Sunday, November 25, 2007

Welcome to this situation

Every now and then you get an invitation you can't refuse: something that promises some kind of glimpse into a world that looks like a place that's well worth being in, even if it's just for a little while!

(In another sense, life is full of invitations like this, at least if we're lucky. A novel is an invitation to enter an alternate universe, and the start of a conversation is an invitation to explore and enrich the relationship with the person one's talking to. We can miss invitations easily if we're not paying attention or if we receive them at the wrong time. Doug Stern's style of teaching swimming represented an invitation I wholeheartedly accepted--an invitation to the world of triathlon but also to the joyful world of trying to be one's best self--and Doug's invitation, though he died in June of cancer, continues to lead to all sorts of other interesting things. Recently I accepted another exciting invitation--to visit a friend in the Cayman Islands in January. I am going to swim in the sea!)

The invitation I allude to in the opening paragraph, though, involved me wrestling with the prudential knowledge that the last thing I need in November and December is a huge extra time commitment (nervous breakdown from exhaustion and overwork!) and my subjective opinion that some opportunities only come once in a lifetime. So I said yes, and I've spent quite a bit of time this past week going to rehearsals (not since college have I had rehearsals!) for a piece--it's performance-related, though I believe the term "performance art" is eschewed by the piece's maker--that will go up at the Marian Goodman Gallery next week.

The artist is Tino Sehgal (Anne Midgette has a piece about him in the Times arts section this weekend, and here's his Wikipedia bio with a link or two), and the piece is simply called This situation. Though it has elements in common with a dance or with the other kinds of art that might be shown in galleries (Tino describes his work as being at the intersection of dance and economics, an unusual pairing!), "This situation" is probably best thought of as a kind of game...

It will not be in the spirit of the project for me to lay everything bare. I think it will be more enjoyable to watch if the enigma remains strongly present. (I do think it is going to be a rather magical and suggestive experience for visitors; meanings of unexpected kinds may unfold but I suspect it is less a cerebral than a physiological experience to give oneself over to a show like this.) But I will say a few things...

There are six players at any given time. We move through the gallery space in a sequence of six constellations--each player occupies a unique series of body positions and locations, many of the configurations of players and postures drawn from significant works of art in the Western tradition (though we do not know what they are, and only a handful are well-enough known that someone as ignorant of art history as I am might guess at them).

Our physical movements are governed by a set of constraints; we move almost as though underwater, in a smooth slow-motion fashion characterized primarily by the absence of any accents. The neutral direction to move is backwards--we only walk backwards--except when a player invokes the rewind function, an aural cue that leads us to move back to the previous constellation and an earlier point in the conversation.

We have a number of other moves in our repertoire, most importantly a welcome (which we invoke every time a new visitor enters the gallery) and a compliment. The conceptual framework for our interactions is eighteenth-century salon conversation, and we have been invited to participate because we are conversationalists in a certain vein--we have a shared body of quotations that we are allowed to "play" in certain contexts, and we also each have access to a set of quotations that only a few other players have.

The quotations are from all sorts of places (you might find an intellectual context for the project by reading this and this and this, plus dipping into this and this, with perhaps a touch of this fellow who I particularly like), but they are not identified with the author's name or the name of the work. We are not in a seminar, Tino likes to say!

(Even the players are not provided with the identifying details for the quotations, a condition that struck me as tormentingly perverse! I spent a few hours looking into things on the internet, an unidentified quotation is another kind of invitation...)

Having always been incredibly lazy about memorizing things (I liked doing it when I was a child, but I lost the taste for it around age twelve!), I now have the, er, interesting task of trying to learn as many as I can of the forty quotations with which I have been provided!

A couple of them are mercifully brief. (In 1647 somebody said: Never speak of oneself. In 1896 somebody said: We should unite stoicism, asceticism and ecstasy. Two of them have often come together, but the three never.)

Some of them are intractably long and social-scientific and I would be unlikely to utter them in any case. (Examples not provided.)

Here is one of my favorites, which I am going to make sure to learn today:

In 1929 somebody said: Every epoch not only dreams the one to follow, but in dreaming, precipitates its awakening. It bears its end within itself and unfolds it cunningly.

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