Jimmy Robert

Jimmy Robert talks about his work for Performa 17 at the Glass House

Jimmy Robert, Imitation of Lives, 2017. Rehearsal view, Glass House, 2017. NIC Kay and Quenton Stuckey.

The work of Guadeloupe-born, Bucharest-based artist Jimmy Robert spans photography, film, video, sculpture, and performance, but collage is its mainstay. For his latest piece, titled Imitation of Lives, 2017, and staged at Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, Robert mines the architect’s infamous life and historical influence to create an exquisite montage interspersed with divergent references and foreign objects, including music, mirrors, bits of poetry, and a marble trompe-l’oeil painting by Lucy McKenzie, among other things. The work is co-curated by Cole Akers and Charles Aubin as part of Performa 17 and will take place November 3–5, 2017.

TRAVELING OUT OF MANHATTAN TO GO TO THE GLASS HOUSE, there are many, many different disjunctions. Gender and class and race—you feel very much all of this as you progress through the landscape. And then once you are in the house, there is a different atmosphere: one of privateness and coziness, almost, which you don’t expect because you feel like you are always outside. It’s a complex space. It was very clear to me that the house was a stage and that the performance had to be thought through as a series of images that could be read, as in cinema.

The narrative of Imitation of Lives is mostly constructed through the costumes. The first section is what I call “the security section,” because of the security outfits. The second part is “the hoodie section,” and the third part is “the robes section.” In the first section, we’re wearing all black clothing; in the second, the hoodies are all gray; and in the third, the robes are white and silky and semi-transparent. So there is a gradation. I was thinking also of mirrors and reflections and the possibility of black bodies being within this space—what they could represent, through what they’ve represented before. If you have a security outfit, it’s a question of power; if you have a hooded figure, it’s a question of anxiety. And then there is something totally different and much more mannered, decadent, and superfluous with the robes.

Another thing that is interesting about the house is the absence of walls. There isn’t one perspective from which to see the performance. Who is looking at whom, and how? I integrated Jeff Wall’s book Dan Graham’s Kammerspiel into another performance I did called The mirror is on stage, which also involved some movements from Trio A by Yvonne Rainer. For most of the piece, Rainer never looks at the audience. The gaze is averted. So, I placed mirrors on my hands and my face, and I performed these specific sections of Trio A, reversing the gaze of the audience members onto themselves rather than onto the performer, while they obviously are looking at the performance. And I recited a text that contains some quotations from the Dan Graham’s Kammerspiel, which is a long reflection on the idea of transparency and visibility. Wall makes these kinds of relations between the mirror cross section of Graham’s Alteration to a Suburban House—which was never built—and the Glass House.

There are some sections of the book in which Wall talks about anxiety, and those, to me, were the most interesting parts. It’s very interesting that somebody like Philip Johnson, who had an openly gay life, could live in a totally transparent house at a time when there was no transparency about sexuality. It says a lot about the anxiety that can be generated by looking and the possibility of looking through someone’s private life.

I have mostly worked in white cubes, and sometimes in theaters. This is the first time I’ve worked in a house. It becomes a stage because we will be in this space with this audience and the audience will have to negotiate its own space at the same time. You cannot get away from the fact that it is a domestic space.