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Issue 149

“Inaction” — Brendan Fernandes
by Godfre Leung

It seems like a lifetime ago that curator Bartholomew Ryan characterized contemporary art’s newfound engagement with choreographers in 2014 as “drawing dance into the gallery and often asking it to behave more like an object.” It now feels weird when we go too long without seeing some form of dance in our art galleries. As I write this in mid-March 2021, it also seems like a lifetime since we’ve had dancers in our art galleries. Almost exactly a year, in fact.

  • Brendan Fernandes, <em>Free Fall, for Camera</em>, 2019, video still; installation view from “Inaction,” 2021, Richmond Art Gallery, curated by Shaun Dacey COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND MONIQUE MELOCHE, CHICAGO

Due to the pandemic, Brendan Fernandes’s exhibition “Inaction” is a mostly dancerless dance exhibition. Developed in partnership with the Ezra and Cecile Zilkha Gallery at Wesleyan University, where in 2019 the exhibition featured a robust dance program built around a core ensemble of eight dancers, Richmond Art Gallery’s (RAG) staging presents a collection of objects that its didactics alternately refer to as “sculptural works” and “dance supports.” Video documentation of four local dancers activating the exhibition in a non-public performance is scheduled to appear online just as the physical exhibition closes.

In the back gallery, one does see dancers, though not in the flesh. Free Fall 49 (2017), a dance piece dramatizing nightclubbers’ enaction of safe space during the 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, is newly adapted as a two-channel video installation (it was single channel at the Zilkha Gallery). Titled Free Fall, for Camera (2019), it shares the gallery with an awkwardly placed scaffold that the viewer must view the video either through or in front of. The latter position presses the viewer’s body up against those of the projected dancers—a welcome proxy for physical closeness that we no longer can share in public.

If not for the pandemic, visitors would be encouraged to physically interact with the objects. It is very likely that “Inaction” will close before this will be allowed, and even if public-health orders were to permit it, I doubt many visitors would feel comfortable doing so. It is ironic that an exhibition that puns dance sup- ports with mutual aid and celebrates the nightclub as a safe space for queer people would feel so unsafe, just by virtue of being in an enclosed space. It also seems odd that one’s body would feel so palpable in such a spare exhibition, populated by inert objects arranged like minimalist sculptures but few if any actual people.

As their titles suggest, Free Fall 49 and Free Fall, for Camera are built around the choreography of falling. The video at the RAG stages the safe space that the gay nightclub represents like a ’90s Gap commercial, with dancers outfitted in various shades of plain, light- grey casual wear in a placeless white room. A dancer falls, instigating a series of Busby Berkeley-esque pantomimes that sees the setting change into some- thing resembling a dance club, albeit with the tragic substitution of intruding flashing police lights for the disco strobe. A third act, whose yellow lighting filter seems to pay homage to the music video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” plays out the video’s utopianism as one of the fallen dancers is lifted into a crowd surf by her brethren. The supporting arms of the dancers become a metaphor for the dance floor, while the dance floor dramatized to receive the falling dancers is in turn a synecdoche for the nightclub as community.

Free Fall seems most to be about the heaviness of the body, and perhaps also a weightlessness that can be achieved in the ecstasy of the club. But at the points when the entire cast of 16 dancers falls simultaneously, it is unclear whether the falling gesture refers to the dancers being shot en masse, or if they are hitting the ground for cover. This is the exhibition’s most choreographic moment: a tension between intentional and involuntary action, between scripted and impromptu movement, and between depicted and actual weight.

While this metaphysics of dance might seem anachronistic after the minimalist dance of Yvonne Rainer’s generation, it points to ballet, a consistent element of Fernandes’s practice, as the prism through which the exhibition represents bodies and space. Three sculptures, titled Triangle, Circle, and Square (all 2019), respectively make reference to a gym mat, a daycare gathering circle, and monkey bars. Beyond their function to entice audience participation, these references to child’s play also hint at the traumatization of ballet lessons and a kind of corporeal training that disciplines ideal(ized) bodies and brutalizes those that fall below that standard. This too is ambivalent: it is hard not to detect references to S&M in the black gym-mat triangle and the leather handles of ballet-barre constructions that Fernandes refers to as Tumblers (2019)—which bear more than a passing resemblance to medieval instruments of torture.

The exhibition’s questions about what kinds of bodies belong in the weightless balletic imaginary and which others are sort of just heavy and obdurately “there” intersect with the brutal policing of Black and Brown bodies, and perhaps also the vigilantism against East and Southeast Asian ones during COVID-19. The corporeal/incorporeal metaphysics of ballet— what is sometimes simply called “grace”—maps onto the privilege of some bodies to occupy public space without scrutiny, and others not. In many ways, racism is a technology of seeing, in which white bodies pass through space frictionlessly while other, supposedly aberrant, ones “catch.” In the physical-spatial economy of “Inaction,” the body’s weight is a figure for its proneness to brutalization.

In my observation of the dancers’ rehearsal, the Tumblers, when activated, become unmistakably anthropomorphic. But if these sculptures are like bodies, they are stubborn, graceless ones, and the gestures of the dancers manipulating them feel deliberately laborious, in contrast to the affected effortlessness of a ballet duet. At the same time, these gestures telegraph the dancers’ responsiveness to the sculptural proxy bodies they dance with; they are caringly, even lovingly, executed. Insofar as choreography in the balletic sense can be read as a brutalizing force in “Inaction,” the exhibition also suggests choreography—the scripting of movement, and therefore the legislation of space—to be a tool for remediating brutality. In the context of the ongoing pandemic, in which our conduct in shared spaces is a life-and-death concern, a lot depends on our choreography.

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