SPRING IS HIGH GALA SEASON IN NEW YORK. So many parties, so many drinks, so many conversations, so many of them about money. Getting it, giving it, never having enough of it.
This quote just about sums it up: “I want you to look at this art and think about need.”
That’s Ain Gordon, the writer, director, and actor, speaking at the Danspace Project gala, which he was emceeing. The art in question was static art, to be auctioned off in support of the theater. Among the works was a Marina Abramović portrait: “You could sell it tomorrow, let’s think clearly people,” a naked Lucy Sexton, fresh off a DANCENOISE routine later that evening, advised reluctant bidders.
But Gordon could just as easily have been talking about the moving art. There is, you may have heard, a long-standing gentleman’s agreement in dance, in which the artists, the people with the very least amount of money, subsidize most everything else, including those systems which purportedly exist to serve them. Yeah, there are lots of variations on this agreement in our world—but I often think its purest expression can be found in dance.
Well. Here’s another quote, from Merce Cunningham, which you also probably know, it having long since passed into Monet water lily territory:
“You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive. It is not for unsteady souls.”
I have been thinking about this quote a lot these past few weeks. I thought about it when I was at the NADA fair, watching dancers perform outside (specifically out back), in the heat, on the pavement, for a meager audience—mostly unintentional and only vaguely interested. There was a Kickstarter campaign by organizers Cafe Dancer and Sam Gordon, announced in the press release, so the performers would receive more than “exposure.” I checked out the page (which features a photo of the empty asphalt performance area) just now; ten backers, $311 pledged of $2,500 goal, 0 seconds to go. Funding Unsuccessful.
I thought about the Cunningham quote again during the Movement Research gala, when the choreographer Ralph Lemon, in his tribute to the veteran arts advocate Sam Miller, talked about Miller having done his work “with such a brilliant, beautiful denial—that someday the boulder is not going to fall down.” And while watching young dance artists working as gala waitstaff. (And by working I mean something rather murkier—as one choreographer said to me of his behind-the-scenes efforts: “This is my ticket into the show.”) And when Jennifer Lacey deployed the gorgeous precision instrument that is her body, while the vocalist Megan Schubert offered a string of sentences: “The meaning that I do is a doing.” “The only thing that upsets me now is narrative.”
And the narrative is always the same, isn’t it? The curator Cathy Edwards, another honoree that night, talked of “the time when, if you were willing to be paid nothing and work hard, you too could be the managing director of Movement Research.” Is it not still that time?
I went to New York Live Arts last week to see The Spectators, Pam Tanowitz’s austere and ravishing new dance. What even to say about the relief of encountering art like this? And of spending time in the company of a dancer like Melissa Toogood. Speed, attack, amplitude, depth—she makes the business of being alive seem possible.
Left: The afterparty for the Movement Research Gala. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Jennifer Lacey at the Movement Research Gala. (Photo: Ian Douglas)
“What is meant is not license, but freedom…” That’s another thing Cunningham said. I found it while trolling about for the unsteady souls bit. One of the other dancers in The Spectators is a guy named Pierre Guilbault, who recently told me he has figured out how to survive on $1000 a month, including a room he rents for $300 in Jersey City. He’s young, a beautifully buoyant and promising performer, and I wonder if his budget allows for classes, physical therapy, or health insurance. How long will $1000 a month work for him? What happens when it doesn’t anymore?
It’s all hopelessly romantic, in a desperate and cynical way—if there’s no money now, and there was never any money then and there’s not gonna be any money anytime ever, then what? Everything just for love? The margins hold the page.
Gala season. Maybe it’s best to end with a few nuggets of wisdom from Karen Finley at the New Museum, offered during a self-help workshop for artists in need of money, part of the “NEA 4 in Residence” show:
“When I lost my funding—and I have lost funding, some of you may be aware, you can Google me later—I thought I had lost everything.”
“Artists—they’re even more wonderful when they’re dead.”
“Right now. This is it, ok?”
“There’s no problem. There’s no problem. Everything’s fine.”
View of Ragnar Kjartansson's installation at Hotel Holt.
“THE PROBLEM WITH SCIENCE is all facts are manipulated.”
The woman was talking to her friend in Kaffismiðja Íslands, a small, homespun café in Reykjavik. Good lattes and buttery croissants. The woman was Scottish, I think. Let’s just say definitely, and she was making a point about Margaret Thatcher—speaking ill of the dead, though respectfully, if one can be said to speak ill of the dead respectfully.
The problem with science is the pleasure with art.
This year’s Sequences VI, a “real-time art festival,” was ten days long, a day for every year that Gretar Reynisson, the festival’s honorary artist, spent making his durational collection “Decade.” I spent five of those days at the festival, wandering, mostly alone, through the quiet streets of a city with only about 120,000 inhabitants. Most places you look there is the chalky white of the mountains or the midnight blue of the ocean—there aren’t so many trees, and the ones that do exist are surprisingly delicate, in that northern stunted way. (What do you do if you’re lost in the forest? asks the Icelandic joke. Stand up.)
