Dossier | A Cross-poetics of the Body and the Image | esse arts + opinions

Dossier | A Cross-poetics of the Body and the Image

  • Trisha Brown, It’s a Draw, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2008. Photo : permission de | courtesy of Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

A Cross-poetics of the Body and the Image
By Anne-Claire Cauhapé

Trisha Brown: So That the Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing; such is the title under which the Minneapolis Walker Art Center organized its 2008 retrospective of major postmodern artist Trisha Brown, bringing together representations of some of her most important choreography and a large selection of her visual productions. Certainly a provocative title, but also representative of the subversive aesthetics that marked a whole generation of artists whose avant-garde experimentations still resonate today.

The curatorial choice of showcasing dance and visual arts together mirrors the artist’s own approach. From the intricate weaving of her experimentations on the body in motion with her work on the image, a common thread unravels at an interdisciplinary crossroads, in the folds of the body and the image. Interdisciplinarity is a vast topic and can be read on several different levels. Here, I will call upon a few of its contemporary manifestations that seem to delineate a cross-poetics in the interchange between art forms.

From One Space to Another
Because the body carries traces of its own memory, one cannot contemplate issues of interdisciplinarity in current choreographic productions without paying heed to the seminal experimentations of previous generations. An exhaustive overview of the chronology and thematic richness interconnecting dance and the visual arts lies well-beyond the scope of this essay. It is important to note, however, that from the beginning of modernity to the 1970s, the two art forms developed along relatively synchronized trajectories in terms of the gradual deconstruction of the generic norms that conventionally defined each discipline. In developing performance art, the postmodern generation radicalized the process, rendering any categorization impossible while marking out an identity in the space between the two fields. By prompting audiences to re-examine the hybrid nature of her production in the twenty-first century, Brown is reminding us of the fundamental importance of questions regarding the “de-definition” of the art object and of the transposition of one territory into the other.

A dissenting heir of modernity, Brown founds the dialogue between visual art and dance on the innovative work of such predecessors as Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg. Emerging from the crucible of Black Mountain College, long-time collaborators Cunningham and Rauschenberg undertook a meticulous exploration of the practical and theoretical ramifications of interdisciplinarity. Dispensing with the notion of collaboration limited to the mere presence of art, the two artists explored both the resistances and permeability of the boundaries between disciplines in order to create the conditions for a real fusion of genres. After associating with visual artists for many years, Merce Cunningham no longer spoke of dancing bodies but of abstract movement that structured space and time. Presentations of his pieces proliferated in fringe venues, and he pioneered the use of digital technology with Biped (1999). Rauschenberg, for his part, questioned the status of the image, created pieces in the dark, exhibited his work on stage, and, finally, leaving behind the art object altogether, put himself on stage in performances which became his exclusive form of expression.

Contemporary dance inherits from the chiasmus between practices of the body and the exhibition of the image, metabolizing it further still by merging them into a single heterotopian poetics. (1) Like the combined presentation of Brown’s visual and choreographic work at the Walker Art Center, works today are often transposed from one presentation space to another: dance is exhibited in art centres, visual arts are performed in theatres. While artists conceive of interdisciplinarity as an effective means of flouting conventions, institutional acceptance of such lateral orientations is yet another step, which choreographic culture has largely conquered. In 1999, Boris Charmatz became director of the Centre chorégraphique national (national choreography centre) of Rennes and Brittany and, with institutional backing, proceeded to adumbrate a common thread in the history of dance and the visual arts. Upon taking up his new position, Charmatz renamed the Centre chorégraphique national the Musée de la danse, changing its mission at the same time. What had been a technical training centre became — or came into its own as — a space for raising awareness of the body, as it is thought and practised, redeploying it in a trans-artistic dimension that “joyfully explodes the limits induced by the strictly choreographic field,”(2) and stirring up a broadened conception of dance that includes the culture of the image.

Reversibility of the arts
While the transposition of works from one venue to another demonstrates that interdisciplinarity transpires through an opening up of spaces, the title of this retrospective also suggests that interdisciplinarity calls into question the spectator’s own perception of the work. Pierre Bal-Blanc, director of the Centre d’art contemporain de Brétigny, produced a cross-analysis of two productions, (3) titling his reflections on choreography “Notes de commissariat” (curatorial notes) and those on the exhibition “Notes de mise en scène” (directorial notes). (4) The instability of critical terminology supposedly specific to each art form prompts us to take a closer look at the terms of the dialogue between body and image as it is articulated within the works themselves. Rachid Ouramdane, an active and prolific choreographer, exemplifies this broad conception of dance, by which the field stretches into that of the image (perhaps even issuing from it). For the 2012 Lyon Biennial, he created Sfumato, named after the painting technique in which outlines are blurred and which he applies to his choreographic composition. On a stage immersed in artificial fog, the indeterminate and diluted boundaries of the dancers’ bodies create clouded images from which emerge symbolic reflections on territory and identity.

