Ramble On

Tavia Nyong’o on Rashid Johnson’s The Hikers at Storm King

Rashid Johnson, The Hikers, 2019. Storm King Art Center, New York, August 2021. Photo: Ruilian Son.

STORM KING ART CENTER is located in the Hudson Valley, about thirty miles south of the birthplace of nineteenth-century black abolitionist, feminist, and utopian seer Sojourner Truth. It sits on the ancestral territory of the Munsee Lenape nation. Bringing a black presence to outdoor sculpture in this verdant rural area should be less a matter of making space for diversity within white art worlds, and more a matter of challenging the terms upon which our histories have been violently erased from the landscape, and yet remain tangled up in its undergrowth.

A recent work by Rashid Johnson with Claudia Schreier performed at Storm King suggests that this history is still resurfacing. Indeed, we are dancing on it, in it, and through it. The Hikers, which was presented as a live dance piece over a weekend in August, grew out of a collaboration between artist Johnson and choreographer Schreier. It was inspired by a trail Johnson had walked in 2018 in Aspen, Colorado, and by thoughts that sprang from the idea of encountering another black person outdoors in that predominantly “white” airy redoubt for the ultraprivileged. Debuting as a film in Aspen in 2019, followed by an eponymous exhibition, publication, and performance at Hauser & Wirth in 2019–20, this latest iteration of The Hikers finds it relocated from the Rocky Mountains to the Hudson Valley. The change in terrain offers an opportunity to approach “the black outdoors” from more than one perspective, lending the project another layer of resonance.

That resonance includes a newly contested politics of access to open space during a pandemic that has made indoor spaces anxiogenic for most. In his new book On Property, Rinaldo Walcott reminds us how, for black people, many beaches, parks, and other outdoor recreational spaces remain “off limits, if only informally.” It is hard not to watch The Hikers post-2020 and not think of Christian Cooper, the black bird watcher on whom a white woman called the cops when he asked her to leash her dog in Central Park, mere hours before George Floyd’s murder. The ongoing search for a black outdoors beyond policing and possession is thus part of the frame for watching The Hikers.

Rashid Johnson, The Hikers, 2019. Storm King Art Center, New York, August 2021. Photo: June Archer.

As I was cautiously reentering public life in New York City this summer, two pieces by Johnson caught my eye. In the courtyard of PS1 MoMA in Queens, the bright yellow, literally titled Stage invited people to come up speak from five SM58 microphones of various heights. Evoking histories of amplified public speech from hip hop to Harlem’s Speaker’s Corner to Tania Bruguera’s Tatlin’s Whisper #6, Stage, when I caught it, was in use as the platform for a book launch for queer punk memoirist Brontez Purnell. As a series of writers and performers read from his ribald, diaristic 100 Boyfriends, concluding with a reading by the queen herself, it felt like New York was getting its groove back. Purnell even signed my copy of his zine. Across the East River in Manhattan, another Johnson work, at Astor Place and titled Red Stage, became the spot for a host of invited and impromptu activations. On a given night in June, you might see Charlotte Brathwaite or Jason Moran or unamplified karaoke. The specificity and generosity of these public gestures—in which the artist sets up the conditions for planned and improvisatory response of others—made Johnson, for me, the man of the hour.

All the same, expecting artists to shoulder the weight of a public sphere collapsing under decades of neoliberal austerity is nothing short of deluded. And, to return to The Hikers, looking to dance in particular for inspiration or moral support, after eighteen months in which live performers have been struggling for their livelihoods, bears some careful thought. On the one hand, dancers want nothing more than the return of their audiences, and vice versa. As Johnson told me, watching performance is “like riding a bike”; we don’t lose the skill once learned. On the other hand, as we have moved into a period that is neither “post-Covid” nor “the new normal,” art has been repeatedly called upon to help imagine what is to come. In the wake of the George Floyd protests, BIPOC artists and arts professionals have been invited into greater institutional roles than ever in recent memory. Is there a danger in being so welcomed in at the very moment the walls are crashing down? The pandemic, as Arundhati Roy so wisely wrote last year, “is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” Johnson’s recent work channels this desire to get clear, let go, and find new commitment and focus at midlife and midcareer.

I recognize this is a long introduction to a review of a twenty-minute danced duet (perhaps I should heed Roy’s advice about packing light). But I hope it’s a useful approach for considering The Hikers, which was conceived well before the pandemic but has revealed new, strange paths amid the current flight of the privileged from urban enclaves (and in some cases, from terra firma). At the start of The Hikers project, Johnson had been meditating across various media upon anxiety, sobriety, parenthood, and the green shoots that might be springing out of the dead weight of the past.

Rashid Johnson, The Hikers, 2019. Storm King Art Center, New York, August 2021. Photo: Ruilian Son.

One year and one “portal” later, The Hikers was again performed live, this time outdoors on a grassy incline at evening, cadging minutes between evening showers and clouds of gnats, in front of Johnson’s The Crisis, a yellow steel pyramidal grid installed at Storm King (the title alludes to publications by black intellectuals W.E.B. Du Bois and Harold Cruse), floating above the late summer grass. Danced the evening I saw it by Leslie Andrea Williams of Martha Graham Dance Company and Brandon Gray of Complexions Contemporary Ballet, the figures appear in leather masks reminiscent, Schreier tells me, of the faces in Johnson’s “Anxious Men” drawing series from 2015, masks they peel off before alternately mirroring each other’s gestures, meeting in lifts and twirls, and ultimately stalking away again alone. Much of the movement vocabulary came from ballet—Schreier’s technical background—but elements of postmodern and jazz were also key; the dancers wore sneakers and were accompanied by the saxophonist Marcus Miller. Early in their collaboration, Johnson asked Schreier to find movement that expressed encounter, recognition, and platonic love—to find that feeling that arises “only when you find yourself in another.” 

Whereas his urban stages offered a platform, here Johnson’s sculpture offered a backdrop against which his dancers could soar, or crouch. If there was a narrative, it was lightly draped over the ballet, which felt perhaps more exuberant than it would have otherwise, given the long hibernation dance has experienced. We were exultant just to be moving and seeing people move. But the overall message of The Hikers came through: Claiming space for black art across genres is necessary but perilous, joyous but risky. While the work’s ethics of connection stand in defiance of the scarcity and fear through which our pandemic futures are being managed, it also poses unanswered connections about what it will take for us to recognize true interdependence. As the dancers moved and occasionally stumbled on unsteady ground, Schreier’s vision for the piece seemed apt: “The only thing they can grasp on to is each other.”

The Hikers was performed at Storm King Art Center on August 20 and August 21.