Physicality, Theatricality, and Embodiment in soft/hard surface/sound
by Brooks Turner
In the center of the basement of Hair and Nails, a vertical timber masquerades as a column supporting the ceiling, but its real purpose is to provide support forStrapped Red Grid, a sculptural-painting of hardware cloth, painted canvas, and ratchet straps, part of Ryan Fontaine’s installation of new work in soft/hard surface/sound. I have been in the basement of Hair and Nails many times, and yet for a moment I thought the pillar was true to the architecture not an element of the work. In actuality, the timber, which is held in place by ratchet straps pulling in opposing directions, supports a curtain of canvas dividing the space in half like a wall. The painted surface is composed of red gridded lines, about the thickness of the ratchet straps supporting the work, and rectangles of red, pink, green, and orange filling in sections of gridded space. Hardware cloth levitates about 6 inches from the surface of the canvas in long strips extending from wall to column. This relationship to architecture and suspended forces extends the aesthetic experience from merely the works themselves and out into the space—a theatricality that implicates our own bodies and movements in space.
Nothing is painted on the backside of Strapped Red Grid, enhancing the sense of entering a backstage when crossing behind its curtain of canvas. Light is controlled in this slightly darkened space by objects of the installation. A canvas turned away from the viewer and wrapped in plastic and ratchet straps hangs from a section of massive steel chain, hiding a brilliant white light behind it. This painting-sculpture-installation hybridnamed Gravityconnects a fundamental physical force to the art object. Its center radiates warm yellow light, revealing a grid cut from canvas suspended somewhere within the layers of material. At its periphery, a brilliant white light illuminates the wall and causes the loosely hanging plastic wrap to glow green. To the right, Vestigerecalls the cosmos through the image of a grid on blue canvas against a black wall. Fontaine’s process of applying and removing paint from the surface of the canvas leaves discolored stains and eroded silver lines where folds and wrinkles formed, recalling gaseous distortions seen through a telescope lens. In these works, the physics of the cosmos is mapped onto the physics of painting through structure and image.
In her 1986 essay, “The Originality of the Avant Garde,” Rosalind Krauss wrote, “the grid-scored surface is the image of an absolute beginning,” declaring the grid as both the oldest of aesthetic structures as well as one that continuously generates a new. Spacetime is the origin of life and continuously generating a new, even as entropy tears it apart. But the forces of the universe are just one aspect of Fontaine’s exploration of the grid. These new works posit an origin and renewal in physicality more generally, in stain and erosion, in bodily materiality.
This visual and material conceit continues in the tryptic Body/Flag. From left to right, we encounter a painting with beveled edges hung on the wall (individually titled Epicenter 2), a figurative, sculptural centerpiece (Flourishing Body), from which an irregular quadrilateral cut of canvas extends, frozen mid-wave (Dark Flag). Here, the grid acts as a point of departure, entering into a much messier dialogue of referent, symbol, nation, culture, object, image, and abstraction.
What is a flag to our eyes today? A symbol of freedom? Or one of borders? Certainly a symbol that drags with it a military past—“And the rockets’ red glare/ The bombs bursting in air/ Gave proof through the night/ That our flag was still there.” Our flag of red white and blue signifies a nation born of violence. The reemergence of the confederate flag has staked an identity on a lost war, one of “northern aggression.” Every fringe group that wishes to assert the existence of a nation, whether of drawn borders or of hate-fueled ideology, uses a flag to establish a public identity and rally people to its cause. For Jasper Johns, the flag became both a means of reflecting on American post-war visual culture as well as an armature for painterly exploration and abstraction. He declared his flag paintings to be both paintings ofa flag and painting ona flag, a dualism that establishes a symbolic referent as much as it obscures that referent in abstraction.
Johns began with a symbol, whereas Fontaine’s work begins with physicality. We can feel this in the rubbed and eroded surfaces of Epicenter 2and Dark Flag.Epicenter 2presents a colorfield of stained pink, orange, and black, bearing a thick yellow horizontal stripe and a vertical red line dripping down the canvas but dissipating before it reaches the bottom. The glossy surface of the painting feels sensuous, and I have the urge to lick it. In Dark Flag, a misaligned grid appears as a remnant of a rubbing process, an erased impression where the dominant black has been chemically removed, revealing linear pale yellow stains. Repeating the logic of Epicenter 2, a large stripe strikes horizontally across the bottom of the canvas. The abstract language of the flag, one of stripes and fields of color manifests in the surfaces of these works, even as the grittiness of the color field subverts the saturation typically found in a nation’s flag.
Beyond the surface of Dark Flag, a physical structure affixed to the wall freezes in time the wave of the flag through lumber and plywood. Through this theatrical support, I recall one of the many moon landing conspiracies: as Buzz Aldrin plants the US flag on the surface of the moon, the flag waves ever so slightly, proof of wind and atmosphere, proof that our government is lying to us. This structure buts up against Flourishing Body, almost as if attached to it as a flagpole. In this sculptural centerpiece, two sets of two-by-fours covered in a skin of tape meet the ground as if legs, supporting in the center a black and white screenprint of a torso penetrated by wires, growing like hair through the body rather than from its surface. The particular installation of this hybrid work reinforces two metaphorical structures: that the flag hangs from a public body of support, and that each of our bodies are directly and indirectly subject to the symbolic realities represented in a flag. Who can remain whole, individual, while supporting the false-narrative of a national ideology? What does the state demand we sacrifice in raising a flag of support? In an era of eroding personal liberties, increasingly authoritarian laws, and corporate feudalism, Body/Flagbecomes a reminder to resist the ideological abyss of the state symbolized in a flag. Instead we must revel in our own physicality, in our sensuality; we must site our origin not in drawn borders or ideologies but in our universal, fleshy materiality.
