On The American Realness Exhibitions
by Lauren Grace Bakst
published on: January 18, 2014
It’s 3:48pm on Monday, January 13th and I’m sitting in the American Realness festival’s pop-up cafe at Abrons Arts Center. In front of me are glass windows, through which I can see the edges of the Main Gallery where Ann Liv Young has taken over with the Sherry Art Fair. Young’s daughter Lovey runs up the stairs to help her mom set up. Like Young’s alter-ego Sherry, Lovey goes by Rainbow Dash, and will soon be offering makeovers. The wall behind me displays Instant Realness—a selection of framed photographs by Ian Douglas that document performances from the past five years of the festival. If I walk around the corner and down the stairs, I’ll pass by the Culpeper Gallery where Sarah Maxfield’s audio-installation Nonlinear Lineage: Over/Heard lives. And if I’m waiting for the The Playhouse doors to open, I’ll be in the presence of Fawn Krieger’s nine-foot silver-metallic statue of Neal Medlyn as Michael Jackson.
These exhibitions fill the interstitial spaces of the festival—the hallways and rooms you awkwardly exist in between the show you just saw and the one you’re waiting to see. The conversations here almost always begin in the same way: “What are you seeing?” … “What have you seen?” … “What did you think?” … They veer off into various stutters, questions, and declarations as inevitably we try to articulate our feelings about this complicated form we all love. These in-between spaces are where we hangout and chat, yes, but they’re also where we remember. In conversations with acquaintances or aimlessly meandering through the halls, we form our thoughts about the things we’ve seen. And these new versions of the performances, the ones distorted by memory, become ours. The American Realness exhibitions lend themselves to this reflective space. Each one proposes a distinct mode of remembering performance. The photographs and memorabilia, the collected and constructed artifacts—this is the stuff of performance’s excess. It’s that story you tell over and over. It’s that image you associate with a particular dance. These are the things we hold on to, or try to anyway…
For those of us returning to the festival, the artists pictured in Douglas’ Instant Realness will be familiar faces (Miguel Gutierrez, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Eleanor Bauer, etc.). There might even be familiar images, for instance those that have been used in conjunction with promoting a particular performance. Douglas’ image of Gutierrez’s And Lose the Name of Action with Hilary Clark in the foreground comes to mind. Do I remember it because I’ve seen it reproduced in so many places—venue websites, interviews, reviews—or because of its compelling composition? The way it transmits the field of energy created in the performance to an image? Probably both. Douglas, however, does not necessarily intend to preserve the performances he documents in their original feeling or form. While the works themselves are ephemeral, these images are iconic. More often than not, Douglas has caught the performer in the midst of a difficult, exhausting, exposing dance, but damn, in these photos, y’all look good! I mean seriously you look really good. Cut the photo of Ann Liv Young (so you can’t see her vagina) in half and she really could be a Disney© Princess. Douglas’ photos transform his subjects into glossy heroes. Sweat glistens, rather than smells. The framing and light serve to dramatize and memorialize the performers’ fleeting actions. In an economy where representation is value and performance is well … something else, what’s not to love?
On Thursday, January 9th, I went to see Michelle Boulé’s WONDER in the Abrons Playhouse. I waited in line for my ticket, said hi to my friend, rushed to the bathroom, and entered the theater. And somehow I completely missed Fawn Krieger’s towering statue of Neal Medlyn as Michael Jackson. It was there, and I’m sure I saw it, but I didn’t really take time to notice it. That’s the thing about statues though—they’re everywhere. And while they signify importance, they usually also signify absence. (This person died, but here’s a stone figure to help you remember him.) I don’t typically acknowledge the presence of statues in the parks and plazas of New York—they are a normative and implicit element of the city’s architecture, and have the potential therefore to become invisible. But as we all know, Krieger’s sculpture is not your typical statue. It is a figure of someone—Medlyn—embodying someone else—Jackson (who, by the way, has already been the subject of a statue that was erected and subsequently taken down. Google: Michael Jackson statue.) Krieger’s statue exists in conjunction with Medlyn’s show King, the conclusion to his Pop Star Series and ode to Michael Jackson, which he describes as being about “epic attempts.” An attempt implies the potential of failure. An epic attempt practically guarantees it. When Medlyn wholeheartedly steps into the role of a celebrity, he exposes the vulnerable, tragic, and ridiculous nature of being a performer. Similarly, Krieger’s statue is both shiny and awkward. Cheeks bulge and glasses protrude. The surface isn’t smooth—bumps, ripples, and imperfections reveal the imprints of making. Medlyn’s Pop Series might be over, but Krieger’s statue isn’t going anywhere. I imagine that after this festival, it will go live in some basement or closet storage space until its next appearance. It’s my fantasy that by some fate of magic, it will end up in the same storage space as the discarded Michael Jackson statue. And then Neal Medlyn as Michael Jackson and Michael Jackson will stand side by side in some dark corner together.
When I was a student at Hollins, I would watch videos of Ann Liv Young’s dances. I was always enamored by her attention to detail, not just to the performers’ execution of movement and text, but to the entire space—the color palette and textures, the costumes and objects. Watching her work helped me understand the importance of owning your aesthetic. With the Sherry Art Fair, Young extends her careful consideration of aesthetics to her character, Sherry, the unpredictable southern Christian woman who is not afraid to call you out on your bullshit, but ultimately wants to help you live a better life. There are bright pink christmas trees and a pink fountain. Pink tape attaches a sketched portrait of Sherry to an ornate frame. Patterned tablecloths are covered with glittered jewelry. DVDs and t-shirts are for sale. These seemingly haphazard displays create a context for Sherry. They give her credence as a person—these collections make her real, and because they do, we believe her. We might even buy something from her! Simultaneously embracing and satirizing the consumerism that drives the art fair phenomenon, the Sherry Art Fair performs what it is.
Reel-to-reel tape recorders with headphones await pairs of ears. Listen, and you’ll hear a carefully curated audio loop of excerpts pulled from interviews Sarah Maxfield has conducted with a range of artists, some familiar to the festival and others not—Jennifer Miller, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Jen Rosenblit, Annie Iobst, Janet D. Clancy, and more. This is Nonlinear Lineage: Over/Heard, created by Maxfield in collaboration with Elliott Jenetopulos, Laurie Berg, Brad Kisicki, and Chloe Z. Brown. Of all the exhibitions, this one deals with remembering performance the most directly. It embraces memory’s flaws, and in doing so celebrates the way we, as participants in this field, carry our experiences of performance with us in our bodies and throughout this city. One moment, I’m listening to Clancy’s account of being backstage during Einstein on the Beach. Then comes in Houston-Jones, who remembers wishing it could go on forever … Later, Houston-Jones’ voice comes back. He remembers watching John Kelly at The Pyramid. Then comes in Kelly. He remembers that time there was a crazy heckler. These interconnected loops keep popping up, and you start to feel the weight of this form we participate in. We watch each other; we are moved by each other; we remember for each other. Collectively, these memories offer an entangled account of what it feels like to be subsumed by dance in New York. Maxfield and her collaborators are not only recording these stories to preserve and document them. Through this compilation, Maxfield is doing what I believe to be the real work of the historian. She is crafting a structure that communicates the feeling of being in a particular time and place. This structure does not pretend to be complete or impartial or singular, rather it is committed to partiality, subjectivity, and multiplicity. Nonlinear Lineage: Over/Heard transmits the feeling of what it is to live this form, and in doing so it remembers performance, and honors the often unquantifiable pleasures that are the rewards of devoting our lives to this field.