The interchangeability of dance and visual art after Duchamp

Tussen beeld en beweging 1 Jan 2002English

item doc

Contextual note
First published in Tussen beeld en beweging. Hedendaagse dans en actuele kunst, Hasselt, Dans in Limburg, 2002, pp.65-75.
The Dutch version of this text can be accessed here.
This text was also presented as a lecture in the conference Constructing contemporary dance in October 2004. You can listen to it in high - medium - low streaming quality; and to the ensuing panel discussion with Ischa Tallieu, Alexis Destoop and Critsina Pizzo high - medium - low streaming quality.

Contemporary visual art and (a certain part of) contemporary dance have one thing in common: there is no conclusive description for either of them. The visual arts have been in this state ever since Marcel Duchamp decided that a urinal, a bottle-rack and a snow-shovel could be art too, and this by the simple act of calling them such. Even before Duchamp, avant-garde artists had considerably stretched, even destroyed, the prevailing standards of good painting, but with him even the idea that visual art had anything to do with an act of original creation, or even with a demonstrable object, was suspended. When his ideas first became widespread and widely acknowledged after the Second World War, and then became drastically radicalised, the consequences were enormous. The production of art was decreasingly able to be categorised in various genres and no longer allowed of any classical judgement of taste on what was beautiful or ugly. Although this meant that visual art often became increasingly hermetic, paradoxically enough it came more and more to the public’s attention, with major exhibitions and events. In the case of Pop Art, there was even the development of an exceptionally intense interaction between the world of art and that of popular culture. In some instances, such as Warhol’s Factory, where rock musicians and film-makers were equally at home, the boundary between the two almost vanished. At The Factory, the walls between art and everyday life, in which the prewar Dada movement had already effected major breaches, were definitively demolished. Since then, anything, in every possible way, can be art. This also implies that a significant moment of self-reflection has also taken place in art, and that in a certain sense art constantly reflects on its own possible conditions and the status of what is shown.

Things have not taken such strides forward in the dance world. The iconoclasm that shook the visual arts never occurred on the same scale and with the same impact in dance. Until now a great many dance performances have in one way or another been indebted either to classical ballet or modern dance. In the case of ballet this is fairly self-evident: there are few choreographers who, like Forsythe, ‘deconstruct’ the baroque paradigm of ballet and send it in new directions. But nor has historical ‘modern dance’ undergone any ‘Duchamp effect’. Anyone who studies photos of Von Laban, Wigman and Graham can now hardly suppress a smile at the often barely disguised pathos that creeps into the pictures. But then modern dance, much more than ballet, was cursed with the ineradicable tendency to communicate a message. Ironically enough, it was precisely this endeavour that led to the human figure being given extreme hero status by the new dance techniques. For this reason, in the way it used the stage, modernism in dance was not intrinsically very innovative, but even quite conventional. The semantic effects of the theatre machine itself were not questioned, all that changed was the story and the techniques used to tell it. The fact that an artist like Béjart was able to be so successful up until the eighties with his exalted ‘masses’, is all down to the way of looking at and doing choreography that had become widely accepted since the beginnings of modern dance. Much present-day theatre dance also still complies in essence to this uncritical model, in which the performance as a self-contained art object is separated entirely from the context in which it is shown. For the duration of the performance the audience has, as it were, forgotten itself and is absorbed by the world of the work of art. There were also few parallels of content between this theatrical dance and developments in the other arts, although famous artists often enough designed sets for modern dance and ballet, the best-known example being Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. This situation is of course largely, if not entirely, due to the system in which theatre is produced and performed. The costs of performances and the social position of dance have long fixed this discipline in an existing ‘format’.

It was against the artificiality and institutional connections of theatre dance that the American choreographer Yvonne Rainer rebelled in 1965 with her No manifesto, a plea for an objective recording of the world and of movement. ‘No to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make-believe no to the glamour and transcendency of the star-image no to the heroic no to the anti-heroic no to trash imagery no to involvement of performer or spectator no to style no to camp no to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer no to eccentricity no to moving or being moved.’ She belonged to a group of young choreographers in the New York of the early sixties who, in the wake of Merce Cunningham and initially led by Robert Dunn, started to create their own work in the Judson Church. Their names are now more than well-known: Steve Paxton, Simone Forti, Trisha Brown and Lucinda Childs, to name just a few. This Judson group also included artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Morris, who played an important part in Pop Art and Minimal Art. It was no coincidence that these were two movements in the postwar visual arts that developed a strategy for reflecting on art and creating art that was also to determine the course followed by the dancers in the Judson group.

