Two related tendencies have paralleled each other in art criticism and curatorial discourse over the last 15 years or so: on the one hand, there’s been a heightened interest in the relationship between labour and art – in particular, the link between post-industrial work and the supposedly immaterial status of post-conceptual and other forms of contemporary art. On the other hand, we’ve seen an effort to recuperate the largely neglected history of dance and performance practices, which have been fundamental to both modern and contemporary art. Both of these tendencies have been reflected – with varied levels of criticality – in countless symposia, conferences, exhibitions and publications.
The exhibition ‘Dance Machines: From Léger to Kraftwerk’ examines the intersection of these two trends. It explores how industrialization – by introducing Fordist systems and celebrating speed and movement – paved the way for new types of movement and abstraction in dance, film and photography. Curator Jo Widoff focuses on art works that explicitly depict the mechanization and abstraction of the human body. Divided into two distinct sections with different ‘rhythms’, the exhibition gives the viewer a sense of kinaesthetic awareness. One half is split into three smaller rooms and shows a mixture of closely – almost chaotically – installed paintings, photographs and films from the first three decades of the 20th century. The other half contains only one work: an enormous 3D installation by the German band Kraftwerk.
Works by Fernand Léger, who famously sought to integrate the mechanization of modern life with art, dominate the exhibition. On display are his Cubist-derived abstract paintings L’escalier (The Staircase, 1913) and La Femme au Miroir (The Woman in the Mirror, 1920), in which human bodies are abstracted into cones and cylinders. Projected on a wall are Legér’s experimental short film Le Ballet Mécanique (Mechanical Ballet, 1920) and his set design for The Swedish Ballet’s performance of The Skating Rink (1921). Le Ballet Mécanique juxtaposes hundreds of images of shiny saucepans with the cut-off legs of an upside-down mannequin and the movement of a woman on a swing. The Swedish Ballet, and their production of Relâche (Break, 1924), composed by Erik Satie, is also central to the show. Photographs of the ballet document Francis Picabia’s blinding stage design made up of 370 electric lights, while René Clair’s experimental film Entr’acte (Interval, 1924) – shown between the acts of the ballet – is projected on a wall. In it, Satie’s frenetic music accompanies a montage of images of inverted houses, Swedish dancer Inger Friis in a beard and a tutu, and a parade of mourners slowed down and sped up using the then-cutting-edge technical advances in film. In highlighting the importance of the Swedish Ballet to the history of early modernism, the show also raises the question of whether Sweden has produced any truly interesting dance since. As Picabia himself wrote in the programme notes to Relâche: ‘Only the Swedish Ballet can represent the contemporary.’ Can choreographer Mårten Spångberg (who recently staged the performance La Substance, Substance, 2014, at the MoMA PS1, New York) shoulder the Swedish heritage?
Another strength of the exhibition is that it displays painting, dance and film as equally constitutive of a general tendency in art during the last decades of the 19th century and the first of the 20th. Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic studies of human and animal movement (Animal Locomotion, 1877) are shown next to Hans Richter’s abstract drawings Preludium (1919). Alexander Calder’s mobile The White Frame (1934) is presented next to Charlie Chaplin’s darkly humorous film Modern Times (1936). One weakness, however, is that the show fails to highlight the artists’ inevitably distinct political views on industrialization and its consequences. Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet (1922) – presented at the Bauhaus in Germany – demonstrates the modern mechanized body as restricted and almost alienated from itself, whilst Léger’s geometric yet voluptuous and lively female bodies represent a more affirmative view. By not separating the abstraction of bodies in El Lissitzky’s photograph For a Strong, Healthy and Free Human Race! (1937) – which should be read as Stalinist propaganda celebrating the Soviet worker – from the commercialized and sexualized female bodies in Sture Ekstrand’s photograph Three Dancers (1925), the exhibition overlooks fundamental differences between works made in contrasting political and economic regimes. Another difficulty is the way Widoff attempts to translate this discussion into the contemporary post-industrial phase. Kraftwerk’s installation 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 (2013) – to be viewed through 3D glasses from white bean bags on the floor – is a mixture of colourful animated patterns of digits and letters, footage from the Tour de France, and words bouncing back and forth on the screen, all accompanied by the band’s groundbreaking music. In contrast to the works in the other section, which stand on their own, the installation looks like it has been compiled from background imagery used by the band while on tour and is underwhelming as a highly produced museum installation. I also wonder whether Kraftwerk alone can represent the intense acceleration of the abstraction of labour that has taken place since 1991 and now dominates life on a global scale. Or whether the choice to include the band in the exhibition is in fact an efficient strategy to attract visitors to the museum at a time when such institutions are under increasing pressure to do so.
Further, is global labour today – as Kraftwerk (and, more recently, Daft Punk) like to think – made up of dehumanized robots? Or, is it more nuanced – constituted through a mixture of industrial, manual and post-industrial cognitive labour? Contemporary art intersects with this condition in complex and critical ways. So, rather than exhibiting a somewhat dated version of what a ‘dance machine’ is today, why not show works by a younger generation of artists who address these questions? Danish choreographer Mette Ingvartsen and Canadian artist Melanie Gilligan, for example, have both dealt extensively with the themes of capitalism, abstraction and the mechanization of the human body in their work. And why not invite the writers of the Accelerate Manifesto (2013), who don’t merely idealize the speed of modernity but critically question it in order to recuperate it? In doing so, this ambitious and important exhibition could have prioritized the intersections between modernity and the capitalization of labour and movement in dance, performance, painting and film in both modern and contemporary art.