Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Disappearing Acts

And to make an end is to make a beginning
                                                                    T.S. Eliot

The cyclical nature of time is a reoccurring theme in Sara Wookey’s solo performance Disappearing Acts & Resurfacing Subjects: Concerns of (a) dance artist(s) then and now, which had its US premier at Automata last weekend. The work, constructed in three parts, is a lecture conveyed through the use of movement, text, and projected media. Wookey began the work on a darkened stage illuminated by a bare bulb held on the end of a long cord. She moved slowly towards the audience, swinging the bulb with greater intensity until she produced an ellipse of light that hovered over the stage like a magical sign. This luminous marker referenced the path of a creative trajectory that is forever impacted by both memory and time.

Wookey drew upon her extensive career working in dance and public interventions in Europe and US, as she spoke about a kind of visceral memory. She contrasted the movement knowledge contained in her body against the disembodied stacks of video tapes that clutter her studio apartment. Which is a more true representation of the original performance, a collection of gestures recalled from memory or the mechanical reproduction? Wookey is concerned with what is always lost in gestures to capture the live performance and she favors acts of erasure over attempts to secure permanence. In this vein, she danced a fragmentary sequence of movements that comprised all the dances she could remember from the past ten years of her practice, ending with a clocklike motion as she made a loud ticking sound.

Sara Wookey, still image from reDance, 2011

At two points, Wookey directly engaged temporal issues by dancing with a version of herself from the past. In the first instance, she recreated a movement from a projected still image. Her body in real time could not match the frozen precision of the photograph, and the live posture slowly deteriorated under the weight of gravity as the Velvet Underground's I’m Sticking with You filled the spaceLater in the performance, Wookey moved along with a video of herself dancing in her apartment on the occasion of her 40th birthday. The “birthday dance” was a spontaneous bodily expression and she explained the difficulty in learning movements when they were detached from the original purity of experience. It is hard to recapture the past, especially the emotional eruptions of joy or despair.

Disappearing Acts & Resurfacing Subjects continually circles back to issues of the value of dance, ownership, and preservation. References to Trio A, Yvonne Rainer's seminal dance work from 1966, occur throughout the performance. As one of only five instructors certified to teach Trio A, Wookey is part of the legacy of Rainer's work. Wookey's body is a conduit to transmit Rainer's work into the future, and It is daunting to consider the fragility of the body-archive that is forever vulnerable to injury and decay.

Sara Wookey, Trio A, 2011 Photo: Guy L'Heureux

I want to suggest another mode of thinking: When we, as artists, accept or reject work, when we participate in the making of a work, even (or perhaps especially) when it is not our own, we contribute to the establishment of standards and precedents for our cohort and all who will come after us. 
Sara Wookey, Open Letter to Artists, in response to auditioning for Marina Abramovic’s MOCA gala performance, November 2011

Wookey’s concern for the preservation of dance and the importance of artist labor rights is evidenced in the now infamous letter she wrote in regard to Marina Abramovic’s 2011 MOCA gala performance. She devoted a section of Disappearing Acts & Resurfacing Subjects to “the letter” and shared the note of regret she received from the Abramovic project when she declined to participate. Wookey also showed quotes from the community in response to her action. This brief section of the performance illuminates the disparity between European and American models of arts support and questions the notion of competition against the more utopian goal of a supportive arts community based on truth and goodness.

Sara Wookey, image from Disappearing Acts & Resurfacing Subjects, 2013

At several points throughout the performance, Wookey showed a projection of a snail, inching across the frame followed by a slowly dissipating trail. Wookey, like the snail, keeps moving forward, propelled by her own will against the fleeting nature of time. Her path will also dissolve behind her, left only as a trace, a memory of what has been lived and lost.

…And to make an end is to make a beginning…

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Mother of Invention

Barbara T Smith, Pink, 1965-1966
Photo: Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy of The Box

In 1965, Barbara T. Smith was a housewife living in Pasadena with her husband and three children. Smith had the idea to make a make a lithographic print combining gravestone rubbings and flowers. In need of technical assistance, she approached the newly established Gemini G.E.L. print studio. Gemini rejected Smith’s inquiry, but she was not discouraged. She turned to the newest printing invention of the 20th century, the Xerox machine. Smith leased a copier and set up shop in her dining room. Over the next year, she produced a prolific output of images that are presented in The Box’s current exhibit, Xerox: Barbara T. Smith 1965-1966.

In many of the pieces, Smith uses the form of the book to collect and contain a series of images. Not unlike the multiples produced by Fluxus artists, Smith’s Xerox works speak of a blurring between the intimacies of art and life. Her work reflects imagery drawn from domestic life including flowers, food-stuff, undergarments, her children, and her own nubile body. Even within the history of Feminist art, it is rare to find examples of art from a mother’s perspective. One notable exception, Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document is clinical and distant in contrast to Smith’s more tender and fleshy renderings. Smith’s works have a warmth and accessibility, like scrapbooks that contain and document moments in time.

Barbara T Smith, Katie, 1965-1966
Photo: Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy of The Box

In a text that accompanies the exhibit, Smith states, “My overall interest had to do with light, identity, the erotic body and the passage of time.” Issues of time, body, and identity can be linked to Smith’s later performance works and in some ways the Xerox pieces are performative works themselves. Smith pressed her body onto the glass of the machine, capturing the imprint of her flesh. Like Ana Mendieta’s Glass on Body, the gesture is a performance for the camera, or the machine. The erotic tone of the work comes through the mortal weight of the body pressing against the boundaries of the transparent “mirror”, as female flesh is revealed to be potentially boundless and terrifying.

Obvious to me, just bursting with my need and desire to “come out” as a full active erotic being, was to put my face and body onto the machine and print it. My sexual drive was at a fever pitch in 1966 (my mid 30’s). I was totally devoted to the idea of doing as art and art as action in life. This is why I liked the books so much for you had to hold them and do something with them to perceive them.

Barbara T. Smith, Coffins Installation View, 2013 
Photo: Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy of The Box

Smith calls her book works “coffins”, as they hold a “reality of a fixed location in time and in space”. The works contain a kind of body knowledge, haptic experience that we can all conjure from our own memories. We understand the sensation of the body on glass, the warmth of paper lifted from a copy machine, the feel of pages as they are collated into the form of a book which holds and can be held. In a comment about her book Pink Rose (two) Smith says, "A life that becomes a relic. Something like the Shroud of Turin, the Xerox becomes a mark that it was actually there. The question of the actual. A sort of sickening carnal nostalgia." Through the humble process of the copy machine, Smith found a way to capture layers of the sublime through images that evoke memory, loss, and the fleeting nature of time.

Barbara T. Smith,  Installation View, 2013 
Photo: Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy of The Box

XeroxBarbara T. Smith 1965-1966 is on view at The Box February 16 through March 23, 2013.