February 21 — March 20, 2016
A man dressed in gray slinks down a staircase while a grade-school kid on a field trip reverently tiptoes by. Two guards engage in a frank conversation about their work lives as they watch from the floor above. I stand on the stairs two feet away from the performer, whose jeans are bedazzled with silver jewels—but who is otherwise dressed modestly in slate tones. I have been watching Michael Helland for almost an hour, standing between the fourth and fifth floors at the Museum of Modern Art, and my notes are scrawled front to back on PLASTIC’s exhibition booklet. Elsewhere on the premises, Hristoula Harakas curls toe to forehead on the stairs leading up from the ground level of the museum. Kennis Hawkins, Oisín Monaghan, and Elizabeth Hart occupy the atrium, slowly standing, sitting, and shape-shifting. It’s time for me to leave, but I don’t want to. To watch someone move so intentionally and unassumingly on the floor in front of you is not just intimate—It’s nostalgic. I miss this performer even though I don’t know him, even though I have not left, and am in fact standing right next to him still. This piece exists for me as a landmark in time; I cannot imagine returning to this same site, a day, or even a year later, without finding Helland almost to the bottom of the stairs, fellow performer Niall Jones not far behind.
As a visitor to Maria Hassabi’s PLASTIC, I wanted to match the durational quality of the work with a sustained practice of my own. I stay as long as I can. In watching Helland, I begin to wonder all sorts of things about getting to know a person. What does it mean to recognize who someone truly is? Are words, shared experience, and context necessary forces to wield when forming a connection with another human? I consider these traditional means of human connection as I watch museum visitors take photos of Helland on the stairs. We are all in such close proximity to each other that my feelings of comfort and thoughts about voyeurism are constantly in flux. At first it feels beside the point (wrong?) to take photographs myself. Then, remembering that photos are allowed, and that everyone—performer, visitor, and guard alike—knows that each moment might be archived as an image, I snap a few. As people continue to discover Helland in what feels like a secret corner of the museum, they document their discovery in all kinds of ways. Some pose next to him as their friend takes their photo, others line up their shots to create bird’s-eye view portraits of the performer seemingly falling head first down the stairs. Several zoom in to see the big glittery jewels at his ankles. Watching visitors attempt to capture the performer’s presence is at different times unsettling, inspiring, and fun. They remind me of tailors, honing in on and defining what they see. Whether the visitors react to their moving subject (object?) playfully or with somber acknowledgement, they seem taken by Hassabi’s aesthetic of slowness.
In the exhibition description, PLASTIC is said to address “the interface between artistic object and human subject,” which I find resonant on many levels. In terms of qualitative humanness, only when Helland extends his hand up a few stairs away from his torso, or draws his shin closer to his chest, do his clothes shift in such a way that any skin (besides face and hands) becomes visible. Only at the outer limits of movement is the person in the flesh exposed. As I watch the performers move, offering themselves to our collective proximity and gaze, I am reminded of the pure functionality of clothing. I don’t see costume: I see a flexible barrier between the environment and the person whose work it is to move within it.
In PLASTIC, humanness continues to reveal itself in different forms. I am intrigued by what guides the performers’ choices to move when they have hours of time ahead of them (PLASTIC is open from 10:30am to 5:30pm, the entire duration of MoMA’s visiting hours). As I watch Helland, first a hand reaches behind, then weight shifts from one hip to the other, and it seems like gravity is somewhat in charge—especially since, during the time I watch both Helland and Jones, their trajectory moves from top of staircase to bottom. But then, as if seized with a task, desire, or curiosity, the performer picks up his legs, still held crossed in the air, and places them on another part of the steps in what seems like a definitively choreographic manner. Such a deliberate movement suggests how alert the performers are to what is happening in the space around them, and also hints that their mental landscapes throughout the piece are vast and complex. Each steady gaze into the middle distance seems to track and respond to a line of energy passing through their minds. These responsive gestures are spare, so their impact is lasting. They are a reminder of our museum exhibition surroundings; the reasons why slow-moving, articulate bodies are so striking in contemporary performance; the questionable nature of causality; the performative habits of people.
I come to the atrium to watch Hawkins, Monaghan, and Hart melt into grey sofas and push themselves around. The sound design contains a dull roar of the everyday, which swells and recedes like the movement. The walls of the atrium are painted the same slate grey as the performers’ attire, and against it they seem both more two-dimensional and more sculptural than us non-performing people. As I look around the atrium it is we, the witnesses, who seem to be on display. The performers are outnumbered—thirty to three. But their energy of dynamic repose takes hold of the room.