By Marissa Perel
LIVING THE LEOPARD LIFE
Centripetal Run by Aki Sasamoto, November 28 – December 1
Aki Sasamoto sets up radical obstacles for herself with her sculptures*. It’s about an unwieldy experience: she must conquer the malfunction of the object, or the limitation of her athleticism. This rift between the body and the objects functions for me as something like an allegory, in which the risk of failure is real and imminent. She’s Atlas hurdling the world over and over again, or Hercules in a relay of impossible tasks. Her lecture on panties and personality types seems merely observational at first, but spins into a tirade on leopard print, and what kind of personality can truly live up to the pattern. Sasamoto is something of a wild cat herself, leaping onto a high, curved wall of markers, grasping fiendishly at what lies just out of her reach, or climbing up a wooden frame to dangle on pegs, repeatedly screaming “Estrogen! Testosterone!”
Arturo Vidich plays stand-by as her helper, but he’s not just a stage-hand or dance partner. He clears the debris left from the multiple breakdowns, shifts, and transformations of the sculptures to make way for the next task. For some reason, Vidich’s obedient cleaning heightens my awareness of the performance being an event that cannot be characterized by any one genre. It’s not dance, or theater, or a lecture, or an exhibition, although the sculptures might appear to perform themselves in such a context.
The performance at the Chocolate Factory is Aki Sasamoto doing Aki Sasamoto, a Dada-acrobat in her Merzbau-like structures infusing the physical prowess of Streb with the conceptual inflections of Bas Jan Ader’s various Falls. There’s an edge to Centripetal Run that runs on destruction. What does it mean to build structures to house errors, however small or large? Either way we see the artist in the drama of herself, wrestling with these things she’s made.
I observed another kind of wrestling when she took the microphone, in the margin of time between her taking a breath and making the first utterance of her lecture. The premise of the lecture was compelling enough, the story of the universe as told through the modernization of the under-garment, but what struck me the most was the shift from Sasamoto’s heroic persona to one more vulnerable, however stern and emphatic she sounded in her declarations. “If you are going to wear the leopard print panty, you must do it 100%!”
This change in Sasamoto’s presentation signals a central issue in the piece, one that feels true in my body. When you see a person frantic, struggling, going through literal hurdles and obstacles, that physical work becomes a given. The moment of stillness, the stance taken before speech seems like a brief repose, but it is just as fraught. Desire compels us to attempt impossible things, things that from a logical perspective seem like a bad idea, or where we run the risk of danger.
What is desire without danger? Is what we are saying what we actually want or mean to say? Is Sasamoto’s leopard-print diatribe about the panties or about the girl? It’s about Aki not getting what she wanted, which might have nothing to do with either the panties or the girl. It has to do with sexuality and it has to do with gender. It has to do with Sasamoto’s first story of falling in love in Japan with a girl who wore cotton underwear and left her for a man with a stable income, or it has to do with the most recent girl who wore silk underwear and had her own income, which Aki’s didn’t match. Maybe the leopard-print wearer doesn’t exist yet (not that Vidich’s short-lived appearance in a leopard-print onesie, pouncing on a donut precariously strung up on a wooden beam wasn’t feline slap-stick). It is Sasamoto who is the leopard. In building a world of obstacles, she created a proving ground, making the space of the theater into a Colosseum, and making herself into a gladiator, fighting to emerge as her own heroine.
* Donut and Timber Sculptures: Sam Ekwurtzel. Other Sculptures (Ramp Sculpture, Poetry Light Stools, Ice Sculptures) : Aki Sasamoto
VICTORIAN FUTURISTS PREPARE FOR TAKE OFF
The Guiding Light by Jillian Peña, December 5-8
I have seen The Guiding Light in its year-long process during Peña’s residency at BAX. We did an interview about it. Then Time Out did one too. The words, “religiosity,” “sci-fi,” “near death experience,” reappear in both interviews, where Peña attempts to articulate a strange intersection of beliefs and concepts about death and the after life. The show, however, is really a show–the glamour and sheen of A Chorus Line, leaving aside the personal narratives. Cassie Mey, Lea Fulton, and Alexandra Albrecht appear as cadets, lining a diagonal stripe that looks like a runway through the space. Their gold spandex body-suits with lace collars and sleeves, made by Reid Bartelme, are a hybrid of Victorian and Futurist styles, which I think Bartelme invented.
But what is this dance, what is this reflection, however tongue-in-cheek, on the guiding light? There were many iterations of the theme song from The Young and the Restless, or more importantly from “Nadia’s Theme,” the Nadia Comenici tribute, altered by sound artist Michael Wall. In one of its iterations, a deep bass comes on and I write, “Do you ever think about the exact moment you are going to die? Will there be House music?” Then, a Casio keyboard comes down from the ceiling and Fulton plays a spooky version of the song. There was a camera located in the audience, projecting the faces of Fulton and later, Rebecca Warner, as they described their preparations to go “into the light.” For one clever moment Albrecht jumped into the chairs toward the camera, and the dancers shouted after her, “No, Alex, no!”
What if death was just the same as life, where we are watching ourselves infinitely in the same story that has no climax or resolution? This sad revelation came to mind when projections on the walls showed the dancers multiplied in rows upon rows. The repetitive modern-ballet mounted on itself until the whole piece felt like one un-ending arabesque. The projections were haunting, as if the dancers were out of their bodies, seeing themselves perform. It reminded me of another trope of “the light” so often portrayed in hospital themed serial shows: the patient is about to die, and the camera shows an angle from above as the spirit looks down on the body, rising above it toward heaven. The projection fills with a blue liquid and a gold-fish swims by, getting caught in a corner of the frame; there goes any idea of transcendence! Crossing-over has been replaced with purgatory, or the just the ordinary, predictable stuff of life.
Mey starts to sweat through her costume. Her arms are outstretched and the dark areas around her ribcage look like wings. I write down, “cadets ecstatic in their servitude,” and “the body as the vessel for some kind of truth.” It makes me sad again, thinking of death as necessarily letting go of the body without learning all of its possible truths. During Warner’s aside, (or possibly soliloquy, as she is not looking directly at the audience, but into the camera), she says, “we’re not trying to sell you anything, we just want to hang out,” and I remember the classic Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. What if the light was something to be sold, and Warner was giving us a pitch? Would I buy? Is the piece a commercial for the afterlife, the dancers like sleek Virgin airlines flight attendants-cum-astronauts? Where’s the preacher’s tent and neon cross? I was hoping it would become an infomercial with a toll free number, but instead more and more dancers took to the floor, dancing in formation. Afterward, I overheard a friend of Peña’s chastising her for letting the dancers wear their own underwear underneath the body suits:
Friend: “But that’s not uniform, I could see their straps, and the different lines of their undies. I’d say, no underwear for anyone.”
Peña: “We tried different things, and it didn’t seem to matter. With g-strings you could still see the strings. I suggested nothing, but then someone said, ‘you want the bush to show?’”
At which point I mentioned the visibility of some spanx. Wherein I was informed that such undergarments can be layered under spandex. Between desire and death lies the panty.
Marissa Perel is a Brooklyn based artist and writer whose work spans performance, video and text-based installation. She writes the column, “Gimme Shelter: Performance Now” for the Art21 blog, and is co-editor of Critical Correspondence. She is the curator of Lobby TALKS at New York Live Arts for the Spring 2013 season.