Dance Review: The Emperor’s New Threads

This is the fourth installment of Debra Cash’s coverage of events associated with the Institute of Contemporary Art’s Dance/Draw exhibition.

The Untitled Still Life Collection by Trajal Harrell and Sarah Sze. At the Institute for Contemporary Art, Boston, MA, through November 20.

By Debra Cash

Artist Sarah Sze — a Boston native whose monumental kudzu-like installations are made, in great part, of detritus and recontextualized objects like chairs, fire escapes, and electric fans.

As someone who played Cat’s Cradle waiting in the camp’s cafeteria line and spent many happy hours teaching my then nine-year-old niece to make the crosses and diamonds of Jacob’s Ladder, you might say that I have an affinity for games made of string. I even jumped rope, as a juvenile internationalist, mastering both the round-swinging American and ankle-anchored Chinese methods.

No one, however, ever gave me a MacArthur genius grant for it.

Sarah Sze is a Boston native whose monumental, kudzu-like installations are made, in great part, of detritus and recontextualized objects like chairs, fire escapes, and electric fans. Her eye is audacious and sweeping; many of the sculptures I have seen in photographs seem to claim and arrest a receding universe. (Those are the works for which Sze has earned her ream of art world prizes.)

Sze and dancer Trajal Harrell have known each other since they were students together at Yale. Harrell’s presented his stream-of-consciousness, voguing-with-folding-chairs piece, Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church, at the ICA last year. Brought together again under the auspices of a valuable joint effort of the ICA and Concord Academy Summer Stages, their collaboration should have been a real eye-opener.

Instead, it was a snooze and something of a con. Deliberate minimalism can be a line-in the-sand revelation of perceptual mastery—see, for instance, the brilliant appreciation Peter Schjeldahl wrote about the “reductive logic” in a retrospective of Kazimir Malevich and his American followers last spring. But if you’re an artist who is going to be making minimalist claims close to a century on, you’d better have something new to communicate. I’m skeptical of the ICA’s statement that “Sze stripped her material palette down to a thin, blue line of string.” Minimalism here looked like Sze and Harrell had been taking their residency time together way too easy.

Stools had been set up in front of David Hammon’s graceful, cloudy “Basketball Drawing,” a basketball-player, tall rectangle “painted” by the artist bouncing a dirt-dusted basketball against the surface. Harrell, a young, black man draped in a black tunic wearing sneakers and Greek dancer Christina Vasileiou, a lithe, white woman of approximately the same age wearing street clothes and moccasins, unspooled the aforementioned blue thread between them. From seats set up in the narrow gallery alcove, you could look over Harrell’s shoulder and see the “process” video of Janine Antoni painting the floor with her hair.

The performers held the thread taut between them (see: visible tension in their hands); they vibrated the string like a bird-weighed telephone wire (see: oscillation across a distance); with their hands, and later with their feet, they made two parallel lines and inscribed a plane that could tilt at their will (read: Edwin Abbott’s Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, circa 1884).

Dancer Trajal Harrell

Vasileiou “embroidered” Harrell’s tunic with the thread by laying it across his chest. (see: a pedestrian, marginally gendered task.) They shimmied with fluid vibrations running through their limbs. They figure-eighted their waists and hips. When she unlooped the thread, Harrell’s head seemed a little loose on its plinth of shoulders. Piano, violin music, and then something that sounded a bit like a Chinese zither played over the speakers (listen and reflect: strings that make music from many lands).

Then Harrell started munching the string with a big, lolling tongue, kind of like a cow at a salt lick. Vasileiou put the other end in her mouth, and I thought please, please, please don’t do the Lady and the Tramp kiss! They didn’t. (By the way, zoe/juniper’s The Crack in Everything, which premiered at Jacob’s Pillow this past summer and is now on a national tour, featured the strings in the mouth motif prominently and much more poetically.)

Saliva made the thread stick, so while Vasileiou untangled the mess, Harrell sat down on a pillow in the front row of the audience and watched attentively (assert: art status is bestowed by the quality of your attention). Then they left. Me, too.

C 2011 Debra Cash


  1. Karen KLein on November 20, 2011 at 7:22 pm

    Excellent review. It’s too bad with the enormous possibilities of the integration of dance and visual art that Dance/Draw included this performance.

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