Image to Body, and Back Again

“Alexandra Pirici: Co-natural,” 2018. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York.

Photo: Julieta Cervantes

New Museum
Alexandra Pirici | Co-natural
February 6 – April 15, 2018

“This is a body / Twelve feet away from you / Thirty years old / 160 pounds heavy / Six feet tall / Facial angle of seventy degrees,” said a dancer as he positioned himself just to my right. He seemed to be addressing me directly and introducing his fellow performer: the life-sized holograph of Farid Fairuz, a dancer based in Bucharest. These men—one bodily present, one made up of light beams—are two of the six performers in Co-Natural, a spoken-word and moving-image dance installation in the New Museum’s South Galleries, the first major U.S. exhibition for the Romanian choreographer and visual artist Alexandra Pirici.

The dancer’s statistical description seemed to illustrate a statement in the gallery’s artspeak-inflected yet intriguing wall text: “Exploring…abstractions of the living subject into quantifiable, monetizable data—through physical bodies, voice, and ghostly images—the work resituates them in new relations and entanglements.” The notion of monetizing data in relation to a hologram brought to mind technologically reproduced images of celebrities like Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey, which extended their stardom. But when a live dancer began describing himself as if he were rattling off market data, a gloomier side of quantifying bodies emerged, reminiscent of dating apps, casting calls, or darker still, slave markets. The boundaries between human and commodity, live presence and image, present and history, became more and more blurred as the daylong piece progressed.

In keeping with the renewed trend of dance-in-the-museum of recent years, Co-natural also blurred the notion of the “museum object.” Pirici takes this idea a cycle further, however, by replacing the live body with the image—the hologram. As both a mover participating in the choreography and a laser-made rendering that is part sculpture, part video art, the holographic image smudges, if not obliterates, lines between artistic disciplines.

On until April 15, the performance unfolds during museum hours and invites visitors to walk through, sit, or lean against the wall for a while. Navigating the exhibition is like undertaking an unguided moving meditation; it’s a personal exploration through a surreal, shifting environment. In the morning, the hologram dances a solo in an empty gallery. Afterward, the other dancers join—accumulating in number with each hour until five live bodies are present in the afternoon. Around 4pm, the dancers begin to disperse, leaving Miguel Angel Guzmán and the hologram for the final hour.

Classically trained in dance, Pirici expanded her work to experimental and site-specific practices in the styles of Tino Sehgal and Jérôme Bel over the last several years in Europe. She’s garnered attention in the European art world and only this past fall confronted New York audiences with her piece Threshold: a chain of performers in a human barrier—or portal—at the gate that separates the eastern and western Rail Yards on the Highline. Co-natural traces its roots back to other earlier projects—If You Don’t Want Us, We Want You and Leaking Territories, among others—in which performers stand on site and embody the poses of historical monuments, challenging their static authority.

“Alexandra Pirici: Co-natural,” 2018. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York.

Photo: Julieta Cervantes

In the southwest corner of Co-natural’s cavernous space, a glass pyramid houses the hologram. Another element—a glowing foot-high platform near the north wall—organizes the choreography by serving as a home base. It is at once a pedestal for live sculpture, a stage for performance, and a light table for examination. Juli Brandano knelt next to the light-stage, and draped herself, arms-over-head, across the surface. Two others followed suit, folding over the platform. Compared to the crouched, confined positions of the hologram, the five live dancers extended their limbs in luxurious arches—balletic port de bras—often assuming the reclining position of an odalisque portrait. In one compelling moment three performers struck the poses of the figures in Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe (1863), a painting depicting fully dressed men and nude women picnicking in a grassy forest. The hologram, rather than isolated from the group, completed the image by embodying the ethereal woman in Manet’s background. After getting into position, a performer proclaimed: “This image may contain: nature; people sitting, having lunch on the grass; naked female bodies; a poster meant to boost productivity for American female workers during World War II; a photograph of a Zapatista woman; a trace of possible solidarity across distance and divisions.” With these disparate but somehow connected descriptions of art historical and political iconography, the performers elucidate, exploit, and explore some of the many meanings embedded in the charged image they form, leaving plenty of room for the viewer’s own interpretations.

When I revisited the exhibition after a week, it was comforting to step back into a world with familiar characters. I walked in at a moment in which Paula Gherghe performed actions I had previously witnessed: she promenaded while singing the notes of “Un bel di vedremo,” an aria from from Puccini's Madame Butterfly. At the same time I had the Black Mirror-esque feeling that the performers were trapped in this world, in this gallery without windows or natural light, forced to repeat themselves, almost as if they themselves were on an automated loop with the hologram. This ambiguous sense of illusion and physicality, stasis and motion unsettles our conventional ways of seeing and gives Co-natural its haunting power.


Gillian Jakab

Gillian Jakab is the dance editor of the Brooklyn Rail.