Upon entering CalArts’ REDCAT Gallery (which is in reality a large room off the foyer of the REDCAT theater), I see nine pieces of comically oversized Neoclassic furniture. Two armoires, two chairs, two dressers, a huge central cabinet, an obelisk, and what appears to be an urn face each other on pedestals. Their construction is at a level I would describe as “professional shoddy,” with a faux-aged red finish and various hinges, hooks, and handles holding the seams of the furniture together. Their quality is familiar: I spent years of my own life dancing in overblown productions of The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and other classical ballets—these are very clearly built as props.
Indeed they are. As I walk through the space (and yes, you can walk through this show, touching and interacting with the furniture), I notice the performer, who is clearly defined by black tights, black leather dance shoes, and a billowy white blouse. She (or he, depending on who is performing at the moment—there are two professional dancers sharing the same role) moves about the space, interacting with the furniture by unlocking and opening them up to reveal a completely different incarnation of form and space. The chairs’ legs shriek as they are dragged across the concrete floor. The two dressers are moved on their casters, positioned back-to-back, and then locked together by two tiny hooks. The tops open outward, creating a space within the two dressers about the size, depth, and volume of a hot tub. A large, red, utilitarian boom box is brought out and a harpsichord melody plays—reminiscent of music that might have been heard in a king’s court. The dancer climbs up on the dressers and begins to move in slow, preening motions. As the music builds in speed and intensity, so do the strange birdlike arm movements of the dancer as she moves around the rim of this box. The dancer makes it back to her original location, adopts a fifth position (imagine holding a beach ball above your head), and flops to the side in a false and histrionic death. The dancer then gets up as though nothing had happened, turns the boom box off, and returns the room to its original arrangement, never once acknowledging the audience.
London-based artist Pablo Bronstein’s newly commissioned project for REDCAT is a “staged essay,” where the artist plays the role of choreographer and architect, constructing a space that is constantly in flux. The placement of the furniture and a series of architectural drawings on the wall at first mimic the layout of a traditional 18th-century room, and then, through the use of choreography, these pieces are moved and reconfigured to represent an idealized configuration of a city in traditional Renaissance painting. The drawings, entitled Primitive Façade Variations, are meticulous ink-and-watercolor works that depict fictional facades where the architecture is hyperbolically out of scale with human proportion. The drawings on the wall serve to emphasize the scale of the performer to the oversized, anthropomorphic furniture. The dancers appear to be kids opening cabinets, which serves to both cement and satirize the Enlightenment’s ideas of archeological permanence—the Neoclassical’s solid and historically dominant presence in art history.
The space is perfect in that it only has three walls; the fictional “fourth wall” (the imagined wall at the front of the stage that allows the audience to see the action) is emphasized because the audience is at the same level and often only a few feet away from the performer. This “fourth wall” is further broken down by the audience’s ability to move freely throughout the space and view the performance from many vantage points. Baroque theater mimicked daily life. Life in court was not much different than what was depicted on stage. The dancers are illustrating this performance of daily life. At first, the contemporary realities of the boom box and the frosted tips of the dancer’s hair bothered me, but I quickly realized that they, too, were part of this set. Bronstein has created a play very specifically set in the time of the Enlightenment, but through misrepresentation and exaggeration of that time, we can see that it is really about our own. The “performances” of architecture, art history, and daily life can be seen as just that: choreography laid down by someone before our time as we continue to churn through the motions.
REDCAT is a gallery where most of the audience comes for theater and dance. According to curator Ruth Estevez, the interest for the gallery is in performative art. This performance art recognizes and embraces its own history in relation to the theater, which is a breath of fresh air. It is also unique among performance art in that it is being performed daily—it is a living and breathing exhibition. It is an exciting space to be a part of, and I recommend getting out to see it.
Enlightenment Discourse on the Origins of Architecture is on view at REDCAT Gallery through March 15, 2014.