Despite its visual and material contrast, Jasmine Peck’s presentation in the main floor gallery picks up both bodily physicality and theatricality through sculptural-installations of ceramic vessels, yarn, vinyl, and rugs. The walls are painted with overlapping pastel shapes of yellow, green, pink, and blue, on which hang a series of small Protuberancesculptures, each bearing a more muted color compared to that of the walls. I imagine the hands of the artist building the coils of each clay vessel, smoothing them down, following each fold of these bodily abstractions. They are sensual creations, sensuous creatures. It is hard to see them as not alive in some capacity, whether abstract references to the human body (such as in Tallow) or as alien, Seussian creatures or plants (such as in Germinate). Here we can locate another aspect of the theatrical—the feeling that each sculpture is prepared to animate, to perform for us within the space of its individual stage of carpet or painted, pastel color.
The most successful works recall the human body. Tallowdraws me into an intimate relationship between my body and its own. It’s clay folds and volumes recall a figure in slow movement. The small rug leads me to imagine a woman stepped from the shower, drying herself on the bathroom rug, revelling in a moment of privacy, not dissimilar from Degas’ Woman Arranging Her Hairor Seated Woman Wiping Her Right Side. It feels more reflective than voyeuristic—even as a man, I am brought to imagine moments I have stepped from the shower and revealed in my own skin, my body. InProtuberance 5, the abstract form recalls male genitals, a limp penis resting atop a bollock. The manner in which the vessel has been sculpted removes the sense of the phallus as representative of male dominance. Here, it just is—a fragment of a body, one among many throughout this installation.
Despite the rigidity of the ceramics, everything here feels soft, fragile. I move and breath and the yarn in Tether, Bestow, and Passagesflutters. These sculptures imply an environment, one where I am aware of how my body displaces space, how it affects our shared space. In the small space at the back of the gallery housing Passages, I avoid stepping on the dueling carpets, even as I try to navigate the space. In becoming acutely aware of my body in relation to these sculptural-installations, I have stumbled into the notion of theatricality defined by the minimalists. But, where artists like Donald Judd, Robert Morris, and Carl Andre utilized hard geometric shapes and cold industrial surfaces, Peck’s sculptures exude the opposite, extending this notion of the theatrical from merely being aware of my body in space to feelingmy body in space.
Together, these seemingly opposite installations by Fontaine and Peck remind us that the realest and truest thing of all is our bodily physicality, that our minds, our souls, our ideas, are embodied in our skeletons, muscles, and flesh.
Brooks Turner is an artist, writer, and educator, whose recent work engages the history of fascism in Minnesota. He is a 2020 Artist-in-Residence in the Weisman’s Collaboration Incubator and teaches at St. Cloud State University and Ridgewater College. His work has been exhibited nationally, including recently at St. Mary’s University, Steve Turner Contemporary, and College of the Redwoods.
Transcription of Artist Conversation:
Ryan Fontaine and Jasmine Peck with Christina Schmid
Sunday, October 4, 2019 at HAIR+NAILS Gallery
Well hello everyone, thank you for joining us on this beautiful Sunday afternoon. I’m slightly shocked that you are all here and not outside. This show, as you may know, just opened on Friday night, which means I did not get to have my usual period of deep thinking and mulling things over before this conversation, but we were all fine with doing an artist talk improv: so this is what you’re in for this afternoon. I will begin by just stating the obvious, starting with the title Soft/Hard Surface/Sound. We have two artists here whose works contrast in a lot of ways and really activate these oppositions: whether it’s soft and hard, embodied in fabric and clay; or the impenetrable surfaces of the clay vessels and the paintings downstairs at odds with how sound enters and resonates in a body. The surface versus the penetrability. And, of course, we also have two artists who work with very different aesthetics. Despite all of these contrasts, when I was thinking about what I wanted to talk about this afternoon, it’s what these two distinct bodies of work share.
I made a list of questions to start, but please jump in at any point if you want to add. This does not just have to be the three of us talking. Jasmine has been my student at the U of M, so I should say that I’ve known her work for some time. What was really exciting to me about seeing this more recent work was how it now engages the space, even more so than in your thesis show, which was in 2018.
I would like to talk about how these two exhibitions, of Jasmine’s and Ryan’s work, engage the space around them; how they reach out, how they are tethered, how they lean, how they hang, how they touch each other. Let’s think about the activation of space, maybe even the reconfiguration of space. The basement once again proves to be very versatile. I also thought about how both of these artists begin their process, how their work is rooted in the clay form or in painting, but then the works both become much more. They become these sculpture/assemblages, and they are moving away from ‘just’ the painting, ‘just’ the clay object. They turn into 3-d rather than 2-d objects and occupy space in ways that implicates us as viewers. Yet while that implication appears playful with all the pastel configurations, in the basement, Ryan, your work has a more sinister and more menacing vibe which we can talk about more. So, I was interested in this activation of space that implicates a body: it’s not just a sculptural object implicating the body; you both also very deliberately work with the body. That was the other point that I wanted to make sure we talked about. How do you both through materials, forms, arrangements, actually engage the body?
