PRINT March 2021

Openings: Madeline Hollander

Madeline Hollander, Ouroboros: Gs, 2019. Performance view, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, September 19, 2019. From left: Asami Tomida, Marielis Garcia, Katie Gaydos, Andrew Champlin.

THE EARLY SPRING OF 2020 was the second time I walked through an empty Manhattan, previewing a city wiped away. The first was October 30, 2012, the day after Hurricane Sandy hit. Power was out everywhere below Twenty-Sixth Street, and the basement of the construction site for the Whitney Museum of American Art’s new downtown home was under thirty feet of water. Renzo Piano’s studio had to go back to the drafting table, revising its plans for the museum to account for the adjacent Hudson River and the increasing threat of floods due to climate change. With Walz & Krenzer—a shipbuilding company—they equipped the museum with new watertight doors and a five-hundred-foot modular wall made of aluminum beams, which, once assembled, creates a 16.5-foot-high barrier around the building. The Whitney’s flood-safety plans now call for a yearly test deployment of this mobile wall. It can take up to ten hours to mount its hundreds of parts, depending on how carefully the crew synchronizes their efforts.

Madeline Hollander, Ouroboros: Gs, 2019. Performance view, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, September 19, 2019. From left: Lauren Newman, Asami Tomida. Photos: Charles Roussel.

In September 2019, at the close of the most recent Whitney Biennial, the American visual artist and choreographer Madeline Hollander conceived a dance that systematized the flood barrier’s deployment into a step-by-step routine. Ouroboros: Gs was a real drill, carried out by a cast of museum staff and professional dancers sporting white hard hats, yellow high-visibility jackets, and black safety gloves. Together they uncovered the holes bored into the Whitney’s concrete piazza, then inserted the wall’s large triangular brackets and piled up the dozens of metal beams (known as Gs). Drawing on her training in classical ballet, Hollander wrote scores for all these actions, with precise transitions—such as passing tools with a single motion of the waist—to smooth the building process. The dancer-constructors worked mostly in pairs, spaced out at exact intervals as they handed off the holes’ metal coverings with a twirl or hauled the cumbersome beams up the Whitney’s stairs with each step in sync, left foot first.

Ouroboros: Gs, with its dancers as emergency technicians, offered a glimpse of what performance in the time of climate disaster might look like.

Ouroboros: Gs, with its dancers as emergency technicians, offered a glimpse of what performance in the time of climate disaster might look like. But it was site-specific in more ways than one, for Hollander was also channeling a choreographic tradition espoused long ago by the Whitney: task-oriented dance. When, in 1970, Yvonne Rainer premiered Continuous Project—Altered Daily in the Whitney’s original Upper East Side Breuer building, she intended to render visible the labor of making dance. She stripped down her movement vocabulary to its most functional, constructing the piece around straightforward actions such as moving boxes and lifting dance partners (the latter having no precedence over the former). Rainer turned dancers into workers—a transformation that Hollander and indeed her performers in full construction gear now treat as a given. As they piled the beams in front of the vulnerable museum, Hollander’s dancers laid bare the entanglement of performing bodies with the environments that contain and constrain them (although I doubt the young Rainer would have savored the quasi-pirouettes Hollander’s dancers executed as they unscrewed the hatch covers).

Hollander, born in 1986 in Los Angeles, enrolled in art school after breaking her foot during a performance of Swan Lake. (She’d been in the corps de ballet of companies in LA and Barcelona.) She has always been interested in how individual behaviors adapt to group patterns, and has explored this concern in galleries, on stages, and also on-screen: She choreographed the zombified Nutcracker sequences in Jordan Peele’s 2019 film, Us, danced by Lupita Nyong’o and the cast. For “Heads/Tails” (2020), an exhibition at New York’s Bortolami gallery just before the Covid-19 shutdown, she covered the walls with hundreds of car headlights and taillights, whose blinking replicated that of the lights of cars driving through the nearby intersection of Walker Street and Broadway. The lights conveyed New Yorkers’ many modes of braking at a red light—with caution, incrementally, at the last minute—but all regulated by the city traffic signal algorithm and the cars around them. To rechoreograph your actions in response to the movements of strangers—ceding right of way or speeding up to avoid a crash—is a kind of civic dance, sustaining public space and communal life. “Pretend it’s a city,” says Fran Lebowitz as she admonishes New Yorkers to keep the flow of traffic going—though since “Heads/Tails” was created, traffic on lower Broadway has slowed to a trickle.

Madeline Hollander, Heads/Tails: Walker & Broadway 1, 2020, automobile headlights, taillights, speaker cable, terminal box. Installation view, Bortolami, New York. Photo: Kristian Laudrup.

This month, Hollander returns to the Whitney with Flatwing, 2018–19, in which humans are not the only species facing doomsday. In this video installation, we follow the artist as she searches on Maui for Polynesian field crickets, a species native to Hawaii that is now facing extinction from invasive parasitic flies. The flies, climate migrants from North America, are attracted to the crickets’ mating sounds and spawn maggots that eat their chirping hosts from the inside. Like the dancer-technicians outside the museum and the cars slowing and starting on Broadway, the (male) crickets Hollander is after have had to renegotiate a changed environment; their wings have adapted to silence their mating dance. In Flatwing—the term for the newly muted attribute of these crickets—the artist roams through the rain forest at night, hunting for this new choreography of natural selection. With an infrared camera in hand, she inspects leaves and grass, coming across unperturbed chickens and toads, and garbage. But the warnings of a scientist Hollander spoke to were correct: The crickets are nowhere to be seen. They hid themselves to survive.

Madeline Hollander, Flatwing, 2018–19, HD video, color, sound, 16 minutes 25 seconds.

Charles Aubin is curator and head of publications at Performa. He is the coeditor of Bodybuilding: Architecture and Performance (Performa, 2019).