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Friday, September 9, 2011

Opening Night at The Works: David Eckard

Posted by Matt Stangel on Fri, Sep 9, 2011 at 7:17 PM

"There's a supernova on the handle of the big dipper," says PICA communication director Patrick Leonard. Tonight, he explains, the exponentially expanding star will reach peak brightness. We're talking in the beer garden, thick with opening night attendees— all ready for TBA's nighttime programming, The Works. Everyone looks unintentionally glamorous in the moody blue and purple spotlights that color Washington High School's exterior. I'm killing time before David Eckard's performance, ©ardiff.

A middle-aged couple cuts in on Leonard and a serendipitous artist friend arrives at my side. We decide it's time for drinks.

20-minute beer line. People start cutting. A playful combination of modern dance and rockabilly soundtrack comes from an impromptu stage, located on a riser where the two lanes of beer garden meet at a right angle.

The Offsite Dance Project
  • PICA
  • The Offsite Dance Project

Kio Fusion wafts through the semicircle of people who're also waiting to see Eckard, and someone's talking about old-school pregnancy tests.

“They would inject a rabbit with the woman's blood, and if the rabbit died, the woman was pregnant.”

I've been reading up on hoaxes in preparation for Eckard's performance (a performance detailing one of the most storied frauds in American history), and I tell them about the one in which a woman claimed to have given birth to a series of bunnies.

I think about other infamous hoaxes as we join the crowd that's formed on the football field, encircling Eckard and his wheeled wonder cabinet. Recollections of the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest of 1957 shuffle through my thoughts, followed by the story of The Turk, a faux-automaton chess master that took on challengers such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Ben Franklin.

Eckard busily erects various flags and unrolls images of the Cardiff Giant, decorating his mobile podium.

Airplane bottles of whiskey go around, a curator cracks a tall boy, lukewarm in step with the night. Somewhere the supernova flares up and the grass feels cool through my shoes.

Circus music travels from the cart and a light flicks on: Eckard in bowler hat, vest, and rimmed spectacles.

He launches into his monologue about the Cardiff Giant.

If you're unfamiliar, the story goes like this: Back in the late 1860s, a man named George Hull buried a fake 10-foot-tall petrified man on a relative's property in Cardiff, New York. Men were hired to dig a well, who "discovered" Hull's plant. Much hoopla ensues. People come from far and wide to pay for their glimpse of the prehistoric giant. News travels, and soon after, Hull sells the petrified man for a handsome profit. It's shipped off for exhibition in the city.

P.T. Barnum takes notice and makes a $50,000 offer on the Cardiff Giant, but its new owners won't sell, leading Barnum to fabricate an exact replica. A fake of the fake. He puts it on display, just across town.

Eckard updates the story, saying his great great uncle helped ship the P.T. Barnum copy, during which the petrified giant incurred installation damages— leaving a shard of the sculpture in Eckard's cache of family heirlooms.

As Eckard tells the story in his boisterous oratorial style, he uses a cane to open his wonder cabinet and push out a yet-smaller box, extending into the space in front of his rig. More cabinets inside cabinets, until a final shoebox-sized compartment opens to expose the minute piece of P.T. Barnum's copy.

Eckard ends his monologue, stating, "Spread your thick, delicious fictions," and it becomes clear that he's not really showing us a piece of the infamous petrified giant, but illustrating the narratives that allow us to buy into "hoax and humbug." His physical piece of this storied fraud is likely a fabrication of his own hand— joining in on the traditions recalled in ©ardiff.

And while this is all rather cut and dry, Eckard weaves in questions of the contemporary world. Most poignant of the inquiries: If the Cardiff Giant were discovered today, would people look past the tweets and status updates and make the pilgrimage to see a mysterious, petrified man?

What are we wondrous of nowadays? Have we Googled ourselves into an impenetrable, ten-second distance from virtually infinite knowledge? Have we Photoshopped the tooth fairy out of fantasy?

A woman stands in line to see the chip of Eckard's giant. When she gets her turn, she grins widely into the artifact.

Perhaps narrative magic survives the omnipresent digital answer.

I look up in the sky and search for the supernova nearing its end-of-life stage— it could be fictional, for all I know, a thought I entertain only after Eckard's ©ardiff.

(David Eckard performs ©ardiff tomorrow at 5:45 outside the Portland Center for the Performing Arts' Winningstad Theatre. For more info and a full performance schedule, click here.)

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