On dance at the 58th Venice Biennale.
Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz at the Swiss Pavilion
By Simon Würsten Marin
The first days of this year’s Biennale were rich in performances and dance. Among the highlights was the first official performance program in the history of the Biennale, put together for the opening days by Aaron Cezar, director of Delfina Foundation. His choice of artists allowed for an exemplary insight into the current phenomenon of danced performances. Part of it was boychild’s new and delicate piece of “hand dance” that seemed to subtly negotiate interaction and the complexity of social encounters, or Paul Maheke’s search for authenticity through an intimate 20 minutes improvised dance with his eyes closed, during which only his accelerating breath and occasional comments about movement, body and perception would break the silence. The excellent Alex Baczynski-Jenkins, also guest of the program, occupied a hidden space in the Arsenale for two days with a hypnotic durational performance in the darkness, where five dancers were incessantly and synchronically following a box step-based choreography until one of them would suddenly escape and run free from the constraints of the group and the squared loop they seemed to be trapped in.
At the official biennial party, dancer, choreographer and artist Cecilia Bengolea invited two professional performers to present with her a wild dancehall show that finally got the attendees to let go of the stick they were holding up their butts to start dancing too. For the opening of the Salon Suisse, Isabel Lewis invited the public to follow her into nearly two hours of emotional and intense multisensorial exploration of their selves, others and their relationship to a plural and multispecies organism. Adam Linder, for his part, is presenting a piece performed a few days each month through October by Juan Pablo Cámara as part of a group show at the V-A-C Foundation, which will also offer later visitors of the Biennale the opportunity to see some performance art in Venice.
Although they are not presenting live performances, two national pavilions are also exploring the possibilities of dance as an empowerment tool through video installations. In the Brazilian pavilion, Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca collaborated with three street dance crews from their home city of Recife in Northeast Brazil to investigate the way contemporary dance trends are expanding over social media to enable a somewhat marginal, often non-white and queer category of people to express and make themselves visible thanks to their viral choreographies. And in the Swiss pavilion, Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz transformed the space into an “abstract nightclub” at the invitation of curator Charlotte Laubard. Once past the long queue in front of the pavilion, the visitor enters through a door illuminated by a neon light and goes through a dark corridor that opens on a large room painted in black, with a slightly shiny, vinyl-like surface covering the floor. On a vast screen, the video Moving Backwards unfolds on a musical background alternating between the national anthem, moments of silence and a deep house track more suited to the clubby ambiance of the pavilion. In the film, five dancers occupy a space that appears to be an on-screen extension of the room, dancing at times alone, at times altogether in this abstract environment. The outfits are urban, trendy and androgynous, while their steps alternate between contemporary dance and more clubbing moves. Like a sort of jeer at the sometimes spectacular immersive installations touted by the national pavilions’ commissioners, the space itself occasionally activates in continuation of the video performance: neon tubes start flashing in rhythm with the music or a sequined curtain slowly crosses the room between the viewers and the screen, alternately widening and narrowing, travelling further forward before going backwards, seemingly hesitant of its very function in the room.
Backwards is the main motive of Boudry and Lorenz’s installation: in a letter addressed to the public and hanging in the pavilion’s courtyard next to the curatorial text, the artists explain that their new work seeks to explore the possibilities of backwards movements as a form of counter-strategy in response to the increase of reactionary political discourses on a global scale. They propose to appropriate these regressive dynamics and turn them into a creative tool allowing to reassert a collective desire for freedom and the refusal of coercive moral dogmas. And indeed, the sequences in the video have in common to present a physical approximation to some counter-intuitive inversion of what would be the bodies’ natural motion: inverted steps, extension of an arm to the back rather upwards or to the front, disarticulation or closing up of the body on itself… After a while it becomes more and more unclear which parts of the video are reversed footage and which ones are showing inverted movements, with a special mention to the backwards moonwalk sequence by choreographer Marbles Jumbo Radio on Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean.
