Courtyards and Shipwrecks

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

"The Beaches of Agnes," film still of a performance in Agnes Varda's courtyard.

Agnes Varda, the 82-year-old Parisian filmmaker who won the Golden Lion, was married to Jacques Demy, and dressed as a Potato for the 2003 Venice Biennale, has lived on a courtyard off Rue Daguerre for over half a century. The way she speaks of it in her filmed autobiography, The Beaches of Agnes (2009), you’d think she lived in the courtyard itself, with no house attached. That’s not far from the truth. When she first moved in, it was 1951 and the courtyard was really just an alley and a garage, sandwiched between a bakery and framing workshop. It was a knotty, overgrown mess of debris and there was no heat or bath, just a Turkish-style toilet. When her father saw it, he asked, “You want to live in this stable?”  She said, “Yes, wait and see. It’ll be nice later.” Though her father died too soon to see, she did make it nice, and  treated it, quite explicitly, as a set for both life and performance. Jane Birkin and Laura Betti used it for a Charlie Chaplin style routine, and sometimes Alexander Calder (Varda called him “a wonderful man”) rode a bicycle around it in circles.

Josh Beckman, "Sea Nymph," Opening Night Installation Shot. Courtesy Machine Project.

Josh Beckman, "Sea Nymph," Opening Night Installation Shot. Courtesy Machine Project.

Machine Project is like Varda’s courtyard, only it’s more beat than bohemian (a slippery distinction that, I realize, mostly means people at Machine wear more plaid).  The storefront art space in Echo Park has existed since 2003. It hosts workshops, events, and the occasional exhibition, catered to the intellectually curious.  Currently, Machine houses a shipwreck. Josh Beckman, who works at the National History Museum and is having his first solo exhibition, has built a severed ship coming out of Machine’s floorboards. The floor stands in as the sea’s surface. Called Sea Nymph, it’s the newest, smoothest, freshest looking wreck I’ve ever seen, but it’s more a set within a set than an attempt at verity.

Sea Nymph’s opening reception on Sunday, September 5th, felt like a launch party, or pre-gaming, rather than a pat-on-the-back celebration (as many openings do). Guests acted like they owned the mast and deck, and felt perfectly comfortable handling ropes, leaning on the poles, and climbing up into the angled cabin. It wasn’t an object to look at, but a place for events that were playing out and have yet to play out: a knot tying workshop, readings, a lecture on the mechanics of disaster. A puppet show scheduled for September 19th will retell Moby Dick “impressionistically.”

Gustavo Herrera, "The Birth of Satan," Installation View. Courtesy Human Resources LA.

Kenneth Anger interpreted Moby Dick impressionistically, or  murkily, in his 1947 film Fireworks, in which a teenager is attacked by a posse of sailors. Anger’s name makes repeat appearances in another courtyard-like exhibition currently on view: Gustavo Herrera’s The Birth of Satan at Human Resources LA. Herrera has turned the small Chinatown space into a gypsy-like garden of found objects and haphazard sculptures that compulsively reference evil, eccentricity and extreme good (a few scattered well-handled spreadsheets compare Satan, David Karesh, Jesus, Aleister Crowley, and, of course, Anger). The Birth of Satan has changed over its duration, as Herrera has added new objects or moved existing ones. It has also played host to a variety of performances, one in which Michael Decker and Christian Cummings used a Ouija Board to summon ghosts, and another in which Doug Harvey made sculpture-inspired music. The paraphernalia, including a scrawled drawing by the ghost of Sigmar Polke, from these performances now belongs to the installation.

When Jacques Demy was dying of AIDS, an illness he preferred not to discuss, Agnes Varda and a cast of friends restaged and filmed his life in her courtyard (among other places) as a way to accompany him out of the world. Sometimes, they would restage scenes from his movies “naturally,” as if they had been part of his life. In The Beaches of Agnes, Varda points out that it could make for quite the master’s thesis–a home that is also a set hosting the restaging of film events as real events, and life events as film events. It would be a thesis in which Nicholas Bourriaud, who insists on art as a relational experiment in which “time and space weave between themselves,”  could be quoted at length. But what’s most interesting, and much simpler, about what Varda, Machine, and Human Resources suggest, is that, if you build a courtyard and invite people to live in it with you, they might really come.