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Longo’s ‘Dream Jumbo’: Multimedia in Six Acts

Back in the years between Vietnam and Reagan, when culture was disco and real men wore polyester, the first generation of media-weaned baby-boomer artists hit it big.

Around the same time in performance art, spectacle, American-style, was reborn in the postmodern image operas of Robert Wilson, Laurie Anderson, Richard Foreman and others.

Thirty-six-year-old Robert Longo, whose retrospective just opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was part of both of those watersheds. His multimedia work “Dream Jumbo: Working the Absolutes” will be presented in Royce Hall at UCLA tonight at 8 and Saturday at 7 and 10 p.m.

Conceived and directed by Longo, the evening consists of six acts created from 1978 to 1989, and will be the first live presentation by the artist in Los Angeles since 1984.

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Collaborating with Longo on “Dream Jumbo” are some of the heaviest hitters of hip, including dancer-choreographer Bill T. Jones, performers Eric Bogosian, Sean Young, Vito Acconci and Ron Vawter, writer William Gibson and many others.

Longo, who has also directed MTV videos and a short film and is about to embark on his first feature, mainlines to the collective unconscious of his epoch with images that allude to film, TV and the headlines as well as antiquity, and a score that ranges from operatic to rock and minimalism.

Though famous first for his painting, Longo uses his “art performed” to continue the exploration of urban alienation central to his static art.

Like Wilson, he specializes in grand non-linear sound-and-picture collages that are as portentous as they are ambiguous. But as befits a baby boomer, Longo’s pacing is more like that of film montage than Wilson’s protracted stasis.

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Longo exploits the associative power of cultural icons with an Information Age vocabulary, stimulating the stream of consciousness instead of offering a message. “I’m trying to make memories out of (images) that are like movies,” he explains.

“Susan Sontag said you can make a movie out of a play, but you can’t make a play out of a movie, but I don’t agree.”

Unlike movies, however, Longo’s performances have no story or plot. “Things I want to be involved with aren’t based on linguistic models,” he says. “I can’t verbally explain them, but they’re not about a narrative.”

The driving force is instead a nearly formalist manipulation of emblems, a technique Longo says can be problematic.

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“What makes these performances least accessible is that you can’t walk into a story line,” he says. “You don’t know where you’re going.”

It is also a mode ripe for abuse. “If there’s any criticism I’d have,” Longo says of his performance art, “it’s that there’s so much ‘wow.’ You can loose yourself in it.”

Nonetheless, he says he is out to thrill his audience. “I create the images I want to see. That first rehearsal is always a rush. And I want the audience to feel that feeling where your diaphragm is pressing on your heart.”

“But that and too much candy make your teeth rot,” he says.

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So what’s the difference between Longo’s spectacles and propaganda? According to Longo, it’s responsibility.

“I understand the consequences of what I’m doing. I’m concerned about how close I can come to that edge.”

He does not, he’ll tell you, exploit the power of spectacle as have others before him. "(Leni) Riefenstahl should have gone to jail,” he says of the Nazi film maker.

“And I think Levi’s should, for that commercial where the girl and guy get on the elevator with the painter. The painter’s just professing pride in his job, but they make him out to be a slob. That’s irresponsible.”

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He avoids such transgressions because his vision is personal. And as a backup, he surrounds himself with collaborators whose judgment he trusts.

“The difference between fascism (and what he does) is that there was a government behind the program. In Levi’s commercials, there’s Levi’s behind it,” says Longo.

“What’s behind me is me, which is not a lot different than you. My works are visual attempts to present beliefs in a non-oppressive way.

“If it is selling something, it’s something you already own. I’m giving you back what you already know, but in a different order, for you to contemplate it. The degree of respect one has for the audience is critical.”

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It is, according to Longo, what allows him to appropriate the techniques of the very forces he purports to criticize without being merely manipulative.

Like any artist, he returns the culture that has shaped him, in the hope that the audience can reclaim the images as their own.

“I’m trying to give back courage or aggressive hope. The work I make is about being alive right now. If you watch TV, read magazines or newspapers, chances are you’re going to get something out of this.”


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