What’s the Occasion?

Isabel Lewis “Occasion” at Dia:Chelsea on June 25, 2016. (All photos: Don Stahl)

EROTIC SOCIABILITY was in the air that evening, or at least that’s what we were told. The occasion for any and all frisson, real or imagined, was one of artist Isabel Lewis’s “occasions” held at Dia:Chelsea on the Friday of 4th of July weekend.

Dia, as decorated by Lewis, certainly looked ready to put out. The front gates of the building were all open to the street, and the walls were completely bare. Modern white couches and concrete-topped bar tables placed throughout the space gave the audience places to sit and stand, floor-to-ceiling installations of air plants gave them something to Instagram, and the periodic waft of pungent, earthy scents designed by Norwegian “smell researcher” Sissel Tolaas gave the distinct impression that we might be in an upscale Chelsea boutique.

In other words: I wasn’t feeling it.

As distinct from a Happening or a performance, Lewis’s branded occasions appear to be part DJ’d dance party, part public lecture, part participatory performance—an exploration of the spaces in between genres, which unfortunately has become the mark of these neither/nor art-world productions that seek to please rather than master (i.e., neither party nor performance; neither dance nor lecture). And what’s hipper than a certain haziness of intention or form? The night I attended, guests sipped from cans of Brooklyn Summer Ale and boxes of water, nibbled vegan spring rolls and tiny bites of cake as Lewis spun music from a laptop, interrupting the flow of the night to speak in a meandering and off-the-cuff manner on subjects related to socializing. Lewis, it became clear, had organized a social event as a discourse on the dynamics of a social event—a neither unpleasant nor difficult concept, but it was perhaps less a work of art than an exercise in self-consciousness-raising.

Isabel Lewis “Occasion” at Dia:Chelsea on June 25, 2016. (All photos: Don Stahl)

Early in the evening, microphone in hand, Lewis invited a nice-looking gentleman to speak with her about an exchange they’d had, bringing it out into the open for all of us to hear. They spoke about how they’d felt drawn to each other. He’d liked her hair, he said, and wanted to know more about her show. “You affect me and my senses,” Lewis explained of the chemistry that can happen between two strangers. “You’re entering my body in some way.” Alas, their dialogue hinged on the erotics of social intercourse, so of course it remained all talk. (Those who know Lewis as the brilliant and brave dancer who once penetrated the notorious Ann Liv Young live on stage with a dildo might be shocked at how tame Lewis’s own artistic predilections are.)

Funny that the inspiration for this part of the evening was the least socially inspiring of all events: a book, in this case, Roslyn Wallach Bologh’s Love or Greatness: Max Weber and Masculine Thinking, A Feminist Inquiry, in which the author proposes that the feminist model for erotic love should be based on sociability, rather than (as Weber would have it) on coercion. (Confession: I Googled that.) Still on the mic, Lewis talked to us about how we are all beings in social relation to one another, how we must move forward with the ways in which we think and interact, though little was spoken about who this “we” is and how exactly we’re failing—at least, the seemingly open and interested folks here in this audience. Soon, she put the music back on and went around the room, hugging friends and colleagues warmly, chatting and mingling with the crowd, and welcoming people into the space until it was time to talk more.

Left and right: Isabel Lewis “Occasion” at Dia:Chelsea on June 25, 2016. (All photos: Don Stahl)

“Do you have a soul?” Lewis asked a bespectacled man sitting on one of the couches. “I’m not sure what a soul is,” he replied. So began the next phase of the conversation meant to turn partygoers’ attentions inward. Lewis invited her friend Brooke to expound upon the soul according to Aristotle and Plato. From there, the evening leapt to a lesson in Kizomba, an Angolan dance for which partners press against each other—“heart chakra to heart chakra”—and move to the rhythm. Dave, the Kizomba teacher Lewis described as “a very special person,” made sure we knew that the dance is “not sexual.” Lewis continued to swerve between subjects such as the Protestant Reformation and love as an emancipatory space, punctuating her thoughts with remixes of Britney Spears and Rihanna and etcetera and etcetera.

I stuck around Dia for two and a half hours, watching people converse, dance, eat, drink, and do as people do while I waited for the performance to take off, or for things to jell, or for all to come into some kind of sharp focus. It didn’t, though the crowd seemed to be enjoying themselves anyhow. Nice to know that here in New York, not even a slight performance can spoil a good party.