As in all of their previous work—many of which currently on view in a comprehensive exhibition through July 28 at the Julia Stoschek Collection in Berlin—, Boudry and Lorenz’s approach here is to play with the genre conventions: the work that is presented was performed within the space of the Swiss Pavilion, yet with no public to witness it. It was instead recorded, cut and adapted to be projected as a monumental video, that nevertheless seeks to create an illusion of continuity between the room and the screen. This illusion, however, is also a deceit in itself, as it fails—or never fully seeks—to achieve a convincing trompe-l’œil effect that would let the public even begin to believe a real performance is happening in front of their eyes, although the video was filmed in such a way that its virtual audience is an integral part of the composition. By incorporating the physical public as an element of the video installation, the exhibition thus relies on a versatility of the space and of mediums that challenge the viewers’ instinctive modes of perception and invites them to question their position, not only within the material space, but also towards the political issues the work is addressing. Although rather abstract, the video is powerful: it sensually and metaphorically confronts the standard perception of what we consider forward and subtly calls for a collective strategy of resistance against regressive powers.
Exiting the room towards the courtyard of the pavilion, the visitor keeps on being choreographed through the space by the artist duo: the exit leads towards the backside of a long bar that is furthering the club scenography of the pavilion. Only by walking around it will the viewer notice the piece of furniture and the two hanging wig-pieces against the wall, that echo the shoulders of the dancers in one of their costumes in the video. On a cable, three pairs of shoes are hanging in the air, props from the film with their double tip and absence of heel and hinting at the confusion between backward and forward that prevails in the whole installation and the choreographies. They also recall the Kurdish women mentioned in Boudry and Lorenz’s letter, that used to walk with their shoes backwards to leave confusing foot tracks in the snow for the army that was chasing them in the mountains.
A journal is available on the bar, that contains the letter by the artists as well as 14 further letters to the visitors by artists, activists, scholars and philosophers that all reflect in their own way and with their own words about the idea of backward motion. Judith Butler, for instance, unveils the ambiguity of backwards, being at the same time synonym for primitive, but also and maybe because of that, a post-colonial strategy challenging the myth of progress and development imposed by Western neoliberal ideologies. Antke Engel insists on a solidary and queer understanding of the backwards move in order to prevent the risk of falling into undesired dark places. The curator of the Swiss pavilion, Charlotte Laubard questions the modern Western model for contemporary art institutions, that fosters contemplation while at the same time depriving artworks of their discursive power within a fundamentally plural and uneven society. Through their texts, the contributors to the journal often provide a more pragmatic insight into the notion of backwards than what the film does. It confirms the visitor’s intuitions and allows for a multilayered interpretative filter in order to understand the video work. A common thread in the texts is the idea that this backward move strategy shall serve for the establishment of a decolonized, anti-white/Western/male supremacist and queer society. In these sense, the shoes hanging from the cable also recall the way rival gangs in large cities mark their territories and act as a symbol for the need to reclaim a social and open space for people whose identities and ways of life are threatened by the retrograde ideologies rising all around us.
The significant presence of dance in the 58th Venice Biennale, as well as in the parallel exhibitions around Venice is far from being a response to a mere aesthetic trend. It reflects a tendency blooming globally that leads to a more frequent multidisciplinarity within contemporary art institutions, whose programs no longer pigeonhole creative practices but make this diversity a substantial part of their programs. Dance in particular, because it involves the body as the main catalyst of meaning and discourse, appears to be a privileged medium to address the crisis of identities that is being urgently investigated by numerous artists around the world. And in this sense, it is also a medium of choice when it comes to convey queer voices and to collectively resist a Western, patriarchal, paternalist and normative understanding of others’ bodies—an important topic across this year’s Biennale. Let us hope that these programs will also become increasingly accessible to a broader public, for it is essential that these issues be confronted by more than the already converted.
Photo: Pro Helvetia / KEYSTONE / Gaëtan Bally.
Courtesy the artists.