They say good things come to those who wait, but what if waiting is part of the idea in the first place?
"The Paradox of Stillness," an exhibition that was set to open 13 months ago but was delayed by the pandemic, finally made its debut last weekend at Walker Art Center. Balancing themes of stillness and motion, mortality and aliveness, still life and the tableau vivant, or living picture, the show features 14 live performances across four galleries filled with work by 60 artists.
So how does the motion-focused practice of performance and the still nature of visual art come together for this hybrid show? The Star Tribune's visual art critic, Alicia Eler, and freelance performing arts critic Sheila Regan sat down to tease out all the paradoxes involved.
Eler: As an art critic I am always interested in the historical connections that exhibitions make as a way to tie things together. This one begins with Giorgio de Chirico's "The Duo," a 1914 painting of two futuristic-looking characters, juxtaposed with Laurie Simmons' 1990s work "Clothes Make the Man" — four marionettes frozen in time — as a way to look at early examples of mechanization. It made me think how there's this unnecessary divide between visual art and performance. I always think of them as intertwining.
Regan: The distinctions often feel arbitrary. And then you have the question of hierarchy. The show's curator, Vincenzo de Bellis, talked about the performers animating the artworks, as opposed to being part of a "performance." But I was more interested in, say, performer Scott Edward Stafford doing a go-go dance on Felix González-Torres' lit platform than in the platform itself. If that work happened in a theater, the dancer would be the main event, not the object.
Eler: But if you're thinking of performance in the context of art, I do see the curator's point. I wonder, though, what the performer adds to a work like "Sonic Intermediates — Triad Walker Trinity" by Haegue Yang, three bulbous, decorated, life-size sculptures that visually reference several of the early-20th-century artworks in the gallery. Movement artist Laura Levinson activated the piece, but just by kind of walking around it, making parts spin or move. They almost could have been just another visitor in the gallery.
Regan: Levinson had a certain ritualistic presence that I felt drawn into. Also, maybe the Walker or the artist would be worried for viewers to touch the piece. I was a performer, so I see it through that lens. I bristle at the idea of the performer as utilitarian or, you know, that they are just kind of an object themselves. When I see somebody in space, they are the most important. Somebody who is living and breathing — your eye moves to them.
Eler: I felt like I had all these weird moments of making eye contact with the performers.
Regan: Yeah, Bradley Hildebrandt in Anthea Hamilton's Walker commission, "Cabbage (Five Ways)," definitely made eye contact with me, as well.
Eler: I wondered, is this scripted? What I found interesting about that piece was the idea of still life as a still moment in the life of a fruit or vegetable. But sometimes with visual art that incorporates a performer, I wonder: Why does the performer need to be here? To make the art more relevant, or?
Anyway, what was your favorite piece?
Regan: I loved the Goshka Macuga piece "Death of Marxism, Women of All Lands Unite," the one with two women wearing nude bodysuits sitting on a photo of grass, reading books. I felt like I wanted to enter that space. I felt invited.
We approached that piece soon after "Venus and the Big Dipper," a 1980 work by Michelangelo Pistoletto with a nude woman in front of a giant pile of clothes. She's standing with her back to us; she's really objectified. Why is this being shown in 2021? Then I got to the Macuga piece and it's so celebratory and riotous, like claiming space with Marxist leftist politics. I often enjoy nudity in performance, but their pseudo-nudity felt subversive.
Eler: I loved "Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform)" by Gonzáles-Torres. It's also obviously voyeuristic. I felt a bit like I was at a gay club, so I was happy, but then I was like "No, we are at a gallery." When the performer left, I felt that pandemic aloneness feeling again. You're mostly there to look, to be a voyeur yourself. Even that Piero Manzoni piece "Magic Base — Living Sculpture," where you stand on a podium and "become the art."
I felt most vulnerable during Pierre Huyghe's "Name Announcer," where you tell the person your name and then they announce it to the gallery.
Regan: Here's the difference. When you are standing on the podium — or looking through the mirror piece by Larry Bell, "Time Machine" — it's an object that you are invited to engage with, but participation is not a requirement, whereas with the announcement, it's compulsory.
Eler: That is how it felt. But having that experience, I think that was my favorite part of the show.
Regan: Even though you didn't like it, it was your favorite?
Eler: I like that it made me a little uncomfortable. It forced me to figure out why. It also made me think about situations in which your name would be called out loud, like roll call at summer camp or in a classroom. There's an introductory sense to it, a feeling of importance.
Then I think of the opposite — times when people's names aren't called at all, when they are reduced to numbers or figures. COVID death tolls. Holocaust survivors who have numbers printed on their arms by Nazis. When you don't have a name and are no longer seen as a person.
Regan: Speaking of stillness, did you have moments where you felt still?
Eler: I felt meditative during Lara Favaretto's "Gummo V," the piece with five car-wash brushes that just spun around. It reminded me of childhood, driving through the car wash with my grandma. How about you?
Regan: I felt stillness with that, and with the Macuga piece.
Eler: That wasn't still, that was just calmness. But it's not about the paradox of calmness. Like, you can be still, but really anxious. Everything is moving around all the time. That's the point of the show. That could be the title of it, but that doesn't sound as cool.
Regan: It's an illusion of stillness.
@AliciaEler • 612-673-4437
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis arts journalist and critic.
The Paradox of Stillness
When: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Thu., 11-6 Fri.-Sat., 11-5 Sun. through Aug. 8.
Where: Walker Art Center, 725 Vineland Place, Mpls.
Admission: $2-$15, kids under 18 free. Timed tickets required
Info: walkerart.org or 612-375-7600.