Dance is the inspiration for Alysia Kaplan’s exhibition, The White Rush of Experience, currently on view in The Davis Gallery. As the title of the show suggests, it is not
so much the physical particularities of dance that drive the artist’s work, but the effects bodily movement can produce. As viewer, moreover, this “white rush” is experi- enced second-hand as a sensation of vicarious exuberance or titillating voyeurism that may be felt when viewing bodies engaged in dance. Extracted from dance scenes from lm and television, Kaplan’s black and white imagery is produced through processes of framing and juxtaposition that are themselves choreographic. They involve pace, as the timing of the originary lmic moment is manipulated by the artist. In the transfer from lm to print, the artist’s process also includes various levels of touch and physical labor. And, of course, the work concerns itself with form. If we can expand or, as dance pioneer Yvonne Rainer proposed, reduce our notions of dance to include movement with “no spectacle” or “no virtuosity,” then we might be able to conceptualize both the artist’s and our own relationship to the images on view as improvisational physical encounters. To do this is to accept performance artist Carolee Schneemann’s articulation of “the body-as-eye.” We are called to look, in other words, with our eyes and our bodies.
Many of the images in The White Rush of Experience capture moments of seeming abandon. Fragmentary and obscured, the gesticulating limbs and expressions of self-ab- sorption communicate something of the liberating qualities of dance. The bodies on view have been removed from the narrative arch that situated them as dancing for or with others and, possibly, to meet certain ends. In the series of lm stills entitled Points of Abandon, the gures have been unanchored from their respective contexts and, particularly for the women in the images, may be freed from their usual role as performing object of desire. While these images may certainly still provoke a de- siring gaze from their viewers, the dancing bodies appear to perform unaware of an audience. Selecting moments from lm and television wherein the dancing bodies communicate self-awareness, agency, or pleasure, Kaplan pauses on these eeting expressions and dwells on them. To my eye, the abstracted images attempt to prolong these moments, to ruminate on them or use them as sites from which the viewer can engage in her or his own memories of, or longing for, similar experiences.
In seeking out these lmic anomalies, Kaplan’s blurred and fragmentary images don’t arrest the momentum of these moving bodies, but reanimate them as whirling phantom-like gures in the space of the gallery. The black, white, and gray tones lend the images a ghost-like quality that, while amplifying the “spiritual release” Kaplan associates with dance, also recall the motion photography of the late nineteenth-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Infamous for his use of multiple cameras
to capture humans and animals in motion, Muybridge’s black and white photographs were among the very rst to capture on lm those discrete movements of the body that are not otherwise visible to the human eye. His iconic images of a horse in full stride, all four hooves hovering above the ground, appeared to capture the impossi- ble.
Historically, Muybridge’s desire to use the camera as a tool to render that which is beyond human vision was part of the then flourishing modernist drive to harness science and technology in the service of expanding various forms of intellectual and creative expression. Abstraction is, at its core, the work of imaging that which is un- imagable. To paint, sculpt, draw, photograph, or dance the formless or immaterial: ideas, feelings, traumas, desires, hopes, etc. The dancing bodies in The White Rush of Experience, are part of this cultural heritage. They communicate dance as experience, emotional journey, and/or form of unbridled expression, even if only as a utopic aspiration. Muybridge’s galloping horse, which has become an icon of human innovation and the insatiable quest for knowledge through vision, is also summoned in the archival pigment print entitled Transfigured. The striding horse in Kaplan’s over five-foot tall image bounds toward us, mane and tail blowing wildly in the wind. De- spite the physical weight and power of the horse, as in to Muybridge’s photographs, it seems to float. Like the other bodies in the exhibition, this animal appears to move unbridled, making way for interpretation and improvisation. As the title of the work indicates, the image is about transformation. By definition, to transfigure is to transform into a more beautiful or spiritual state of being. Dancing, Kaplan’s work contends, offers the possibility of transfiguration. It may be that the horse, the only non-human living entity in this exhibition, appears as a kind of apparition, a ghost of the modernist past. Or, perhaps more compellingly, this horse is the animal embodiment of Kaplan’s own attempt at reaching a state of abandon.
