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Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue, 1961–2001

Art Exhibition

by Jeff Kuo

June 11, 2004 -- Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington

Curator Hendel Teicher is to be congratulated for taking on the difficult task of presenting the dance, the ephemeral medium, in the static spaces of the art museum. The canvases and marbles of the visual arts lend themselves to display, but, ironically, dance which is all display resists exhibition. Even drama and music are separable from performance by virtue of scripts and scores which may in a sense be studied at leisure. Dance is the performative medium par excellence – it exists only at the moment of enunciation.

“Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue,” currently on exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery through July 18, 2004, brings together such archival materials as an assemblage of jeans, t-shirts, and sweaters on a rope lattice, a wooden duck’s head, a wearable movie projector, and several hundred stills by Robert Rauschenberg. The ambition, I think, is not to present all aspects of Brown’s art but to convey a sense of her expansive imagination and intellect. Hers was an artistry that challenged and in turn responded to such figures of the arts world as Robert Rauschenberg, Donald Judd, and others.

Helpfully, for those like me who need aid in understanding contemporary dance, the exhibition begins with an introductory section reviewing Trisha Brown’s importance as a founding member of dance post-modernism. Photos and videos, accompanied by narration, document such canonical Brown works as “Man Walking Down the Side of a Building” (1970), “Walking on a Wall” (1971), and “Spiral” (1974).

Even on video, one can appreciate the scope of Brown’s conception. There is nothing metaphorical in the title of “Man Walking Down the Side of a Building”: in B&W footage, we see a man in mountaineering harness literally walk down the outside wall of a building. No proscenium, no stage sets, no libretto, no five positions of the feet, no solar plexus, no music – just the stark choreographic possibilities of gravity and movement. It is, of course, possible to see other things – such as Adam West from the 1960s T.V. show, “Batman,” scaling the side of a building and pausing to exchange quips with bystanders in the windows – but that unfortunately is a risk that must be taken when showing live art on a T.V. monitor. Video, as they say, is no substitute for live performance.

Though Brown seems most post-modern in her Equipment Pieces and Accumulations, the majority of the exhibition deals with her more theatrical works, which are collaborations with visual artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Donald Judd, Nancy Graves, Fujiko Nakaya, and Terry Winters. For instance, in “Astral Convertible” (1989) and its sequel, “Astral Converted 55” (1991), Brown wanted a piece that could work outdoors. She approached Rauschenberg: “I threw Bob a curve and he threw it back. I wanted an inflatable set to work outdoor … He gave me a space station.”

What Rauschenberg gave Brown were open frame metal towers of three different heights with automobile lights and loudspeakers with sensors triggered by the passing of a dancer. The towers on display are from the successor, “Astral Converted 55,” which featured a composition by John Cage. Walking around the towers, one can appreciate detail not evident either in performance or in the excellent exhibition catalogue -- looking closer at the equipment, you can see that the sound units are named: Artaud, Facot, Euripides, and Hellman. What such detail invisible to the audience signifies, I have no idea; but oddly enough it reminds me of Toni Bentley’s description of the way Karinska added tiny cameos and other hidden accessories to her ballerinas’ tutus.

Perhaps the most intriguing exhibit was from Brown’s collaboration with Fujiko Nakaya who had been working with fog. Theater goers are of course familiar with stage fog as a way to create gothic atmosphere and to establish place (the forest of the Wilis, etc); but in “Opal Loop/Cloud Installation #72503” (1980), the fog participates as never before by advancing and retreating as a wall rather than merely covering the ground. Nakaya used 140 fog nozzles, 3 nozzle units with 3-channel controls, 7 fans, and heaters to create a fog that would roll across the dance space like mountain mist in morning, enveloping the dancers in what they called “'articulated' nature.”

For the exhibition, the curators prepared a special, darkened enclosure inside which projects a video of “Opal Loop/Cloud Installation” onto pale, machine generated fogs. Ghostly images of the dance appear flickering on the fog, evoking a sense of the way the fog must have tentatively obscured and revealed the dancers. The fog was, alas, disappointingly thin, and mostly the video played on the floor. Also, the enclosure was a little damp and quite chilly, due no doubt to the temperature requirements of fog technology, but quite likely lending additional verisimilitude to the actual experience.

Some of the most interesting displays are from Brown’s earlier works. For example, the set for “Floor of the Forest” (1970) consists of an assemblage of clothes arranged on ropes on a pipe frame several feet off the floor. In performance, the dancers would put on the clothes, jeans, t-shirts, sweaters, etc, in sequence. “Homemade” (1966) is represented by a mannequin in a leotard wearing a Bell & Howell movie projector strapped to its back projecting a movie of itself (dancer with a movie projector strapped to her back). I doubt ballet goers familiar with swans and cygnets have seen any avian character quite like the bird woman of “Dance with a Duck’s Head” (1968) with its feathered papier mache head and brown logging boots.

But the iconoclastic Brown doesn’t steal the show from the more overtly theatrical Brown. There is, for instance, a veritable Jacob’s Ladder of cymbals, part of the set for “Rapture to Leon James” (2000) from her Musical Cycle. This area also features Winters’ backdrop of black and white drawings of horizontal lines overdrawn with scribbly spirals and such. Video excerpts show “Newark,” a collaboration with Donald Judd from Brown’s Valiant Cycle. And, Nancy Graves’ notebooks, pastel drawings, and baked enamel sculptures document “Lateral Pass” (1987). O yes, that and the 10 foot long, battered stainless steel sink and equally battered red Venetian blinds attest to Rauschenberg’s ingenuity in cobbling together a replacement set when the Graves sets failed to arrive in time for a performance at the Teatro di San Carlo, Naples.

In addition to such tangible artifacts, students from the University of Washington Dance Program and Cornish College of the Arts Dance Department will be performing “Floor of the Forest” utilizing the actual set of the exhibition on Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons.

“Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue, 1961–2001” is co-organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy and the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College,   and is curated by Hendel Teicher. The exhibition was organized for the Henry Art Gallery by Associate Curator Robin Held. The Henry Art Gallery is located on the southwestern corner of the University of Washington campus. Most days, I recommend campus parking located underneath the gallery (you must pay to get in but you get some of it refunded when you leave depending upon how much time you spent), and happily gallery admission is free to full time students.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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