Action Figures

Rachel Valinsky on the Performa 19 Biennial

Kia LaBeija, Untitled, The Black Act, 2019. Performance view, Performance Space New York, New York, November 7–9, 2019. Commissioned by Performa and Performance Space New York for the Performa 19 Biennial and Performance Space New York’s Stages Series. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

NOVEMBER WAS THE MONTH of overscheduled evenings, stacked with events sprawling across three weeks and forty venues for the eighth iteration of Performa. The brainchild of RoseLee Goldberg, the biennial has since 2005 promoted the field of performance art as a coherent subdiscipline of the visual arts, drawing on histories of the avant-garde to firmly tie the field’s lineage to art history. In fact, it is Performa’s habit to produce new commissions undertaken by visual artists with little experience in live media (at the expense, often, of supporting practitioners already active in this domain), though many performances this past month rose to the occasion.

This year, Performa’s “anchor” (following on the heels of past themes like Dada, Surrealism, Fluxus, and Futurism) was the Bauhaus, the Weimar-era German school defined by its programmatic interdisciplinarity and utopian aim to integrate art and technology. While the biennial’s art-historical referent often bore tenuous connections to its actual program, Kia LaBeija’s reimagining of Oskar Schlemmer’s 1922 Das Triadische Ballet (Triadic Ballet) proved an exception. The performer and photographer, who hails from the New York ballroom scene, reconfigured the ballet’s third, so-called “black act,” which mobilized artificial darkness as a backdrop against which dancers negotiated their bodies’ relation to mechanization, space, and each other.

A series of movements unfolded, first presenting LaBeija wearing iridescent crystal-studded garments underneath a pink floor-length veil, spiraling slowly and with poise through a maze drawn in white masking tape on the floor. In the duet that followed, the dancers mirrored, matched, and exceeded each other in a dynamic contest. Around them, light reflected wildly across the theater from the myriad spherical mirrors adorning their arms and head caps—realizing Schlemmer’s ambition to reconcile the body and its spatial surround. (Untitled) The Black Act thrilled as it reinvested the Bauhaus legacy of collectivity with the attention to her immediate community LaBeija brought to the piece: She worked with family, friends, and her partner Taína Larot, cultivating their talents and expertise to devise a largely intuitive and unscored performance. In a particularly remarkable scene, LaBeija took leave of the strictures of the set’s abstract and geometric syntax, removed the grid taped to the floor, and broke into a virtuosic improvised choreographic sequence fueled by her jazz drummer father Warren Benbow’s spirited solo. (Her brother, Kenn Michael, also accompanied the performance with a software instrument of his own design, which he claims produces healing and meditative frequencies.) It was clear from the warm reception on opening night that the feeling of community and care was shared by the audience, who congregated in the center of the room as the artist bid everyone to dance.

Paul Maheke, Nkisi, and Ariel Efraim Ashbel, Sènsa, 2019. Performance view, Abrons Art Center, New York, November 7–9, 2019. Cocommissioned with Abrons Arts Center and Red Bull Arts for the Performa 19 Biennial. Photo: Paula Court.

The mobilization of the audience was even more central to London-based Paul Maheke’s Sènsa, a work that also privileged darkness as a key element. Before the lights went off, we were warned, “This is an interactive performance. Be mobile!” Maheke entered, crawling along the floor of the darkened belly of the black box as we darted around him. In fact, we spent much time negotiating where to stand and where to look. Early on, Maheke self-eclipsed his head with a mirror, which emitted blinding beams back into the room as Ariel Efraim Ashbel (the lighting designer) targeted it with a spotlight. Temporarily marking Maheke’s shifting coordinates within the theater, the light dramatized the particular conditions of spectatorship that would haunt the entire production: At its most salient moments, Sensà enacted a dialectic of visibility and invisibility, illumination and obscurity, to conjure a fugitive presence and spectral embodiment.

But Maheke also played with the audience, drawing us close into a circle around him, then pushing us back in a choreography animated as much by his movements as it was by the pulsations and vibrations of Melika Ngombe Kolongo’s live set. Kolongo, who DJs under the name Nkisi, shifted to new beats after Maheke disappeared from immediate view, leaving us to make sense of the situation for ourselves. Momentary confusion gave way to tentative head-bobbing, foot-tapping, and eventually more dynamic thrusting as the theater transitioned into a temporary club. If this spontaneous scene of the audience dancing echoed Untitled (The Black Act)’s closing celebration, in Sensà this social formation felt more contingent, uncertain of how or whether to cross the divide between performance art spectatorship and club behavior.

Nairy Baghramian and Maria Hassabi, with Janette Laverrière and Carlo Mollino, Entre Deux Actes (Ménage à Quatre), 2019. Performance View, 1014 Fifth Avenue, New York, November 6–10, 2019. Cocommissioned by Performa and 1014 and coproduced with The Kitchen for the Performa 19 Biennial. Photo: Paula Court.

