BRINDA KUMAR and ANDREA MILLER with Gillian Jakab
World Premiere | May 18 – 20, 22 – 24
Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now)
The Met Breuer | March 21 – July 22
Three floors of the Met Breuer were filled with artful human figures—some like life and others real life. Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now) assembled sculptures—both historical masterpieces and global contemporary objects—to explore the widely diverse approaches to representing the living, human form. As part of her MetLiveArts residency, choreographer Andrea Miller and her company Gallim took up residence during the exhibition. The result was a new work, (C)arbon, that inhabited the fifth floor galleries of the museum for the better part of May. The piece stands out among dance-in-the-museum installations, as it’s neither secondary programming to the exhibition nor an isolated experience from it. (C)arbon Stood on its own two feet, but was also an embodied reaction to the two- and three-dimensional works of Like Life, which themselves were reactions to the bodies of their subjects. On the third and fourth floors, the viewer engaged with works by Edgar Degas, Louise Bourgeois, Meret Oppenheim, Yinka Shonibare MBE, Donatello, Jeff Koons, and over a hundred others, their frozen stances animated only in the viewer’s solitary imagination and dialogue with the artist. On the fifth floor, the viewer was relieved of the burden of being the only living body and the choreography added a chapter on motion to the unfolding story of the human form in art and life across centuries and cultures.
Gillian Jakab sat down at the Breuer with Met Assistant Curator Brinda Kumar and Choreographer Andrea Miller to discuss the intersections of the exhibition and performance.
Gillian Jakab (Rail): Together Life Life and (C)arbon are another milepost in a long, intertwining path between dance and visual art that is on the rise. I first want to ask broadly about cross-influences between the exhibition and the performance. I know you spent a lot of time in the exhibition, Andrea, and Brinda, you visited Andrea’s studio in Brooklyn during the process.
Would you each comment on the influence the other’s work had on your choreographic and your curatorial choices?
Brinda Kumar: Well, the exhibition was kind of in formation for two and a half years—a lot longer than you [Miller] had a chance to work on your piece. So the exhibition in some ways preceded the dance and performance. [The exhibition] itself was a collaboration between two departments at the Met. So, for us, that was already challenging our own way of working and we needed to be open to new kinds of approaches to the idea of sculpture—particularly figurative sculpture. And then from there, with our focus on figuration in sculpture, we kind of honed in on that, of course, thinking about the body in space, the body as a single form, as a form that’s emulating with a sense of sculpture that is the petrification of form—you’ll notice this notion of mortality that runs through the exhibition. This stasis of sculpture and what that means culturally was something that we started thinking about a lot. I think from the very outset the nature of the project was being open-ended. The exhibition itself is propositional; it asks a lot of questions, and it invites engagement and responses. So when we heard that Andrea was going to be the MetLiveArts Artist in Residence and responding to the museum and what the museum does, to our mind it very much felt like that: great, this is taking the idea of what directions—you know because there are many roads not traveled even in just in terms of the exhibition itself—but just the idea of where else these ideas can find resonance was something very compelling to us, and hopefully compelling to Andrea as well in her process.
Andrea Miller: And even actually the fact that it was “like life”: we are actually like life, as a living human form in the space, so in many ways our challenge is the abstraction. We have a very similar challenge, but I feel like on the other side of it, since we are so like life, [figuration] doesn’t necessarily make sense in terms of what I like to discover about the body being in space, it’s more how the abstraction can lead us to … a space for the individual who is coming to see, the viewer, to fill in the meaning for themselves or to travel a journey with us. But, we are also really clear that we are living human beings who have relatively the same structure, and relatively the same life experience (not all of course) as the people who are in the space with us. So, I was able to kind of take our approach and our work and the way we were thinking and spend time in the exhibition and get completely new ideas and new inspiration.
Rail: Were there any specific works that informed your choreography? I think yesterday in the open rehearsal you mentioned looking at how some are placed on the floor and others on pedestals, as something that inspired you?
Miller: Yeah, I was really affected by that: choices about the experience of the sculpture itself and the experience of the viewer. And the body’s relationship to the different kinds of places, whether it was decapitated, or on a pedestal, or like me as a viewer sharing the floor. And even the tape on the floors affected me a lot. [It was] saying, “this is where the art starts”—this is intention. So everything about the exhibition was very exciting and I think I tried to take in not just the works themselves but also the way that the curators wanted to introduce these questions and things to us.
