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Art Of Silence

Mysterious dancers take over the Menil: Ask what they're doing all you want, they won't tell

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Menil_Silence_exhibition_Tino Sehgal
Scuff marks from dancers' shoes sully the white walls in the exhibition space.  Photo by Whitney Radley
Menil_Silence_exhibition_Tino Sehgal
Instead of allowing some thing to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things is on display in a cul-de-sac room in the Menil Collection's Silence exhibition through Oct. 21. Photo by Whitney Radley
Menil_Silence_exhibition_Tino Sehgal
Menil_Silence_exhibition_Tino Sehgal

A man in a white T-shirt dragged his Converse sneakers across the dark wooden floor. His eyes stared widely at the ceiling of the blank, dead-end room. Feeling that I had walked in on an intensely private moment, I stepped out of the room as quietly as I had entered it. 

This was my first experience of Tino Sehgal's Instead of allowing some thing to rise up to your face dancing bruce and dan and other things, on display through Oct. 21 in the Menil Collection's Silence exhibition. 

I approached the room with slightly less timidity on my second trip, pausing in the doorway to watch the dancer as his scuffed boots marked a sharp black curve on the wall. He turned his head slowly to face the entrance; humming and buzzing and ghostly music drifted in from the next room. Once his eyes neared mine, I again slipped away.   

Instead of allowing . . . is what Sehgal calls a "constructed situation," one conceived by the British-German artist in 2000 with reference to video works created by conceptual artists Bruce Nauman and Dan Graham in the early '70s.

 The result is the performer as an object — a jarring realization, as beautiful as it is intensely uncomfortable. 

 As the New York Times explained, those artists recorded themselves or their friends performing a series of stipulated gestural movements, from which Sehgal selected 16 "and asked a performer to stitch them together with slowed-down, unaccented motions."

The result is the performer as an object — a jarring realization, as beautiful as it is intensely uncomfortable. 

Toby Kamps, contemporary art curator for the Menil, first experienced Sehgal's piece at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. A woman was writhing on the floor, and a feeling in the pit of his stomach told him that something was very wrong, but he couldn't look away. 

"Silence is the most elusive thing," Kamps told CultureMap. In curating the exhibition, Kamps approached the idea from many angles and he considers Instead of allowing... one of many resulting on-ramps.

Sehgal's work is about the silence of being, a silence made more profound considering its placement within the exhibition: In a large and otherwise empty cul-de-sac room. The curator explained that the dimensions and the placement of the space were decided upon in a verbal agreement with the artist. 

"I like the 'no exits' aspect," Kamps said. He continued that the black scuff marks that sully the white walls, the human subject writhing wordlessly on the floor and doing something that is not immediately clear, makes the piece seem all the more existential.

The importance of pacing

The artist commissioned Chloe Douglas, who danced for Instead of allowing... during The New Museum's After Nature show in 2008, to instruct the dancers for the Menil performance. Sehgal — who doesn't fly — required Douglas to take a train down to Texas from New York, a trip that took three days.

"My sense of time and space . . . swelled a bit," Douglas explained to CultureMap about her journey. "I felt more grounded, literally, and I was ready for the process [of teaching other dancers] to begin." 

 "My sense of time and space . . . swelled a bit," Douglas explained. "I felt more grounded, literally, and I was ready for the process [of teaching other dancers] to begin." 

 She saw how the integrity of that slow travel translated to the piece and to her whole lifestyle. 

Mike Simmonds, who dances in the Menil exhibition, echoed that sentiment: Since he began dancing in the exhibition in late July, he catches himself moving more slowly and deliberately in his daily life, exploring the space that he exists within. 

Twice weekly, he reports for work. He walks into the exhibition room and mimics the dancer who writhes on the floor; they dance together in unison for a few minutes, and then the first dancer stands up and walks out.  

"It's weird for the first cycle of movement," explained Simmonds, who times his gestures with his breath and estimates that it takes half an hour to move through the 16 positions. The first hour drags on, he said, but by the time the next dancer comes in to take over, his three-hour shift seems as if it passed in just moments. 

The long and silent shifts give Simmonds a lot of time to consider his relationship to the work and to the audience. 

"The dancer is also an observer, but people don't give you the credit for observation, because they think of you as an object," he said. A woman on opening night walked up to him and moved his arm. Once, a man stood over Simmonds and demanded that he explain what he was doing — performance rules prevented Simmonds from responding, the interaction was exhilarating.

"I want to be able to communicate with people that I think they're awesome for watching," he said. "And for those who just come in and immediately leave, I like to imagine that they continue to think about it all day."

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