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SPIRIT MOVES: THE ART OF SIMONE FORTI

Simone Forti, See-Saw, 1960. Performance view, Museum der Moderne Salzburg, Austria, July 23, 2014. From left: Simone Forti, Hugo Le Brigand, and Filipa Bavčević. Photo: Rainer Iglar.

DANCE, YVONNE RAINER FAMOUSLY OBSERVED, is “hard to see.” Rainer was referring to the elusiveness of her medium, its continuous state of movement in the live act of performance. But history has proved her words to be true in another sense: The ephemerality of dance has impeded efforts to make its key figures visible within the field of contemporary art, a context in which they have had significant influence. The reception of the work of Simone Forti is a striking case in point. Though widely acknowledged by her peers as a pioneer of many of the forms and attitudes artists explored from the 1960s through the early 1970s—Rainer summed up this consensus when she called her fellow dance practitioner the “fountainhead”—Forti has been curiously marginalized, particularly with respect to her representation in museums. “Thinking with the Body: A Retrospective in Motion,” a substantial look at Forti’s oeuvre at Austria’s Museum der Moderne Salzburg this past fall, was thus a welcome, if overdue, endeavor, bringing together some two hundred works and tracking Forti’s career over nearly fifty years. Curator Sabine Breitwieser gave crucial early pieces their due, but did not stint on more recent projects such as Tree Improvisation, 2000 (in which Forti moves on, with, and around the fat trunk of a gnarled tree, occasionally pausing, sphinxlike). Along the way, the show provided a sense of Forti both as a singular creator and as an inveterately collaborative artist, who seems to have worked, at one point or another, not only with all of her well-known dance peers—notably Rainer, Trisha Brown, and Steve Paxton—but also with almost every denizen of downtown New York, from La Monte Young to Robert Whitman to Charlemagne Palestine.

In the mid- to late 1950s, classes with Anna Halprin on her legendary Marin County “dance deck” were a formative influence through which Forti learned to think about movement in new ways: to consider the negative space between two bodies as much as the body’s movement itself, for example. Once in New York, she took Robert Ellis Dunn’s dance-composition classes, which were instrumental in the formation of Judson Dance Theater. Through Dunn, Forti, like many others, became enthused about the ideas of John Cage. Her own unique oeuvre was marked from the beginning by an extraordinary, wide-ranging openness. Drawing on everyday and chance procedures while mining a highly refined facility for the invention of movement, she created works as diverse as Face Tunes, 1967, in which the profile of a person’s face is used as a score to generate sound, and “Illuminations,” 1971–, a collaborative project with Palestine that had a mystical dimension, its improvised sound and movement emanating from Forti’s numerological score-drawings.

Playfulness (taken seriously) is an essential feature of Forti’s work, and the offbeat display in the museum’s downstairs lobby of her “cat video”—Largo Argentina, 1968/2012, actually a slide show in which Rome’s scraggly stray felines slink across steps, gravestones, and broken columns—was an apt prologue to this exhibition: An avid observer of non-human movement, Forti became fascinated in the ’60s by the theories of ethologist Konrad Lorenz, and her extraordinary, animal-inflected improvisations are central to her oeuvre. The show began in earnest with a knockout opening sequence focused on the early ’60s. On the stairs leading to the first gallery was Accompaniment for La Monte Young’s 2 Sounds and La Monte Young’s 2 Sounds, 1961: a hanging rope construction that is activated at intervals by two performers, one balancing upright with both feet wedged into the looped rope, the other twisting the rope until it is taut enough to unwind of its own accord in a short, dizzying whirl. Meanwhile, the titular composition—one of Young’s early “friction” works, made by recording the noises produced by dragging objects—drones and scrapes imposingly. (After the rope unwinds, the performer remains in place for several minutes, until the composition ends.) Once in the gallery, viewers found a constellation of other “dance constructions,” such as Hangers, 1961; Platforms, 1961; and Rollers, 1960. These essential works delineated the primary coordinates of Forti’s early works—her affinity with Fluxus and her trailblazing of territory later explored within Minimalism—with pleasing clarity. The hangers, platforms, etc. were deployed, said Forti, to “create circumstances for direct, non-stylistic actions.”

Forti’s objects (certain of which Robert Morris had participated in constructing, and which predate his own similar, and better-known, props and sculptures) were, of course, to be designed for activation by individuals or groups: lain under, scrambled up, swung or balanced on. In their simplicity, these sculpture props, which were necessarily remade for the exhibition, held the gallery beautifully, even when viewed in their “inactive” state, i.e., in between the three to four performances that composed each day’s program. The formalized scheduling of performances and halting rotation among activated constructions ran counter to the provisional spirit of the original works, many of which debuted in crowded spaces where several dances might transpire simultaneously, but logistical and economic realities would make such circumstances difficult to reproduce. The constructions themselves, in any case, were appropriately unrefined.The teeter-totter used for See-Saw, 1960, first performed at New York’s Reuben Gallery by Rainer and Morris, was rough-hewn, like the original—just a plank of wood and a sawhorse. But while with See-Saw Forti was investigating the primary dynamics of reciprocity and balance, this was no primary structure or strict Minimal form. The performers’ movements put pressure on a noisemaking toy strapped underneath the plank, its moos lending a sense of humorous excess typical of much artistic experimentation from this period (a quality that documentary photos don’t quite convey). Slant Board, 1961, a tilted plywood square that performers scale with the aid of knotted ropes, vividly attested to Forti’s influence on Morris (acknowledged by him), recalling the array of scalable plywood constructions positioned midway through his famous interactive exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1971 (restaged at Tate Modern in 2009 as “Bodyspacemotionthings”).