The growing use of new technologies in contemporary dance productions facilitates greater and closer ties between dance and the visual arts, making it possible, for instance, to use virtual images as spectacular stage settings. Cinématique, (5) created in 2010 by the Adrien M/Claire B dance troupe, is a prime example. Some more extreme artists go so far as to question the necessity of a body of “flesh and blood.” A bodiless dance thus becomes possible, and through it a re-definition of choreography. With Intérieur, (6) presented at the SAT’s Satosphere in Montreal in 2011, the kondition pluriel collective conceived a piece where the constructed space and the bodies moving within it are wholly virtual. In 1999, with 100% polyester, objet dansant no (à définir), Christian Rizzo proposed a visual and choreographic installation whose subjects were hanging dresses that were fanned into motion; literally in the folds of the image — and fabric — the dancing body is manifest by its absence. The spectator’s perception is thus opened onto another, invisible and disembodied dimension of dance, that of a “dancing idea.” (7) By interrogating the definition of the body in its relationship with the image, dance reveals an unprecedented potential for diversity, re-situating itself in a hybrid territory, at the confluence of the arts.

While the body’s absence and its virtual substitution may transgress one’s definition of dance, one can also legitimately ask if the body itself is able to assume such reversability. Trisha Brown inaugurated her retrospective at the Walker with a performance in which she moves on a large paper placed on the floor while using charcoal to sketch various drawings. Do the drawings reflect the movements of the body, or is it the intention of drawing that determines the movement? This ambiguity of the origin and intention of the act is the very motif of the work, that is, its subject and motivation. At a certain degree of engagement — or disengagement — on behalf of the performer in his or her movements, it becomes impossible for the spectator to identify the nature of the current action within the bounds of conventional expectations. As if suspended in an infinitesimal interstice, the body in motion is a mere figure emerging from a particular background, a fundamental characteristic of the principle of representation. (8)

Titling the performance It’s a Draw, Brown ironically underlines the reversible nature of the arts, synonymous here with the instability of both the spectator’s perception and his or her interpretation. Alluding to Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pipe, the work then clearly enjoins us to conceive the reversibility of dance and the visual arts as dependent on a particular relationship with the work and not on the work in itself. Is this (still) dance? The answer to this question may only be found in one’s engagement in the experience. The cross-poetics of the image and the body invites spectators to question their own experience and to examine the connection between the resistance of their own gaze and the limits imposed on the flow between the disciplines of the arts.

From the transposition of exhibition spaces to the reversibility of gesture, including a re-description of the art object, interdisciplinarity eschews normative practices and representations in the arts. Born of the simultaneous desire for openness and critical self-reflexivity, the extension of contemporary dance culture feeds off the exploration of these potentialities of the body and the image that allow them to inform and affect each other. One of the prime conditions of this shared poetics in the arts derives from the interconnected relationship with the works. Contemporary dance is defined as a receiving body that lets itself be traversed by other movements, by other tensions of artistic expression, but also as a body where the intention of the creative gesture meets its reception, its interpretation. In the intimate folds of the body and the image, the cross-poetics of dance and the visual arts suggests the promise of a future in which the arts will converse ever more intimately, provided that the gaze we cast on them also continues to fulfil its own mobile potential.

[Translated from the French by Ron Ross]

NOTES
(1) Heterotopia is a medical term signifying the displacement of an organ or tissue from its normal location in the body. The term also calls up Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia:
(http://foucault.info/documents/heteroTopia/foucault.heteroTopia.fr.html). This dual reference highlights issues in the construction of a shared imagination crystallized by the development of each art in a different territory.
(2) See Boris Charmatz, “Manifesto for a Dancing Museum”: www.museedeladanse.org/sites/default/files/manifesto_dancing_museum10040....
(3) The two productions consist of X-event, a piece created by choreographers Annie Vigier and Frank Apertet and presented at the Biennale d’art contemporain de Lyon in 2007, and the group show, La Monnaie vivante, presented in 2006 at Micadanses, a dance centre in Paris.
(4) Pierre Bal-Blanc, “Une pratique liminaire,” in Daniel Dobbels, Un art indécompostable (Paris: Éditions Micadanses, “Résidence” No. 2, 2007), 45-57.
(5) www.youtube.com/watch? v=QyfhmNOEigU
(6) http://vimeo.com/35235311
(7) www.lassociationfragile.com/christian-rizzo/choregraphe/data/pdf/05-07-2....
(8) Louis Marin, De la représentation (Paris: Seuil, 1993), 344.

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