Drawing the Curtains
by Lucy M. May
While touring in Sweden in February, I was invited by my friend and former colleague Laura Hatfield to dance at the Valand School of Fine Art’s Galleri Rotor, where she works as a Curatorial Intern while studying at the University of Gothenburg. The work exhibited in the space at the time was Ian Pedigo’s installation In a Shaded Corner of the Room; The Curtains…: a collection of assembled and disassembled sculptures made of found objects, and materials cut from the gallery space itself. Franz Kafka’s story Cares of a Family Man was a ‘point of entry’ for Pedigo’s creation.
This installation was already in the process of being dismantled by Laura when I arrived–a task which is both part of her job and a part of her artistic practise. The score we performed in the space on February 13th axed on Hatfield’s activity, my dance improvisation, and their interceptions with the themes present in Cares of a Family Man. Following our performance, we exchanged interview questions about our experiences.
Laura Hatfield Interviews Lucy M. May:
Laura Hatfield: We first met while we were both employed as art administrators in a gallery. Did you draw on the experiences working in a museum for your performance? How would you reflect on the performativity of the museum profession? Did my actions of deinstalling the works distract or inform your dancing? At some points it seemed like your movements reflected those that the hanging sculpture made while it was being disassembled. There was also some distress in your actions – could this have been an interpretation of the aura of the works being demystified by the act of taking them apart?
Lucy M. May: When I worked at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, I used to goof around with my fellow reception-desk clerk in the downtimes when there was no one around, dancing on that shiny grey marble in the lobby. I also remember dancing in the permanent collection rooms with my sister during openings that we would attend as kids with my parents. It was a nice place to get away from adult noise. There was always something attractive to me about those wide spaces between one artwork and the next. I hadn’t thought of this though when I was planning for Rotor. But I do think there is a certain inherent aspect of performance when you are working in a gallery or museum, because you are an interlocutor for the works in there, your job is to facilitate dialogue in some capacity, between the public and the art works. And performance is that: communicative.
— I had hoped to be even more aware of the actions you were making, deinstalling the works, but the character that emerged, this gallery ghost, had hazy vision, blurred by my hair too! So I responded to your actions somewhat more intuitively than I had envisioned. I also found that I was responding more to you, Laura, and your presence, than to the objects themselves. I kept thinking about this family man Kafka has in his story: there was an emotional state that I read into his voice, one of disturbance, I guess, yes; one recognizing an end to things, and testing the boundaries between living and dying, creating and erasing (I wouldn’t say ‘destroying’). At the same time though, being engulfed in that piece of fabric which moved subtly around me, and then feeling the hanging arrangement of the sticks that made up the piece you first started to disassemble, did also inspire me to move my limbs from the bones, to fall, to sway.
L.H.: You are employed as a dancer for a well-known dance company. How does the experience of performing solo in a gallery differ from your larger productions in proper performing arts facilities?
L.M.M.: Hugely! As much as I truly love the challenges of working within the constraints of someone else’s choreography—forcing the body into new and often uncomfortable places, diving into an unfamiliar universe, digging down to find the roots of meaning in the gestures I make, in addition to the joys and hardships of working with a pretty big team of people towards a common goal—I really relish the freedom, simplicity and spontaneity of doing a project like this one. It’s refreshing to leave behind all the accoutrements, furnishings, rules, timetables, and habits that come along with big productions, even though those things are all helpful of course.
I also like the nerves that come with performing in an unpredictable situation. I don’t often get nervous any more when I perform in produced shows, but when I do, it’s an unpleasant anxiety that I feel. Performing in galleries, I have butterflies that come from excitement and a healthy kind of fear.
L.H.: How did the artworks, deinstallation, gallery space affect the performance?
L.M.M.: I’m wondering too how much I succeeded in really adapting my movement to the situation at hand. I try to get myself to abandon my preconceptions of gesture when I do an improvisation like this, but it’s not really possible to invent a unique language specific to the situation when you are in a purely reactionary mode, when you haven’t spent time researching and developing the potential physical movement you might link to that space, the artwork, the actions. In that sense, as a dancer, you rely greatly on the tools, the kinetic patterns that you are familiar and comfortable with.
That being said, the pacing of the rooms was interesting to me, and there were moments that, as I was moving from one to the next, I was also puzzling how to draw our audience with us to where we wanted them to be, more or less. I felt a certain sense of being constrained to narrow pathways, small surfaces of the floor, and to the doorways, rather than a freedom to use all the walls and spaces of the gallery. I also wanted to keep a tie to each thing you were doing, to keep a sort of umbilical cord between your actions and mine, however imperceptible. Even at the end, as I was wrapped up in the blanket, I felt it was important to stay as still as I could, because I couldn’t see or sense any of what you may have been doing, and the only justified action I could have at that point, in order to stay connected to you, was to surrender to waiting. To breathe and to wait and listen… like a monster under the bed.
