound design by Peter Born) to Andrew Bolton's approach in The First Monday In May, childhood to Le Cirque, Gay Talese being interviewed for Page One: Inside The New York Times and The Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute exhibition China: Through The Looking Glass.
Andrew Rossi: "And I think with Bronx Gothic, Okwui is trying to challenge the gaze of the viewer also and to create a forcefield." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
I was reminded of Godfrey Reggio's Visitors, in which he probed me to reflect on the death of eye contact in our age of technology when Okpokwasili gazes back in Bronx Gothic at audience members in the theatre. Looking inward is as important as looking out at another. After 30 minutes of her performance, they, the audience, are quaked into the here and now. They look present and in talkbacks are captured on camera. It becomes very clear how deeply and in how many different ways they are affected.
What starts out as a portrait of a journey into the minds of two 11 year old girls exchanging notes in the 1980s' Bronx, New York, soon merges into something much larger and more granular. Lampshades grow out of patches of grass, plastic bags are floating in the air on stage. Okwui interferes with the onlookers, returns the scrutiny. One girl (both her) speaks with a baby voice.
The Gothic here is a rupture, as related to ETA Hoffmann's tales of Doppelgänger spirits as it is to the Nigerian trickster deity Edshu or the re-writings of ancient rigmaroles by Angela Carter. Can it be that your friend's nightmare from childhood has become your own as a grown woman? Why does "you ugly" not welcome a verb? Why is nobody telling children that it takes effort to have a good relationship with yourself?
Anne-Katrin Titze: I was thinking about parallels between The First Monday In May and Bronx Gothic and it felt to me that the idea of seeing something through the looking glass could be it. Do you see links between these two films of yours? Maybe in the Gothic part where we don't exactly know what to expect?
Okwui Okpokwasili with her daughter Umechi Born in Bronx Gothic
Andrew Rossi: Yes, that makes a lot of sense. I think on a certain level they are very different and yet there are a few common threads. One, it is an attempt to understand the process of a creative mind. In the case of the curator Andrew Bolton in First Monday In May and here with Okwui writing and performing her piece.
I think you're right that the looking glass that was the frame through which we understand Chinese culture refracted into Western fashion is a complicated vehicle to understand something, a cultural truth or the lack of a truth there.
And I think with Bronx Gothic, Okwui is trying to challenge the gaze of the viewer also and to create a forcefield. She describes it as a vibration. She wants the audience to vibrate with her and to sort of see her in a new way. So she is, I think, playing with shadows, playing with the lens through which we typically see the brown or black body, as she describes it.
AKT: "I'm always gazing back" she says - although the first half hour of the performance, as I understand, is with her back to the audience. As if she were trapping the gaze for the first half hour, making people be there, as she says. Then she returns the gaze.
Condé Nast Artistic Director and Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour at the press preview Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
AR: I think she wants to implicate the audience because when she has her back to them, they can project all kinds of stereotypes or assumptions about this body moving so vigorously. Are they afraid? Do they see her as an other, as an alien?
AKT: In First Monday in May I noticed how often you show Andrew Bolton walking, especially in his Thom Browne pants that are slightly shorter. There is a little-boy-ishness, a childlike quality that Browne's clothes have.
I actually spoke with Andrew Bolton about the child-like freedoms in connection to this year's exhibit at The Met, Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between. Did you see the exhibition?
AR: Yes, I thought it was incredible.
AKT: It's fantastic. Anyway - there are the 11 year old girls at the core of Bronx Gothic. Childhood maybe is another link with your films?
AKT: I don't remember if you have any childhood things about Le Cirque or The New York Times. Is that something that interests you?
Gay Talese at China: Through The Looking Glass. documented in The First Monday In May Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
AR: It is. In Le Cirque there are three sons who are part of the patrilineal structure of that family. So, you know, for me, I grew up with a father who was a restaurateur, an Italian restaurateur, and so I think I was in a way reliving my experience in this very like larger-than-life way because they are so operatic and theatrical. So, yeah, it's an important thing.
AKT: I walked the China: Through the Looking Glass exhibit with Gay Talese.
AR: Oh, wow.
AKT: It was lovely. You interviewed him for Page One, right?
AR: That's right, yes. And in fact, you know, I wrote him a letter inviting him to the First Monday In May première [2016 Opening Night Gala selection of the Tribeca Film Festival] and I think he mentioned that - I didn't know your name then - that he had walked through it with a friend and that he really enjoyed it. So that's wonderful.
Read what Andrew Rossi had to say on Okwui Okpokwasili in Bronx Gothic.
Bronx Gothic is currently screening at Film Forum in New York.