Naked Truths


DANCENOISE, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, 2015. Performance view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, July 22, 2015. Lucy Sexton and Anne Iobst. Photo: Paula Court.

AT SOME POINT in Mike Taylor’s mockumentary DANCENOISE: The Phenomenon (1992), Richard Foreman holds forth, pointing out that you never know whether people are “really picking up on the salient points” of DANCENOISE or simply having “their own fantasies.”

It’s a marvelously deft and deadpan note in the satirical hagiography, which celebrates as iconic and omnipresent a performance duo (Anne Iobst and Lucy Sexton) that was decidedly fringe. On Sunday afternoon at the Whitney Museum of American Art the film took on an added meta-dimension: The occasion for the Taylor screening was “Don’t Look Back,” a weeklong DANCENOISE survey that attempted to get at some of the energy and impact these performance-art club kids had in a 1980s and ’90s New York that has long-since vanished. There’s nothing left to look back at; so, naturally, we all become Orpheus.

Before this week, though I’d seen Iobst and Sexton perform on their own, I’d only seen one DANCENOISE routine live, in 2013 at a Danspace Project gala: the two of them naked as usual, studiously working their way through a rudimentary hula-hoop routine that ended in unison handstands, their legs well spread. I believe choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones appeared to brandish (fake?) flowers in tactical locales. These all seemed like salient points.

They also felt familiar. The ribald dance-theater energy, the junky showbiz flair edged with subversive critiques, the politics of impotence and absurdity—all of these strategies and textures have long been absorbed into the city’s performance bloodstream. Not so in the ’80s, apparently: The great Cynthia Carr, in a 1989 Village Voice review, described them as “a bracing new transgression.” And the DANCENOISE specter kept rising for Jay Sanders, the Whitney’s curator of performance, as older artists brought up the duo while he was organizing the engrossing 2013 exhibition “Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama—Manhattan, 1970–1980.”

“Don’t Look Back” shares a curatorial lightness of touch with “Rituals,” and an insistence on letting the artists lead. My first encounter with the show came last Wednesday night, when Iobst and Sexton invited artists for a pop-up version of King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, the now-shuttered East Village bar where they used to host a weekly series.

Tom Berry’s entrance installation for King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: Paula Court.

On the way up to the Whitney’s shiny new theater, crammed into a shiny new elevator, I overheard a gentleman sigh. “In the old days you used to climb a dirty staircase—this is a little like going to a job interview.” Granted, it was a job interview that served tequila and beer, but yes. The dislocation is unavoidable.

And as the skits zipped by that night, I kept thinking about how this sort of work lives or dies by its gut-level connection to its surrounding culture. Watching Julie Atlas Muz do a bad-cop strip routine, my mind turned uneasily to the trenchant social-media debates and activism swirling around racially loaded police brutality and feminism’s exclusionary history. The variety-show format feels of another time—and maybe that’s ok, but it raises the eternal questions over whether and how a museum can behave like a museum when it comes to live art.

And some cultural critiques remain evergreen. Most of the women I talked to after DANCENOISE: Show, the evening-length collage of old, new, and repurposed material that ran Thursday through Saturday, were most delighted by a section in which Iobst and Sexton, clad only in boots, bounced vigorously around the stage like rouge pistons. It’s exhilarating to see two disheveled and non-sexualized but sexy women in their fifties do this—it so totally disrupts the insidious codes of conduct by which we’re somehow still supposed to behave.

I wasn’t as drawn in by a lot of the other material, which I’m not sure, despite Iobst’s and Sexton’s enduring charisma, was well-served by being sliced and diced into a sort of greatest-hits reel for DANCENOISE fans. I found a lot more to sink into when I went back to the museum Sunday to spend a few hours with the installation, which was also in the theater, and consisted mainly of several monitors and screens looping vintage performances and excerpts of DANCENOISE shows, their soundtracks overlapping in ways both pleasurable and irritating. (Here one sees the politics of time and space: Why only five days for “Don’t Look Back,” Whitney, and why jam it all into the theater, so that the installation had to be dismantled to accommodate the live events?)