L.H.: There seems to be a lot of discussion about the division between the performing arts and performance art. Claire Bishop’s article “Unhappy Days in the Artworld: De-skilling Theatre, Re-skilling Performance” suggests that these two modes of performing should collaborate and inform each other. Do you think we managed that at all? What are your thoughts on artists who use dance in their performance art?
L.M.M.: In reference to “Unhappy Days in the Art World”, I’m not sure where our performance sat in the crossover between visual art performance and theatrical performance. I think maybe we found a way to ply the two at once:
Your activities were ‘real’ and unrehearsed. Although you’ve performed those actions many times in your line of work, the specific dismantling of Ian Pedigo’s pieces had not been practised. At the same time however, there was something of a mysticism and ritual to your activities, in that the audience could not know you were purposefully making false notation of measurements, and also, the fact that you purposefully engrossed yourself in your work, seeing me as if through eyes in the back of your head, but not directly acknowledging me, nor the audience. We established together a score of actions, some of which were task-oriented, others were tinged with theatricality (removing the cloth from around me). This encapsulated both our activities in something of a theatrical paradigm.
My own actions were to use the skills that I have acquired through my dance training to embody several ideas and states that we had established beforehand. It was an improvisation, and one that included pedestrian movements (standing, lying, rolling), but also including lots of danced movements.
I knew fairly early on that I didn’t want to undertake the actions that are part of your professional skill set: measuring, manipulating the works. I’m not very interested at this point in my work in rejecting my disciplinary training… I’m only beginning to understand how to use it to my own ends! I’m trying to see to what point I can avoid “re-skilling” in the work I create and perform: it’s such a trend now in the dance world too.
— The public’s behaviour could be a clue as to the nature of what we created. We attempted to supplant the beginning-middle-end framework that is conventional in a “black box” (theatre proscenium) to the gallery space in which we performed. Though the beginning was clearly marked, with our viewers entering the space quietly and finding their places to stand or sit in silence, the end drifted to a blurry conclusion without the typical applause of a theatre or dance performance.
I think together we did manage to collaborate and inform each other a great deal, and managed to avoid the “medium impurity” to which Bishop’s article makes reference. You maintained Bishop’s notion of contemporary art’s “insistence on authenticity and the reality effect—on being and doing rather than merely representing,” while I sought to maintain the proscenium’s “structure of spectatorship” to more or less successful degrees.
L.H.: The exhibition referenced Franz Kafka’s short story, The Cares of a Family Man, we also talked about gallery ghosts and the haunting of museum spaces by former patrons. In your performance did the figure of the Odradek influence you at all?
L.M.M.: Odradek as a character had more importance to Pedigo’s work, I think, than it did to me. Odradek, as an immortal collection of objects, the flotsam and jetsam of capitalist production, was the subject in Ian’s pieces and he’d already expounded it. The “Family Man” of Kafka’s story describes Odradek’s laughter—like a rustling of leaves, a sound produced by something/someone without lungs, a nod to the embodiment of that creature. Being a dancer, my medium being the body, being in a state of change and eventual decay, being transient, mortal, and emotional…this intrigued me more so. I identified with Kafka’s narrator. I was interested in the subtleties of feeling in his voice, his fear and jealousy, perhaps, of Odradek, of this stuff, and his oddly convivial but disdainful relationship to it/him.
— Perhaps if your actions were to deconstruct Odradek, mine were somehow to deconstruct the Family Man…to imagine him already dead, to imagine his body and how it was put together, to imagine his disquiet. But also to sense how there are changing states for all matter… not only flesh, but also stone, wood, wool and to find some comfort in that. I attempted to find moments of meditation and contemplation, as in Butoh, and in yoga (Savasana, the Death Pose), of nothingness, of corpse. But also found myself butting up against that stillness, fighting it, relishing in frenetic repetitious states of motion.
My sister noted particularly moments in which I entered repeating patterns. She reminded me that we did the same as children dancing in our living room: we would find a loop of movement that was satisfying, and we’d exhaust it… So perhaps that’s vitality, Rousseau’s sentiment de l’existance, expressing itself in some rudimentary form?
Lucy M. May interviews Laura Hatfield
Lucy M. May: I’m curious as to how your past and present experience as a performing musician perhaps informed the way you undertook the act of deinstalling the works in front of an audience. Did it affect or inform your relationship to the ‘public’ or to me, your co-performer?
Laura Hatfield: I was rather nervous about deinstalling the works in front of an audience for several reasons; traditionally a gallery would tend not to have the public inside the space while handling artworks as it poses a threat to the artworks and it goes without saying that a dance performance happening simultaneously with this process would pose even more areas of concern! Just the same because of the unique setting within a contemporary gallery and due to the fact that the works were destined to be returned to their site of origin (the woods, mainly), meant that the preservation and handling of the objects was less of a concern. I was more interested in the possibility that our actions may help propel a narrative about the show for posterity’s sake.
