Review:  “As the Air Moves Back From You” by D. Chase Angier

Mary Drach McInnes

 

The performers have left and we enter a darkened room.  The gallery, located at a university in rural New York, is a standard modernist box with a cement floor and white walls.[1]  In one corner is a modest-sized, triangular white field.  Comprised of hillocks of rice, this image immediately becomes lodged in our mind as “beachfront.” A long, horizontal band of light—a digital projection of a watery surface--spans the figural tidal zone.  This light undulates over and across the topography.  Finishing our immersion is a soundtrack that offers a continuous rippling of notes.  We are witnessing the final moment of D. Chase Angier’s multi-part performance installation “As the Air Moves Back from You.” For one month the art gallery has critically framed these diverse elements—light and shadow, material and sound.  More, this space structured and informed our viewing of dance events.

 

 “As the Air Moves Back from You” is part of a growing trend of performances in art institutions.  The contemporary phenomenon of dance in the art museum has recently been discussed. Hilarie M. Sheet’s review in The New York Times notes the rise of this activity—highlighting the New Museum’s hosting of Gerard and Kelly and their series entitled “Choreography” that investigates pole dancing.[2]  The otherwise staid Museum of Modern Art recently included dance in their 2012 exhibition, Inventing Abstraction, and is actively planning a performance space in their new extension.[3]  Likewise, the Whitney Museum is integrating performance spaces into their new building as well.  Art institutions, spurred by the dual economic interests of seeking new patrons and expanding their audience base, are also responding to the growing co-habitation between visual and performing arts.  Their economic motives actively collude with the creative support of choreographers.  

 

The advent of dance in art institutions and, more broadly, the opening up of alternative art spaces date back to the 1960s.  At that time, Merce Cunningham created the Event to be performed in a non-theatrical space.  The first Event was enacted on June 1964 at the Museum of the Twentieth Century in Vienna accompanied by a continual performance of John Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis.   Cunningham’s Events were composed of complete dances, excerpts of dances from the repertory, or new sequences arranged for a particular place and a particular time frame.[4]   This merging of non-theatrical space with dance paralleled similar developments in the visual arts, when the definition of art expanded rapidly and artists moved onto the street and into alternative spaces.

 

Further, work in the mid-sixties showed a new hybridity that often pulled artwork off the pedestal and activated the gallery space in an assertive manner.[5]  Minimalist artists, such as Donald Judd and Robert Morris (both of whom had a strong interest in dance), highlighted the conditions of spectatorship.  Removing their hard-edged objects from the pedestal created a triangulation between the viewer, the object, and the gallery.  The Minimalist’s placement of their work directly on the floor and their deceptively simple geometric forms, visually impenetrable surface and industrial character, denied any transcendent reading.  Minimalism insists on our physical encounter with the object, even at the risk of banality.  This new viewing of art—which Michael Fried termed “theatricality”— is still being played out in contemporary practice.[6] 

 

The continued expansion and co-habitation of the arts mandate a new consideration of the framing devices for performance. Proceeding chronologically through this four-part work, the various episodes prompt a series of questions about the confines of the gallery. “As the Air Moves Back from You” offer us several moments to reflect on the possibilities—both the boundaries and boundlessness--of the art gallery as performance space. 

 

For some time, Angier has been exploring the use of the frame in her work.  Her most recent investigation is, by far, her most ambitious.  “As the Air Moves Back from You” took place entirely in an art gallery and the four-part presentation actively investigated how an exhibition space embraces and defines, encloses and structures dance.  Beginning and ending with an immersive installation, the events were staged in disparate formats: movement, dance, performance, and tableau vivant.  The aggressive ambition of this multivalent work was apparent in the variable formats and it was evident in the sheer physical labor of changing the setting weekly.  The sequential offerings necessitated alterations in light, music, costumes, and material display as well as the shifting of participants—including the Alfred Performers and the Tiffany Mills Dance Company, experimental dancer Kristi Spessard and performance artist Laurel Jay Carpenter.[7]   While not denying this labor—as collaborative and complicated as it may be--my central interest here are the dynamics and opportunities that arise in the location of dance (and more broadly, performance) in the art gallery.  Angier’s work allows us the pleasure of four episodes in the gallery that enticed and delighted—but simultaneously raised questions about the cohabitation of performance in an art venue.