However, their radical development of totally new forms of dance can only be explained by the earlier radical break, by their teacher Merce Cunningham, himself a former Graham dancer, from the existing model of theatre dance. Together with the composer John Cage he developed an aesthetic that overturned all the premises of theatre dance. To start with, Cunningham always treated dance, music and stage design as separate entities. They coincide in space and time, but they are not conceived to enhance each other’s functioning or even to elucidate it. The same applies to the movements: Cunningham sees no hierarchy in movements, nor a logical order. Each movement is seen as a given which is in itself fascinating and interesting. For this reason, Cunningham also frequently relied on procedures based on chance to determine the order of movements. Lastly, this way of thinking also had a major impact on the way the stage was organised. Cunningham does not see one place as more important than the other, and each movement and place have equal value in the performance. It is tempting, in Cunningham’s work, to see a parallel with the painting credo of the time, as prophesied by the influential critic Clement Greenberg. He stated that a painting was first and foremost a flat, painted surface, and that the exploration of this medium itself was the only matter of importance in painting. In other words, painting did not revolve around the impression or illusion that the picture can create. Just as the painters of the sixties abandoned this credo for more exciting adventures, the members of the Judson group also soon left Cunningham’s principles behind them. Their criticism was focused on, among other things, the fact that in Cunningham’s company, despite all the freedom that was preached, the rigid hierarchy of the ballet system stood firm as a rock. In addition, it was soon noted that even Cunningham swore by an artificial language, a closed conception of the performance as an art object, separate from the everyday world. In every respect it was ‘ballet with a different twist’ as Steve Paxton remarked. And it was precisely this connection with the world outside the art institution that would, parallel with developments in the visual arts, become one of the main topics of the work of the sixties and early seventies.

During this period Robert Rauschenberg was the link between the visual arts and dance. He often worked with Cunningham and later with Trisha Brown and others and saw his contributions to performances as an integral part of his artistic work. In the wake of the Greenberg credo, Rauschenberg started his career as an Abstract Expressionist, but from the early sixties, inspired by John Cage, who had been so important to Cunningham, switched to making ‘neo-dadaist’ collages. The idea was that a work of art should not necessarily be a self-sufficient object, but might equally well be an action that made the viewer more open and more aware of his surroundings and his experience. A work like Barge (1962) is a sort of dream-picture in which the viewer can participate, a flow of ideas that do not necessarily have a fixed order. It runs strikingly parallel to the work of the fledgling Judson group. They too often composed their work like collages of chance images and found movements, combined in performance without the classic build up to a climax. In Terpsichore in sneakers, Sally Banes noted how in Street Dance, Lucinda Childs gave completely new content to the notion of dance by marking off part of a street and transforming the activities and objects there into a performance, almost exclusively using words. The street space was left intact: the ‘dancers’ in this piece functioned as indicators intended to allow the spectators to discover events in the street. This operation is comparable to what Rauschenberg does in duplicate. Nothing is added and nothing is devised, nothing is dramatised, only assembled. But on the other hand the viewer is very much aware of his own gaze, and in this way the exact opposite is achieved of what theatre dance normally brings about, which is that the spectator forgets himself.