Reynisson’s “Decade” began January 1, 2001, and ended December 31, 2010. During this time he worked toward no exhibitions, but rather collected the material and detritus of the everyday: pillows, drinking glasses, white dress shirts. “Some people call this an obsession, but nevertheless…” the artist explains in a slender catalog. “I like creating rules.”
It’s a romantic idea, at once egomaniacal and Sisyphean: ten years to assemble something that most people will wander through in well under ten minutes. But then, Sequences VI is a romantic festival. “I was very much thirsty for a new approach, something non-academic,” said its curator, Markús Þór Andrésson. I think he was after something thoughtful and theatrical, a festival that wears its heart on its sleeve, only the sleeve is removable. “If we can all just accept this old-fashioned idea of theater, of doing something fake, then something true can happen as well.
View of Gretar Reynisson's “Decade.”
And let’s face it, Iceland is a romantic place, at least for a visitor. True, the locals are worn out with reading foreign press accounts of their remote island utopia. But what are writers without our lazy framing devices? The impulse behind this one is immensely understandable: When you’re on a chunk of volcanic rock in the middle of the Atlantic, slipping from gallery to geothermic hot spring to bar and back again, you’re maybe in the mood to be seduced.
Here’s one hopelessly romantic item: Hotel Holt, where most of the Sequences guests seemed to be staying, houses the largest privately owned art collection in Iceland. None of the usual horrific hotel wall decorations—the place is packed with quality works, and in fact it’s the closest thing the city has to a permanent public display, since the museum doesn’t have one.
“Growing up in Iceland, you never see the art object, you never see art history,” said Ragnar Kjartansson, who these days is working pretty much everywhere. “It’s very hard, if you grow up in this environment, to understand art as an object. It’s also quite good; there’s no burden of history.”
But of course there’s always history. Kjartansson’s contribution to Sequences is a set of small self-portraits, the lone figure rather ghostly amid the Easter Egg colors of the room—a room in Hotel Holt, where Kjartansson checked in, ordered room service, and settled in to paint. “Holt was the temple, the only place to see real art,” he said. “So this was a total homage.”
For the duration of the festival, at least, Kjartansson is in the temple, his paintings tucked amid the modernist abstractions and rugged seascapes that contemporary artists are now saddled with. “You can’t show beautiful landscapes and be serious about it, not here,” said Ragnheiður Gestsdóttir, whose quiet installation at the Reykjavik Sculpture Association manipulates the facts of landscape by placing a little cutout man in the center of an image of a natural amphitheater—ground zero for the shifting tectonic plates of Europe and North America, and also where Iceland’s parliament used to meet, back when they were Vikings. He’s holding it all together; she’s having her cake and eating it too. History.
Several other rooms at Hotel Holt had been taken over by Sequences, including Room 206, where Hans Rosenström’s sound piece “Blindsight” was holed up, waiting to whisper, in Icelandic, to an audience of one. Who knows what the neighboring guests made of the traffic in and out at all hours. With any luck, Holt will get a reputation for being one of those hotels.
On Saturday night, Holt was overflowing, playing host to an evening of Sequences performance art. The thing with site-specific shows, you have to be a nimble audience member or you’re stuck staring at the backs of taller people’s heads. I kept returning to a durational piece by Magnús Logi Kristinsson, which at first blush struck me as eye-rollingly tedious. Great. Another artist in a box; if I’d wanted this I’d have stayed home and gawked at Tilda.
Only you couldn’t gawk here, you could only see Kristinsson’s left leg and right arm, both extended from the white rectangular box. Someone untied his black dress shoe; someone retied it. People took photographs and giggled, etc. As the veins in his hand began to bulge, my jaded mood shifted. The things people do! I gave his anonymous arm a quick massage, feeling shy and bold at the same time.
This was shortly after, or maybe before, critic Oliver Basciano said to me: “You feel like a cynical bastard. But then that’s our job.” We both held drinks, as I remember. We both laughed. He was talking about his experience of watching Guido van der Werve’s film nummer veertien, home at artist-run space Kling & Bang Gallery, which weaves together the everyday business of living with the idea of the epic quest: Van der Werve traveled, triathlon-style, from Frédéric Chopin’s birthplace in Warsaw to his grave in Paris, his own personal campaign to keep going.
Basciano was talking, I think, about having to write what exists beyond the pleasing surface. Not to be romanced. I understand what he means, and also I’m not so sure. Is it possible to fail through resistance? “This whole horrible period of postmodernism has created this line,” Andrésson had said earlier, with a weary laugh. “Everything must be taken with a distance, with skepticism. It’s very difficult to unlearn this, when a whole generation of artists and audiences has been through this.”
One of the sections in van der Werve’s film is titled “Please Be Safe.” On Monday, amid news of the bombings in Boston, I remembered that he had been planning to run the marathon. I was happy to hear that he made it through ok.
Sequences VI ran April 5 to 14, 2013 in Reykjavik.