Out of the Box

Catherine Damman on Ligia Lewis’s Minor Matter at Human Resources LA

Ligia Lewis, Minor Matter, 2015. Performance view, Human Resources LA, Los Angeles, January 8, 2015. Photo: Sammy Loren.

THERE IS A PARTICULAR LOW, sustained rumble that is used in films to build suspense. Unlike the discordant stabs of a piano or frenetic strings that mark terror, this tone alerts us to danger’s nearness, lurking but not immediate.

In Ligia Lewis’s Minor Matter, which recently premiered at Human Resources LA, this sound announced performer Kenneth Nicholson’s rise from the floor.

Like the best science fiction, Lewis’s work is most successful in its insistence that the spare can be made spectacular. Nicholson began with a monologue delivered supine. Reporting on his view under the astringent gallery lights, the object of his description was marked by some distance. Nicholson, like the audience, stayed close to the ground: The ceiling was far from all of us. By us, I mean me and a generous crowd of bodies strewn across the room; some perched on small black cushions, almost all dressed with a certain cool lassitude, and a few with post-performance meals (from next-door Pho 87) at the ready. I caught one small boy passing his tongue in circles around his own mouth. He watched me watch him until I looked away.

The lights went out, then amber. Nicholson rose, his soliloquy continued. He spoke in dichotomies (“black, white; girl, boy; up, down”). He drew an imaginary line through the center of the stage, walking it. The division between “minor” and “major” was yelled, whispered, and intoned from various angles, and soon gave way to slippery reticulations—“minor” became “miner.” Digging furiously deeper, we moved toward imprecision.

Lewis, a Dominican-born and Berlin and LA-based performer and choreographer, has been working on sadness. Minor Matter follows her Sorrow Swag, shown at HRLA last October, which fuses Jean Anouilh’s translation of Antigone with Billie Whitelaw’s performance of Samuel Beckett’s Not I. Brian Getnick played the amalgam of tragic figures: one buried alive for civil disobedience, the other a lone, hysterical mouth.

Nicholson’s words were first brittle; he soon traded them for the gummier idiom of the body. We were more firmly in darkness now, and given a seductive beat: familiar pop songs chopped and screwed beyond recognition. (The music was scored and arranged by WYNN of Twin Shadow.) Exquisite, discandied undulations of torso and pelvis called to mind intimate public performances on the club floor, given to everybody and nobody but the collective effervescence. I felt like I shouldn’t be watching. I thought again of the boy licking his lips.

Then, a more palatable bit of soft shoe, acerbic barking, choreographed phrases, and more dialogue. Minorities, majorities, all of our complicities: Issues of race and representation were at the core of this work, which grew out of a two-part symposium at HRLA titled “Decolonizing the White Box.” Each shift proposed blackness as a form of embodiment to be elaborated and unsettled rather than calcified. That our bodies are always performing is true; Lewis asks what they are like when we hold terror and resistance side by side. Don’t give up your rage for anything, but watch how beautiful the light is, glinting off its shoulder.

Ligia Lewis, Minor Matter, 2015. Performance view, Human Resources LA, Los Angeles, January 8, 2015. Photo: Sammy Loren.

And if I have been talking about world-building, it is only because Nicholson makes his own cosmos. An entire passage of monologue was dedicated not to the description of his surroundings, but to the self: arms out, testing his stamina in an almost unbelievable number of revolutions, and dictating all the while, Nicholson became his own orbit. “I am still spinning,” he said. “I persevere,” he seemed to say.

With another change of light, to red, Nicholson moved to the corner. His voice—manipulated at the microphone—was deep, nebulous, and disconcerting. From within the syrupy, machinic drawl, Nicholson began what sounded like the end: “I am grateful to be here, in this white cube,” he said, “and isn’t that special.” Then he asked, “How did we go from this [Black Power fist] to this [hands up]?” The gestures were repeated at length, moving from the symbolic language of protest to something that looked much more like dance.

Boxes more like prisons than Brian O’Doherty’s famed cubes, I suppose, the former suggesting enclosure more so than shape. Amid all this I kept thinking of the pallid logic that structures our present and the ecstatic resilience it takes to image alternative futures. I thought of the art world’s whitewashing, a phrase which, aside from its chromatic associations, also connotes deception, a deliberate concealment—victory in a game in which the loser scores no points.

As if to leave things open to other endings—to unsanctioned burials, to insubordinate mouths—the performance finished with Nicholson singing a warbling song of mourning that stopped mid-sentence “whatever, whatev–”

Ligia Lewis’s Minor Matter was performed at Human Resources LA on January 8, 2015.