with Will Fenstermaker

Jimmy Robert, Imitation of Lives, 2017. Courtesy of Performa. Photograph © Paula Court.

Bucharest-based artist Jimmy Robert—who was born in Guadeloupe, raised in Paris, studied at Goldsmith’s in London, and has lived in a number of European cities—has a diverse practice, encompassing a variety of media. Often, his works begin where the artist himself began—in photography and video—evolving into sculptures, performances, and more. Robert’s performances comment on or re-interpret iconic works of art—his commission for Performa 17, Imitation of Lives, was performed over a November weekend at Philip Johnson’s modernist masterpiece, Glass House, in New Canaan, Connecticut. Robert and Rail associate editor Will Fenstermaker spoke via Skype prior to Performa, when the artist had just returned to Bucharest following a rehearsal in Connecticut. Robert was in the later stages of organizing his intervention, making final decisions about objects to include, references to cut, and choreography to adjust.

Will Fenstermaker (Rail): How much of your performance is planned in advance and how much of will be improvisation within the moment?

Jimmy Robert: Nothing will be improvised—it will all be very structured because I’m mostly used to working alone or with one other person. This is the first time I’m working with two other people who I have to direct. When I was in New York, I told them what to do but I totally neglected what I had to do because I was not so used to working like that.

Rail: Will the audience be free to move around the space?

Robert: Yes, but it’s not a big area. In the performance, we will have thirty people with only three performers and everything happens inside.

Rail: And so you had to find a way to work around that.

Robert: It’s a question of how to negotiate the space. In the rehearsal we had maybe ten or twelve people and so could get a sense of where they will position themselves to avoid being on the stage. But they can’t really avoid it. The audience will be part of it whether they like it or not. And of course, people are going to take out their phones and take pictures, which is something else we have to think about. Unless we forbid it, which is a bit weird.

Rail: Are you interested to see what comes out of that audience interaction and that photographic documentation?

Robert: Yeah, I’m very curious how that’s going to work because I’m mostly coming from photography and experimental film. Maybe it shouldn’t, but the Glass House feels very cinematic with all of the framing, all of the windows—

Rail: It’s just so iconic.

Robert: Everything there is spectacle, you know, and the compulsion is that you have to look at everything and look through reflections, transparency, invisibility, and mirroring as well. As a visual person, I’m excited to be working in this space because there’s a lot going on.

Rail: You’ve done a lot of work with various forms of architecture and constructed space before, but this is the first time where you’re really working within something that’s so site-specific, right?

Robert: Yes, it’s the first time. So far, it’s been the white cube or the black box for me. I’ve done some things in the theater, but I’m much more a white box kind of person. This will be the first time that I’ve performed in a place where somebody once lived and also a place that now still has all these domestic traces and functions as a museum—because people do still come and visit, but they don’t linger. If you go on a guided tour, you know they don’t leave you behind; people make sure you follow the group. You don’t have time to peruse. Each time I go there, there’s always this feeling of being in somebody’s space, although it’s very minimal and reduced. But there’s still a bed there. Nothing ultra-personal, but there are still some traces there, in the artworks, the furniture, the plants.

Rail: Do you find that domesticity has invaded the work in any way?

Jimmy Robert, Imitation of Lives, 2017. Courtesy of Performa. Photograph © Paula Court.

Robert: Yes, because then I’m thinking more in terms of intimacy. Like, “Who is this person?” I’m trying to take aspects of his life into it—I mean, not too much, but I feel it’s really difficult not to, in a way. I’m trying to imagine that Johnson lived, at some point, with his partner in this house that’s completely transparent, at a time when it wasn’t so acceptable to have a gay relationship.

I’ve been looking through some archival images, learning a bit more about him. I found that he had this lover at some point in the ‘30s before the house was built in 1949—Jimmie Daniels, who was living in Harlem and had a cabaret. And so it’s interesting to find all these little elements and try to bring them into the performance, as part of the research process but also in different forms. Besides Johnson’s biography, I’m also bringing music into the performance too—soundtracks from films like Naked Lunch and Brian Eno’s “Sparrowfall II”—and reading some poetry from different periods that I think will inform this notion of intimacy in different ways. The pacing of the performance is very slow at first; not much happens.

