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Like a Cow Flies Over a Church: Pioneer Works Pays Tribute to Werner Herzog in Brooklyn

Werner Herzog, Michael Shannon

“The ship goes over the mountain like a cow flies over a church.” Thus spoke Werner Herzog last night at Pioneer Works, the vast and expansive Brooklyn art center for whose gala the storied filmmaker served as an honoree. The improbable subject matter was a reference to Herzog’s 1982 movie Fitzcarraldo, which Dustin Yellin—the artist who founded Pioneer Works in 2012—had cited earlier in the evening as an influence.

In the film, a 320-ton steamship did in fact make its way over a mountain in South America, to get from one river to another by way of pulleys and the handiwork of more than 1,000 crew members toiling under Herzog’s direction. As for the cow flying over the church, the source was more obscure—though it is worth noting that anything Herzog says out loud comes across, in his grave German accent, as A) very peculiar and B) very convincing.

The night began in Pioneer Works’s grand garden area, where cocktails helped wash down finger food and more oysters than even the most oyster-excited attendee could reasonably eat. A display table lured passersby to herbs laid out by Maha Rose, a local healing center that doled out dried offerings (sweetgrass, rose petals, et al.) to be collected in pouches and burned after imbued by the user with silent intentionality.

Dustin Yellin at Pioneer Works.

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Inside, some of the night’s 350 guests took up positions at dinner tables decorated with vegetation that creeped and crawled all over. Yellin took the stage and, after a typically endearing mystical non-sequitur (“I’ve been thinking about the weight of a light year”), proceeded to thank the many people who help make Pioneer Works a home for art but also science, music, and all manner of creative pursuits. Speaking about the need for such things in dire political times, Yellin paid tribute to ways that “the sciences and the arts can be a fantastic glue to bring people together” before handing the microphone to actor Michael Shannon, who starred in Herzog’s 2017 film Salt and Fire.

Like Pioneer Works, Shannon makes his home in Red Hook, the waterfront neighborhood with as much character as any in New York. He also had a special vantage on working with Herzog, who he said gave him his favorite-ever piece of actorly direction: “That was quite lame.”

Herzog then stepped up and, after a standing ovation, said of this gracious introduction, “This was not lame at all.” He went on to pay tribute to Yellin’s renovation of 27,000 square feet of post-industrial space that had been (again, in Herzog’s imposing brogue) “a shack, an abomination to even walk into.” Such vision, he said, “makes the seemingly impossible doable.”

After dinner, the crowd swelled with extra attendees for a late-night after party that had quite a bit of energy to burn. Upstairs, a virtual-reality experience titled Spheres featured narration by Jessica Chastain and Patti Smith, plus music by members of SURVIVE (the synth group that made the music for Stranger Things). In a geodesic dome installed for the occasion, partygoers could sit as subjects for aura photography by Christina Lonsdale, a Portland, Oregon-based artist who, by way of her project Radiant Human, explores “the distance between New Age self-discovery from New Media self(ie)-actualization.”

Downstairs, the party churned to booming music by DJ Delish, a selector in town from West Philadelphia who, on her SoundCloud page, identifies as a “girl that watched a lot of cartoons when she was a boy.” At one point, after dropping Cardi B, she moved over the mic and let loose with an exclamation fit for the the night: “Shout-out to Werner Herzog!”

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