Though I was nervous about this I managed to handle it due to years of experience performing as a musician. I’ve often said that the most difficult thing I’ve ever done was perform solo at the piano, for an audience or a jury. That training took a lot of discipline and courage and it has allowed me to handle performing with a band or on the job with much more ease. As a drummer I’ve always stayed very focused while performing (often not directly looking at the audience) but at the same time aware of my bandmates. In this sense you were like a bandmate during our performance. I’ve noticed from the footage that I was very consciously not looking at the audience or you. It was funny because I have known you for 10 years and this was the first time I was in the same room as you performing, yet I couldn’t watch! It’s been really nice to see the video.
L.M.M.: Are the activities involved in deinstalling an exhibition as important to you as the relics—the artifacts and documents left behind? Does your everyday work of caring for artworks also have an aspect of more-than-mundane [personal, spiritual, philosophical…] importance to you?
L.H.: I think the activities are more important to me on a personal level at the time they are happening, but the relics of that process have more of a chance of being relevant to others in the future. Given that my current research is on documentation as art and the intersection between artistic and museological practices it makes sense that I have been producing works that document the museological process in order to relay that esoteric experience, one that is usually conducted behind closed doors, and to try and preserve those moments as ones that are meaningful.
Being an agnostic, I find spiritual fulfillment in museums as a site for contemplation and a partial reflection of humanity. I recognize that there has been tremendous inequality in constructing the museum phenomenon but one of the best things about museums today is the ability to be self-reflexive on their past formation in order to reconsider their future potential. Museums are rarely stagnant in my opinion.
L.M.M.: You spoke about feeling you often get when you are working alone in a gallery, of being watched, or accompanied by a ‘gallery ghost’. In our performance, you were very focused and steady as you performed the deinstallation, but do you ever find yourself, your body, in those alone-watched moments doing actions or gestures in relation to that strange feeling, that have no relation to the tasks at hand? Can you describe what things you might do to either address or suppress this ‘ghost’ you’ve sensed?
L.H.: Many of the galleries I have worked in have had underlying mythologies of being haunted by ghosts. Oftentimes the ghosts are former gallery founders, artists, or people related to the space. The “ghosts” I have encountered have seemed to be more influenced by the relations that the artworks hold manifest after accumulating their own histories – from the artist’s attention, to the various hands they have been exchanged between, be they private collectors, gallerists, exhibitions and museum collections. These transactions aren’t always traceable but often there are documents of their past lives in the records that museums keep. Having worked closely with collections in museums I have been privy to the dept of networks that an artwork can hold and these thoughts are what influence my feelings of being accompanied by “ghosts” while I work. When I get that feeling while caring for an artwork it is one that causes me to pause and reflect a little while. I’m not sure if this affects my actions but I imagine it is very likely.
L.M.M.: Notions of space: my work takes me from one theatre to another. Each place is converted to house the dance pieces, cargo, props, lights, and costumes that we bring with us, so we are always carrying this familiar thing with us and subjecting new spaces to its constraints. Your work on the other hand sees the other end of that: taking the same space and remaking it again and again with a fresh coat of paint for something new. How do you feel about these rooms (theatres, galleries) that have all this history of art that gets buffed over again and again, in the goal of always presenting a blank slate on which to create something new? How do you think the public might have an even more fragmented experience of these spaces, given that they don’t see the back stages, green rooms, storage rooms or broom closets (which more often than not, hold the only remnants of the history of those places)?
L.H.: I think there’s a lot to be said about the remnants of previous exhibitions that these spaces contain. Most of them are not readily visible. When I worked at the Bearverbrook Art Gallery in 2001 I assisted artist, Garry Neill Kennedy, with the installation of one of his exhibitions. I remember clearly helping him mask and paint a large wall painting of his name that spanned the entire perimeter of one of the gallery rooms and which had other works of his hung overtop of it. His name was written in a typeface called “Superstar Shadow” and it was a nod at this very aspect of exhibition making. That is, once an exhibition comes down another goes up, and in this case after his exhibition ended his wall painting would be covered by white paint and would host another artist. Just because you could no longer see his work didn’t mean it wasn’t there, it was beneath all those layers of paint. I think that piece was certainly one that may have brought some of these issues into the consciousness of the viewer.
Another artist whose work addresses ‘behind the scenes’ of museums is Louise Lawler, her photographic representations of artwork in preparation for exhibition, on display, at auction or in private collectors homes, provides insight to the everyday viewer about the other aspects of the life of an artwork and the relationships between the work and the institution.
I think it is a worthwhile subject to explore in art. In relation to what you say about your dance company touring around with the same production which adapts to different sites, rather than the reverse, it is interesting to note that one of my projects, Whose Museum, functions in much the same way. This collection has traveled around the world in various formations and always adapts to the spaces in which it is exhibited. Perhaps the museums of the future will follow suit.