Kumar: It’s interesting that you mentioned the encounter with these other bodies: live bodies encountering these sculptures. This was something we were noticing at the exhibition itself. And right at the beginning when you have three works on pedestals and immediately next to them you have the Aluminum Girl—she’s actually lower than you, so it’s kind of startling but she’s clearly referencing the historic.
But the other thing that struck a lot of our visitors has been that we’ve included a number of works from the Met’s own collections, and many, many loans, but many iconic works from the Met’s own collections. For people who are familiar with those works in The Met, [they can] see them here and see them in a completely different way. The one that comes to mind immediately is Degas’s Petite Danseuse. I mean not only did she get a new tutu for this exhibition, we had the chance to make the newest one, which is perhaps the most accurate to what it was historically. The other thing is there’s something different about her; she’s never been displayed so low. She’s usually much higher. So you see your encounter with her is so mediated by the level at which you see her and you confront her and she confronts you. So that’s been very fun, and we’re like, “this feels fresh.” You see her in a new way, suddenly, because she’s no longer up there. And then of course seeing the ones directly on the floor, that was something that we were like: no, these need to be seen on the floor; they have a completely different affect if you put them on a pedestal and separate them out.
Miller: We’ve actually almost responded directly to that. One room has the dancers on a platform; one room has the tape delineation with the dancers on the floor; and another room has a ramp that they ascend.
Rail: Wow, that’s a fascinating way to play with the same idea of levels.
And so Degas's’ Petite Danseuse kind of welcomes you to the third floor, as well as Yinka Shonibare MBE’s response to it: Girl Ballerina. I was thinking about the tradition of visual artists turning their gazes to “the dancer” as a figure or archetype representing the human form throughout art history. And then likewise, choreographers have been inspired by statuary—I think of Jerome Robbins’s Antique Epigraphs where the dancers portray Greek sculptures that come to life. Did these kinds of precedents of the visual artist looking at the dancer, and choreographers looking at sculpture, inform either of your work at all?
Kumar: I’ll let you [Andrea] respond to dancers responding to artists, but the choice of the Petite Danseuse was manifold. It’s perhaps one of the few bronzes that read as bronze in the exhibition. But the reason we included it is because the original was, of course, made out of wax and it was the only sculpture that Degas ever exhibited of dancers, even though he made several sculptures of dancers. And he was really radical in his figures of dancers where he would use as the internal armature wires and paintbrushes and splice them together and then put wax on top. His choice of wax was surprising and controversial. Throughout the exhibition one of the things that we’re exploring is the sense of the fleshiness of the body, and the ways in which artists have used materials that degrade much like our bodies do—whether it’s clay, whether it’s wax, they have this malleability to them. And his choice to use that was originally reviled, because it was seen to be lowbrow like this wax museum, you know these effigies. It’s not high art. But yet, in time, she has become this icon of western sculpture and much beloved not least because of her transformation into bronze in these posthumous editions. So the bronze version over here, and all the many other versions that exist in several museums throughout the world, were made posthumously in the 1920s even though he made the piece in the 1860s. And that has kind of contributed to the way in which she’s become this kind of icon.
We have actually two responses to La Petite Danseuse; not just Shonibare’s response, but also Damien Hirst has this little response to La Petite Danseuse where he’s imagined her as pregnant, and cross-sectioned, and flayed—yeah, so it’s kind of confronting from that point of view: he sees her as this container in a certain sense. Shonibare’s response is interesting for a number of reasons as well, because he’s a British-Nigerian artist working in London. He’s spoken about this often where he was being told: “Oh, why don’t you make more African art?” And he’s like: “Well I have a hyphenated identity; I live in a multicultural world.” So his choice of the fabric with which he clothes Girl Ballerina, and in fact many of his sculptures, is a material that has this complicated history based on Indonesian wax print textiles by batiks, industrially produced in the Netherlands, and sent for trade to Indonesia during the colonial period. The Indonesians rejected it saying, “Thank you, but no thank you,” and instead they found a market for these kind of textiles in West Africa and now they are associated with West Africa. So it’s this kind of triangulated relationship to this fabric with which he’s then clothing [the figure]. He’s taking the stance of the dancer, but transforming her in this immediately recognizable way; she’s suddenly—you know where the bronze or even the wax had this kind of muted affect—she’s suddenly exploding with colors. And finally, of course, the kind of brown skin which is neither black nor white is also speaking to this ambiguity and decision to not fix a kind of racial identity to the figure, as well. So in some ways, it becomes this new icon in a certain sense and then it has these cycles of rebirth and remixing. Which I kind of love in Shonibare’s practice, and just generally.
