Theatrical sets allow for the real world to be transformed into the internal world. Against complete darkness, imagine a stage light illuminating one room within a house. Walls, hallways and exterior walls of the house are constructed out of the absence of light, while the walls of the living room are constructed out of illumination. The darkness hides the coming scenes from view, while the illumination presents furnishings in the current act – a sofa, table and chairs, a domestic preparation. This fabrication of a living room provides a model for the following stagings.

Kontakhof, Pina Bausch, performed at Brooklyn Academy of Music, 2014, photo credit: Oliver Look

“Is there anything deeper than surface?” I wondered, looking at one silken dressed dancer adjusting her dress, facing the audience as if they were her mirror. Having gotten herself together, she approaches with her dance partner, a suited suitor, whose arm she twists. The pair of dancers appear to be a couple, and the actions public humiliations, in as much as one dancer pulls the hair of the other, pokes the partner in the nose, bites the other’s shoulder. In Pina Bausch’s Kontakthof, dancers perform in a stage set as an empty hall with a window and door and row of chairs against three walls and small inset stage along the back wall facing the audience. Theatrically, the set is all that it needs to be, as minimally decorated as to provide a room inside of which action takes place.
On the other hand, it is a grand room.

The twenty-five dancers approach the audience from the back wall of the set, walking forward as a large mass, dressed as if attending a cocktail party. Sometimes a few dancers approach from within the mass – movements are directed towards the audience. And dancers perform acts on and for one another. They converse through tests of body language, as happens when a group of men surround a woman, patting, rubbing and pulling her limbs. As the dancers meet the edge of the stage, they run backward to the set’s furthest wall again, forming a machine in rotation from front to back.

Stop Crying: A Performance, Ida Applebroog, 1981, staple-bound book

Kontakthof‘s starkness invigorated me to look through the illustrated books of Ida Applebroog, printed in the late 70s and early 80s, each book subtitled “A Performance” on the cover.
The performances inside consist of a single set and only rarely a set change, and a script of no more than two lines. The pages of each book are a repeated photograph of a monochromatic drawing of a scene. They have a cartoon look. For example, one print shows a woman sitting contemplatively alone, her shadow cast on the wall behind, the entire scene viewed through a box frame. The first of a three line script reads, “Stop crying.”
Think of this as a theater, a small third floor affair. Operations are run by a single person, gamely but silently playing the parts of the director, lighting technician, actor and set designer.

Envision of the surface of a building. One might have a beige plaster front, another made from sedimentary rock, and a third obscured in a malaise of vines. These surfaces can be monologues as much as a slew of words can be: letters of discontent directed at the art world, for example, filling the lobby walls of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia in the Readykulous by Ridykeulous installation called This is What Liberation Feels Like. Both commissioned correspondences and pre-existing letters of outcry from an exclamatory world fill the lobby. Letter writing appears just as what it is and in works of art as trope, both as a promise of a space for correspondence, and as the unfolding of particular resistance to an addressee.


I want a President, Zoe Leonard, 1992, xerox, 14 x 8.5 inches, included in Readykeulous by Ridykeulous exhibition This is What Liberation Feels Like

A facade, like a one-sided conversation, is the staging of interiority. Currently on view in Aliza Nisenbaum’s first solo New York exhibition at White Columns, among portraits of immigrants from Mexico and Central America, there is a painting of a letter, a pile of letters really, a bent paper pile. The writing is not identifiable, but the addresses of the correspondents appear, and drawings within the letters surface. Next to the letters, the flat, bent body parts of the sitters still manage to look solid, weighted. The bent ankles and limbs take the form of bent letters. Subjects look otherwise engaged, detached from being painted, but still. The two women of the painting Stephanie and Christina appear self-contained, as if entering this stage by having emanated from this fabric; henna-covered hands look woven from the thread of the pillows setting the scene.


Tinker Bell, Aliza Nisenbaum, 2014, oil in linen, 20 x 16 inches


Stephanie and Christina, Aliza Nisenbaum, 2014, oil on linen, 51 x 33 inches


Erin Leland
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