The Whitney Museum of American Art
New York, NY
January 25, 2014
by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2014 by Leigh Witchel
Tenacity, obsession, or maybe being a control freak: however you analyze it, those qualities make Sarah Michelson a compelling artist.
The "Devotion" cycle began three years ago at The Kitchen. The second part, “Devotion Study #1 – The American Dancer,” was done the following year as part of the Whitney Biennial, winning the Bucksbaum Award and another exhibition. And now, for the third (or “third and final” as Michelson interjected repeatedly in the accompanying script) installment, she returns to the vast hall on the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum. Yet even Michelson's qualification was qualified. There was a fourth part, we were informed, last year at the Museum of Modern Art.
It may not be a dance space, but The Whitney is perfect for Michelson’s Gesamtkunstwerk. From the de Kooning-like paint slashes on the floor to the white marshmallow tufts that we sat on, the environment was conceived by Michelson and implemented by her and her team. The only thing Michelson didn’t plan was the snow rushing outside the window as magically as in a toy globe.
Michelson’s work with lighting designer Zack Tinkelman has been central to the atmosphere of the cycle. They were working with much simpler lighting in “4” – no lighting booms dangerously swinging like Poe's pendulum, as at The Kitchen – but still managed drama as the hall dimmed to only ambient light for one section and the overhead lamps burned hot to introduce another.
The vastness of the room was emphasized by its sparseness. The walls were featureless except for green neon counters – four and a fifth – high up to one side, and a single pair of sneakers hanging by their laces. Athletic clothing was lumped in a few piles in front of the audience.
For this go-round, Michelson faced us towards the elevators, the opposite orientation of “Devotion Study #1.” They provided comic relief, opening periodically to reveal befuddled museumgoers as a guard blocked entry.
As in the rest of the cycle, Michelson used a text by Richard Maxwell that coyly blurred the line between reality and fiction. This time it was spoken live, in the form of an interview between her and another member of the cast (and curator at The Whitney), Jay Sanders. He and Michelson spoke about religion (he asked her if she’s Jewish, and confessed that he’s Mormon) and, inevitably, about her process. As before, it both gave us essential information and themes, and devolved into navel-gazing.
The lights went bright to begin. Two women entered, Nicole Mannarino and Rachel Berman – listed in tandem as the Holy Spirit. They looked like twins in long-sleeved light blue zip leotards – the sort gymnasts might wear. The religious naming was carried forward from the first “Devotion.” In that show, there was also a narrator, cryptically named because she did not narrate. This time, Berman had that role. Both women – and the third, Madeline Wilcox, who came out later, had their hair in a wildly full frizz of curls: Pre-Raphaelite Electroshock. The pair came out and embraced, and then began an aerobic circuit – running in wide circles, and then repeated jumps straight into the air.
“4” used no academic dance steps; its vocabulary was basic – jumps, hops, cakewalks, runs, tumbling, spins, lunges. But the jumps were repeated insistently until they brought the dancer to the point of exhaustion – you could hear and see their labored breathing. Michelson is profoundly interested in that physical state. It may be why she makes us work to see her pieces (there’s a full page of instructions on how to enter, how to be seated, how to leave early): to make us participate in the effort.
Though uncomfortably close to us, the dancers remained isolated. They jumped with their backs turned to us. They did not perform. They exerted. And yet they did perform; the only reason this environment existed is because of us.
As the piece went on the signs overhead began to flash numbers, but we didn’t know what their steady accumulation meant. It may have indicated which dancer did the final dancing – a mathematical Chosen One. Michelson also called out numbers which may have instructed the dancers - a sort of avant-garde football playbook code.
The scripted interview touched on the Kabbalah, and in a phone interview with me, Michelson talked about the importance of the number four: the fourth floor, four dancers (the last is a man, John Hoobyar). She thought of a fifth performer, James Tyson, as separate. He stood up from his speaking role to prance in stiff poses around the perimeter of the hall.
More numerology: much of the soundtrack seemed to be from four decades ago, and the references to the 70s were like a torrent. Several lunges ended with the dancers’ arms outstretched and fingers aimed as imaginary guns. No longer heavenly angels, rather Charlie’s Angels.
But the most important part of the sound track was from the 1980s and returned from the first part of the cycle: Philip Glass’ music that also fueled Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room.” The Tharp dance and the Devotion cycle both used exertion teetering on exhaustion to create euphoria – and attack the limits of possibility.
Composed from such ordinary building blocks, the build of “4” was almost imperceptible, but when Michelson brought back the soaring Glass music it felt like a finale, yet, as in “Devotion,” it wasn’t. There was a cool down first.
Michelson spoke again, a paean to mystery, understanding and the feminine. The dancers grouped and embraced in a silent ritual to close. A mysterious symbol returned from the first Whitney show: an uncredited dancer in a horse’s head. The dancer, never revealed, walked to the middle of the space and lay like an odalisque to end the work as Four Below Zero’s, “My Baby’s got ESP,” from 1976, got louder and louder, as if someone were turning up the volume of a radio far down the hall.
Michelson demands so much from the audience as well as performers. You won’t get the simple pleasure of viewing movement from it. It’s for adherents, mysterians – but there are rewards to commitment. She takes the mundane and accretes and accretes and accretes it until it becomes extreme, extraordinary and even angelic.
Copyright © 2014 by Leigh Witchel
Photos of Sarah Michelsons’ “4,” copyright © by Paula Court.