Friday, October 26, 2007

But is it art?

The Donner Party has inspired a lot of artistic interpretations over the years -- novels, short stories, children's books, poems, paintings, plays, even an opera. Two works in the news of late are Jim Shaw's The Donner Party and Ron Cunningham's A Woman's Journey: The Tamsen Donner Story.

Shaw's work was in the news a while back when it came up for auction at Christie's. It's an installation described by one reviewer as "where Mormons meet feminists over a scary, scary meal." It consists of dining tables in the form of flat-topped covered wagons, arranged in a circle in front of a backdrop, with place settings of assorted, well, "junk" is the word that comes to mind. The Donner Party connection is fairly remote; Shaw doesn't use historical images or sources, for instance. As it turns out, the work is a takeoff on Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party and no doubt it's very clever, but I'm not impressed. (I'm actually quite annoyed that Shaw fell for Ric Burns' goofy story about the Donner Party labeling packages of human flesh.) You can find out more reading the New York Art article, or, for an up close, detailed look, check out the Yahoo!video. Don't say I didn't warn you.

In 1977 Ruth Whitman's poem cycle Tamsen Donner: A Woman's Journey was published. Now, 30 years later, Ron Cunningham's ballet A Woman's Journey: The Tamsen Donner Story is being performed at the Sacramento Community Theatre; see the Sacramento News & Reviews article for the performance schedule and price information. Cunningham's isn't the first dance interpretation of Whitman, however; Julia Ince performed her own version in Tamzene's hometown of Newburyport, Mass. , in 1992 and again at the Donner Party Sesquicentennial in 1996.