And having said all that I’m going to start quizzing Jasmine. I wanted to start by thinking about how working in clay comes with its own language, and I remember fondly the performance you did with Reb Limerick, playing with the language of ceramics. Ceramicists, for those of you who don’t know, frequently talk about clay bodies and bodies as vessels. Historically women’s bodies have been referred to as vessels, way too much. So, it is a material language and it is also a gendered language. Clearly, in your choices of forms and colors, you’re also gendering what we see. Could you say a little bit about your interest in these specific forms, in these biomorphic forms and how you activate the language of clay but also the language of gender in the work?
Sure, yeah, so as you were saying with how to refer to a vessel or really any kind of shape specifically in ceramics, it’s always like a pot has a foot or a shoulder or a belly or a rim or a lip. I think it’s really interesting that as humans we’re always putting how we understand the world through our body. We are labeling and putting those things onto ceramics and I obviously don’t make traditional vessels but I feel like that language still applies to sculptural things. I think that’s always in the background and especially when I’m talking to my students about work, those words just come out of me naturally. Maybe for them that’s something new to think about but for me the ceramics and the body are so entwined. I think learning those words has helped me think about ceramics in a bodily way, too. A container, not necessarily a vessel. And I understand the use of a female being a vessel. The thing that interests me is everything in ceramics being hollow and with vessels it’s like a functional space, something to be stored. I really like to think of the connection of human development with the development of ceramics to be able to store water and bring water places and store food and things like that. Thinking about my body and all bodies being containers and getting down to macro and micro levels and going through different forms of containers. As far as gendered things go, it’s something I don’t put so much thought into but is something that just happens naturally in the work. I feel like it’s all mostly femininely gendered but there are also these other appendages that get people to say ‘oh there’s a lot of penises in your work’ which is like yeah, there’s that too, but I think it’s another thing where we are drawn to point those things out and put body parts onto things. I think that’s something that just happens kind of naturally. As far as this space goes, I thought about creating something initially where you’d have to enter and go through different levels of fabric. I was thinking about membranes and openings and orifices in the body where our insides and outsides stop and kind of blend and wondering where is our inside and outside?
Yeah, absolutely. That’s really interesting in terms of the combination of fabric and ceramic. With the fabric pieces, the strings certainly function as or suggest this kind of connective tissue. Thus the orifice is activated as the threshold where what is contained meets the outside. I was wondering if you could also say something about where you take inspiration for these forms. I see them as being very interesting as in their affinity for pop culture but there are also other inspirations, less infused with pop culture.
Yeah, I think the specific color palette and the shapes on these walls. Cartoons are a huge influence in the work. I like to think of my pieces as being a two-dimensional image but just broad and popped up into space. They have for me a very solid illustrative black outline like a drawing I’m making into space. I’m really interested in cartoons from the 90’s, specifically
I was thinking about Ren and Stimpy which is a cartoon that has a lot of bodily fluids coming out but it’s palatable because it is grotesque and it’s very humorous. So, I feel like taking that and that kind of navigating how we talk about bodily function in this more playful bizarre strange way where it’s not an actual representation of the human body. It had a lot of gorgeous backgrounds and these strange kind of shapes and really minimalist backgrounds that are kind of painterly. I was thinking about these shapes and colors, and how very similar they are to the backgrounds in that cartoon. So cartoons are a huge influence.
When you were talking about the thresholds in these sculptures, where inside and outside meet, and thinking about bodies in less of a candy colored friendly way, those thresholds can be locations that produce a lot of fascination but are also sort of laden with disgust. That mixture of the abject, where fascination and revulsion meet. I was thinking about how this work negotiates inside and outside, what should be contained and not be seen? You take this negotiation and put it in this very candy-colored friendly insulation, so the anxiety is removed but the fascination remains.
And I think anxiety is a huge part of it because I have a lot of anxiety about my own body and coming to terms with being here, it seems unbelievable that I’m here and I’ll never see what is inside of me or know what’s inside of me. Just yesterday we went to the, what’s it called, “humans exhibit?” …I can’t remember. The exhibit where they had a lot of cadavers and they cut them up and slice them up, Body World,yeah. I saw that just yesterday too and obviously I’m super interested in that but I was freaking out the whole time. It’s like this anxiety of not knowing what’s inside of me and feeling separated and alienated from my body. I think this is a way for me to bridge that gap. I think everyone has that anxiety to a certain degree, feeling comfortable with your internal workings. I think that comes into play a lot, me kind of trying to find out what that is or what that means, I feel like in a lot of ways this is me making my insides on the outside if that makes sense.
Well, I am about to deviate from the little script I wrote myself. In terms of anxiety, I’m curious—and I hope you all made it downstairs to see Ryan’s work–did you get that slightly menacing sinister vibe or was it just me? You’re nodding, thank you for that. I was thinking about the body in relation to your work as well. In particular when you go down the stairs and see the triptych, I don’t know if it was intended to be read as a triptych, with Epicenter 2, the flesh-colored one on the left, the dark flag on the right, and then in the middle you have this tightly wrapped body-in-strapping-tape structure that resembles a scaffold or maybe part of a dismantled easel. There’s a black and white photograph of a woman’s torso and then there is wire either sprouting from the body or piercing it. The piece in the middle is called Flourishing Body. To me, the gesture is ambivalent: do the wires sprout from the body or do they actually penetrate the body? At the center of this triptych, the structure resembles a medieval saint who is being tortured terribly, and the body is represented in this headless torso. But it is also absent and these tightly wrapped things could represent an absent body. In my mind, that piece comes with a certain anxiety… and there is a full blood transfusion and what looks like an alien tongue jutting out. So I was wondering how you, Ryan, were thinking about the body in relation to that work specifically.
