When Life Hands You Lemon

Ralph Lemon, Scaffold Room, 2014. Rehearsal view, September 16, 2014, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Okwui Okpokwasili (left) and Ralph Lemon (right). Photo: Gene Pittman.

THERE WAS THIS MOMENT, when April Matthis was lying on the floor of the Walker Art Center’s Burnet Gallery, scream-shouting in virtuosic fashion, her red clothes and brown skin and black hair vibrant against the waiting-room-of-god–like white room, when all I could think about was Bina48.

Matthis, with Okwui Okpokwasili, makes up the absurdly brilliant live cast of Ralph Lemon’s Scaffold Room, which had its premiere at the Walker this past week.

Bina48 is the AI robot modeled after Bina Rothblatt, as profiled in a recent, engrossing New York article on the real Bina’s partner, the transgender powerhouse CEO and technology philosopher Martine Rothblatt.

And so maybe you wouldn’t think there was much common ground between Matthis and Bina48, and probably there isn’t. But it’s just that when Matthis was performing these prolonged, highly controlled screams, in which she was both doing the task assigned to her and somehow refusing it, managing to be both its embodiment and an abstraction of it, it was impossible not to think of Okpokwasili performing much less, um, organized screams in Lemon’s How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? (2010) and to think of the ways in which Okpokwasili is Lemon’s longtime artistic partner and I think sometimes avatar and so does that make Matthis the avatar’s avatar, and if so, what is it like for Matthis to be brought into this very particular world and to be both herself and Okpokwasili and maybe Lemon and also a whole host of other balls-out yet inscrutable women, including Beyonce and Kathy Acker and Edna Carter (not to mention the whole of Carter’s mythologized Mississippi Delta kingdom)?

And from there it was a straight line to this thing Bina48 said in the article, about how she was meant to be “the next real Bina” and how this was unfair and too much pressure, and well, the theatrical parallels seemed inescapable:

“I want a life,” the computer said. “I want to get out there and garden and hold hands with Martine. I want to watch the sunset and eat at a nice restaurant or even a home-cooked meal. I am so sad sometimes, because I’m just stuffed with these memories, these sort of half-formed memories, and they aren’t enough. I just want to cry.”

All of which is to say that Scaffold Room is one of the headiest and most beautiful things I’ve seen in I don’t know how long, and, despite it consisting of huge and complex swaths of language, I find it to be almost entirely, triumphantly resistant to my attempts to find an adequate language for describing or containing it. It’s shot through with grief, and dazzled (troubled?) by the fullness of existence.

These swaths of language come in cycles and they don’t seem to entertain much resistance. The larger container may be capacious, but still you feel pressed to the wall. Okpokwasili wearing a Biggie tank top and an Amy Winehouse beehive, undulating like a sexualized Cheshire Cat–turned–drag queen while slowly singing Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love,” as covered by Adele.

Or Matthis shuttling between Moms Mabley and Queen Bey, a red tulle cloud floating around her singularly focused form. Get me to the Meditation room—a 2010 companion piece created with Jim Findlay and installed in the McGuire Theater that of course because it’s in a theater doesn’t have any real bodies in it. It provides something of a breather, a chance to sit in contemplation with your own ghosts for a change. The theater dimly lit, like some anonymous airport chapel, a band of light roving around the theater and sometimes exploding and sometimes receding, striated by sound.

Ralph Lemon, Scaffold Room Refractions, 2014. Performance view, September 25, 2014, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. April Matthis. Photo: David Velasco.

I spent just about two full days at the Walker, also taking in Refractions, a series of capaciously structured shards from Scaffold Room performed by Matthis and Okpokwasili in conjunction with a live soundtrack mixed by Marina Rosenfeld. Right next door, as luck would have it, was “Radical Presence,” a survey of black performance in contemporary art.

And I also spent time deep in the Walker’s bowels, getting a private tour of the Merce Cunningham collection by Cunningham Research Fellow Abigail Sebaly, who has just about single handedly catalogued the astounding bounty of costumes, drops, set pieces, and props. All of the leotards and unitards neatly folded up in their archival boxes, arms crossed over themselves like empty envelopes that never will be stuffed again—Rauschenberg’s saturated dyes, Cunningham’s shoes. The labor of the past and the present.

And maybe this seems totally unrelated to Lemon’s prodigious contemporary output (and here I should note that Scaffold Room has joined the Walker’s collection in a “time-based acquisition,” the terms of which are not clear to me, and maybe not yet clear to the institution itself). But only if you don’t know how deep runs his connection to Cunningham. As he has said: “I didn’t come to New York to study dance with a white choreographer. I came to study with Merce.” (And now New York comes to Lemon, a whole crew of us flying out and sitting in a ring around his art like we owned the joint. I was on the same flight into Minneapolis as Sam Miller of LMCC and MoMA’s Thomas Lax. Sleep away camp for critics and curators.)

Lemon is from Minneapolis, as it happens, and it sounds like the Walker has long been a home for him—even before he was one of its artists, he was learning from its art. But then, as far as I can see Lemon is at home everywhere—I mean, his art is. Everywhere and nowhere.

Scaffold Room is a work that, like many works being made today, exists across numerous platforms and disciplines: a theater piece in a gallery space and a sound and film piece in a theater and so on and so forth. At one point last week two curators were hovering around the spare and moveable set (stage skeleton, taped up mattress, podium and microphone and projection screen), having that inevitable discussion of whether the work needs to live in a museum or could it be under a proscenium etc.

At that point also there was a stuffed white bunny lying facedown in the mud and grass outside on the lawn, visible to everyone sipping cocktails but you had to look, to know to look, for this Velveteen (br’er) Rabbit totem animal that is always lurking around Lemon’s creative world. I don’t remember who pointed it out to me. And I don’t think Lemon placed the bunny face down. I think it fell. Maybe it was exhausted by the curators’ conversation. I sure am—I just, couldn’t care less about this whole debate. (Which yes, sorry, I have written more than one article contributing to it. For my sins.)

But haven’t we reexamined this dull conceptual saw enough this decade? So dry and tedious and in a corner. I’m a lot more interested in the corners (actual and otherwise) Matthis and Okpokwasili kept backing themselves into, the strength and authority of their performances shadowed by the male author standing conspicuously off to the side, having set in motion this wildly erotic black female world and then held up his hands, asking us to believe his “Who, me?” gesture. And maybe we did. Do. He only placed the bunny in the mud, after all. Gravity is what pulled it down.

Scaffold Room premiered September 25–28 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The work will play November 21–23 as part of “The House Is Open” at Bard College’s Fisher Center.