Rail: In the way it builds, it ends in opposition to how it begins. It just grows and compounds on itself, crescendoing into the end.

Robert: That’s what’s interesting about coming from photography and film. I thought, “Okay, it’s not about playing roles but we’re also creating images.” I’m trying to think of performance as a series of images, creating a series of images. You could say collage, but I’m thinking also of montage because a succession of images creates a narrative.

Rail: The title is also a reference to film and literature isn’t it? There are two adaptations of Fannie Hurst’s novel Imitation of Life, one of which also deals with the cabaret.

Robert: Yeah, exactly. The 1959 film addresses all these notions of gender, class, and race. It involves a girl who went to work in the cabaret while passing as white and has been refusing to see her mom so that she wouldn’t be identified as black.

But the reason why I thought of it, actually, was that I was going through this French book that had something to do with the attraction of mirrors, and there’s this small section where they talk about Imitation of Life. There’s this moment when the mother is talking to her daughter, who’s looking at herself in the mirror. That’s the only moment when mirrors appear in the film and this writer asks, “Why did the director go through such a complicated way of using a mirror when the shot could have just something simple, like someone on the phone?” In this scene, the daughter has this moment where she sees herself and her mom at the same time in the mirror, and there’s this kind of moment of realization, of her understanding her identity, then breaking free and saying she cannot deny it.

Jimmy Robert, Imitation of Lives, 2017. Courtesy of Performa. Photograph © Paula Court.

Rail: She recognizes herself in the mirror. There’s a moment in your performance when one of the performers lays a mirror down on the couch and leans over it and starts gesturing and reciting a poem. What is that poem and how does it operate within the performance?

Robert: That’s a poem that I found in Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone, an anthology of poetry that I ordered online several years ago because I was trying to find significant poetry by African Americans. I had already made a selection of poems that I found interesting, either linguistically or for their form and content, and I kind of put them away. Then I thought that maybe this is a good time to break them out and think about how they would fit within this narrative. In that poem, there’s something about the “mirror of language,” which I thought was very interesting. I wanted to bring in this questioning of how language constructs and shapes our behavior. Then, this season I think the leaves will be off the trees and branches will be much more torturous, so there will be this echoing of shapes between the performer’s gestures and the environment.

Rail: So even though the performance takes place inside, the exterior environment still plays a role. Although, there is one moment where an actor goes outside. It’s a scene where you and that actor walk alongside each other with the glass wall separating you two, as if it’s a mirror, taking very elongated steps. And you’re wearing gray hoodies.

Robert: Yeah, the costumes structure the piece in terms of when we go from one thing to the next—the next frame or next image. They go from security to hoodie and then the white robes. The hoodie comes partly as reference to David Hammons’s artwork, where you have just a cut of hoodie with no face in it and it’s just hanging there, a ghostly appearance, like a kind of harboring anxiety of the hooded, lurking figure, you know.

Rail: It’s very hard for me to see that and not think of Trayvon Martin. Seeing that was very striking because so many of the questions surrounding his murder are about this idea of “threatening” gestures—what constitutes a threatening gesture and who is ultimately seen as threatening, under what conditions. So to have that motion broken down and to really experience it as rote, as natural, to be able to experience it just as an image is very unravelling.

Robert: Yes, and on one hand, to me it really happens because it’s an image, it’s a person, it’s an object, and I’m very interested in this transition from these modes of identifying and understanding. On the other hand, it’s a cliché—the hooded figure and what that could be. But it is interesting to see how it’s loaded from one place to the next and how much more loaded that figure is in the U.S. than it is in France, for example.

Rail: But that’s one of the qualities of a mirror, no? That it can kind of reflect different images depending on where—

Robert: Yeah, I feel like I’m tiptoeing because in France I grew up between suburban Paris and Paris itself—I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Paris but it’s a very drastic difference. Particularly in the ‘90s, during this whole period embodied in Matheiu Kassovitz’s film La Haine, which was shot in black-and-white and aestheticized that kind of suburban Paris. In the film, you see these kids coming to galleries in the city center and they’re being forced out of spaces because of how they look. Some of that is still happening. I haven’t lived in Paris for a long time, so I don’t know, but that’s part of my youth in a way.

