Review: Liz Sargent Installations, “Revealing”

Review: Liz Sargent Installations, Revealing

Windows and mirrors. One allows us to see actual things. The other to see images of actual things. The invoking of both of these principles in Liz Sargent’s Revealing (which had its premiere at Danspace last week) is no superficial affect. It suspends the performance, and audience, in a world that is both transparent and beguiling.

The audience was not let in until showtime. Upon entering the sanctuary of St. Mark’s Church, one was arrested by the striking image of Aynsley Vandenbroucke in a simple flesh-tone dress standing behind a taut piece of clear cellophane and on top of two large pieces of glass mirror with some black stones scattered over them. The sheet of cellophane ran under her feet and all the way up the sanctuary floor to the altar; along its path lay a small cube-shaped container of white paint and a bundle of plastic crumbled upon itself.

Two other dancers (Djamila Moore and Marcia Johnson) in Butoh white makeup wearing white dresses with poofy plastic covered skirts, were caged in wood-frame boxes that had for walls a combination of the clear cellophane and mirrored mylar. These girls were literally inside a universe that was both reflective and transparent. Their faces were more timid and searching, and their motions were tentative, whereas Ms. Vandenbroucke moved in measured, deliberate, Butoh-inspired steps toward the altar; her gaze steady.

The set was completed by a series of gold rings hung w now and then around the periphery of the church, with a triptych of cellophane-covered wood-framed boxes at the altar. These frames were much smaller and slender proportion that the ones the girls were in. The center frame was empty while the outer two had asymmetrical black sculptures in them (created by Jayme del Rosario) that looked as if they were made out of bulging layers of molten rock.

Seating was arranged on the two long sides of the church, however, we were instructed that we could walk around freely during the course of the performance, an appropriate move considering Ms. Sargent’s work is often described as “installation”. And many people did take advantage of this opportunity, even though it requires a huge amount of effort and risk on the part of the audience member–it contradicts all of our instincts and myths about performance.

And all the walking around was important. Given that this work is quite obviously about perception and reflection, having the freedom to view from a variety of perspectives made sense and also added to the feeling that the women in the boxes were trapped; we could move around, they could not; and the one dancer who was not in a box chose to move so slowly as to imply a subcontextual inertia that I would interpret as caged. Perhaps the cage was the very church we were all in. (It is important to distinguish here that although the image of Butoh is evoked, viewing the movement as Butoh would be incorrect. There is a distinct and intentional employment of restrained motion here. This piece plays on Butoh’s restraint to portray emotional caution, whereas Butoh on its own can represent a broad range of emotions and situations.)

The lighting, designed by Kryssy Wright, was moody, rising and dimming in waves. Some of the light reflected off the tops of the boxes, the agitated cellophane bouncing watery patterns on the ceiling.

Delicate, ambient music by Mike Rugnetta added a prismatic quality to the environment.

It is fair to argue that this is performance installation–to a degree. Allowing the audience to move around the work created a relationality similar to viewing an installation in a museum or gallery. But Ms. Sargent’s work delved further into a narrative that is not commonly seen in installation; with the exception of some video installations that simply loop around. But Revealing, in contrast, progresses forward from its beginning stage, toward an end. The women trapped in the boxes being to question their surroundings. They press up against the cellophane and mylar. They begin to distrust things, hiding in the joints of the frames. Then they launch into twirls that send the plastic walls into frantic, fluttering whips; all that is reflected by them or seen through them is transformed into a flurry, evoking the wonderful play on mediated perception. Then they scratch at the surfaces that trap them, creating soft streaks in the plastic. Then, as Ms. Vandenbroucke reaches the center of the room, all three pick up containers of white paint and carefully dip one hand in.

From here, the two caged dancers fling the paint onto the interior of their boxes, creating splatters and swipes, smudges and scrapes. They eventually do this with black paint as well, blocking out the windows and mirrors around them. It is inevitable to evoke Jackson Pollock here. The New Yorker, previewing this performance, declared it a resurrection of Abstract Expressionism. And it makes sense, considering that Pollock’s work can arguably be viewed as performative. But here something is different. There is no result here; no object. We are still in the realm of performance and the work is still ephemeral. Surely enough, as soon as the paint is covering each surface, a slender, silvery slit emerges in the plastic; the women begin to cut away and tear down the paint-spattered barriers. More than anything, this could be viewed as a direct, feminist assault on the historical masculinity of Abstract Expressionism and its dependence and promotion of commodity and profit. What Pollock would have mounted and sold, these women cut down and destroy. Their journey is spiritual and mortal, whereas Pollack’s was commercial and productive.

Eventually, the two women stripped off their plastic and white dresses, revealing flesh-tone dress similar to that of Ms. Vandenbroucke, who had by then covered herself in white paint; a wonderfully placed light cast her shadow directly into the middle of the shadow cast by the central box at the altar. The two women stepped out of their boxes and begin to wash off the paint from their arms and faces. Here, the music stops and is replaced by the real sound swashing water in silver buckets.

As Ms. Vandenbroucke faces the altar, waiting for something (to make a decision? to be claimed?) the lights fade, and we see a fresh cascade of white paint falling over the cellophane she had earlier been staring through. A final punctuation to a tangible narrative.

I wish there had been something a little more conclusive here at the end. But the luminous mystery that permeated Revealing, through its liminal perspectives and wavering lights, is what made experiencing the performance a worthwhile endeavor.

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