David Berman on Jeremy Blake
"Wild Choir: Cinematic Portraits by Jeremy Blake" closes Sunday after a four month run at the Corcoran, but not without a final exciting event. David Berman, the subject of "Sodium Fox," one of the mesmerizing digital videos that make up the exhibit, will stop by the Corcoran Thursday evening to speak about his work with the late artist. It's impossible to talk about the exhibit without mentioning the tragedy surrounding it: Blake committed suicide last summer, just a week after his longtime girlfriend, Theresa Duncan, did the same, and the story became a minor media sensation. The three pieces that comprise "Wild Choir" account for some of Blake's final work.
Berman, an award-winning poet who is best known as the singer and songwriter for indie-rock cult favorites the Silver Jews, talked to me via e-mail in advance of tomorrow's appearance. Like the songs and poems he writes, his answers were at once funny, honest and touching.
How did you get to know Jeremy Blake? Were you friends before working together or did he seek you out for this project? What do you think drew you two together?
He got in touch with me through Mike Fellows (a musician who was played with Silver Jews, as well as D.C. hardcore legends Rites of Spring, among others). He told me he wanted to come to Nashville and record me reading 20 minutes of imagery. It wasn't a poem, really. I was really just riffing on the idea of Southern California. I gave him a lot to work with, so he was able to pare down to what he wanted. I read them as sentences, so each was a separate "take." It took a couple of hours. He was rallying and directing me through the intercom.
Was it a collaboration or did you and Blake have separate creative processes?
I understood it as less than a collaboration. I was paid for raw resources. He fetched the poetic L.A. back to the real L.A. and worked on it for a while. He was very excited about the mountain of clothes image he was planning. And I didn't see it for a while.
At times during "Sodium Fox," your narration reminded me of "The Country Diary of a Subway Conductor"; it had that same sometimes-random-but-conversational feel. How was your writing approach different here compared to writing poetry or song lyrics?
I would say it was raw, uncooked writing. I assumed the heat of Jeremy's art was going to cook it.
What do you think of the other two pieces in the exhibit? Why do you think Blake chose you, along with Ossie Davis and Malcolm McLaren, to be subjects of his pieces?
Is that a polite way of asking why I am not an English fashion designer?
In a review of the show, a critic for The Post said Blake's work "feels like channel-surfing through your dreams." How would you describe the feeling you get when watching one of his pieces?
This is the only art I would want showing on the back of my eyelids. It makes me warm when I am cold.
Does the tragedy that unfolded with Jeremy and Theresa change the way you look at the work in the exhibition? How did you personally deal with the events of last summer, given the personal struggles you had recently gone through?
It was unreal from Tennessee. We spoke once in that last week and I said that I wanted some of her fierce spirit to find a way into the album I had just started writing. I didn't realize that they were both leaving, but I hope he knew the offer stood for two.
Do you think the astonishing circumstances surrounding Blake's death overshadow his work?
No, it's too strong and accessible. More accessible than any tabloid narrative, even.
You used to be a security guard at the Whitney Museum way back in the day ... still have any connections to the visual arts scene?
Well, I'm really strong on American art from my guarding era, 1990-93. Occasionally I meet an artist who had work up in a biennnial or group show. I like to tell them, "I've guarded your work." I imagine it might be reassuring. "I've been looking out for you." Mark Tansey was an art handler there in the decade before me. I love his work.
What do you have in store for Thursday night?
Well, I'm going to give a talk about Heraclitus fragment number #54. And how it helps me think about the moving surfaces of Jeremy's art.
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