Liquid that looks solid and morphs into changing forms. Solitary figures set up to be broken down – a man, an object. Curtain, choreographer/dancer Jonah Bokaer and sculptor/conceptual artist Daniel Arsham’s latest presentation in Miami, unveiled Thursday at the Perez Art Museum Miami, offered puzzling visual delights and provoked questions and ideas that seem to multiply in retrospect.
The duo presented Curtain twice Thursday as part of PAMM’s "time-based" (I have a problem with that term – what’s wrong with "performance"?) art series. Though based in New York, Bokaer and Arsham have a semi-regular relationship with Miami, thanks to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Since 2010, Knight has sponsored several Bokaer/Arsham performances here, the last one being Occupant, at the Adrienne Arsht Center during Art Basel in 2013. Curtain didn’t have those other works’ more elaborate visual and production values. But once again, Bokaer and Arsham use simple qualities of movement and matter in a way that seems to conceptually crack open the universe.
Curtain opens with Bokaer standing, his back to the audience, one hand clasping his arm behind his back, on one side of PAMM’s auditorium stage; on the other side is a man-sized figure standing in a pile of sand, as if it grew out of the material, facing us, arms up. Almost identical, motionless figures; one alive, but turned away from us; one non-living, but opened to us.
Chris Garneau’s score, a drone of muttering, muffled voices and choppy rhythm, is interrupted by an alarm – something’s changing! Dancers James McGinn and Reed Tankersley enter one at a time, circle the sculpture, then Bokaer, as if investigating them. As the music swells into a grander, romantic sound, Bokaer comes to life. His movements are thoughtful, deliberate, exploratory; he circles his hand around his neck or torso, following the gesture to wind and unwind himself, as if following the motion to see where it takes him. McGinn and Tankersley re-enter, wearing bulky headphones; they move through slightly awkward, profile poses that seem archaic, freize-like. Then they walk with a pulling motion across the front and back of the stage, as if to ‘draw’ back a curtain.
Left alone, the music swells and Bokaer knocks over the sand figure, breaks it into pieces, then steps into the mound of sand to replace it, once again frozen, with his back to us. The real curtain at the back of the stage pulls back to reveal part of the museum, with people strolling, looking at paintings, so that Bokaer now seems as if he could be a sculpture, part of the exhibit – the curtain has been pulled back on another reality beyond the performance space. But which is real, Bokaer the moving man, or the inanimate figure?
Curtain doesn’t end there. A stream of fascinating white stuff starts flowing from a high platform; it looks liquid, like a fat ribbon of thick white paint, but it pools in a solid blob on the floor. What is it? As the mysterious fluid-solid streams downward, McGinn and Tankersley do a probing, aggressive duet, pushing and struggling, making head butting motions, moving down the wide stairs away from the stage to a floor below. From this greater distance, they seem abstracted figures, engaged in a push and pull exchange of force – but our eyes are continually drawn back to that flowing white substance. Its movement is the most delicious action taking place, and the most compelling – will it break off? Will the whole mass tumble over – and then what? Reed stands on James, and it recalls the sculpture’s destruction. As the two men chase each other up the side of the auditorium, Bokaer grips one arm, as if to stop himself from moving, as the lights go down.
Curtain sets up all sorts of fascinating questions about the way we define the qualities of things. The white stuff moves, but it’s not alive. Is it fluid or solid? How can it be both? Bokaer is alive, but unmoving like the sculpture, until he moves – then doesn’t again. We’re in the magical reality of the theater, until the curtain is drawn back – this is just part of the museum. But then what is this thing, this performance we’re experiencing?
My one issue with Curtain has to do with the way that Bokaer seems to place the dancing itself within the concept of the piece. The questions Bokaer and Arsham raise are so compelling that we tend to interpret the movement as related to those questions, i.e. Bokaer’s following-his-arm gestures must be a kind of illustration about how movement generates itself or how the force of the movement leads the body, rather than movements we enjoy for their own sake. You start to consciously try and interpret the dancing, which can turn into a reductive kind of exercise – the dancing starts to seem as if it’s there to illustrate the ideas. I don’t know whether that’s what Bokaer intends, but I, at least, feel pulled that way.
And yet in Curtain, as with other Bokaer/Arsham pieces, the images linger with a sense of visual mystery, of power that goes beyond what you can articulate. Good dancing is capable of that – but Arsham’s objects add another layer, so that their pieces are simultaneously mundane and magic, solid and elusive. They keep me coming back.
I was not the only one - Curtain drew some 200 people to PAMM on a Thursday afternoon, and that evening’s performance was also sold out. An encouraging sign of interest.
(As elementary school students and science teachers – and curious parents – may have figured out, the white stuff is oobleck, a non-Newtonian substance - that’s really what it’s called - made of cornstarch and water which has the qualities of both a liquid and a solid. Food coloring optional. Yup, the elements of the universe are at our fingertips.)