DANCENOISE, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, 2015. Performance view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, July 22, 2015. Julie Atlas Muz. Photo: Paula Court.

“Oh, this is just too weird,” one middle-aged tourist said to her friend, before walking out, as Iobst and Sexton, accompanied by pop songs, clad in outlandish prop-and-costume collages, and streaked by fake-blood like a pair of daffy psychopaths, wreaked inexplicable havoc across the screens, among themselves and their collaborators (Houston-Jones! Yvonne Meier! Mike Iveson! …the all-star list goes on). Messy stacks of paper were placed here and there, containing typo-laden reflections by Iobst on such riches as wheatpasting with Tom Murrin and makeup lessons from Ethyl Eichelberger. I hastily scooped the pages into my bag: black-market archival riches.

No matter the fuzzy recordings and bad sound—even mediated, seeing this work in its intended context was exhilarating. There was a freedom and promiscuity in their violent physicality that must have served as an incredibly powerful rejoinder in a time and place where so many people were dying of a disease that preys on bodily contact.

The intensity of that main room was offset by a tiny chamber in the back featuring a narrow bed with a worn Spider-Man blanket, stained costumes, prop lists, programs, and a television set playing Guiding Light. The fabled DANCENOISE studio! I wanted to lie down on the bed and simply stay, like the little android boy in A.I. who locks eyes with the Blue Fairy underwater and settles into an aspirational trance. Maybe you can go back in time, if it’s someone else’s time.

But anyway I had to clear out because the theater had to be converted for the film screening. Returning later that day for my third DANCENOISE event I felt somehow altered by the density of experience and information.

Still, I wasn’t prepared for the final screening of the exhibition, a full-length production of Hedda Gabler Hedda Gabler from 1992 at La MaMa, also featuring DANCENOISE collaborators Iveson, Hapi Phace, and Richard Move. It was documented by Charles Atlas (whose short film on Iobst and Sexton being installed at the Whitney is a gem), and you can hear his quiet giggles throughout the recording. The depth of sadness and strangeness conjured by a tightly wrought mashup of pathos, absurdity, and beauty was revelatory—my previous fantasies of DANCENOISE never included repertory theater. It was a different sort of blood and guts, and I don’t care if we shouldn’t look back: Somebody should reprise this sucker, and soon.

Claudia La Rocco

“DANCENOISE: Don’t Look Back” ran July 22–26, 2015, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Eiko, A Body in a Station, 2014. Performance view, Fulton Center, New York, June 22, 2015. Eiko. Photo: Darial Sneed.

FOR THREE DAYS IN LATE JUNE, Eiko Otake emerged on Fulton and Broadway. She looked wan and frail: Her face, arms, hands, and feet were painted chalk-white, a yellow kimono clung loosely to her thin frame. She seemed dressed up in disease, like a stain and a plague against the city’s latest picture of health, Fulton Center. The gleaming new subway complex is an efficient symbol of vigorous capital and regrowth after 9/11.

Carrying a bouquet of dried weeds, Eiko made eye contact with viewers gathered for A Body in a Station, 2014–, and then took in the rest of the midday scene as if she were looking at nothing at all. Summer clouds threatened their daily microburst as the crowd grew and followed her inside the Center. Gradually, the procession made their way to an overlook by the escalators. Over the hour, among the hustle and bustle of the living—while commuters rushed, babies cried, and sirens blared—Eiko allowed the work to quietly reveal itself. The malady spread. It took time to develop; nothing was fast.

