New York

Babette Mangolte

BROADWAY 1602 | Uptown

In Calico Mingling, 1973, a film by Babette Mangolte featuring a four-person performance on New York’s Robert Moses Plaza at Fordham University (choreographed by Lucinda Childs), there are moments when the deep focus of the director’s lens renders the dancers’ movements entirely ambiguous. Facing the camera, the performers are clearly all in motion (each with one foot stepping ahead of or behind the other); yet which of them move forward in space and which backward remains strangely unclear. As when a lens contracts, pulling the ground into the same plane as any figures within it, so the choreography shown here subverts our ordinary perception of spatial depth and, moreover, the hierarchies it produces—never allowing what stands ahead to fall totally away from what rests behind, but rather having them exist in dynamic counterpoint and even trade places on occasion, situated as they are in perpetual relation.

The film, on view this summer at Broadway 1602, seems emblematic of Mangolte’s work in this regard, since time and again she commingles not only the proximate with the distant but also the past with the present—sometimes literally, by intercutting her previous artistic endeavors and new ones, effectively teasing her own historical background to the immediate surface. Such is certainly the case in another work, Presence, 2008, a two-channel installation originally made for the Fifth Berlin Biennale that here received its US premiere: The piece actually begins with a projection of her famous 1976 film Now, which shows performers executing such simple tasks as stacking packs of cigarettes. (The packs’ outmoded design is all the more poignant here since the brand from which the work takes its name no longer exists: “Now” is always a neighbor to obsolescence.) Soon thereafter, however, imagery taken during Mangolte’s relocation during the 1990s to San Diego appears on the opposite screen, sparking an extended interplay of fleeting visual analogy and rhyme even while the different projections mark a radical transition from urban interiority to natural landscape. One person stroking another’s hand in Now finds a pairing in trees swaying before a field of grass, for instance; and later the touch of branches to sky is echoed in form by strokes of fingers to hand. Eventually, the passages of Mangolte’s earlier film give way to her new West Coast setting—from romantic shots of horseback riding on the beach to others of suburban construction crews (as well as the opening credits for Entertainment Tonight on television)—and the filmmaker explores her studio or records the hillsides that loom and retreat as she drives California highways. And yet this later “present” still seems viewed through the prism of what came previously; at the very least, one becomes conscious of the lens provided by the past (or, for that matter, the lens provided by the studio from which Mangolte studies and edits the world). In a statement accompanying the work, the filmmaker indicates that the piece is a reflection on space—domestic and public, living and working, filmic and physical—and yet it is the mediation of our encounters (whether via memory or context) with every space that seems most pronounced here. The “presence” of Presence always contains within it, or only suggests, a kind of distance.

Arguably, cinema is an art of juxtapositions—of image to image, moment to moment, perspective to object, and sound to picture—collectively creating context and then meaning (if not necessarily narrative). A second gallery here offered portraits in this vein, including a contact sheet with images of David Gordon’s The Matter, 1972, which employed positions from Eadweard Muybridge’s “Animal Locomotion” series, as well as of Trisha Brown dances of the ’70s (in addition to the aforementioned film of Childs’s troupe). All these offer pictures of the choreographers, but together they also give a compelling portrait in reverse: of Mangolte the artist, situated in her depth of field.

Tim Griffin