Miller: For me, I mean sculpture has a huge influence—visual art has a huge influence in my work. More than dance, actually, visual art has been a place of, almost like, I don’t know: church [laughs]—I would go to re-identify and re-awaken.… I think choreography has a very short life. There are some [exceptions] especially in ballet, but in modern dance—outside of the pioneers of modern dance—most dance is appreciated the day that it’s made and it becomes sort of irrelevant, which I love. But it’s hard to follow a purpose as an artist when you don’t have as much access to [previous] work the way that you do to visual arts and visual artists. So, yeah it’s become a big part of my work.
Rail: That kind of circles back to theme of mortality and immortality: not just with regard to the human body in the exhibition and the performance, but also to the art forms. I had gone through Life Life backwards, and the correct way. So in one direction, you end with the automated, speaking work: The Son of the Man Who Ate the Scroll and that’s kind of the closest to the moving body: what the living dancer is. In the intended direction, you end with the morgue-like room with the coffins and reclining figures, I think the section is called “Between Life and Art.” So in some ways, the arts have been a way for humankind to cheat death, so to speak, with works living on long beyond their creators and subjects. This is perhaps least true, however, for dance—a form that embraces ephemerality. You both alluded to these themes of mortality and immortality—could you say more?
Kumar: Yeah, actually what you [Miller] mentioned a little bit earlier: edging towards abstraction, both the sense of the ephemerality of the body—I like the way you’re kind of alluding to the experience of the dance in that moment and then it [takes on] different qualities—it’s not quite the same thing. And I was thinking about this in a different sense, for even the nature of an exhibition, a temporary exhibition, too, where it kind of provokes certain ideas and, like I said, this exhibition is very much intended to ask questions, introduce new stories, reconnect one with kinds of visceral responses that are less often seen when one is walking through a museum gallery. [It] certainly comes from a long history of thinking about visual arts in a particular way that is very intellectualizing—bringing both emotions and intellect together and activating both those aspects, much in the way I think historic, ritual material that has been used in liturgical contexts or something [makes] you want to have this kind of response to, I don’t know, a figure of a saint or Christ, whatever the context may be. But the sense of an exhibition itself being something time-bound—not as short as a performance piece—but in its own sense it’s a kind of time-bound endeavor. And then these objects will kind of go back to where they came from. And hopefully the traces of the stories and some of the ideas introduced will linger, but in a more abstract plane. So that was one thought that occurred to me.
And the other sense of the abstraction of the body: in some ways you have that sense of artists testing the limits and pushing—I love the Bourgeois work, which is like almost bursting at the seams, the flesh is kind of coming out and dissolving into pure flesh. You know, there’s this kind of sense that you can still recognize, but it moves in and out of recognition like the Fontanas as well. And that flexibility… and recognition… wanting to see a reflection of ourselves in other things and yet that can sometimes be tenuous.
Rail: Wow, definitely, that sense of tenuous recognition is interesting. And in your rehearsal the other day, Andrea, your collaborator, the filmmaker Ben Stamper, was talking about the projections that accompany the choreography, and how with them he tried to see how far you can abstract the body while having it still be recognizable as a fellow human. What we see is large-scale, zoomed-in images that render the body as a landscape. Do you think dance—whose medium is the human body, as you said—can be abstract?
And just to go back to the history of art forms, dance and visual art have had a long history together, from Diaghilev to Merce Cunningham, to… me [laughs]. And, I mean, beyond. There are very few, actually, major choreographers who haven’t influenced or been influenced by [visual art], [another example is] Martha Graham. There’s a long, shared history and so it’s also kind of interesting because I’ve heard many people recently say, “Oh, this is like this new thing that museums are turning to dance.” And honestly, it’s really not that new.
Rail: Right, more of just a renewed interest in it.