Rauschenberg was just one of the many artists in the then extremely lively New York art biotope who was to have a major influence on dance. Minimal Art and everything that ensued from it was just as important. As Edward Lucie-Smith wrote in 1970, ‘Art... tends to concern itself less and less with the tangible object and is merely the agent which sets in motion a series of physiological and psychological changes within the spectator’. The minimalist experiments of Robert Morris, Dan Flavin and Donald Judd explicitly took into account, in the work itself, the context in which it would be shown. Any form of expressiveness was resisted in Minimal Art. The objects are often neutral volumes or light objects, but their position in the exhibition space is well thought out. Robert Morris’ sculptures in his 1964 Plywood Show derived their meaning not so much from the specific nature of their form, but from their mutual relationships and those they entered into with the gallery space. One might say that Minimal Art presented the presentation itself. However, this initially strictly formal and theoretical research soon became radicalised into a critique of the way galleries and museums isolate and mystify art, and separate an ‘inside’ from the outside world. One of the major figures in these developments was Gordon Matta-Clark, with his Alternative Spaces Movement. Matta-Clark literally deserted the museum space to work in the outside world, more particularly in run-down areas. In Cuttings he cut pieces out of buildings that were destined for demolition, thereby radically upsetting the experience of space, including feelings of vertigo, dizziness and danger. He was not concerned only with the spectacular effect, however. The point of all his work was primarily a search for spaces where art could be ‘at home’, a space that was not in an institution like a gallery or museum. This led to his own meeting place (Food), his own magazine (Avalanche) and even his own social movement. It would be going too far to go into the details of Matta-Clark’s story here, but his example certainly had a profound impact on the work of the Judson group. He was to have designed a setting for a choreography by Trisha Brown, if his premature death had not thwarted the plan. His influence is to be found mainly in the exceptionally critical attitude towards institutions and social conditions, which are expressed in many choreographic works of the time. This applies particularly to Steve Paxton, about whom Sally Banes wrote, ‘Steve Paxton makes dances about ordinary, physical things. Ironically, in their close attention to pedestrian activities and the bodies of everyday people, the dances have at times served extraordinary functions; they have assaulted theatrical conventions, commented on the history of dance and questioned its aims, examined social hierarchies and political acts’. This aspect of the Judson group’s work was to have a long-lasting effect. In the work of many contemporary choreographers such as Boris Charmatz and Thomas Plischke one can still see, and sometimes even more explicitly, the political context of the work and the pursuit of a special space for dance in which to develop its models and methods free of the institutions.

From the mid-seventies the work of this group of dancers and choreographers gradually broke up into separate bodies of work whose development then continued in its own way. Many choreographers, such as Lucinda Childs and Trisha Brown, ultimately returned to the theatre. However captivating their work may be, it was never again to generate the same critical impact. Others, including Paxton, developed work that operated alongside the existing institutions, in the form, among other things, of a worldwide organisation for research into movement and the body, now known as Contact Improvisation. Artists like Yvonne Rainer and Meredith Monk even left the dance world completely. In the second half of the eighties the dance world underwent a renewal. Unlike the visual arts world, where the iconoclasm of the sixties in the wake of Duchamp had led to a sort of standard for contemporary art, these people’s work was not forgotten, but their experiments and ideas were nevertheless snowed under by a thick layer of ‘new style’ theatre dance. In this connection, ‘new style’ does not refer to particular formal characteristics of theatre dance, but to an approach whereby the freedoms won in the sixties were considered to be an acquired right, a licence to make whatever sort of performance one liked. In the eighties and nineties the most diverse performances were put on at one and the same time: ‘expressionist’ dance with a new, somewhat rougher appearance, pieces that balanced on the boundaries of performance art, and straightforward narrative dance. The difference from what went before was that in this work, despite the apparently bold experiments in form, there was little sign of any serious reflection on the condition and resources of performances. However, the irony of history means that despite this, this dance often prided itself on its research into the meaning and portrayal of the human body. In reality this ‘research’ was usually limited to little more than a few simple inversions. While the late capitalist period has since the seventies been bombarding us with seductive images of the body on TV and in advertising, and also accustoms us to the idea that we are constantly ‘in view’, even if only on surveillance systems or in recordings of mass events, dance often did little more than bring us face to face with the counterpart to the perfect images of the body from the world outside the theatre. In the meantime, the interest in the human body, as the ‘ultimate truth’, after the collapse of all of systems that give our existence meaning, was being analysed and portrayed in a much more relevant way outside dance, in the visual arts and philosophy. The exception that proves the rule is Jan Fabre. He has created truly incisive performances on theatre, dance and the body. But then Fabre was also constantly crossing the borders of the visual arts.

