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The Making of Pinocchio Is On Fire

Thu, Aug 12, 2010

Pinocchio is on Fire, 2010; multimedia installation; dimensions variable; courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

Shortly after Thanksgiving in 2008, I had the pleasure of meeting Mark Bradford, who was visiting Columbus to begin discussions about his upcoming midcareer retrospective. His charming and generous nature made it very clear that his partnership with the Wexner Center was going to be a delightful one. It wasn't long after this early visit that Bradford and curator Christopher Bedford decided that new work would play an important role in this exhibition. Amid these conversations, the Wexner Center Residency Award in visual arts for 2009–10 was awarded to Mark, a well-deserving candidate. It was at that moment that Pinocchio Is On Fire began to take shape.

"Teddy's Transexual Passenger Talks!" as it appeared in the Philadelphia Tribune; reprinted in Jet, May 31, 1982, 60-64. Right: Barbara Faggins.

My role as the curatorial assistant meant that I would offer support as Mark and his studio made this project a reality. My first (very simple) task was to order a DVD and a CD for him: Teddy: Live Coast to Coast (CD) and Teddy Live in '79 (DVD). At this point in the project, I wasn't sure what Mark had up his sleeve or what Teddy Pendergrass had to do with it, but I was certainly interested in finding out. After a little research, learning more about the tragedy that paralyzed Pendergrass and locating a picture of Tenika Watson (pictured above), Mark was ready for the next step in the project: the photo shoot. After finding and hiring local models, one male and two female, a make-up artist, costumes from both Columbus and from Los Angeles, we assembled props including tambourines and microphones. Then we were ready to take the stage. Thanks to the Wexner Center's technical services team, we were able to produce a fictional Teddy Pendergrass concert in Mershon Auditorium replete with colored lights, spotlights, a fog machine, and Teddy's song “Shout and Scream” blaring through the speakers. Keeping energy levels at an all-time high was Mark's specialty. After eight hours of “Shout and Scream,” lots of dancing, singing, costume changes, and posing, we had innumerable fascinating bits of documentation: photos, videos, and super-8 footage. One of the most interesting views of this particular scene was through the closed-circuit television backstage. The dramatic lights, the silhouettes of the models and the staff working on the project really set the tone for Pinocchio Is On Fire.

Pinocchio is on Fire, 2010; multimedia installation; dimensions variable; courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

Shortly after the photo shoot, the multifaceted nature of the project became clearer. The photos were soon selected to function as the representation of this work in all printed matter (e.g., the exhibition catalogue and gallery guide) and in the microsite ( As the project progressed, Mark began to think more seriously about the manifestation of this venture in the galleries. Recognizing the importance of music in the development of culture, he planned to investigate the use of sound and other aspects of the music business. One component of the work quickly began to take shape: the album covers. With the same tenacity that he approaches his paintings, Bradford began to refinish, paint, collage, and resurface a stack of old album covers, renaming them Pinocchio Is On Fire (the title he also decided to apply to the project as a whole). When Mark arrived at the Wexner Center for the installation of the exhibition, the last piece of the puzzle was ready to be completed: the angular room in our second gallery that would be the physical environment of the piece and the audio components. Mark soon determined the positioning of the albums on a shelf outside this room and chose to cover the interior of the room itself, floor to ceiling, with the same “graphite blanks” he used to create works like Remote Sensing, PAL, and Luma. He also chose to fill the space with the voice of Nancy Wilson singing “To Tell the Truth.” As in Mark's paintings, there are many more layers to this seemingly empty room than are readily apparent.

Before arriving in Columbus to install the exhibition, Mark had been hard at work in Los Angeles recording three audio tracks that are also part of Pinocchio Is On Fire and represents the project in varying ways. “Skinny Jeans” (available for download from points out the relationship between clothing and identity and how that has affected pop culture. The "Astrology" musings reflect not only the way such new wave references permeated soul music in the 1970s but also the intangible forms that became essential in the formation of identity at that time. Lastly there's the "Interview," modeled after a radio interview with Teddy Pendergrass, in which Mark plays the role of the semi-autobiographical, semi-fictional character Pinocchio.

In the galleries, the tracks are transmitted on an FM radio frequency that can be picked up only in the Wexner Center and so can be heard only by those who bring in their old transistor or walkman radio (with headphones, please) and tune to 89.3 FM. Happily, Mark has allowed us to post these audio files online as well. At his request, they are broadcast in a random order that intersperses cuts from the "Interview" and "Astrology" sections, the complete "Skinny Jeans" track, and silence. The audio file linked here has been organized to achieve a similar effect.

With these various tracks, the room environment, the sculptural/painterly album covers, and the photographic documentation, Pinocchio Is On Fire has developed into a layered work that rivals Mark Bradford's paintings in the depth of references and reflections. But, as Mark often does, he's left a few questions unanswered and ambiguous.

Keep watching the WexBlog for more on how this project evolved to encompass all these elements.
PARKING UPDATE: Construction at 15th and High. For more information click here.

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