Miller: Exactly. It’s so not new. But, I think, dance in some ways could be like this stepchild within the arts. Even including the spectrum of performing arts, theater, etc. No one’s ever really known where to place her, which has been good for her in many ways and in other ways it has been very problematic. So, to me, it’s exciting that some people think it’s new; you could get it trending or something. Because I think it’s important also to update, and resurface, and have space for new ideas to come. And I think that is certainly what’s happening with my experience being here. It does feel like a revolution within my own personal trajectory as an artist.
Rail: And it was so enthralling to see you work through the movements with your dancers in the space yesterday during the open rehearsal. You mentioned drawing from Albert Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus the idea that when you start thinking about life and death, it gets to this kind of existential place where you have a view of the absurdity of it all. Could you tell me a little bit more about that, and how these ideas figure into the part of the dance you were discussing?
Miller: Yeah, I think that also relates to your previous question about abstraction and the body. I think that if you’re performing in front of somebody, and you’re like wearing glitter, there are a lot of questions as to why you’re there. And I don’t mean it as like performance artist glitter, but that isn’t like a show. But you’re a human body in front of people. There’s no distance [the way there is] with music you listen to or visual art you look at; with dance, embodiment has no distance. It’s extremely confrontational. And so I think there are some artists who lean into that kind of confrontation, which I think is awesome. I am an artist who plays with it, but in general I’m very interested in and curious about the opportunity for abstraction. And so, the [dancing] body has this ability, unlike in theater where—well unless it’s experimental theater—you’ve said: okay, you’re the mom; and you’re the dad; and you’re the kid, and never at any point in the show are they like: okay, now the kid is the dad; and now the dad is the mom. But in dance, you can do that all the time, with your identities and your roles. There’s something that sort of builds into not having to have a linear [narrative]. But not being as abstract as music, where there’s just really no embodiment necessary. So it’s this play between the two poles and I really enjoy that.
Rail: And the freedom from logical roles and dramatic progression sort of gets at the idea of “the absurd” that you were talking about.
Miller: Oh yeah, the absurd [laughs]. I’m kind of obsessed with that. And the relationship is that I think that it’s absurd that I’m dancing in front of you. I think it’s kind of awkward, and crazy. Our life choices—there’s just absurdity almost at every step of the way. And so I think when you think about our existence and our ability to take our own lives—which is not really in the hands of many other animals; only scorpions and maybe one other creature can kill themselves—it changes who we are as humans. And it changes our relationship to our body; and it changes our relationship to meaning. This is a theme that is just kind of in all my work. And so I really loved all of the mortality questions that were available to look into with Like Life.
Rail: I was walking through the exhibition after you brought up Camus yesterday, and while I know that Surrealism is a distinct historical movement from French Existentialism, when I saw Meret Oppenheim’s Evening Dress with Bra Strap Necklace, I was struck with this same idea of ridiculousness. I was wondering, Brinda, how the idea of the absurd might factor into artists representing, in a realistic way, the human form?
Kumar: It’s really good that you picked up on that, because when [Andrea] was just describing [her] relationship to that, it occurred to me that one of the underlying themes is this question of cognition and recognition, in that sense. And what are the kinds of holes that attack our relationship to the understanding of meaning, narratives, and the fixity of all of that? And then upending those in very deliberate ways as a strategy, as a self-conscious strategy to challenge the viewer: the one that experiences this. And the Surrealists clearly were interested in doing that. So whether it’s even that little Magritte that’s there on the first floor where we’ve paired it with The Tinted Venus, where it’s just this way of subverting and being almost irreverent to a certain received understanding. And then, similarly, going on to the trajectory through the ’30s of the Surrealists and Oppenheim, a reason we put the Oppenheim piece over there was because there’s a very famous 1938 Surrealist exhibition where all the great Surrealist—mostly male—artists dressed up these female mannequins as these proxy bodies. So in some ways already playing with the idea of an artificial being, as being a substitute, a stand-in for the real. And then challenging the matter of the real quite fundamentally by adding these incongruous elements to again take that a step further, disorienting that approach.
None of the 1938 mannequins existed, but we have Oppenheim returning to this idea, but as a female artist, who takes the female body. And what I love about that is it’s not eroticized; it’s actually challenged and made almost reptilian, like in the scaly-ness and there’s the glitter on the body, in fact, as well, which is really fun. Originally she had like a paper skirt and then it was changed into the dress that she was given, a Fortuny dress, which was then chopped up and changed further. So this kind of physical manipulation and transformation and the introduction of a whole host of disparate materials to kind of, as I said, disorient, in a certain sense, challenge what one is looking at, was very key to the Surrealists approach in that moment. And then there are the 1930s and the 1960s, you have both those periods presented in the exhibition and that was something we were definitely thinking about.
