Dorsa is daffy, yet makes Muscovites laugh — and think

MOSCOW — When sunny and limitless-possibility California meets dual-personality Moscow, a city of dark, foreboding, inhibited winter melting into bright, optimistic, hedonistic summer, things weird and wonderful ensue.

How else to explain California/Moscow artist Bart Dorsa exhibiting his shadowy, brooding glass-plate photographs in a blackened space inside the buttoned-down Moscow School of Management at Skolkovo, while outside he pedals around in a 760-pound kinetic sculpture — an aluminum duck that glints in the sun, whooshes columns of flame 30 feet in the air and lifts the hearts of passersby?

Bart — a friendly, first-name kind of guy — arrived in Moscow eight years ago for a short visit in the company of Ukrainian twins, to whom he was engaged. Bart was escorting them to a beauty pageant, which they won. The three-way engagement ended, much to the relief of his mother in California. But Bart’s infatuation with Moscow lasted, and he stayed on, now ensconced in an airy, high-ceilinged studio in the center of the city, where he lives and works part of every year.

Yes, he’s outrageous. And funny. Inventive, too, which runs in the family. His grandfather, Frank Dorsa, invented Eggo waffles. His parents, Frank Jr. and Marilyn, created a new genre of car wash.

When he tells the story of the twins, Bart’s listeners can only laugh and wait to be amused by the next episode in his life. His tales, interrupted by frequent throw-back-the-head bouts of laughter, charm — and obscure the seriousness of his work.

For his first exhibit here, in 2007, he made fashion-model-like portraits of a series of women, each of them before his camera for only 15 minutes, called his work Fifteen Minute Fashion, and showed it at a beautiful-people restaurant and lounge in Moscow called the Gallery Cafe. “It was social commentary,” Bart said, “but it didn’t say enough.”

His search to say more took him to wet-plate photography, a process that dates to the mid-1800s. First, he covers a glass plate with chemicals. Then, using antique lenses, he holds the plate in his hands, exposing it before taking it to his darkroom — his bathtub — to finish it.

He has lenses from 1861 and 1862: one a portrait lens that he uses for landscape-type shots and one a landscape lens he uses to take close-ups of body parts. The glass photos are displayed in a darkroom, each ethereally lit from behind. Again, the photographs are of women, but these do not show their glitzy-model-wannabe side. They are more confrontational, revealing the inner toughness, and resulting scars, that have carried Russian women through centuries of trouble. That first series, in late 2008, was called Soul Stealer.

In May, Against the Sun went up at Skolkovo, where President Dmitry Medvedev wants to build a Russian Silicon Valley to take his country into the technological future.

A heavily pierced model named Katya represents an unconventional lifestyle that is the very antithesis of the business-suit sensibility cultivated at the business school. Bart’s photographs disturb that environment.

“Suddenly, the bright world of Skolkovo is destroyed,” he said. “It’s not just the object; it’s the object in the place. People have certain perceptions in certain places.”

Bart plays with those perceptions.

He grew up in the original Silicon Valley, and maybe the duck reflects that part of his nature. He dreamed it up as a birthday present for his father and had it built back home by Scott Cocking and Ken Beidleman. The duck, on a frame with four sets of bicycle pedals, is about nine feet tall and 15 feet long.

It arrived in May in Moscow, where it is totally incongruous, whether just outside the city in the open space of Skolkovo or on the narrow historic streets near the Kremlin, where Bart moved it for city pedaling on recent evenings.

“It’s had a bigger impact than I expected,” Bart said, “and bigger than I can explain.”

Maybe it’s so outside the realm of the expected, he said, so absurd, that normal rules are suspended. It creates a glorious sense of freedom.

Muscovites stop, gape and laugh when the duck glides along traffic-clogged streets on these summer evenings. Amazingly, not one of the city’s feared bribe-seeking traffic police has stopped Bart. Periodically, he releases hot flashes from two three-liter propane tanks strapped inside the duck. Firefighters have been called, but only twice.

“They showed up ready for a major fire,” Bart said, “and found me sitting there with my hat and duck.”

This year, Scott Reynolds, the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture mission here, ran into Bart at a tasting, sponsored by California’s Wine Institute, at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art.

Bart was pouring his family’s wine — his parents operate an estate winery called La Rusticana d’Orsa in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Bart showed Reynolds, who had picked up favorable buzz about the wine, a picture of the flaming duck. Reynolds invited Bart and the duck to a party in honor of a new USDA senior attache, where vendors were serving American foods and beverages, with U.S.A. Dry Pea & Lentil Council products washed down with Maker’s Mark — and La Rusticana wine.

Bart stands out in a crowd, dressed all in black, chipped black nail polish, porkpie hat, large wrench dangling from his belt (the duck requires attention). “Every good party needs Bart and his stories, his wine and his flaming duck,” Reynolds said later.

Bart had made a USDA gathering hip.

On a recent evening, three young Americans on a summer exchange from Iowa universities wandered into the courtyard of the Museum of Modern Art, where the duck was parked, daunted by their new surroundings and the unfamiliar language. They saw the duck and had to laugh.

Soon, Joel Carron of Herndon and Alex Nicholson and Bryan Scheckel, both of Iowa, were cheerfully following the duck, marveling at how Muscovites they had thought so forbidding were suddenly happy and approachable.

Bart parked the duck at an outdoor cafe, bought them beers and BLTs, and when their dormitory curfew approached, sent them home in his car. Two nights later, they were invited to a going-away party for the duck — which was returning to California — at the Gallery Cafe, where women in provocative dress danced on raised platforms to DJ music. The chi-chi crowd ate sushi and salad, and beautiful and impossibly tall Russian women swayed around Bart.

“We’re not in Iowa anymore,” marveled Nicholson, a University of Iowa political science major.

The duck was parked in the lounge’s atrium. Bart climbed in and set off an explosive, searing flame, producing a gasp from the long-since-seen-it-all partyers. Bart threw back his head and laughed.

 
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