I think what makes things a little complex is the photograph of the body making an appearance. But it’s similar to more abstracted work I’ve done in the past. I think a lot of those same things, there’s at least a dichotomy of ways to read it. I want it to feel like it is being pierced but also sprouting and I do think of it as a flourishing figure. I also think I don’t know if I want to go down a whole road map of parts but if you were to ask about a specific part, I do see the idea of using the strapping tape which has become part of my material lexicon, like tissue and symbology. But then there is the actual experience of seeing it. I know it does look like a bandage but it can take the place in a more removed way as skin on a scaffolding. Then it’s also just light. I lean more toward using a palette that is whitish because I want it to interact with light in a way that has less interference with the pigment, even though I feel super subjective about what the white is exactly and what light I’m using. It’s really important to me what light temperature I’m using. There are these formal concerns that are going on. I thought of the work as a triptych. There are three discrete objects that were made separately but they were made in the studio at the same time, so what often happens is that they influence each other. I saw that I wanted to create a totally different surface-making strategy with the flag-like object. That I wanted it to be like a sister to the abstract colorfield painting, which I don’t think of as abstract but rather as an object. Also, there’s something about the split in the top that could be like an injury or just a natural part of a body.
Yes, it’s really interesting to hear you talk about it because we haven’t had a chance to talk about this work yet. To me, looking at what I will now confidently refer to as a triptych, it was so interesting to have on the epicenter side the color of flesh, of muscle tissue, outsourced to that side, and then in the middle this provisional and compromised injured-looking body. With the surface, to go back to the title for a moment, both become that penetrable thing that is pierced by the wire but at the same time becomes the substrate for growth. I think that ambivalent gesture is very rich.
Yeah, I think from one direction it’s feeling like that title, in particular, was important to me because in the end I was thinking of our political moment, but it’s not overtly political. If there is a sinister heart to it, I was thinking of this battleground of where we’re at, if you want to really simplify it. It’s like a battle of life and death. I honestly feel like the GOP is a death cult and every action is like that: individual bodies and their reaction to the environment, their embrace of cult-like evangelical beliefs that are happening. I can’t help but think of that all the time because I can’t look away for some reason. I don’t think that it’s overtly referencing it, but there is something in my subconscious that is coming out. So there is this central area that feels like a battle between something that feels like it’s being institutionalized maybe? Life turned into something that’s not like life but then also metaphorically it’s not like that at all, it’s like this flourishing body where the hair is sprouting out. Or even in a different way of looking at it symbolically, sprouts of life that could be plants maybe…
So there’s both in that life-likeness, in that substitution of sorts, but at the same time you’re also holding on to that potential for something to emerge.
Yeah there’s a substitution bit. At the same time I also need it to read as a literal reading of those materials. I acknowledge that is there, it’s not like there are four limbs and they are standing in as hands and arms but in a way they’re not even that. I know they are there, I know they are being bandaged but I also know they are a beautiful surface that is being created by packing material that I like to use.
To me it read as this truncated make-shift stand in, a placeholder for a body. In Jasmine’s work the biomorphic bodily forms are more recognizable. It’s interesting that you bring up politics because I was thinking about politics with Gravity in particular. Gravityis the work in the downstairs corner where you work with a plastic mattress bag and it hangs from this big chain. In that corner of the room there is also the red grid with the wire mesh which cordons off that corner. Then there is the piece with the black fake fur that’s called Vestiges, which was another remnant of something that suggests an animal presence. But then again it’s faux fur, that life-likeness made to stand in for something else. That piece, did you sand down the canvas? I was really interested in the mark-making.
Yeah, it’s like the application of a uniform sheet of thick latex paint and then I sanded it down on a textured surface.
To me, the effect of that partial erasure of the marks is the suggestion that something happened but we can no longer access what happened. So the content is obscured deliberately. It reads as a trace that is amplified through that black fake fur around it, a really different use of fake fur than on what I’m sitting next to. In these sort of traces and remnants and then all the straps and suspension devices, I very much got that feeling of bodies on the move, bodies being evicted, bodies migrating; of containers, even that sort of narrowness of the space that you harnessed. That’s actually the work that is most politically resonant, so I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about that.
