“Art Performs Life”

As its title, “Art Performs Life,” suggests, the common thread in the work of each of the dancer/choreographers examined in this exhibition—Merce Cunningham, Meredith Monk, and Bill T. Jones—is a commitment to disrupting the boundaries traditionally drawn between “art” and “life” in both planning and performing dance. In that sense, this aesthetic outlook grounds these artists’ work in the most iconoclastic avant-garde tradition of the twentieth century, going back to the collaborative performances of Dadaist cabaret and the Happenings and performance art of the ’50s and ’60s.

Viewers were welcomed into the exhibition by a large photographic mural of Blauvelt Mountain, a 1980 performance by Jones and Arnie Zane, showing the two dancers’ bodies dancing against an austere concrete-block wall. Directly in front of this mural, an identical wall jutted out at an angle into the viewer’s space. This elegant installation set the tone for the labyrinthine exhibition, which unfolded in successive waves of musical rhythms, video images, panoramic photographs, costumes, stage props, and documentary installations.

Although the show respected the distinctly different personalities of Cunningham, Monk, and Jones, the intersection of lived experience and artistic expression marks all of their work. From his earliest minimalist duets through the more confrontational theatrical pieces of recent years, Jones’s work has dealt with politically charged issues—among them racism, homophobia, and the AIDS epidemic—conventionally found unsuitable for inclusion in the rarefied realm of art. Drawings produced by AIDS survivors and large video projections of their faces from Jones’s 1994 performance Still/Here worked powerfully on their own here as installation art.

Monk’s aesthetic engagement with “life” outside traditional theater has taken the form of large-scale operatic works that the artist stages in untraditional spaces such as parking lots, parks, and the spiraling interior of the Guggenheim Museum: these were evoked in the exhibition with props, costumes, video, and even dramatic lighting effects that suggested a fun-house environment or German Expressionist theater. Whimsical stage sets featuring cinematic images projected onto walls and hanging scrim and accompanied by background experimental music reflected Monk’s incorporation of film and avant-garde vocal abstractions into her performances.

Props and costumes also recorded Cunningham’s historic collaborations with artists like John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Nam June Paik. In one of the galleries, the viewer was invited to interact with the helium-filled floating silver pillows designed by Warhol for Cunningham’s 1968 performance of Rainforest. It was a chance to experience the unplanned beauty of chance movements that similarly occurred in the original performance. Cunningham’s continued aesthetic engagement with the everyday world could also be seen in images of the costumes he commissioned from the Comme des Garçons fashion designer Rei Kawakubo and in his recent experimental incorporation of the personal computer into his process. A computer set up in the gallery allowed visitors to experiment with Life Forms, the software that Cunningham has started using in his teaching and choreography.

Dance is a collaborative and kinetic art form, yet this aspect of the medium is often lost in its documentation. This was soundly not the case in “Art Performs Life,” which vibrated with the energy and excitement born of creative interchange.

Patricia Briggs