Earlier that evening, I saw artist Nairy Baghramian and choreographer Maria Hassabi’s collaboration Entre Deux Actes (Ménage à Quatre), a coproduction of the Kitchen and Performa that took place in a Fifth Avenue townhouse a few blocks north of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The work staged a dialogue within a domestic space between Baghramian and Hassabi and two intergenerational interlocutors: the Swiss designer Janette Laverrière—known for her “useless” though highly specialized furniture and occasionally whimsical objets—and the Italian architect Carlo Mollino. Previously exhibited at the Kunsthalle Baden-Baden and Musée d’art contemporain of Montreal, Baghramian’s collaboration with Laverrière updated a 1947 boudoir installation by the late designer, with the addition of Mollino’s erotic Polaroids of women posing nude drawn from Baghramian’s personal collection. This threesome, titled Entre deux actes II (Loge des Comédiennes), 2009, was installed on the second floor, where Baghramian’s signature cast-rubber sculptures formed site-specific armatures that hugged the contours of the doorframes. Such minimal interventions were echoed by Hassabi’s dancers, who occupied liminal spaces like the grand staircase (Mickey Mahar lay precariously across it) or stood disconcertingly in the second-floor vestibule as audiences transitioned from the fluorescently lit white cube setting of the choreographer’s FIGURES piece to the more theatrical (if stark) set of TOGETHER. This attention to passage is no surprise in Hassabi’s work, which decelerates movement so drastically that the minutest inflections of the body are rendered in an extended continuum, performers often appearing still, like statuary.

FIGURES placed five performers in disjointed synchrony (prerecorded sequences of numbers were intermittently announced, indicating the work’s underlying timing). The dancers executed solos, moving (slowly, of course) along a generally perpendicular axis, in supine or erect positions. As they approached one another, however, their bodily proximity yielded improbable encounters. It would be absurd to call these moments dramatic, though it would also be disingenuous not to admit that the performers’ cold and eerily blank stares, their unacknowledged physical closeness, produced an embarrassment of unnamable affect. This discomfiting excess was finally sublimated in TOGETHER, the duet performed by Hassabi and Oisín Monaghan. Positioned on a rudimentary plywood platform, the pair inched toward each other in gestures of care, intimacy, and erotic attraction as their bodies entangled and moved from standing, to sitting, to suggestively crouching positions, then back again.

Yvonne Rainer, Parts of Some Sextets, 1965. Performance view, Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center, New York, November 15–17, 2019. Performa Commission for the Performa 19 Biennial. Photo: Paula Court.

The interplay between objects and bodies—be it in the latter's reification as sculptural form or in the anthropomorphizing of sculptural props—was a connecting thread through a number of works in the biennial, including Éva Mag’s Dead Matter Moves at the Judson Memorial Church and the long-overdue restaging of Yvonne Rainer’s Parts of Some Sextets, which had not been performed since 1965. (But who hasn’t seen that photo of Rauschenberg flinging himself onto a stack of mattresses?) Dancer Emily Coates worked with Rainer to reconstruct the piece, which featured both Rainer habitués (such as Patrick Gallagher, David Thomson, and Mary Kate Sheehan) and new faces (artists Liz Magic Laser and Nick Mauss). Nuancing many now-orthodox analyses of Rainer’s task-based approach to dance, Parts of Some Sextets reminds us of the allusive way in which her work might engage with the theme of labor. Her use of objects illuminates such possibilities. Rainer praised mattresses both for their sheer materiality and ability to generate “ludicrous and satisfying” scenes of nonstylized effort as they are lugged around a room, as well as for their associative capacities. (Mattresses, she wrote, evoke “sleep, dreams, sickness, unconscious, sex” but “can be exploited strictly as neutral ‘objects.’”)

What was clear however, and has been for some time, is that while objects aren’t really “neutral”—Rainer joked in the post-performance talk that the “ghost of minimal art” was close at hand—neither is the hollowed-out body of the unexpressive and desubjectivized performer. If Hassabi’s dancers stared out into empty space, irrespective of the audience surrounding them, so too did the “dead” teens lining the darkened hallways of Bunny Rogers’s cynical Sanctuary, which portrayed the aftermath of an imagined school shooting (the performance took place at Essex Street Academy). More gimmicky than harrowing, Sanctuary turned a phenomenon of mass paranoia into a spectacularized and tasteless object of consumption, one that was barely consumed, in fact; audience members entertained the most mundane conversations among the “corpses” (who failed to remain convincingly immobile), and distractedly walked in and out of the live talent show rehearsal that took place concurrently in the theater and featured Rogers and friends performing in distinctly amateur mode. (An exception might be Allese Thomson’s lengthy though compelling piano solo).

Tarik Kiswanson, As Deep As I Could Remember, As Far As I Could See, 2018. Performance view, Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, New York, November 21–24, 2019. Cocommissioned by Performa with Lafayette Anticipations for the Performa 19 Biennial. Photo: Eian Kantor.

Sanctuary’s flipside might have been Palestinian-Swedish artist Tarik Kiswanson’s As Deep As I Could Remember, As Far As I Could See, a deeply moving performance staged in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House at Bowling Green. This work—cocommissioned by Lafayette Anticipations in Paris, and premiering here two years after Kiswanson was denied entry to the US for the last Performa Biennial—saw a cohort of preteens from immigrant families in New York reciting lines of lyrical and aphoristic poetry on loop as they walked dolefully around the oval Customs office. Their locutions were as numerous as they were impactful, evoking migration, diaspora, historical consciousness, borderlessness, and predictions for the future. The performers embodied the paradoxical position of speaking volumes beyond their years, appearing like sages or prophets. And though they did this with the same vacant stare pervading several of the works mentioned above, the spell of disaffected liveness was broken when they cheerfully swarmed the space once the performance was over.