Yeah, one thing I think about is the way we move through space in my installations. Most of my shows since I’ve moved back to Minneapolis have been either up here or down there. I’ve become really interested in that basement and how it works exactly, how confined it is, but how you can create within the limited space. I think using the hardware wire also reads as, I don’t know, I’m interested in looking into the different layers. I’m stacking like a word, a mantra in my head, like how strapping is. One is like gravity, that stacking of this but then Gravityhas the stacking laterally. Maybe I would think you would read the title as this ‘weight’ thing, so for me there’s something really interesting about the stacking that alludes to gravity: things on top of each other–but here it’s going laterally. The building of this layer, there’s this massive object that is sitting there that I feel like is an exploded view of an abstract painting that is oriented by the grid and then becomes something that looks somewhat familiar. I thought bed frame or bed, and then once I recognized that was happening with this object, I was able to utilize the mattress bag. Bringing out the imagery that doesn’t really have anything to do with it but also to use it as a formal way of creating a different light. It was important to me to backlight it. That is a political way I would look at it, the distortion of how we have seen things or what expectations are, that is kind of fundamental in terms of what my art is about. Some of the ideas of truth and the idea that there have been these series of post-modern information exchanges. Things become very subjective, like the idea of what something is breaks down and we are living in a time where it has fully broken down so we have entered a place where truth is unexplainable and inaccessible. I’m working in this abstract way but this is something I’m thinking about, trying to digest how I think this has been lost forever. I don’t think there will ever be something that binds our society together. This idea you can work through ideas… Language is totally a weapon now. One side of the political moment we’re in has known this for a while and that is why they are in power, because the other side still wants to work it out. Even though my work is abstract those are some things I’m thinking about. An image that betrays your ideas of what you’re looking at but without being tricky.
Did you all think about language looking at Ryan’s work? It’s interesting that is where you were going. Since I was already thinking about the body, the body in Jasmine’s work to which I want to get back to, I’m intrigued by the body in the triptych and this very ambivalent gesture: the flourishing body or the body being subjected to symbolic violence. Then, we have this abstracted mattress piece that starts with or references the materials of the mattress bag. The bed, this object of comfort and rest and respite, that object is gone and what remains is maybe what you were talking about being irrecoverable. This place of rest and comfort is gone and what remains is this empty hull that has all these layers but it refers to this abstracted body that we no longer even have access to.
I wanted to make myself feel a little uneasy. The only way things can make you feel uneasy is if they have reference to the human body and to life and consciousness. So certainly that is implicated in some way with the chains. I don’t really know what this object is. It is a painting to me.
Thank you for bringing it back around to anxiety. So let’s talk more about anxiety, candy-colored anxiety in all of these lovely pastel colors. One of the things that struck me, Jasmine, about your new work was how you activated the space. In your thesis show, which is probably the last time I saw your work, the objects were also biomorphic ceramic shapes arranged by exchanging tissue threads made of fabric. At one point you said to me, or maybe the committee, that you wanted to feel like the objects have their own world and are having a conversation with each other, and we don’t understand the language they are using. So we are wondering what kind of conversation are we walking into here? Clearly the terms of the conversation have changed because the space is no longer a makeshift living room with the wallpaper you hand-painted, although the walls here are still activated as well. I was wondering if you could tell us if the conversation terms still apply and, if they do, what kind of conversation do you see these objects having in this space?
With that previous installation, it was a domestic space. With where the work was going at the time, putting it in a domestic space was a safer move because it is a bodily thing. Once I really thought about it I’m wondering why do I have them in a domestic space, and it’s not like I don’t have elements of the domestic here: the rugs and the yarn and the footstool. Obviously, these are still things that are in our everyday lives. Our domestic spaces are still important to me and what I’m thinking about, but I was using that maybe as a crutch. What I really wanted to get to was just being in a body. I wanted it to be both a living space and something inside, I wanted just to see what it feels like to be inside of some kind of living organism. I don’t know what living organism that is but that’s what I was thinking about. As far as the conversations go, I think they all communicate with each other. I feel like the one on the rug stands more alone than others but everything else is very much in conversation. As far as everything being connected, I’m interested in exchanges and thinking about exchanges and things going through bodies. I wanted it to be ambiguous as to who is feeding who or what kind of nutrients, or what is happening, or is this a positive or negative exchange. I was thinking a lot about breastfeeding and how we feed and that exchange to me is so bizarre that we produce this milk we feed our children with it. I can’t get my head around that. Thinking about that exchange and how it is literally giving life to that body, something so strange and alien to me. Thinking about this communication between the work, I think about it as some kind of organism where these are all multiple parts working together, but I’m not sure how and that’s what I’m figuring out.
I can very much see this exploration of alien organisms. When I was looking at them, I was thinking less of nutrients and more about procreation: maybe it was the one titled Germinatethat got me into the mindset of thinking about spawn with the strings like frog eggs in water. I’m a very literal-minded person, I have to say as a disclaimer. So yeah, planned propagation, botanical propagation, this one sending out little chutes into some different kind of colony. It seems like it could be something obvious like a lifeform propagating but at the same time something about the color choices and the way the work inhabits the space gave that a tempered but still ominous quality. It’s not running now but there was a sound element, too. I want to talk about how you saw the sounds as activating the sculpture further.
Yeah, that was something that was Ryan’s doing that I was open to because I haven’t experienced that. Something I’m thinking about in the future is having animation projected in the space somehow, so having some kind of movement or sound. That is something I haven’t necessarily thought about too much, but it was interesting to think about this ambient sound in the background. When I think about what it could be it’s like an internal sound that we can’t know. I think the sound was definitely more Ryan, but that was a nice part of our collaboration and me putting trust in him. It was certainly exciting for me but something I have to keep looking into.
So when you say an internal sound that you can know, you mean actually producing some sort of sound that goes with the installation?