 

 

I.          Movement

The first installment of Angier’s work took place on a frigid Friday evening at the end of January. Visitors feasted on a visual delight.  There, in a darkened corner of the gallery was a brightly lit “beach” made of five tons of rice.  Angier sculpted its surface into a series of rolling mounds.  This rolling topography, in turn, was activated by an array of light patterns. The digital projection, designed by the two-member Chicago-based team known as Luftwerk, caused the surface to undulate under a series of changing patterns. The final element of the installation was a slow-moving musical composition by John Laprade and Andrew Deutsch. 

 

After several minutes, a young woman in a long, white embroidered sheath (costumes designed by Marketa Fantova) walked from the rear of the gallery and onto the “sand.”  Slowly, she reclined on one side and facing the corner she became part of the landscape.  After many more minutes of this still pose, another dancer—a young male quietly and methodically came onto the surface; an older woman, in turn, followed him onto the “sand.”  For the next hour each of the three figures carefully moved around the installation.  The rice acted as a resistance to their action, encouraging them to move with great deliberation.  And yet, the material surrendered to their weight, and moved aside to accommodate their feet, arms, and torsos.  Ever silent and not looking at each other or at the audience—the figures were self-absorbed.  Their acts of circling of each other or nesting in parallel their lines were abstract in character.  Over the course of the two-hour event, the figures broadly repeated their actions three times.  Their movements were deliberately simple and defined by pedestrian names: “walking” and “pacing,” “sitting” and “resting.”

 

The self-absorption of the dancers in combination with their proximity to the audience increased our sense of alienation.  The public sat or stood close to the movement.  In the first circle of spectators, the performers were an arm-length away and at eye-level.  Paradoxically, this closeness meant that our view of the event was limited.  Forsaking the traditional view of the proscenium theater with its high, oblique angle necessitates a trade-off.[8]  It means, on one hand, not being able to see the lines of movement or the shifting patterns of performers.  And, surprisingly, each performer’s total engagement in their movement across the stage—something that is enjoyed as choreography in a theater—shifted in tenor.  The performers seemed emotionally contained and unreadable.  From the spectator’s standpoint, this paradoxical relationship between the closing of a physical distance and the opening of an emotional distance with the performers is an aspect that felt problematic.   The next episode of “As the Air Moves Back From You,” with its set boundaries and compressed time, resolved this issue.

 

 

II.        Dance

   

A week later, the second installment changed both in form and format.  The rice was arranged in a grid of twelve shallow rectangular pads on the cement floor.  The pattern resembled an urban traffic zone.  Into this grid walked the five-member Tiffany Mills Company.  Their fifteen-minute performance was a cacophony of bodily lifts and pulls, of shifting positions and displacements. Throughout the duration, the dancers singly, in pairs, and in small groups worked frenetically around the grid.  Their gestures were controlled and organized, sharply focused and kinetic.  Tiffany Mills, respected for her partnering work, co-choreographed this section—and its success lay both in Angier’s concept and in the company’s well-deserved reputation for this area. 

 

The lights before and after the dance were highly active—both diverse in color (changing in hue and in spectra) and in pattern (from monochromatic to Bauhaus-inspired geometrics).  The light projections were concentrated on the dozen rice pads.  And, this was done to great effect:  the effect was to visually isolate and lift the grid from the ground.  This levitation bracketed the dance in a wonderfully evocative manner.  Adding to its pulsing quality was the soundtrack that had a similar agitated, incessant, and mechanized quality. 

 

 

III.       Performance

 

For the third episode, both material and performer narrowed their spatial zone.  The rice was re-oriented to the ceiling, where it tumbled out of a container over the course of several hours, forming a meter-high volcano on the cement floor.  Into this hourglass configuration came a solo female performer dressed in red.  Kristi Spessard walked out of the darkness and onto the mound, slowly making a rotation around its perimeter and moving deliberately towards the center.  She then proceeded to sit and lie on the rice, at various times pulling and pushing the rice with parts of her body.  This luxuriant enfolding of the material rose in tempo into an orgiastic partnering before dissolving into a heated battle with the rice.  The performer threw and kicked the rice—sending it out towards the audience.  When she finished and walked off, we were left with an imprint of this performance. 

 

Angier’s choreography of both material and action was reminiscent of postwar performance work that created a sculptural object in the aftermath of a singular event.  The dynamic interaction between action and its “residue” highlights the increasing blurring of disciplinary boundaries. As Paul Simmel states in his chronicle of this period:  “The line between action, performance, and a work of art became increasingly indistinguishable and irrelevant.”[9]   At the end of this performance, the rice was scattered across the floor in large whorls reflecting Spessard’s coiled body and twisted motions.   This chaotic vortex is reminiscent of the gestural manner of an Abstract Expressionist work (also known as “Action Painting”). Like a Jackson Pollock canvas, the gallery floor held the detritus of an impassioned encounter. 

