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Frieze Week New York 2024

Matty Davis Is Under Pressure

Die No Die is a new work co-commissioned by Frieze and the High Line in which Matty Davis explores the huge geological forces that compress our selves. Photography by Christian Werner

BY Jesse Zaritt in Frieze New York , Frieze Week Magazine , Profiles | 30 APR 24

Matty Davis is attempting the impossible. From lying on the ground, he tries to execute a handless kip-up—arching his back, pushing from his shoulders to propel his body from horizontal to vertical. He thrusts his chest off the ground and drives his knees forward, failing a few times before fully launching himself upright. But his goal is not only to land in a standing position; rather, it is to arrive perched, hovering off-balance on the balls of his feet, and from there to catapult himself from one action of precarity into another. Davis approaches this series of movements with relentless, reckless, urgent exertion. Rather than watching his control, I witness him play at the edge of his ability, seeking possibilities of physicality that exist only in the margins of his awareness. He aims to find accidental, excessive expressivity—to be surprised and undone by where his body might take him.

Davis grew up in Cranberry Township in suburban Pennsylvania, an athlete and skater who only discovered art and dance as a senior in college. His work as an artist, choreographer and performer has been commissioned and supported by venues including the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (2017), Pioneer Works, New York (2017), Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2019) and KANAL—Centre Pompidou, Brussels (2021). Voracious in his appetite for physical risk and effort, Davis mixes the spectacular with the quotidian. Virtuosic, ecstatic, almost sacrificial dancing happens alongside acts of tender devotion—in a wide-open field, on a basketball court, in a museum or in the intimacy of a collaborator’s living room.

Matty Davis, New York, 2024. Photograph: Christian Werner 
Matty Davis, New York, 2024. Photograph: Christian Werner 

Frieze and the High Line have co-commissioned Die No Die (The High Line), a choreographic work by Davis for five performers to be presented this May. Last year, Davis shared iterations of the project at The Momentary in Bentonville, Arkansas, and a site-specific version at the University of Iowa Ashton Cross-Country Course with PE and Public Space One. In addition to the live element, which will be performed on the High Line by Davis and a cast of collaborators, a new publication and an installation of original artwork will be presented in parallel at The Shed. While performance anchors Davis’s practice, writing, photography, design and drawing are equally important. The new installation and publication are intended to be experienced in tandem with the performance work.

Davis began working on Die No Die during the early days of the pandemic, driven to examine a bodily and intellectual response to the precarity of that time. His attention focused at once on himself, his own vitality and proximity to mortality, and on the ways in which shared conditions would inevitably impact each of us differently. Davis, who spoke to me via Zoom during a research trip to the Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro, Arkansas, talks about selfhood as being related to the geologic formation of gemstones. Die No Die stems from the idea that the forces that shape our lives—vulnerability, grief, privilege, desire, prejudice, rejection, curiosity, loss and interdependence—form a network of pressurized constraints that act as a thick, constantly changing, atmosphere through which we move. As we travel through this dense space, our bodies are abraded, honed and shaped by the resistances and supports we encounter. In Die No Die, the goal seems to be to further intensify and make visible the extreme pressures that, while shared, ultimately produce us as distinct individuals.

Matty Davis, New York, 2024
Matty Davis, New York, 2024. Photograph: Christian Werner 

In the 2019 publication Wood Bone Mill, which followed an eponymous performance made in collaboration with Bryan Saner — who will also appear in Die No Die on the High Line — Davis writes: “I’m often interested in risk, in the terms of what we can survive together, not in this macho way but in this way that requires everything you have in terms of care and sensitivity and deep listening.” There is no overarching physical aesthetic or set of capacities that his collaborators must adhere to, rather it is each person’s commitment to moving Davis’s questions/directives through their own physical research that determines their movement. He writes: “Common structure refracts particularity, revealing the wholly unique and irreplaceable nature of each life.”

The score for Die No Die has four parts. As Davis explains, the first, “‘The Critical Gesture of Arrival,’ asks each individual performer to collect their physical and psychological energy as fully and intensely as possible. It asks them then to hold it, to allow it to build, to become hard and heavy and perhaps difficult to carry until, finally, they surrender it, casting it into the performance space.” “Oppositional States,” the final action for each performer, dictates that they pass the performance on to the next participant. They must engage with one another at the point where one person concludes their performance and the next one begins. At this moment of encounter, each performer must, as Davis states, “hold a life that isn’t yours.”

Matty Davis, New York, 2024
Matty Davis, New York, 2024. Photograph: Christian Werner 

The score (which also includes “A Gem” and “Send the Heart Deeper”) is designed to be successive, with each performer moving through the four parts before passing each one on. The work travels linearly along the High Line. In as much as the work creates a process of transmission for the performers, it is designed to implicate viewers as well. Taylor Zakarin, associate curator of High Line Art, speaks about the importance of Davis’s work traversing the length of the structure: “There is no barrier between artist and viewer. By being there, you inherently become a part of the work — which speaks to the High Line’s broader mission around public art and accessibility.”

Davis is dancing and there is dirt and sweat all over his shirt and face; his hair is flying in all directions at once. He is spinning, arms open, palms facing out while his head is tilted up to look at the sky. In this position, with the force of his spiraling movement, he can’t stay upright for long. He is twisting while falling. It is both elegant and messy; his exquisite bodily awareness and lack of control are simultaneously evident. It can be shocking and exhilarating to watch. I recognize in Davis the wonder, courage and fear that come with surrender, the desire to throw oneself into living with the hope and faith that this next risk might take you somewhere you have never been before.

Matty Davis’s Die No Die (The High Line), a performance and publication co-commissioned by High Line Art and Frieze, will be presented at the High Line, New York, USA, on 30 April, 1 May and 2 May 

This article first appeared in Frieze Week New York 2024 under the title “Live Wire”

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Main image: Matty Davis, New York, 2024. Photograph: Christian Werner 

Jesse Zaritt is a dance artist and assistant professor at the University of the Arts, Philadelphia, USA. He lives in New York, USA.