I think of having a moving element, because the thing I like a lot about these pieces is having them activated with movement when you walk by, like your body is moving it. So, I’m thinking about how I can just push that further with some kind of sound. I did make a piece where I recorded a bunch of sounds to emulate internal sounds. I did that once so I think trying to find this unknowable but known sound that the body can make, I think that is what all this work is too, knowing this unknown sound but I already know it.
Yeah I remember with earlier work, you were imagining some of the forms with their waddling gait or imaginary conversations and movements and how they would sound if they talked? What was playing, Steve Reich?
There was a lot of Steve Reich in that soundtrack but it’s like stuff by 20th century avant-garde composers and other composers influenced by Steve Reich.
Something about the twinkling short little notes very much seemed to animate what was happening with the strings in Jasmine’s work.
Along those lines, yesterday the heat was on in the gallery so that was creating a lot of movement.
I think the thing that I get hung up on about ceramic work is that it’s so static. I think that’s why I like to have other materials to try to bring it to life more than having just these still, cold, hard objects. I’m definitely working toward bringing in other elements, because to live is to move. So it’s kind of a contradiction that these are cold hard objects that don’t move.
I have one more question for you, Jasmine. I’m trying to figure out how to ask. I wanted to return to the question of gender in the work because the more I was thinking about it, the more I’m curious. I just had Alex Peterson come and talk to my class about his work. He is a painter who works a lot in pastel shades. His work is on view right now as part of Queer Formsat the Nash Gallery. He talked about his color choices recently as inspired by how he images a girl’s bedroom. So the colors are very gendered and he is deliberately using that palette to bring them away from this perhaps dismissed palette into a different world. A lot of your wall-hung shapes are titled and numbered. These forms that people typically read as phallic or penile are sort of affectionate. The crescent shaped one, Protuberance 8is sort of droopy and flaccid, and I feel like they all come with this affectionate quality. They are small, cuddly, absurd, but all in this eminently likeable way. There’s nothing of that ominous color. But then I was thinking about this other one that you referenced earlier, Tallow: it stands apart.‘Passages’‘Bestow’ ‘Germinate’ are more referring to what is happening in each piece; they are tethered or represent a moment of passage, but Tallowis a material. It is a hardened fat that is made from animal fat. I thought about this form specifically and the sort of mammalian curves you have given it. It seems that while more masculine gendered bodies are portrayed with such palpable affection on these pastel-colored walls, this form called Tallowisn’t. So I was curious if that is something that is intentional or something that happened.
Well I have a hard time titling. Words are not my number one. I hate long-winded, ephemeral titles so I was trying to be to the point with a one word title. I was thinking about the word fat and I was trying to think about different ways to think about it without using that word. I wasn’t thinking it has to go through this process, I was just thinking there’s fat and it’s been taken. It’s interesting that you narrowed in on the part that is coming from animals, but I’ve been pescatarian for like 14 years so I try not to use animal products. I’ve always not wanted to eat meat because it’s so much like my own body. We are super similar but we have these different categories. This life and this fat would be put into mine but we are all the same material. I was thinking about that as well. I don’t know, I went in a different direction with titling because I usually try to go to a humorous place.
Yeah, it’s interesting because you have things that read as funny on top of the sculpture, but then as you said earlier, it stands by itself. It does have a different presence from the other work and the title sets it apart, so I was curious. Ryan, my almost final question to you: I wanted to talk about your material choices a little more. It seems like there is a break in the materials with the piece titled Girth. I was wondering if you could say a few words about that and I have one more question after that.
Yeah, that one was kind of an unexpected piece that just popped out of the installation of the show. The thing it shared with the other ones, why it kind of fits even though it feels unlike the other ones, I like the contrast that there are these contours rather than on this grid everything is square. The central idea for a lot of the pieces and sculptures is the idea of tension and kinetic energy within it. I wanted them to literally be like this but also give the viewer the sense that if it snapped it could be catastrophic. That one is the most elegant version of materials and tension. It’s all just tension of pushing this together. It’s a lot of tension in that piece, it feels like it’s at rest, less kinetic energy than some of the ratchet strapping I was interested in using. Also it fit in that room in that nothing except for the Vestigepainting is front lit, the other two pieces are backlit so that was also the idea of those working together to create an environment separate from the two sculptures that were backlit.
It’s also such an interesting counterpoint the way it juts out into the space from this precariously leaning blood transfusion piece in the center of the Flourishing Body. I wanted to ask you about the film in the back, on the screen, isn’t that footage from the Jealousy performance?
Yeah, some of what you were saying earlier about both working with limitations of space in the basement but then also using the work to create these narrow openings or these precarious encounters with work like GirthI wanted to ask you specifically about making that space only accessible through remote video and then repeating that footage in the back where you stand in the drizzle on a Friday night.
Right. Did a lot of you come to the Jealousyperformance or see that installation? It was in this room. We vaguely tried to come up with walls that were a combination of hardware cloth and strapping tape but I can’t and it’s not important but that combination of material is really of interest to me, its tension, its difficulty in making it work right. There was an enclosure that filled this entire room with a pathway and there were two dancers, Kristin and her partner, they go by the name HIJACK and they were doing their choreography inside of it. You could barely see through it but there was closed circuit camera on them, three different ones on a timer in the back room, and then another fish-eye lens that was a totally different kind of view where you could see the audience and the dancers midway through the performance. The walls were kind of like how this one piece downstairs that covers our storage closet rolls up, they all rolled up and then chairs came out and they all watched the dance.