Our histories are very different and I think that some references have been culturally appropriated through cinema. I was reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and he expresses these ideas he had about Paris. Then he moves to Paris and realizes something else is going on there. As an American, he experiences a Paris that is different from his idea, which I think has very much to do with how he is not perceived in France, and that alone gives him an intense happiness. It was very interesting because I realized the relationship between Paris and New York—how both have very idealized images of each other in their cultures. So that’s why there are some elements of Josephine Baker coming in and singing “J’ai deux amours,” which I thought was an interesting way to continue the exchange between the two continents.

Rail: The Hammons reference is very faceted. We’ve been touching on this in several ways and I’m interested in how you bring in references and how they operate in various contexts. You often perform around other people’s artworks and even your own artworks. Could you tell me about the dynamic or the interaction between the performance and the specific objects within the space—whether they’re yours or someone else’s?

Robert: Within the house there is a Nicolas Poussin painting, there is a sculpture, a mirror I’m bringing that will lay on top of the furniture, and then there will be a painting by Lucy McKenzie. She went to a decoration school where she learned how to make fake marble, and she’s very interested in doing interventions in existing buildings. She made a project with this Adolf Loos house where she recreated this big marble out of paint. So I thought it’d be interesting to have one of her works within the space play the role that marble would normally play in, like, a Mies Van der Rohe building.

It’s a painting—so, again, an imitation, to go back to this Imitation of Lives. In a way, it’s a collaboration with another artist—asking a painter to provide a set, almost, for the performance. But then, the series of movement becomes very dictated by what we can touch and what we cannot touch. It’s amazing, some of the things you cannot move in the Glass House. We have to negotiate the space and it’s not easy. Like, the carpet is off-limits. It’s very, very specific. If you want to bring something in, the curators are really carefully thinking, “Ok, does it align with the house or not?” It’s not just, “Oh yeah, we can put a ventilator here.” It would have to be, like, a specific Dyson ventilator, or something that really continues the house and the decisions that were made. I’m really curious about these decisions.

Rail: Especially with the Glass House, with this idea of it as this open space, this seamless boundary between nature and living environment—I imagine to have those kind of interior restrictions is surprising.

Robert: Since the house has had previous performances there, the curators are wary of how things might be damaged through repetition, so that dictates a few things. I wanted to know what we can actually touch. What can we lean on? That dictates what you can do, movement-wise. There’s a kitchen-top that we’re allowed to touch because people have to activate it, open it, for it to be operational. So I thought it would be really interesting to do a series of movements around that area. I’m very interested in its ergonomics, the fact that the table is made at a very specific height, which then meets your body and therefore conducts or implies a certain series of movement. Similarly, I found out quite recently we can actually sit on the bed. I’m very interested in this kind of domesticity and how it produces specific movements.

Rail: Just as form leads to function, the environment structures your performance and your commentary on that space. Particularly in the kitchen and the bedroom, which are two very utilitarian rooms.

Robert: Exactly. So that becomes almost a tool, which is what you get when you go there, in a way. I’m very interested in this idea of performance as a guided tour. Previously, in Belgium, I did this thing where I borrowed some artworks and placed them with some works of mine. As performers, we were offering a kind of stylized guided visit. We were not talking, we were not presenting the works, but we were moving around the works and relating to the works. In a way, Imitation of Lives is an extension of that piece. We’re walking through the space and interacting with the furniture, but also proposing a reading of it, saying something with it—and not just, like, “We are objects.” No, we are actually imbuing them with personality. And then comes the poetry, then comes the intimacy that I was talking about in the fact that we will be close to people and they will have to move or be moved by us, you know, to see the piece or to see themselves.


Will Fenstermaker

Will Fenstermaker is associate editor of the ArtSeen section of the Brooklyn Rail and digital editor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He holds an MFA in Art Criticism & Writing from the School of Visual Arts.