It never was. For nearly forty years, Eiko and her collaborator Koma have advanced a Kazuo Ohno–inspired treatise on impotency. Recently, they’ve been recognized for a protracted, withering choreography; for their spare, silent actions; and for scenes that evoke pathos through shades of grief and anguish. These are precise, obsessional affairs. Eiko and Koma do not label any of it Butoh, though a slowness and darkness evoke it, and though their work and Butoh derive from similar sources—Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While imbued with a similar urgency and intent as before, A Body in a Station is Eiko’s solo debut sans Koma. Her collaborator becomes the station, the public (some 300,000 commuters pass through Fulton Center daily), and the vicissitudes of the hour.

Last October, she debuted the piece in an Amtrak station in Philadelphia for a “twelve hour movement installation,” a series of four three-hour performances. That iteration launched a two-year solo project, A Body in Places, which seeks to respond to a given site while Eiko performs at times as abject and in other moments as if a cipher, a nobody—poised between being no one and nothing. It’s not so far off from our common, everyday experience on subways—we disappear more and more. At its best, A Body in a Station trumps this. As we watch Eiko, she watches us. As we disappear, she looks back. If “resolution determines visibility,” as Hito Steyerl says, the ability to see and be seen is of great social and political consequence. Yet resolution must involve resolve as well, and this is what A Body in a Station excels at.

Eiko, A Body in a Station, 2014. Performance view, Fulton Center, New York, June 22, 2015. Eiko. Photo: Darial Sneed.

Employing only the required muscles, Eiko skillfully adjusted her weight to lean on a pole and to inch wormlike across the floor. She clutched a bright red textile, which she eventually waved and pitched, forcing viewers out of her way. She carried the weeds and the cloth, like a dead body, up and down the stairs and then abandoned both when she raised her hands up in surrender for several long minutes. Under the shadow of the Freedom Tower, this was almost too much. But Eiko’s non-normative subjectivity wasn’t something to easily turn away from. So many passersby stopped for a quick picture, and then stuck around, falling prey to curiosity and gawker’s delight. (“When the sick rule the world, mortality will be sexy,” Dodie Bellamy forecasts. Finitude is the new black.)

At street level, Eiko stood in front of a nearly thirty-two foot tall LED “wall” of fast-paced commercials for transnational corporations. Here the piece broke down a little, in a good way: What was the relationship between markets and this dance? Was her stillness a revolt? What did her gaze toward us mean then?

According to Michel de Certeau, the sick are “set aside in one of the technical and secret zones (hospitals, prisons, refuse dumps), which relieve the living of everything that might hinder the chain of production and consumption.” Eiko’s unstable existence here trumped that, too. Not only did it blur the distinction between production and consumption, the cultural and the economic: It showed how sickness confounds most everything.

Eiko eventually returned outside and bowed to conclude the piece. The illness as metaphor ended, for now.

“Expect a re-energized Lower Manhattan.” The slogan for Fulton Center never meant less.

A Body in a Station ran June 22–24 at Fulton Center as part of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s River To River Festival.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler

Aki Sasamoto, Skewed Lies / Parallel Stare, 2015. Performance view, Luxembourg & Dayan, New York, June 26, 2015. Aki Sasamoto. Photo: Allison Hale.

MAKE WAY FOR AKI SASAMOTO. Like her monologues, the artist’s body ricochets through the three-story townhouse that is Luxembourg & Dayan. She squeezes through narrow spaces, hangs from sculptures, and gallops across the building’s length. Occasionally Sasamoto pauses to accommodate shuffling gallery patrons; in other moments, she barrels through them.

Narrative is here also a thing to be gnarled and made nimble: Are you following along? Perched on the stairs, she begins with a lively discussion about mosquitos. Her affable, self-deprecating charisma—the bedside manner of a stand-up comedian—turns sadistic as she dreams up better ways to kill the insects (put a container over one and watch it suffocate overnight).

The present work, she confesses, is about coincidence: the strange happenstance of bookstore shelving, or a bewildering letter from a long-lost brother. Out of the blue, he’d like her to attend his extravagant wedding and is offering to pay for her flight, dress, and hair. Now a judge in the Supreme Court of Japan, his letter admonishes her not to think about criminal activity, much less do it.