A remarkable and significant shift in this situation has taken place in the last few years, although the number of artists who have withdrawn from the impasse in dance remains relatively small and operates fairly marginally. Once again, and probably not coincidentally, the energy with which the visual arts continues to question and renew itself, together with the experiments of the sixties, proves to set an example. Meg Stuart has undoubtedly been a pioneer in this change. The title of her first work, Disfigure Study, as Rudi Laermans rightly noted in his essay ‘In media res’, is in a certain sense a declaration of intent. This is not only the ‘disfigurement’ of the body, but also a ‘study’, as is common in painting and sculpture. The evolution of her work up to the present shows how, in a critical and intelligent way, she overturns and alienates from us the images we have of the body. A significant element in this is that in her work she often calls upon artists such as Gary Hill and Ann Hamilton, not only to design a stage setting (in the end this is what it came down to even for Cunningham) but also as co-author. But there is more: in a piece like Highway 101 she breaks out of the framework of the theatre institution entirely, or at least from the stage, in order to subject to a lucid examination the extremely ambiguous relationships between viewer and performer, and between the institutional and true inside and outside of the performance. An example of the way this is done is by duplicating actual images of the body by means of video images. In the case of Highway 101 this went so far that it could no longer be distinguished from a piece of ‘performance’, an activity which, since Duchamp, has normally been ascribed to the visual arts. The more modest work of Vincent Dunoyer, who once worked with such major companies as Rosas and Ultima Vez, approaches the strategic acuteness that characterises the better visual arts in the same way. He employs video, in an intelligently intuitive way, as a means of dissecting the way we see and comprehend parts of the body. In a certain sense his latest pieces, Vanity and The Princess Project are barely distinguishable from performance art.

The working methods of Boris Charmatz and his company are equally remarkable. His work has produced several of the most shocking images of human bodies ever. In Statuts, however, he left dance completely to examine the status of images of the body on the basis of the visual arts. Statuts was an extremely successful exercise in showing the intimate portrayal and the sensuality of the body without theatrical obtrusiveness and without presenting it until it palled. The underlying idea was that because of its function, the stage can be an obstacle to the achievement of this, and that such a thing is only made possible by changing the ‘status’, the pedestal on which the theatre puts the body. So this ‘performance’ scrapped the concrete image of the body, or at least pulled it off its stately pedestal. By contrast, several installations make it clear how the body can, in a relevant way, be the hidden signifiant of a work of art.

The most ‘political’ of the contemporary choreographers, who most explicitly continues to work on the context and historical framework in which the artist operates is undoubtedly Thomas Plischke. When, in 2001, he occupied BSBbis in Brussels for ten days with his BDC company and a lot of friends, he made express reference to Warhol’s Factory as a model for letting art and reality merge. The theatre building, in itself already an ‘underground’ location in a dilapidated neighbourhood on the margins of the Brussels pentagon, became a place in which to live and work, where old and new work, dance and visual art, workshops, debates and films fused into an overall work whose subject was not dance in particular, but the conditions for and meaning of ‘art in general’ (a term that Thierry de Duve used to denote the situation in the visual arts after Duchamp).

We have of course only mentioned a tiny fraction of the total production of dance, and many important choreographers (Monnier, Leroy, etc.) and artists have been left unmentioned. In geographic terms, the movement described here is only to be found in a small part of Western Europe. This does not mean that the questions asked here and the strategies that have been developed to answer these questions do not have an importance that appears to extend far beyond the size of the phenomenon. It was exactly this that also applied to the innovators who in the sixties turned the dance paradigms upside down in their ‘alternative spaces’. Ultimately it is about the way we perceive, show and thus understand each other and ourselves at a time when an avalanche of images is increasingly influencing our thinking and our experience. Contemporary dance appears to be one of the small enclaves in which one can reflect in a visual way on this phenomenon. For this reason one might in the end ask the question whether there is still any real boundary between visual art and this contemporary dance, or are they both dealing essentially with the same questions in the same way? After all, it is equally true for both that there is no longer any formal requirement that determines whether something is art or not. The only distinction is extrinsic: the way this art is made and distributed. Apart from this, their methods and objectives are perfectly interchangeable.

Works quoted:

* ‘No manifesto’ was first published in the Tulana Drama Review 10 (winter 1965) in the article entitled ‘Some retrospective notes on a dance for 10 people and 12 mattresses called ‘Parts of some sextets’ performed at the Wadsworth Museum, Hartford, Connecticut and Judson memorial Church, New York, in March 1965’, pp. 168-178. Later reprinted in Work 1961-73, Halifax: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, New York, New York University Press, 1974, pp. 45-51.
* ‘In media res’ by Rudi Laermans was published in A-Prior 6, autumn-winter 2001
* Terpsichore in sneakers, Sally Banes, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1980.
* Movements in Art since 1945, E. Lucie-Smith, Thames and Hudson, London, 1969.

Translated by Gregory Ball