 

 

IV.       Tableau Vivant

 

The final performance focused on meditative reverence.  The form of the material—both light and rice—and sound cycled back towards the opening sequence.  The “beach” was now smaller and the light a constant band that hovered above the topography alluding to a horizon line of water.   This tranquility was completed by a silent figure posed a meter from the tidal edge. This attendant was clad in a simple, long gray dress that ended in a series of tendrils lying on the floor.  This edging was evocative of a kelp bed and completed the marine zone.

 

Laurel Jay Carpenter stood silently with hands clasped in front of her in an act of inspection and introspection.  Enduring this pose for five hours, Carpenter markedly resembled the cubic-formed votive statues from the Near East.  Like these ancient effigies, she stood in for us, maintaining a constant attitude of reverence towards the divine—not a god as in the archetypal form, but in the artificial landscape of the gallery.  While self-absorbed, the attendant did not alienate us, but focused our attention.  This strategy has been successfully used by installation artists (such as Ann Hamilton) and is similarly effective here.  Carpenter’s still visage became part of the overall staging; she seamlessly joined the tidal zone.  The edge of the wavering light, the undulating edge of the beachfront, and the sinewy kelp-like edge of her dress all visually and conceptually merged.  At this moment, the distinctions between prop, stage set, sculpture, and performance were erased. 

 

 

“As the Air Moves Back From You” displays the diversity and vitality of dance in the art gallery.  Angier’s ambitious framing of movement, dance, performance, and tableau vivant produced a choreographic feat.  Her work allowed us the pleasure of four episodes in the gallery that provoked delight and spurred debate about the cohabitation of performance in an art venue.  We eagerly await the next production.    

 

 

[1] The Fosdick-Nelson Gallery (Sharon McConnell, Director) is located at the School of Art and Design, New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University.  

 

[2] Sheets, Hillarie M., “When the Art isn’t on the Walls: Dance Finds a Home in Museums,” New York Times, January 22, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/25/arts/design/dance-finds-a-home-in-museums.html? _r=0

 

[3] The Museum of Modern Art in New York actually had a short-lived Department of Theater and Dance in the mid-1940s.  See:  Michelle Elligott, “Another Modern Art:  Dance and Theater,” Museum of Modern Art, last modified March 2, 2105,  http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2009/anothermodernart/#top

 

[4] The first Event lasted between 60 and 90 minutes; the original cast included:  Shareen Blair, Carolyn Brown, Merce Cunningham, William Davies, Viola Farber, Deborah Hay, Barbara Lloyd, Sandra Neels, Steve Paxton, and Albert Reid.  Between its initiation and its finish in December 2011, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed over 800 Events.  See:  “Events 1964,” Merce Cunningham Trust, last modified March 2, 2015, http://www.mercecunningham.org/index.cfm/choreography/dancedetail/params/work_ID/84/

 

[5] Artist and critic Donald Judd wrote a landmark essay that highlighted the new hybridity in contemporary art entitled “Specific Objects.”  The first line of this reads: “Half or more of the best new work in the last few years has been neither painting or sculpture.” See:  Thomas Kellein, Donald Judd: Early Work, 1955-68, New York: D.A.P., 2002:  94.

 

[6] This essay was originally published in Artforum in the summer of 1967 and has been reprinted several times.  An online version may be found at:  Michael Fried, “Object and Objecthood,” http://www.scaruffi.com/art/fried.pdf 

 

[7] The first installment featured the Alfred Performers:  Kristin Clancy, Carlyn Yanda, and Nazim Kourgli.  The second installment featured the Tiffany Mills Company:  Kevin Ho, Kyle Marshall, Tiffany Mills, Emily Pope-Blackman, and Mei Yamanaka.

 

[8] Douglas Crimp, “Keynote Address:  Dancing in the Art World,” Hammer Museum, University of California at Los Angeles, June 7, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rS0AIQmygco

 

[9] Paul Simmel, Out of Actions:  Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979 (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1998): 11.

 

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Review: "As the Air Moves Back From You" by D. Chase Angier by Mary Drach McInnes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

© 2016 Angier Performance Works

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