Dancing in the Dark

John Haber
in New York City

Simon Starling and Martha Friedman

Simon Starling and Martha Friedman take performance back to its roots—in modern art and in dance. They just happen to start their histories continents apart.

Performance can call up memories of disconcerting encounters in the gallery. Think of Richard Serra flinging lead, Chris Burden dragging himself over broken glass, Yoko Ono waiting to have her dress cut, or Marina Abramovic waiting for nothing at all. Before conceptual art, though, came Modernism's mechanical ballet. These artists rely on video or film to bring performance to life. They also surround it with props that feel darker than the performance, daring one to join in the dance. Yet they struggle very differently with darkness. Simon Starling's At Twilight: Mask (by Yasuo Miichi) of William Butler Yeats (Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd., 2016)

Starling recalls an earlier meeting of epochs and cultures. He recreates the choreography that gave an Irish hero the trappings of modern poetry and Japanese theater. Friedman asks a dancer to take her across decades, too, with elements of Minimalism and Surrealism. She also has a dark sense of humor in place of a darkened room and a solemn ritual. She had better, for her show ran just as Andrea Rosen announced an end to the storied gallery and its support of living artists.

Noh way

Simon Starling calls his work At Twilight, at the Japan Society Gallery, but its heart lies in darkness—the darkness of night giving way to morning, of a threat to one's very life, and above all of a darkened theater. It unfolds on video as a dance but also a drama, and it recreates the dance at the climax of a drama by William Butler Yeats. A man shrouded in refuge from age, poverty, the wind, and the cold stumbles forward and collapses to the floor. For Yeats, he was all that was left of Cuchulain, a legendary Irish hero searching in vain for a fountain of youth. And then not water but music summons him to life. He throws off his shroud, rises in glory, and spreads once and for all his hawk's wings.

Starling conceives the work as part installation and part history lesson. It opens with the usual wall text and two hanging objects that could almost pass for headphones bearing further explanations and obligations. They are instead Japanese swords. The video plays out behind masks like those of Japanese Noh theater from the fourteenth or fifteenth century, set on the shapes of thin, bare, twisted trees. They also include a horse's head in fabric much like the aging hero's stark gray cloak. Past them all lies a brighter room with costumes for the drama, along with the horse's headless body.

A longer lesson comes after that, with further objects, this time the originals—as well as documents, period photographs by A. L. Coburn, and prints by Edmund Dulac. Starling explains more in person on a second video and also diagrams the connections as his "mind map," a collage. It gets complicated. Yeats wrote At the Hawk's Well for Dublin's Abbey Theater, which he had founded with Lady Gregory. He wrote in 1916, during World War I and amid Vorticism, the English version of Cubism indebted to Wyndam Lewis. Jacob Epstein built on the damage of war and the triumph of Modernism alike in sculpture, with his Rock Drill.

Starling describes the Hawk Dance as the Irish poet's Noh "reincarnation," but he is charting a torrent of influences and collaborations. Michio Ito choreographed and performed the dance, and the designs of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, a follower of Epstein, lie behind more than one mask. Isamu Noguchi paid his own tributes to East and West, and Ezra Pound, as secretary to Yeats, turned him on to Noh theater. Nancy Cunard brought many of them together in London's fashionable Cavendish Square and served as their muse. That horse turns out to be Eeyore, because A. A. Milne found comfort and ideas in the same Irish woods as Yeats. Heehaw!

Starling, an English artist who appeared with "Ostalgie" in 2011 and the Wagner collection in 2016, adds influences and collaborations of his own. He credits still others for his music, his choreography, and even his masks and costumes. They include a mask of Yeats, jaws sewn shut and his features almost Asian. They also include a mask of Cunard after Constantin Brancusi, who abstracted away from her in bronze. They can evoke mythic terrors, terminal whimsy, or both at once—like the head from Winnie-the-Pooh. Trust me that Pound did not have them in mind when he later wrote off Noh as "all too damn soft."

You may find yourself quoting him anyway. Starling's theater can approach archaeology, and his history can grow arbitrary. Still, it is hard to turn away. His sheer scope reflects the turmoil of Modernism and its greatest poet, and the central room recreates their power. One passes through the masks on their bare trees as if through a real forest, an eastern mystery, an Irish legend, or a metaphoric dark woods. One wants to sink to the ground with the dancer and to spread at last one's wings.

Engaging obstacles

When life presents only obstacles, Martha Friedman has a suggestion: engage them. And when the going gets impersonal and industrial, she has another: get physical. She sure does, even if she just happens to have put the obstacles in her own path and yours. They were not altogether of her own making, but in her hands they become the scene of a struggle and a dance.

"Dancing Around Things" opens with one obstacle, a white rubber sheet suspended from the ceiling and facing the entrance. It has another at the center of the gallery, set on a table but spilling onto the floor. You will not want to touch the first because it serves as the screen for a video, not to mention as art. You will not want to touch the second because, frankly, it is a trifle creepy. Metal spikes and sagging rubber tubes protrude from a small wall of stacked metal piping, as Two-Person Operating System. Another tube lies curled up like a snake, beneath the table on the floor.

Still, the video feels almost like home—if also, for an artist, the scene of frequent anxiety and eternal struggle. It unfolds in her studio, and she invites another in as well, Silas Riener. The dancer and choreographer conducts his own struggle with a third obstacle, thick rubber bands stretching from floor to ceiling. As for the tubes, spikes, and piping, they serve as the set of a performance twice during the run as well, by Susan Marshall & Company. These are engaging obstacles.

Plainly the artist relishes collaboration. The two people sharing her operating system could include the dancer or the viewer, and "dancing around" could mean avoiding what lies before one's eyes or taking it on like Ginger Rogers with Fred Astaire. Friedman says that she gave Riener limited direction, apart from begging him to mess things up—and he dives right in, upright or on his head, as the bands give way or fight back. Now and then they unhook from the floor, leaving him hanging from above and leaving a threatening bed of hooks inches away. At a given moment, the dance can become awkward, funny, graceful, or supremely athletic. The video cuts between scenes of hooked and unhooked bands just as smoothly and silently.

The industrial as the setting for a threat or physical comedy goes back a long way, at the very least to silent film. The spikes and rubber recall Surrealism and, later, the Post-Minimalism of Louise Bourgeois or Eva Hesse. Friedman connects them further to the body by identifying the colors of the four rubber tubes with the four humors of Greek and medieval medicine—black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. Here phlegm has a sickly green. The rubber bands have flesh tones, bringing them all the closer to the dance. The gallery describes the entirety as at once abstract, erotic, and commonplace.

They also bring the work closer to the bare space of a gallery, much as Minimalism engages the viewer with its surroundings. Photos show a construction like the pipes, with still more pieces hanging out. They or similar photos also appear in the background of the video. One can treat the show as a single work—gaining in unity and directness from the gallery's smaller second location, a few doors down and across the street from its first. That makes it harder to dance around, but easier to engage. Bring your own sense of four humors.

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Simon Starling ran at the Japan Society Gallery through January 15, 2017, Martha Friedman at Andrea Rosen through March 11.


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