Describing Tino Sehgal’s 2005 performance Instead of allowing some thing to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things at the London’s Institute of Contemporary Art, critic Dorothea von Hantelmann outlines the very worst of drunk dancing:
Nothing in the figure’s movements suggested that they were addressing the viewer. Possibly this was one of the reasons that it didn’t occur to many visitors that they were seeing a choreography enacted in front of them. The body produced the impression of an object; at certain times it even appeared as an undefined, anthropomorphic mass. At precisely the same time, this introverted movement gave the dance a sense of self-absorption that made it possible to experience this situation as an artwork.
But I wonder if the museum gave the dance the sense of itself as an artwork. Or surely the exhibition’s notice on the Institute’s website? I write this at exactly the same time that I squashed a fruit fly on the table before me. They are breeding in the murk somewhere in this house, either the trashcan with its bananas or a houseplant with its wet earth, and my kindness is as smoke. Von Hantelmann continues:
Some [visitors] just passed by, other were irritated and a few became confused, even frightened and insecure. Apparently, for many it was not easy to categorize what they were seeing. Visitors often alerted the staff at the front desk that something was wrong. Sometimes they talked to the dancer, asking, “Are you all right?” When I saw the the work in 2001 at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, one visitor lifted the dancer and carried her away, explaining that he was a doctor. Other viewers apparently thought they were looking at an automated doll. […] Once a group of schoolchildren began dancing after they read the title of the work.
The story I really want is an interview (à la Omer Fast) wherein Sehgal’s dancers look into a camera (à la Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham) and discuss the unpleasant disassociation of dancing for the better of two hours in front of bemused or incensed spectators, intractable; the machine-like worth of completing the full set, filing past your replacement, preparing dinner that evening and thinking, “There was only missed connections today, and brutes. And people who thought I was ill, injured, crazy, stupid, alone.” There is a perfect analog in drunk dancing. In ignoring all civilities and starring in your own death dream for a while, sloppy, quickly clearing a room. I volunteer that just as MFA programs across the country determined the tonus of fiction after 1945, so too did they determine performance art—a sinkhole of three years hungover, excavated, reenacted, exorcised.
I like the body in equipoise—kissing in galleries, planking in photos, the artist enthroned on a blonde-wood dinette set—but the body in distress seems in duplicate or triplicate in a white cube environment, a rout now sanctified (and in somewhat more cheerful display) in Google street view projects. (Jon Rafman’s ongoing 9-Eyes really puts paid to the hectoring impossibility “Don’t be evil.” What isn’t sheep on mountainsides looks to be a collation of people doing inscrutably hard living.) I’m reminded of the Abramović piece reenacted in “Sex and the City,” House with an Ocean View. Carrie is glib about the experience, cynical—but it’s a backdrop for a meet-cute anyway. Aleksandr Petrovsky, a swarthy Dan Flavin/Robert Irwin-type with an accent, attends to her education. (Full disclosure: I love the scene. I love how every compliment Charlotte pays the man bores him. I love Charlotte.) What’s more, I think Carrie’s initial critique is solid. Petrovsky asks, “You don’t think it’s significant?” Carrie sharply replies: “Ooh, please. There are depressed women all over New York doing the exact same thing as her and not calling it art. I mean, if you put a phone up on that platform it’s just a typical Friday night waiting for some guy to call.” The last zing is all Michael Patrick Hall, and bland, but the blandness is apiece with the body in pain brought inside the gallery. The significance follows.
It’s the marginal oddities of that pain, the specific tincture, its limits, that continues to fascinate artists (and viewers). The way pain is transactional. Taboo. Unsettling. The way the body is brought too close to see as whole, and in its amputated particulars no longer worth empathy or acceptance. Per Chris Kraus’s description of Elke Krystufek’s In the Blue Moods of Spain (2001): the artist “matter of factly undressed before perplexed and uncomfortable spectators at Frankfurt’s Portikus Gallery and proceeded to excrete into a large goblet behind a blanket. As she would later note wryly in Nien: ‘It’s still interesting to undress for people who absolutely don’t want you to.’” Proximity counts. One can be to visible—blinding. Though she discusses much more “difficult” work than The Gross Clinic (1875) (Ron Athey’s blood works, James Luna’s drunk works), Jennifer Doyle’s terse questions about the old oil painting remain the most strenuous: “Eakins doesn’t call into question what a painting is as much as he calls into question what it does. We are confronted with an epistemological challenge aimed directly as us: it seems to ask us why we are there, and what it is that we want from it. It asks us to consider exactly what we want to know and how far we are willing to go for it.” Beyond painting, beyond shitting behind a blanket, what are we doing there? (Still on the dance floor, here.) Doyle at least answers for Abramović’s The Onion (1995) when she writes: “You want to turn away, but you also want to keep watching to see if she finishes the onion.”
On Wednesday night I ran into someone who knows me from reading my blog. This has never happened to me, a brief averted “Oh hello” and a passage into the house. In the kitchen he said, “Actually I know you somewhat, already.” Duck Beater. The Actuary. He was charming—I was charmed. I crowed out, “Then you know what I look like shirtless!” My disorientation was somewhat compounded by my having drank in very quick succession several very expensive beers. ($13 for a six-pack of wheat beer is just so unreasonable (my monthly income just now is slightly below $900). I gave two away—advertising their value—to one of the deejay’s at the party (who reward no one’s benevolence, answered no requests). It was a gay dance party in a house across the river; sparsely attended; the food was well meant but inappropriate (pork filled papusas); I knew no one save my co-worker, a Medievalist doing something with Italian marginalia and Chaucer’s manuscripts; much later in the evening, when I had my shirt off, when I was breaking this fucking spinal column out of this deeply unpleasant body, she transformed into my Medievalist co-worker who also knows what I look like with my shirt off.) So I know if I was already pacing about the house like a panther, too big for the rooms, volatile, bored, anxious, pretending to text message in the stairwell, lightly conversing with one stranger and a next, sipping too quickly on everyone else’s beers, and finally perching on a counter-top to feel some advantage in height, I was this other cat altogether, now plied with interest and affection—lolling, in fact, egregiously, ears rubbed, rump scratched, when he said, “I know you.”
True too that my reader is a handsome young man with a pedigree. Vassar—and entering a Ph.D. program in art history at Harvard; names that make me blink. They take the spit out of my mouth. I hope I said that aloud. We discussed boring conversation openers, intimidating gambits, introductions that end relations before the full-stop. And how we decide to leave discussions with strangers. And what to say. My strategy as ever in these increasingly desperate times is to announce, “What you’re saying is fascinating, I am hanging on every word, but just now I really need to poop.” I hold my stomach and look pained. Surely I’ve used variations on this exit twice. I am not an edifying personality. I do really like to dance, only to my own music or with people comfortable doing their own thing by themselves—a variant on greed, not on mirth. I can’t believe the most I accomplished that night was exchanging non sequiturs about shit. No names. No body left for the next morning’s work. I also disappeared one handle of cheap gin and four strands of any-season LED lights. I’m misremembering the vital parts, I’m sure, and manufacturing some of the spleen. I’ve stopped writing here for the last weeks because I find my nature tiresome, the spotted suede shoes I wear, the diet of avocados and fake meat, the shower curtains up in the dining room for photo projects, the long runs in the afternoon where I now avoid the ducks and their green shitty slime, but especially—this most of all—that aspect of summer that is real and tangible all the long days of June and disappears fantastically and finally somewhere over the First of July, tormented away, in South Bend, by hail and straight winds (they ripped trees out of the cemeteries on Portage, and left residents without power for days; how come the party was moved).