Transfiguration may also refer to the transformation of the images Kaplan has sourced. From television set or computer screen, they are recorded, transferred to film, then manipulated by the hands of the artist. In its various stages, the images have under gone a series of changes that are both material and conceptual. Through ex- traction, fragmentation, and filmic collaging, the abstracted film stills and excerpts have been opened up to a boundless set of possibilities, at least far more than the restrictions of cinematic or televisual narratives might allow. The pulling, cutting, extracting, and framing of these processes describe the choreography of what experi- mental film-maker, dancer, and writer Maya Deren called “filmic dance.” It is not just that the images are of dance but that the film itself, through the movements of the camera, the zooming of lens, and the various forms of editing that might occur during development and production, is always already engaged in a dance. “With film,” Deren once famously stated, “I can make the world dance!”
The parallel I want to draw between the subject of the work and the artist’s process might also be extended to the experience of the spectator who, upon entering the gallery, encounter almost immediately the whirling refractions of light produced by a mirrored ball hanging from the ceiling as part of the multi-media installation piece Wings Beating Still. The flecks of prismatic light activate the space, floating across the walls, floors, and windows while bending irregularly to accommodate the bod-ies that move in and through the space. While the films and prints that populate the exhibition image or imply movement, this installation extends beyond the two-di- mensional plane, reaching out and touching the body of the spectator with the weightless pass of spinning light. Below the ball, a small television set plays a short video that flashes, jumps, and cuts in and out of a scene of people dancing. The placement of the television, on the floor rather than eye-level, encourages the viewer to crouch down to see the screen. In order to see the images on the screen from the angle we are more accustomed, we must get closer to the work. The leaning in toward the piece creates a physical proximity and intimacy less likely in the larger pieces in the show such as White Rush, for example. The viewing experience feels more personal, less collective, like dancing in the privacy of one’s bedroom versus a night club. For many of us, the level of freedom allowed by the former allows for greater release of inhibition and self-consciousness.
Emanating its own pulsing light, the television casts a flickering shadow on the gallery floor. The dynamic and, at times, erratic movement of light cast by the TV and mirrored ball echoes the bodies on the screen, all of which seem to move to the rhythm of asynchronous music that we can’t hear. This lack of musical accompani-ment or soundtrack is another mode through which our expectations of dance and film are subverted. To provide the viewer with one, to my mind, would have been to re- circumscribe these bodies into a narrative dictated by both the artist, in her choice, and by the song or instrumental itself. The lack of sound in this exhibition can, of course, be read many ways. One could argue that, in the spirit of John Cage, it sets the various modes of dance in the exhibition to the audio-track of gallery visitors’ whispers, shuffling feet, or ringing phones. Or, as I am more inclined to embrace, it invites the viewer to improvise. To extend their sensory engagement to the auditory. The impulse to produce music for these moving figures and flickering images is part of the sensorial impact of this exhibition, one that can overwhelm and disorient. The various images, mediums, and divergent iterations of bodily movement visible in The White Rush of Experience, collectively invite the viewer to hear , see, and move with them.
Like a potential dance partner extending a hand, Kaplan’s work reminds us of the kinesthetic qualities of art. The study of kinesthesia, the sense that detects the posi- tion, weight, and movement of our bodies, has been a part of dance research for decades and its findings detail the powerful neurophysiological responses experienced by spectators. One dance scholar, Ann Daly, has written that “Dance, although it has a visual component, is fundamentally a kinesthetic art whose apperception is grounded not just in the eye but in the entire body.” One central argument in this research is that our kinesthetic sense is activated and even mirrored by the bodies we watch. Art, in other words, can conjure in us responses that aren’t just optical, intellectual, emotional or spiritual. We respond with our bodies as well.
When I see works of art that disturbs me, my body recoils. I turn inward with arms usually crossed tightly around my chest and knees tightly locking my legs in place. When a piece delights me, on the other hand, I remain open and loose. My stance is wide and my arms hang at my sides or rest light on my hips. Taking time to think about how our bodies respond to works of visual art means thinking about our gallery visits as improvisational dances; duets between a work of art and ourselves. Viewing The White Rush of Experience and writing this essay has felt like a prolonged dance with the artist as well. Spending time with her work and thinking about her process is not unlike trying to find rhythmic harmony with a new dance partner. It can be disorienting, thrilling, and beautiful. Luckily for me, it has been all three.