What was really interesting for me as an audience member experiencing it is that you were so close to the performance and yet you couldn’t see it. You had to literally go to a different space and then you had this remote view, so it was really interesting in terms of withholding and making accessible.
I kind of lost track of the question of how I got there but I’ll talk about the film in relation to that piece. A lot of it was this tension between not being able to see what’s happening. Everything distracts you away from this dance, it’s a mediated experience where you can see it one way but it feels like you’re in a surveillance room watching for shoplifters or something, or you could see it where the whole room is the display so the audience is part of the choreography but it’s not its own thing. A really subjective way of seeing a discreet choreography and then letting that tension go. We talked a lot about what is dance and how much do you need to really add to it. Do you even need a set or can you do it anywhere? And then you can’t see it and you’re holding this idea of needing to get at it. You sit around it and whatever extraneous part of it existed, it’s really just about two dancers. A lot of the choreography is minimal so there is this barrier between you and this art piece. The film is totally different. We are using the material and we’ve documented everything. There are six performances, all the fish-eye views of the audience being part of the choreography without asking permission and the choreographers doing something with this barrier where they can’t see each other but we can see both. A set is created that has these lights within it so from every view from the video that’s playing outside right now, it switches view every two seconds and it doesn’t give you the sense that they’re in an enclosure, it’s more like there’s a backdrop that’s super luminous. It’s a pretty semi-opaque backdrop with light in the walls actually, and those come through in the closed circuit as really bright strips. Part of it is the rhythm of the switching. I think what is interesting about that film in relation to the performance is that the performance just provided the material but has very little in common conceptually with the show.
Yeah seeing it now I think it’s useful to know where the footage comes from but it’s interesting to read the film outside without that context in relation to the work in the basement as an extension of these slightly sinister spaces. With the film outside, you never get any sort of context. So the withholding of context as a form of abstracting, the body is absent again.
I agree it’s hard to take back all the contextual information I just gave you but it also reads as surveillance because there is an aspect to the larger diagonal one that is a confining wall. I think about that a lot, incarceration in our country. I feel distant from a time or place in my life where I am likely to be incarcerated. I haven’t been in prison but I’ve been confined in cells. I’ve thought a lot as a youth living in partial reality and a partially self-actualized surveillance police state. It’s something I thought about and when I was younger it hadn’t actually reached fruition. There weren’t actually cameras on the street but I knew there would, not just from reading 1984, I just have that little faith in humanity, like no one’s going to give a fuck. When they did start putting them up in late 90’s or something they start popping up everywhere and definitely after 9-11 nobody gave a fuck at all. Now we exist in this world and I don’t obsess about and I don’t feel claustrophobic but I foresaw that and I thought it was bullshit that people gave lip service to the idea that people won’t stand for that, but really they will stand for anything. One thing I did not foresee in all of my negative views on what the future would hold was Donald Trump and now we are in a place where we can’t even imagine a potential future. However, I have hope and I have faith in humans and that’s what part of this art is for me.
So we have very different anxieties in play here. On that uplifting note I’m going to open it up to you all for questions………..
Christina Schmid thinks with art and writes as critical practice. Her essays and reviews have been published both online and in print, in anthologies, journals, artist books, exhibition catalogs, and digital platforms. She works at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Art in Minneapolis as an Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Art and Critical Practice.
Jasmine Peck is a sculptural ceramic artist. Her practice is an intersection of material studies that encompasses drawing, sculpture, performance and installation. Peck’s work utilizes the human body as a site for exploration of cultural norms, bodily functions, and ideals around beauty and the grotesque. Peck graduated with an MFA from the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities in 2018, has shown nationally and internationally, most recently exhibited in the National Conference on Education for the Ceramic Arts.
Ryan Fontaine is a visual artist, musician, writer and performance presenter whose material-oriented work deals with repetition of imagery, mediated experience and shifting perspective and how these elements affect the world we inhabit. He co-runs HAIRandNAILS Contemporary Art with his partner, choreographer/dancer Kristin Van Loon. His most recent work was the performative installation JEALOUSY, a Minnesota State Art Board-funded collaboration with dance group HIJACK (Kristin Van Loon + Arwen Wilder) and Heidi Eckwall.
SAŠA ASENTIĆ & COLLABORATORS
co-directed by Alexandre Achour
TANZ IN DER DDR: WAS BLEIBT?
(Dance in the German Democratic Republic – What Remains?)
Nov 9, 2019
Das Ost-West-Ding Festival (The East-West-Thing Festival)
by Sean Smuda
If the body under Communism was one of generation –mass productivity and its surveilled enforcement, then the body under Capitalism is one of consumption –the individual engulfed by technologic indulgence. In Saša Asentić’s “Dance in the DDR- What Remains?” the resilience of the former East is a lesson to the de-politicizing dopamine clickbait of the now West. Going to see it on the night of the 30thanniversary of the collapse of the Wall, the feeling of being held between states was powerful. A friend stayed away as the title conjured folk dance and propaganda. However, the reality was more angsty, expressionist, and futuristic. One piece declared that “the body that is mangled is more resilient”, an attitude that has precarious resonance.
