“Look at Jasper Johns’ and Robert Rauschenberg’s painting. They use the canvas as I use the stage.” -Merce Cunningham
I recently had the opportunity to visit the Danser Sa Vie exhibit
now on at the Centre Pompidou through April 2nd.
The scale of the exhibit alone was astounding.
In a space of over two thousand square meters, curators Christine Macel and Emma Lavigne
traced the theme of the moving body from paintings and sculptures by modern masters
such as Picasso and Matisse to works by a wide constellation of artists including Nam June Paik, Robert Rauschenberg,
Yvonne Rainer, Robert Morris, and Andy Warhol.
In addition, the exhibit housed an impressive menagerie of large scale video projects of dance sequences
by greats such as Merce Cunningham, Isadora Duncan, Mary Wigman and Nijinski.
The curatorial project here makes an interesting supposition:
“The history of abstraction would not be what it is without dance [...]
The whole gamut of avant-garde movements, Cubism, Futurism, Orphism, De Stijl, Dada, Bauhaus or Russian Constructivism,
also latched on to dance, all fascinated by the body in motion and by the colours, lines, energy and rhythms.”
The curators take to task the program of submerging the viewer into
a kind of kinetic, oracular, full-bodied choreography,
not unlike the kind of digitized geography of the dance notation which Laban himself invented.
The exhibit is divided into three sections,
each wall draped in the organic experience of craft attempting to realize and recreate the body through traditional paintings and
sculptures mixed into the fabric of a kind of technicolor dreamcoat created by modern full-scale video installations and audiovisual
The show draws the unique conclusion that indeed the connection between modernity and dance
is an inseparable one.
At once the viewer encounters a hanging mobile by Calder, a watercolor by German expressionist painter Emil Nolde,
and a video installation by Ange Leccia inspired by John Travolta’s 1970 “golden age of disco” performance in the film Saturday
Works by Matthew Barney, Simon Dybbroe Moeller, Olafur Eliasson,
Daria Martin, Jeff Mills, Kelly Nipper, Mai-Thu Perret or Tino Sehgal
are in dialogue with modern masterpieces such as Henri Matisse’s “La Danse.”
The exhibit tranverses such diverse landscapes, the viewer wanders – happily though at times unaided -
through a kind of visual assault
looking for the unifying thread.
As I left the final viewing station in the exhibit,
Jérôme Bel’s fantastic sartorial, satire, “The Show Must Go On,” which draws on traditional pop music hits,
I was struck by this quote by 19th century thinker François Delsarte,
“Gesture is the direct agent of the heart.”
The body, its movements, the way it cuts through time and space, similar to the work of most post-expressionists,
argues that space itself is indeed nonhierarchical.
Dance highlights for us the kind of liminal narrative
that writers such a Joan Didion argue for in her essay, “We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order To Live.”
Experience is fragmentary and nonhierarchical.
Indeed Didion’s sentiment is echoed in the exhibit’s opening quote by Isadora Duncan,
“My art is just an effort to express the truth of my being in gesture and movement. (…) From the beginning, I have only danced my life.”
Duncan’s quote reminded me of a discussion I recently had
with students on post-modernism.
Postmodernism, Fredric Jameson told us, was a periodizing concept.
It was a way of grouping a set of writers and painters and thinkers
into a lens which took into account
A way of looking at the world
which understood that experience itself
was fragmentary, nonhierarchical, imperfect.
The Danser Sa Vie exhibit hit the nail
square on the head.