She dashes up the stairs where the audience finds her mostly in the dark, reading from Jean Genet’s The Thief’s Journal (the tome that’s been following her in bookshops), squatting and hunched over the only light. Next she crams herself into a contraption made from three plastic milk crates; the third comes over the top of her head like a hood, snapping shut with the artist inside. Immediately, I think about how easy it is for women to contort into small, uncomfortable spaces. Yet, in Sasamoto’s hands (or rather, around her body), containment becomes darkly funny, even freeing: Reading by tiny flashlight, she chugs the entire vessel forward with her own locomotion before haphazardly spilling out, limbs splayed.

We move toward a sculptural maze of lead pipes, desks—one dangling precariously upside-down—and other elements hung with string, such as several pairs of kitchen tongs. This section retains and elaborates elements from her 2010 performance in MoMA PS1’s boiler room, part of the third iteration of “Greater New York.” Still rambling, Sasamoto is by turns aerobic, manic, and incandescent.

Sasamoto tells us she decided to attend mosquito school (to learn the ways of her enemy, naturally). Admission was denied, but she was determined to study harder and try again. In her entomological research, it seems that the artist has learned a great deal about the blood-sucking parasites. Comparing mosquitos to comedians, she declares: “Mosquitos smile, but don’t know how to laugh,” and the thought hums again that mosquitos might be a cipher for certain—particularly annoying—modes of comportment that make up femininity (albeit a particularly classed one; they also get massages and eat granola in the morning, per the artist’s taxonomy). When she says, “mosquitos stroke egos, even of people they despise,” I am certain.

This reading is undoubtedly too reductive: Sasamoto’s weltanschauung is too zany, too fantastically reckless to cleave to any such gender binaries. All this is performed against the monstrous black light of several “bug zappers,” consumer goods designed for relatively antiseptic, controlled murder. (Technically they are “electrical discharge insect control systems”; search for them in your local home improvement store and read their disconcertingly-phrased boasts about “killing radius.”) Dexterously roosting atop one of the pipes, Sasamoto inserts a long straw into her mouth, connecting her to the killer light. I feel the audience cringe at the strength of its wicked hiss.

On the third and final floor we’re greeted by Sasamoto’s collaborators, musician Matt Bauder (on saxophone) and actress Jessica Weinstein. All three have donned astonishingly hideous auburn wigs. While Bauder plays, Weinstein and Sasamoto steal lemons and limes back and forth on the table, reading aloud passages from Genet. An autobiography chock full of lies, the book is also a lush paean to Genet’s virtues of homosexuality, theft, and betrayal. The fragmented, out of context quotations are here occasionally subject to artistic coincidence. Genet’s first line: “A convicts’ clothes are striped pink and white,” is nicely repeated in the plaid culottes framing the artist’s body.

Then, Bauder’s sax is without sound: all pursed lips and slapping fingers and impotent spit. Sasamoto recites, “the violence of his sex,” and impudently plucks a lime from within the brass phallus.

The work ends abruptly after a frenzied sprint, the artist and Weinstein draping red cords across the building’s length, creating channels to be zipped along. Skew lines, from which the work’s title (Skewed Lies / Parallel Stare) partially wrings its name, do not intersect and are emphatically not parallel. They can exist only in three or more dimensions and cannot share a plane. It’s an apt metaphor for the wild logic of Sasamoto’s cosmos. In it, she is the protagonist, the smiting deity, and the noble criminal all at once. See the movie in your head (Sasamoto has all the magnetism of a Hollywood star): She’s driving along the coast somewhere, staring down the barrel of some gun, living outside the law. It’s a seductive, deadly glow.

Catherine Damman

Aki Sasamoto’s Skewed Lies / Parallel Stare was organized by Tamar Margalit and ran June 26 and July 1, 2015 at Luxembourg & Dayan in New York.