‘Engaging with the Thing’: The Hard Work of Performa 19

To mark the centenary of the Bauhaus’s opening in Weimar, Performa 19 considers: ‘What is the art school of the 21st century?’

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BY Erica N. Cardwell in Reviews | 09 DEC 19

The opening line of the 1919 Bauhaus manifesto, written by architect and founder Walter Gropius, boldly declares: ‘The ultimate aim of visual arts is the complete building!’ Accordingly, during its 14-year tenure, the Bauhaus became a fixture of interdisciplinary tradition, where craft was of primary interest, evidenced in Wilhelm Wagenfeld’s sleek lamps (1924) or Josef Albers’s nesting tables (1927). To mark the centenary of the Bauhaus’s opening in Weimar, Performa 19 considers: ‘What is the art school of the 21st century?’

The programme continued with film screenings, commissions and installations across New York, including presentations by Korakrit Arunanondchai, Tarik Kiswanson and Paul Pfeiffer, among many others. At Castle Williams on Governors Island, Samson Young premiered The Eight Immortals (all works 2019) – his reimagining of a Chinese folk tale. Against a steel-grey sky, peppered with roving police helicopters, five industrial cranes stood adorned with neon-green, blue and pink tulle skirts. Cantonese opera singer Eliza Li opened the performance, followed by jazz vocalist Michael Schiefel, positioned at the central crane, in the role of the Immortal Lan Caihe, the audience’s queer spirit guide. In a score that combined new and old pieces by Young, Schiefel memorably repeated a lyric that served as an informal mantra for the biennial as a whole: ‘I want you to stop dancing around the thing and start engaging with the thing.’

Korakrit Arunanondchai, boychild and Alex Gjovic, Together, 2019. Courtesy: Performa 19 Biennial; photograph: © Paula Court

This phrase certainly resonated with filmmaker and choreographer Sarah Friedland’s three-channel video installation at La MaMa Galleria, CROWDS, which explores how the body instinctively responds to (occasionally disturbing) forms of manipulation. The piece – in which Friedland choreographed 22 dancers to evoke sports teams, military cadences, fascist drills and various other crowd formations – invites the audience to interact with these groups by moving through the gallery, in and around the three screens, constantly shifting and manipulating their perspective. 

At 1014 Fifth Avenue, the Upper East Side townhouse space used in collaboration with The Kitchen, intimacy between two bodies connects to place and gesture in the interdisciplinary performance piece Entre Deux Actes (Ménage à Quatre) featuring Nairy Baghramian and Maria Hassabi, winners of the Performa Malcolm McLaren Award. The performance began in a back room with four dancers dressed in tan-coloured trousers and shirts printed with a bluish-grey galaxy design. Leading the audience upstairs, each dancer paused to lie on the floor or cling to the stairs before proceeding to an upstairs room where Hassabi and Oisín Monaghan had begun their quiet pas de deux. Adopting her signature style of the protracted encounter, Hassabi interrogated the possibilities of stillness between a couple, unearthing the subtlety of yearning through minimal movements. How close can two people get without touching? How do we construct a home not only as a physical dwelling, but as a place in which allowances can be made for the innate hubris of interpolating bodies? How, in short, do we build relationships?

Paul Pfeiffer, University of Georgia Redcoat Band, 2019. Courtesy: Performa 19 Biennial; photograph: © Paula Court  

Throughout 1014 Fifth Avenue, Baghramain has located her sculptures in positions that impede visitors as they make their way in and out of the rooms, prompting them to interact with the works. The artist’s self-styled ‘unfamiliar objects’ also enliven one of the exhibition spaces, which has been re-created as a boudoir, containing a lamp, a black and purple chaise, and a coffee table by Swiss art-deco furniture designer Janette Laverrière. Reimagined as sculpture by Baghramian, these items invite a meditation on home and domesticity. In this regard, it is worth recalling that, while the Bauhaus was seen as progressive at the time for its admittance and equal treatment of female students, women artists – such as Anni Albers – were invariably only permitted to attend its textiles workshops. 

Between these installations hang photographs of women by the Italian architect and designer Carlo Mollino. Although seemingly innocuous – some women are shown smiling, others stare confidently into the camera – Mollino took innumerable photographs in his studio of women in wigs and costumes on apparently unclear terms. Now part of Baghramian’s own collection, the images have been installed here to testify to the implicit theft of these bodies and, by extension, to society’s pervasive disregard for women. 

Yvonne Rainer, Parts of Some Sextets, 2019. Courtesy: Performa 19 Biennale; photograph: © Paula Court 

Kia LaBeija’s highly anticipated Untitled, The Black Act is inspired by Bauhaus collaborator Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet (1922). At Performance Space New York, LaBeija merged notes of ballroom, queer night life, and improvisation into an introspective yet lively ballet featuring all women of colour artists. Designer Kyle Luu created Schlemmer-inspired costumes with body-affirming silhouettes in iridescent ivories and glittery purple pastels. LaBeija’s brother, Kenn Michael, composed a futuristic, underworld soundtrack – featuring their father, drummer Warren Benbow, on percussion – punctuated by subtle, calming sounds created using RESHI software.  In a mesmerizing duet, two dancers transitioned from highly focused mirror work, in which they gracefully echoed each other’s moves, to ‘bend-and-snap’ gestures that introduced a refreshing self-assurance. The tension in their movements is met with steadiness as one dancer watches and waits for the other to move. The square grid of the stage, made of artist’s tape, referenced both Schlemmer’s concerns with geometry and contemporary urban design. The grid worked as an organizing structure for the performers as well as an opportunity to resist such conventions. Near the end of the performance, LaBeija and her dancers removed tape in strips before making their final exit. 

Kia LaBeija, Untitled, The Black Act, 2019. Courtesy: Performa 19 Biennale; photograph: © Julieta Cervantes

In Frank Whitford’s 1994 documentary Bauhaus: The Face of the 20th Century, Gropius insists: ‘The school is the servant of the workshop and will one day be absorbed in it.’ A complex statement, most certainly steering our focus to the labour involved in art-making, rather than the 21st  century theme of productivity. Performa 19 interrogates this process in the revival of Yvonne Ranier’s Parts of Some Sextets (1965), presented in collaboration with Emily Coates. Rainer’s original voice-over – a monotone reading of an 18th-century minister’s diary – provided the darkly comic score to a performance in which 11 dancers interacted with 12 mattresses. After a sequence involving repetitive motions and partner work, the dancers began to engage with a box of props, including a large red felt circle, a small white felt circle, a hefty braided rope, a long thin piece of twine and a garden hose. The movements of the performers – a broad spectrum of racial, gender and body types – ranged from introspective steps and gestures to launching themselves, one by one, onto the soft, leaning piles of mattresses, necessitating their constant restacking. Towards the end of the performance, the dancers engaged in a number of beautiful poses in which they assisted and supported one another, reminding the audience of our essential interdependence on one another. In these weeks of commissions, installations, talks, and contemplative works-in-progress, Performa 19 urges that art not only involves hard work, but also, collaboration.

Main image: Nairy Baghramian and Maria Hassabi, with Janette Laverrière and Carlo Mollino, Entre Deux Actes (Ménage à Quatre), 2019. Courtesy: Performa 19 Biennial. Photo © Paula Court

Erica N. Cardwell is a writer, critic, and educator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in BOMB Magazine, The Believer, Hyperallergic, Brooklyn Rail and elsewhere. She teaches writing and social justice at The New School.

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