Among these increasingly iconic, if seldom- exhibited,pieces, Breitwieser also planted evidence of Forti’s more eccentric experiments, such as the lesser-known Censor, 1961, a pan of nails to be shaken while the participant attempts to sing a folk song at the same volume, thus creating self-canceling parallel noises, and Onion on Glass Bottle, 1961/2014, in which a sprouting onion is allowed to grow atop a bottle until that growth forces it to fall off its perch. In the exhibition’s other three galleries, moments of exquisite aesthetic value were to be found, particularly in the wealth of extraordinary moving-image documentation. For the most part this material appeared on monitors, but in some cases it was viewable in the round—for Forti’s innovative experiments with hologram technology were happily included in the show. The more conventional footage was no less arresting, particularly documentation of Forti’s improvisational performances of the 1970s, such as Solo No. 1 at Sonnabend in New York, 1974, and Crawling at the Dance Today Festival in Tokyo, 1975, each replete with evocative movements. Equally evocative designations for workings-out of improvisation were listed in a notebook nearby: “sparrow hops,” “shaking tail to shed water,” “bear game,” etc. Also notable were Hollis Frampton’s five-minute film of Cloths, 1967, a performance in which patterned and plain squares of fabric are mesmerizingly arranged and rearranged in layered sequences, like semaphores, and Three Grizzlies, 1974, which comprises Forti’s videotaped observations of gorillas and bears at the zoo.

However, these highlights did not always shine as brightly as they could have, thanks to a nearly overwhelming abundance of archival materials with varying statuses, from sketches to ephemera such as posters and program notes. Not all of these artifacts seemed to merit inclusion. Where to draw the line between archival material and primary “work” is an active debate for many museums—increasingly so, when it comes to presenting historical performance. Sketched plans for “Two Evenings at the Pasadena Art Museum” (1971) gave insight into Forti’s intended concept and structure for this performance. But certain items, such as graphite sketches related to Slant Board showing hands holding rope, distracted from the concerns of the just-seen sculptural work and risked straying too far from the priority of any survey of Forti’s work: the presentation of her dances. In this regard, photo sequences by Peter Moore, Babette Mangolte, and others were both informative and beautiful. But since the brilliance of Forti’s work has so much to do with the unfurling of infinitesimally calibrated passages of her own individual movement, rather than with formalized patterns of choreography, the moving image tells us much more than sequences of static poses. The viewing conditions for the film and video footage—many smallish monitors, little seating—were not especially conducive to extended looking.

But the retrieval of past performance is always an ambiguous endeavor. For museums, it poses an unresolved—perhaps unresolvable—problem, which the exhibition can hardly be blamed for failing to address definitively. Despite its shortcomings, the show was invaluable in its ambitious scope. Both the relatively familiar and the more obscure works offered important insights into the artist’s investigation of “what we know of things through our bodies,” demonstrating profound attention to the relationships between mind and body, thinking and making, spectating and participating. In turn, the blurriness of the distinction between subject and object was foregrounded, and the question of who (or which) is acting or “performing” was revealed to be far from simple.

To the extent that the show gave us an idiosyncratic Forti, it also offered an idiosyncratic take on Minimalism and post-Minimalism. Considered alongside her investigation of animal behavior, the Onion piece’s curious experiment-cum-vegetable-“performance” suggests a relationship to nature—which is to say, a relationship to the human—that was ahead of its time. Anthropological studies indicate that people have been imitating animals for as long as the two have coexisted, but there is a sense that Forti never sought to imitate these creatures, impersonate them, or even perform them as ready-made impressions. Rather, she seems to have wished to observe animals in order to learn how to extend her own capacities. It’s as if she sought to incorporate other species’ forms of locomotion, “non-stylistically,” into a human repertoire of movement and into human experience—in the process suggesting a perceptual paradigm untethered from the upright human body and from the ostensibly anthropomorphic objects that mirror it.

Forti’s finely judged sequences of movement invention are, perhaps, a speculative recalibration, almost bordering on a rejection, of the typical figure of human presence and the assumed authenticity of that presence. A similar impulse may underpin the quirky multiplex “Hologram” works, made with Lloyd Cross and Peter Van Riper in 1976 and ’77 and featuring miniature 3-D ghost-Fortis performing atop plinths in real space and time. These works intimate an “other” futurism, one that seems to have jumped directly from the earliest moving-image technologies to the 1970s. If the critical legacy of postwar dance has jelled, in recent years, into a narrative primarily of quotidian gestures and deskilled movement, Forti both pushed these to the extreme—into the realm of the nonhuman—and undermined them, in the decadent and near-spectacular projections of the holograms. The holographic space in which the ghost-Forti moves is undifferentiated and open—there is no frame, no background, no weight or gravity, and thus no objective division between this paradoxically embodied yet immaterial, present yet projected human and the world in which she moves. If what seemed at gut level to be missing in the body of this show was a chance to get closer to the visceral nuance of Forti’s real presence in motion—an experience that the exhibition made possible only at multiple removes, barring a fleeting open session in which the artist taught dancers to perform her works—the avatar of her hologram experiments checked this yearning. Forti’s holographic image offers a magical-technological transmission from the past that puts her right in the present, with a liveness that is simultaneously authentic and virtual.

Catherine Wood is curator of contemporary art and performance at Tate Modern, London.