Autographs of a celebrated body

Corpus 11 Nov 2008English

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Trisha Brown, So That The Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing, Peter Eleey (ed.), Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2008, 96 pp.

"When Bob Rauschenberg is your best friend, putting your drawings out is not the first thing you do. So I kept them behind and I'm happy I did," said choreographer Trisha Brown last summer in Berlin. Now she is ready to present this aspect of her work, as the exhibition Trisha Brown, So That The Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing in the Walker Art Center in spring made clear. The small eponymous catalogue presents about fifty of Brown's drawings together with two contextualizing essays. Philip Bither somewhat superfluously sums up Brown's career, pointing out all her collaborations with Walker Art Center. The contribution of his colleague and curator Peter Eleey is well-documented and more insightful, but he adopts an art historian's perspective (rather than a dance scholar's), which is maybe not the most apt way to point out the actual interest of Brown's drawings.

Of course Trisha Brown is happy that she kept her aspirations in the realm of visual arts somewhat of a secret. By now a celebrated choreographer, she has already entered art history and can profit from that to circumvent criticism when showing her drawings. Though Eleey makes quite an effort to position Brown's drawings in relation to art history and somehow establish Brown as a visual artist, it is clear that she is not a Sol LeWitt or Robert Morris. Reading and leafing through the catalogue, this question persists: what is actually the artistic relevance of these drawings?

As documents of a mind or a working process the drawings are informative in some instances. Eleey sketches the evolution of Brown's drawing practice, departing from the early notational drawings that linger between trace and score, at once pointing backward and forward in time. Later the drawings became "a focused mental exercise" that yielded the suggestion of a "corporeal vocabulary", abstract curved and angular shapes. The most important drawings of the period are, according to Eleey, the score for Locus (1975): "It can be read as an early indicator of her need to impose a limiting framework upon herself - in this case the imagined box – but the score also connects her choreographic work to concurrent visual arts practices." With his strong focus on visual arts and minimalism's institutional critique, Eleey forgets to point out that another core element of Brown's dramaturgy of space and choreographic practice is to be found here. A three-dimensional box contains eight smaller cubes, thus locating 27 points that define the body's kinesphere. Interpreted as 26 letters and a space it not only connects language and movement, but arbitrarily distributes movement impulses all over and around the dancer's body. Only later in the essay does Eleey return to gravity, spatial hierarchy, redirection, and disorientation and how they informed Brown's drawings.

Though Eleey seems to overestimate Brown's usage of video as a choreographic tool from 1981 onwards, he observes a major shift here: "Video provided a much more powerful combination of documentary and generative properties than drawing ever had been able to offer her. Drawing, thereby freed from the yoke of composition, was liberated to function differently." Two decades later, Brown started using the paper as a stage and "allowed her movements to speak for themselves on paper, in the process creating a kind of full-body self-portrait." Again the question turns up whether this emancipation from the score has made the drawings more autonomous as art works.

Writing about the recent series It's a Draw, in which Brown dances and rolls and whirls over the paper while holding charcoal pencils with hands and toes, Eleey maintains that the "absolute suffiency of the action is self-evident" in the world of dance, and continues: "this, surely, is what gives Brown's It's a Draw series its faint whiff of the superfluous. The pieces reinforce the obvious. Oddly, that unnecessary quality is also what gives the drawings a kind of retroactive authority – though to empower that authority we must, finally, see them properly as the drawings of a dancer." Yet, the era of action painting is long behind us, so these drawings might rather represent nostalgia than a topical discursive gesture.(1) Or, in line with Eleey's tendency to mystify dance, also: "We understand them [these marks] as the corporeal autographs of a celebrated body, in which the drawing serves as a sign for her absent figure."

Indeed: Trisha Brown, So That The Audience Does Not Know Whether I Have Stopped Dancing is mythology for Brown aficionados. An in-depth discussion of Brown's drawings as scores would perhaps have been more in place, but to treat them as autonomous works ready to be inserted in the history of visual arts is a somewhat futile undertaking.

(1) For a different appreciation and reading, one should read André Lepecki's Exhausting Dance. Performance and the politics of movement, New York/London, 2006, pp. 65-76.