Monday, January 24, 2011

Conquest's Wake

A polaroid of marquee letters titled the window.

When Wall of Sound took over the whole space at 2nd Avenue and Bell Street from Art in Form in 1992, Mark Sullo offered me the opportunity to do the windows. Coincidentally, I had just been invited by photographer John Stamets to tour the remains of the Music Hall, Seattle's last grand theater to open before the crash of 1929. I proposed that I create an installation from the detritus that I was collecting from the old theater. In order to buy a little time to create the elaborate installation, I gathered the rusting roof-vents from the old theater and placed them in the window.

The window as it was first installed.

Wall of Sound's main window with Conquest's Wake installed

I had volunteered to assist John in his late night excursions to document the slow but sure demolition. We would meet at the Music Hall at around 10:00 PM when the destruction crew was leaving, and we had the entire space to ourselves. I would assist in the setting of lights so that John could take the very long exposure photos capturing the slow disappearance of the incredible ornate Spanish motif cast plaster-work of the theater's auditorium. Then while the photos were being exposed, I had free rein to wander, in boots and hard-hat with flashlight in hand, the catacombs of the seemingly haunted cavernous space. Down the stairs leading from back stage cascaded a waterfall from the leaking pipes and the entire basement was several inches under water. Wading through those dark dank halls, my flashlight's beam bouncing all about, I found the old marquee letters, lighting fixtures, exit lights and miscellaneous paraphernalia from the sad dressing rooms. The strangeness of it all was thrilling. This was backstage like none that I could have imagined. In the wee hours of the morning, I would load my car, assist John with his equipment and drive home with another trove of treasure.

Night after night I would return to find new areas of collapse, and soon I got to know the demolition crew. Some members of that crew began to take a little extra care to remove panels of the ornate plaster more or less in tact. One night, a giant plaster finial was lowered from the auditorium ceiling into a waiting pickup. It was over six feet tall. Some took interest in my project and even removed a few special pieces for me to use, among them a giant shell, a medallion and heraldic shields.

By the last night I visited the Music Hall, the auditorium was gone and only the lobby and the stairway to the projection room remained. I gathered a few last gems of the now fallen balcony's ceiling and made my retreat. By then I had gathered remnants from throughout the now ruined theater including fragments of the exterior stonework, concrete interior details, and pieces of the theater curtains. I had also built a papier maché replica of one of the galleons that had jutted from the auditorium wall, to which I added the fiddle head with tuning pegs and a couple of interpretations of figurative instruments of the world. I had also now completed the conception of the piece as a contemplation of conquest. With its baroque Spanish encrusting, the Music Hall gave me the perfect metaphor. The ruins became the sea upon which the galleon sailed, the marque letters a hurricane and the drapery placed it all on stage. This window was first a wake for the Music Hall. It was also as much about the wake of conquest as it was a wake for conquest.

A view from the doorway shows the giant paster clamshell and in it two small plaster "Indian" heads that I found in the ruins.

An exterior view of the hurricane of letters

The hurricane of letters from the interior

Interior view of the installation

In the adjacent front window I created three lit boxes draped with black drapery from the theater. In each I hung one of John's photos. In the first hung a photo of the grand exterior, in the second one of the ruined upstairs lobby, and in the third the wreckage of the auditorium with its galleon still intact. Below each photo I arranged broken pieces from the scenes depicted.

The three shadow boxes with photos by John Stamets

Conquest's Wake was by far my most ambitious window installation and I am glad that it served to launch the expanded enterprise of Wall of Sound, my favorite record store. If you haven't all ready, be sure to check it out at its current location on Capitol Hill.

All of the photos on this entry are by Mark Sullo.

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