September 9–October 22, 2022
The exhibition à corps perdu | sharing madness is an elegant bringing together of pleasure and politics—or perhaps, more accurately, an elegant “moving together,” a phrase that is important to understanding this performative exhibition, beautifully curated by Florence-Agathe Dubé-Moreau and Maude Johnson1 1 - à corps perdu | sharing madness exhibition brochure (Montréal: Galerie de l'UQAM, 2022), 4.. The show, which was inspired by the affective consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the limitations that it imposed on public performances, brings together Canadian and international performers Amrita Hepi, Hanako Hoshimi-Caines, Ligia Lewis, Lo Fi Dance Theory, Benny Nemer, Andrea Peña, and Andros Zins-Browne. As a whole, the exhibition demonstrates how videos of dance performances can fill a gallery wall—indeed, a gallery space—with powerful messages on a range of topics, including racism, colonialism, and empathy.
Benny Nemer, a Montréal artist currently based in Paris, began working on Tunings in 2020 and chose to film the piece instead of performing it live. The exhibition includes images from rehearsals for Tunings, but much more impactfully, screens show the video recording of the performance from 2021. Combining an interest in botany, queer desire, and art history, the performance involves Nemer ornamenting his two male dancers first with a long, thin, clear tube, and then with branches and tulips, as a flautist plays. This ornamentation seems spontaneous rather than choreographed, and the slow, mindful movements of the two dancers, whose goal is to keep the tube and plants afloat on their shoulders and limbs, also seem organic. The performance is gorgeous to look at and watch, but it is also a master class in corporeal empathy, led not so much by the dancers but by Nemer. As he was decorating his dancers, he was clearly speaking to them, and he often smiled, bringing viewers a momentary sensation of joy. This unexpected affective element, combined with the visual pleasure of the performance, made for a memorable viewing experience.
Bundjalung/Ngāpuhi dancer and choreographer Amrita Hepi’s Monumental (2020) is a colour video installation that mixes images of seven performers dancing around, and then destroying, a foam sculpture of James Cook with archival video of the American dance troupe the Rockettes during the opening ceremony of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow (it is not totally clear why Hepi chose these images) and video of recent media coverage of the destruction and removal of racist monuments following the murder of George Floyd in the spring of 2020. The work was inspired by the refusal to remove the statue of Edmund Barton, Australia’s first prime minister, not unlike McGill University’s refusal to remove the 1970s statue of slave owner James McGill, despite repeated requests from Black students and faculty, until the statue was vandalized in July 2021.
The last filmed performance in the gallery is Dominican dancer and choreographer Ligia Lewis’s deader than dead (2020), another video installation that also employs both visuals and sound, but even more than any of the other performances, sound is crucial to the emotional impact and anti-racist messaging of the work. Three Black performers wearing black masks (the kind that we’ve been wearing since the beginning of the COVID pandemic) dance in a white cube in an empty museum. The choreographed piece was initially meant for the Made in L.A. biennial at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, but because of COVID, deader than dead became a video installation; at times, four projections of the dancers fill the gallery wall; at other times, only one. The performers begin the dance in silence; eventually, they begin to speak, although because of the masks the words are unintelligible. This is perhaps a nod to the difficulties of interpersonal communication that arose during the COVID era not just because of masks but also because of differing perspectives on health measures such as vaccines. Then, the dancers fall to the floor, moving in increasingly agitated ways and making noises that are unmistakably the sounds of suffering and distress; there are close-ups of the dancers’ faces during these intense moments. Lewis’s jumping-off point was Macbeth’s monologue about how life merely “creeps in this petty pace” to a predetermined end, but the performers’ movements and sounds of distress inflect that sentiment with new meaning, one informed by the Black Lives Matter movement and ongoing anti-Black racism that includes police brutality and other kinds of violence. Near the end of the video, one of the performers drags his fingers along the white gallery wall; this image, projected upon the white wall of the gallery, also points up the overwhelming whiteness of museum spaces, a problem that the exhibition faces head on and rejects with its diverse cast of performers.
à corps perdu | sharing madness is inevitably haunted by those who have died in the last two and half years, as hinted at by the French portion of the exhibition’s title. But it would be inaccurate to suggest that these performances, and by extension the exhibition, are concerned solely with tragedy. The curators and performers have created and brought together moving (in both senses of the word) artworks that can be appreciated for their aesthetic beauty, as showcases of physical strength and ingenuity, but also for their rapier-sharp awareness that beauty, pleasure, politics, and pain are not mutually exclusive concepts or experiences. By bringing multiple dance(r)s into the gallery space, the exhibition reminds us that we are not alone in this mad world.