Three Objects Moving At A Different Pace: Notes about Still Life №7

Lauren Simpson in “Still Life №7" . Photo by Robbie Sweeny

In the beginning there was light.

Delete that. In the beginning there were two bodies, one supine, one sitting, connected to each other, facing a single source of light. The light is projected from the hallway, and seeps through the crack of the entrance door into the dance studio. It delineates a white river that runs in a diagonal and loses itself in the far corner of the room. Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg position themselves so that only a part of their body dips into the linear ribbon of light. For now the focus is on the top of their feet, rolling back and forth from side to side, like windshields covering the width of a car window. If the technical set up of the room allowed for a stronger contrast between light and dark, the uncanniness of these isolated body parts moving quirkily would be even more accentuated.

Lauren and Jenny perform minute gestures -a head nod, a lift of a shoulder, a tilt of the head- as quickly as fingers moving fluidly on a typing machine, in a formidable act of synchronicity. Later, in the discussion moderated by Assistant Director of Education and Public Practice at SFMOMA Megan Brian, Lauren mentions that they are exploring what virtuosity can look like beside high kicks and other grand sweeping movements the dance canon has come to associate virtuosity with.

In the beginning, there is a painting.

John Frederick Peto’s Job Lot Cheap, currently in the De Young museum collection, is both present and absent in the work. Present, as it functioned as the springboard for the piece — analogies in composition, structure and themes between the dance and the painting can be drawn out. Absent because the dance is not a literal interpretation of the painting and the still life is not revealed to the audience until after the dance, during the discussion.

There is a play between absence and presence, hinted at when the dancers move into and out of the light, or during gravity-bound movements where their bodies appear to melt. This play is rendered more visible in the video projected during the last part of the piece. Jenny and Lauren are now dancing on the screen, wearing the same outfit we just saw them in, their body shifting mechanically from side to side like a pendulum, at times disappearing behind a tree, or suddenly removed from the shot. In the painting as well, I see traces of erasure: a torn poster here, a discolored and unreadable sign there.

In the video, Lauren and Jenny appear within nature, among eucalyptus trees. My mind wanders back to Silas Riener and Rashaun Mitchell’s durational performance Desire Lines: Retrofit at SFMOMA last January. In a piece about the ways dance and visual art collide, they explored routes that diverged from official paths. At some point, the dancers left the performative space, which was taken up by a video featuring them in a wooden area — superimposing the intuitive and organic routes delineated by and within the body and the ones found in nature. During the four-hour durational performance, the video offered a restorative way for the dancers to still be on view on the screen. Here, as Jenny mentions during the discussion, the video allows the artists to direct the gaze on details that may be lost during the dance: a shot zooms in the fabric of Lauren’s shirt, transforming it into a red glittering landscape, pushing the dance towards the materiality of objects.

During the discussion, Lauren offers: “As artists, we look to the right and the left of the field of dance. What is dance’s relationship to visual arts?” Objects are tangible and transportable in a way that dances, ephemeral by nature, are not. Quoting late Scottish playwright Stanley Eveling’s words -“an object is a slow event.” — Megan offers: “Dance is a very quick event.” There’s the painting, the live dance performance and the video — three objects moving at a different pace.

In the beginning there is silence.

It is soon broken by the sound of the dancers’ torso and legs shuffling on the floor, hands and arms sweeping the air. Sounds are made from the surface of their body encountering the space, before being excavated from the inside of the body: the performers scratch their throat, release air through their mouth, sigh heavily, speak out words. Lauren and Jenny alternate calling and responding to each other and superimposing their voices. They speak the text in unison, just as they did with movements. They play with the materiality of sounds, accumulating and piling them on top of each other. The words collide, mostly failing at making sense, with an organized disorder that recalls the way the books nudge each other in Peto’s painting.

Like a musical composition, Still Life №7 has different movements, the dancers coming out of performance mode and casually repositioning themselves in a different part of the space at the beginning of a new movement. At one moment, they sit on a piano stool and open the piano’s lid. Instead of playing a note, they speak words. Refusing the logical suite of events that would dictate them to play, Lauren and Jenny might be pointing to the body as its own instrument, ready to be activated. Just as the wooden cabinet in Peto’s painting is open to reveal books that are yet to be read, the open lid opens to reveal black and white keys yet to be played. Its silence hints at the multitude of sound possibilities. Similarly, a dance, waiting to be seen by its audience, holds a multiplicity of journeys to be taken. There are as many dances as there are viewers, Lauren and Jenny remind us.