Unreal Nature

April 11, 2012

Spectatorship

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:11 am

… I see Rainer’s art as structured by a peculiar tension: between showing the purely physical body and showing the purely physical body — between the body being, and being watched.

… I have come to see Rainer as not only a shaper of dances and a mover of bodies but a sculptor of spectatorship.

This is from Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s by Carrie Lambert-Beatty (2008):

Yvonne Rainer put it plainly: “Dance is hard to see.”

She wrote these words in 1966, in the middle of the period discussed in this book, and what she meant is that as a temporal art, disappearing even as it comes into being, dance resists vision. As Rainer saw it, an artist who acknowledged this difficulty had two options. She could try to make performance less ephemeral, as she herself had done in 1961, when in her dance The Bells she repeated a short sequence of movements while facing in different directions, “in a sense allowing the spectator to ‘walk around it,'” like an object. Or she could exaggerate the problem of dance’s disappearance, as she had just done with an elided continuum of unique movements in what would become her most famous dance. “My Trio A dealt with the ‘seeing’ difficulty,” she explained, “by dint of its continual and unremitting revelation of gestural detail that did not repeat itself, thereby focusing on the fact that the material could not easily be encompassed.” From The Bells to Trio A, then — from dance hyperavailable to vision, to dance resistant “to the point that it becomes almost impossible to see” — Rainer’s work registered the basic, even obvious fact of performance’s ephemerality as an artistic problem: something an artist had to work with, work around, work through.

Rainer’s work presented the body as Western theatrical dance never had before: in its unadorned, physical facticity.

Along with peers like Paxton and Forti, Rainer accomplished this in part by subtraction, removing from dance performance not only story, character, and emotional expression (as her one-time teacher Merce Cunningham had done) but also everything that marked the dancer’s body as extraordinary, ideal, or ethereal, beginning with its special clothing (practice garments like tights and leotards were usual in her earliest work, but even those were soon replaced by sneakers, jeans, and other street clothes). Virtuoso steps and tricks also fell away: leaps and spins were replaced with running and catching, falling and climbing. Meanwhile, Rainer rejected elegant, dancerly carriage of the body in favor of a quality of movement that she called “tasklike” and developed, in part, by having her dancers interact with objects like floppy mattresses that were heavy or awkward enough to ensure that performers manipulating them couldn’t embellish or accent the activity in any way.

What was left once narrative, idealization, and conventional technique were stripped was the body as muscular fact. [ … ] “I love the body,” she proclaimed, “its actual weight, mass, and unenhanced physicality.”

… I see Rainer’s art as structured by a peculiar tension: between showing the purely physical body and showing the purely physical body — between the body being, and being watched.

In 1999, a film of Rainer performing Trio A was included (on video) in the Whitney Museum exhibition “The American Century.” A friend, seeing it for the first time, remarked to me that it looked like the way someone might dance at home by herself, if no one were watching. Thinking that this was a remarkable recognition by an uninitiated viewer of one of the key aspects of Trio A — the way the dancer avoids making gratifying eye contact with the audience (or, in this case, camera) by averting her gaze, turning her head, and even, at one point, shutting her eyes, I passed the comment on to Rainer in the spirit of a compliment, thinking she would enjoy hearing how well the work still translated. After all, she had written in 1966 that she was trying to avoid “exhibition-like” presentation, and many critics have offered versions of Roger Copeland’s comment about Trio A: that in it Rainer “remains coolly oblivious to those watching.” After all, this has been the one prevalent interpretation of Rainer’s dance work in terms of the politics of spectatorship — that she refused dance as spectacle — and surely the idea of “dancing alone” captured this. Yet Rainer, who in previous conversations had been remarkably open to interpretation of her work (and who has continued to be so since), this time responded brusquely. She was sick, she said, of people thinking she ignored the audience.

This gave me pause. While I had already developed doubts about the work’s unequivocal achievement of an antispectacular mode of performance, I had rather believed that Copeland’s view corresponded to Rainer’s own ideal for Trio A. [ … ] I began to see that complaints by some of Rainer’s contemporaneous critics about her work’s relationship to the viewer, or lack thereof — for example, Don McDonagh’s statement that her dance concerns were “personal and of value only to herself” or Frances Herridge’s contempt in 1969 for “her nerve in taking the audience’s money and then ignoring them” — in fact register precisely the degree to which audiences were her concern; the degree to which she was working to alter the relationship between viewer and performer. And I began to suspect that the particular irritation of these critics suggested a historical (as well as an art or dance historical) nerve being struck. I realized that even Trio A, whose averted gaze is the most famous example of Rainer’s reconfiguration of the performer’s relationship to the spectator, was an attempt not to escape performance’s spectatorial condition, but rather to distill it. Rainer wondered in 1967 whether by rendering her dances into “theater-objects” that did not acknowledge the viewer, she had been able to make demands on the audience precisely by seeming to ignore it. Displaying the moving body for you, without any attempt to seduce or affirm you, does not remove dance from the condition of exhibition, after all. It reduces the performance situation to the fact of display.

… I have come to see Rainer as not only a shaper of dances and a mover of bodies but a sculptor of spectatorship.

Seen this way, Rainer’s work becomes a — perhaps the — bridge between key episodes in postwar art. For this was a period in which issues of spectatorship came to the fore everywhere, in both literal and theoretical ways. Curator Alan Solomon recognized as a matter of fact in 1965 that to make innovative art in the 1960s was to consider reception creatively as well: “except for those painters who regard their art in the purest terms, it is simply no longer possible for artists to isolate their feelings of openness and speculative adventure about their creative activity from their ways of thinking about the audience for whom they are working.” … Emerging from this period, much of the best scholarship on art of the 1960s has foregrounded questions concerning the relation of viewer and artwork: in minimalism, color field painting, op art, video, multimedia performance, institutional critique: How is the viewer positioned? What kind of viewer — what model of subjectivity — is brought into being? What mode of perception is invited, what kind of experience produced, what form of connection proposed?

… It is because of near-contradictions and paradoxes like those I’ve suggested in the case of Trio A that I like the slightly awkward phrase, “seeing difficulties.” When “seeing” is taken as a verb and “difficulties” as its object, the phrase describes not a type of difficulty but a critical approach: the seeing of problems. And this is a strategy appropriate to a body of work full of ambiguities, of difficulties one must try to see. Too often, Rainer has been made emblematic of a particular category, such as postmodern dance, feminist art, or one or another variant of avant-garde filmmaking. … Yet it is thus all the more important to realize that her performance practice itself — sometimes consciously, sometimes unavoidably — articulated strikingly original models not of refusal but of engagement. In Rainer’s deeply dialectical art, few of the aesthetic goals announced by artists, critics, or historians are fully accomplished, few avant-garde stances completely inhabited. For every decision she made to allow her audience freedom to move around a performance space, there was a concomitant reminder please not to interrupt the performance; for every effort to present the body’s movement without theatrical stylization, there was an admission that unadorned, direct performance had itself to be dissimulated. Not for nothing did she use the language of struggle in naming such issues as “my audience problem,” “the seeing difficulty” or “the ‘problem’ of performance”! Despite a tendency by commentators to seek out the manifesto-like moments in her work and her always pithy prose, her art does its cultural work precisely in its ambiguities, and is best understood when one is attuned to compromised goals and thorny conceptual problems.

-Julie

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