Berit Jentzsch’s shadow dance of Love started the evening with her hands making two swans that turned into a single bird straining at flight. Rooted in the Ausdrucktanz traditionfrom Dore Hoyer’s “Afectos Humanos” (1962), it was simple, elegant, and something virtually censor-proof in DDR times. Then Mr. Asentić introduced Arila Siegert’s polarized response to it; “Kentauren”, from 1989, and extended the shadow play to include vanity, greed, and other vices that reflected both the GDR and current dance industrial complex. This presentational form, the theatrical essay, was typical to the East, but to Asentić’s credit, he let its affective qualities lead the way. 
After “Love”, Mses. Jentzsch and Rike Flämig criticized one another’s careers and lack of talent to the point of objectifying themselves as consumer goods. Part of Jo Fabian’s “Whisky and Flags”, 1993, this East/West dialectic includes downing shots and an explosively contorted solo. Fabian practices socio-physical synesthesia with his work to examine and problematize reunification’s transitions between theater and culture, language, movement, and form. There is no one-to-one translation for this spirit’s impulse, but in “Whisky and Flags” – the East German communist future has become a thing of the past, whereas the Second World War Nazi past and bourgeois German period before the war approaches us in a decontextualized and re-contextualized condition from the direction where we had expected to meet the future”.Saša Asentić reiterated the author’s premise that it be re-staged every ten years to check in on the state of the reunion.
The next piece, it was announced, would be a “female performer with a shaved head, surrounded by sound” and would appear “where no one expected her, but many awaited her”. Fine Kwiatkowski was a pale white avatar of careful movements that merged from self-protective to slightly frenetic. Her arms were wings, then shields in layers of video-projected parallel lines that filled the Sophiensaele. These defined her latitude, emergences, and disappearances between, over, and under shadow walls. The linear-scan technology blurred with border crossing footage, then the audience was asked to stand, walk, then stop. She danced among our bodies, which were half shadow forest, half city to her fugitive hunches towards klieg lights at tunnel ends. Immersive, obliterative, we stood for what the crowd is to the individual –blocking or providing clear paths and escape routes.
Out of these densities and into a clearing was a piece originally made by Patricio Bunster, a Chilean exile to Dresden after the Allende coup d’état in 1973. Daniela Marini, Alexandre Achour, and Saša Asentić asked, in various languages, that whomever wanted to know his/her story come to them. Eventually the entire audience of 120 or so, sat around the three performers. In my group, Ms. Marini (who is Chilean) asked us to tell her what we felt and imagined about Freedom while she sang a song in Spanish that mentioned a mariposa(butterfly). A German behind me replied that he was irritated by the question, implying that audience participation is a cop-out to entertainment. Fair enough. I replied that her song reminded me of the absurdity of human flight. Like Da Vinci’s machines the temporary levitation of dance is the prisoner’s impossible escape, and the cliché of a butterfly going over the Wall accentuated it. Then she said that in order to be really free, and for the dance to continue, she needed us to take off her clothes. I thought of turning to the guy behind me and saying, “still irritated?” She lay there for a while, naked, then moved between all groups, singing and crying with her mouth directly on our bodies. In this immersion it was not a question of the dance’s dramatic background as much as the performer’s angst and uncertainty: as if she could not understand her own question. Trained in Chile by German dancers from Kurt Jooss’s company, Bunster’s aim was to merge a local vocabulary with globalized movements and restructure the nationality of their forms.
The evening closed with the re-enactment of part of Marianne Vogelsang’s “Five Preludes”. Its blocky black costume and gliding motions evoked a cloisonné Oskar Schlemmer. Mash-up’ed with Bach and “Red Poppy Song”, it both passed on her tradition and was a symbolic elegy to the classicist and expressionist remains of the DDR.
The discussion panel afterwards was at a long communal table full of snacks and drinks and I looked forward to hearing about the processes and revelations that the cast underwent. The moderator, Jens Richard Giersdorf ,and I wore the same grey striped sweaters, sat on the same bench, and shared a laugh about maintaining symmetry. Mostly what was discussed, however, were the logistics of the collaborations and reconstructions. It made me happy to know that there had been such engagement with the project, but I was hoping to hear about re-envisioning the pieces in contemporary contexts.
Training back to the Bornholmer S-Bahn station, it was midnight and the Ossis and Wessis who first crossed thirty years ago had taken over the bridge. There was a pot-bellied stove with hot Glühweine, Sekt, and beer. A portable sound system played bands such as Zahlt (Pay!) and tunes like “I Don’t Know How to Tango”. This was an un-advertised, Hasselhoff-free celebration, and the police seemed to be there in sympathy to keep traffic from interfering. As the crowd swayed to Punk and genre-fluid Sprechstimme, Socialist austerity and Capitalist excess fused. Like “Dance in the DDR -what Remains?”, it was good to see the past in action, spilling out of its designated party zones with love and tribute.
Expressionist dance, a direct reaction against ballet, influenced by the individual’s claims to create and present their own choreographic works.
Author’s note, no timeline or background notes were given in the written program, some of the history has been re-constructed by dialoguing with Mr. Asentić and other research.
Tomaž Toporišič, The Essay on Stage: Singularity and Performativity, Slovenian Society for Comparative Literature, 2010
The Red Poppy is regarded as the first Soviet ballet with a modern, revolutionary theme. Lyrics include: “As red as a red poppy, So red does the inner rose bloom in my mind, Such is the inner flower in me, I had been a good hero who wanted to offer many a new life”.
Author of “The Body of the People: East German Dance since 1945”, University of Wisconsin Press, 201