Rail: That’s a really rich connection between these historical artistic periods, and between the themes that come up in Like Life and (C)arbon. I wanted to ask you, Andrea, about the name “carbon” and it’s relation to the dance.
Miller: I think when we thought of the body as our point of research, a lot of questions came up about what is essentially the body? You know, is it human? Is it light? Is it an animal? And I think that one of the things that I don’t like forgetting is that we’re part of a larger spectrum. While our bodies are human, we’re also animal; we’re also stardust; we were made from the same things as the plants around us. So I find it problematic that humans and their bodies are put into a different category in life than animal life or other life. And so I think we wanted to think about it from a more elemental place, a primordial place. Carbon is I think the third most present element on earth, and I think it’s like thirteenth in the entire universe—well they think; you can’t really know. So it’s one of the main parts of our existence and it’s also in our hands right now in a moment in which we are facing unprecedented environmental degradation. And so I’m not really into thinking of it as a carbon imprint or anything; that’s not really the focus, but I think that just having “life” as where we start to gain a deeper understanding of the body… to have people not be seen as bodies, but as unique expressions of life.
Rail: That’s very interesting. And one way the tension of the personalized individual and the body is expressed in the exhibition is through the contrast when you first walk in and see the pieces from the Met, the classical Greek sculptures, and then you’re confronted with the Aluminum Girl. There’s a juxtaposition between the idealism and realism of the forms. And then looking at the projection on the wall in (C)arbon, the human figure is abstracted into that landscape form, but you could see hairs, and veins, and nipples, and skin creases and you get a feeling of a very real, intimate body. Some of the Like Life wall text discussed an intentional play between the realist and the idealist forms. Is that something you two were thinking about?
Kumar: In some ways there’s a certain kind of abstraction to an idealization of the body, which is removed from the real as well. The use of the monochrome, the use of the idealization serves to—you know it becomes a physical manifestation of an abstract idea. So there is already that when one is confronted by the extreme reality of realism of bodies, whether it is Bharti Kher’s Mother where you have all her sagging flesh, all of that registered, through the material. It’s something that is inescapable. Particularly by placing them in close proximity, the extreme realism of that becomes apparent, as well. So that was something we wanted [to use] to activate your sense of visually responding to it. The other thing that you [Andrea] were talking about was how dance engages with all of that—it is multi-sensorial in that sense because there’s movement, there’s the body, but then there’s recognition of it and it shifts from instance to instance. It’s an entity that doesn’t necessarily give you a moment to take it in the way you can a sculpture in the round, because it’s something that is time-limited.
The other thing that occurred to me when you were talking about carbon—isn’t it, what’s that kind of degradation thing called, when elements degrade?
Miller: Oh, they do carbon testing to determine the age of something.
Rail: Half-life! [Laughs] Takes me back to chemistry class.
Kumar: Yes, exactly, I was thinking back to half-lives and those kinds of aspects, too, which go back to the ephemeral. And also, you know, of course, the body that changes with age and time. And at what point is it considered ideal? At what point is it less so? We don’t have many babies [in the exhibition], that’s true, but we do have some elderly figures.
Miller: That’s one of the things I face as a problem with the work that I have. I try to think of how I could get different ages, but you know I have a company of six dancers who are all sort of in their twenties…
Rail: Strong and able to do athletic movement [laughs].
Miller: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. And it’s not that that’s not possible, but we made this piece in two or three months, so it’s a very tight creation process, but it was something that I confronted as being a big problem. And that I think is a limitation. But this is also one of those things that you realize, you know with sculpture you can, like you [Brinda] were saying, spend your time with it… But with dance, I just love in some ways having to face these limitations… the known and unknown elements in any work. Part of the reason I invited Ben, was because I feel that there are limitations in my work as a choreographer and I want to surpass those limitations, and it takes the collaboration and the conversation with another’s sort of approach. And then in some ways—I don’t know if I’d say there are any limitations to the exhibition because I think it’s just flawless—but I do think it’s really nice that there’s an opportunity for bodies to be represented in really different ways and add [the living body].
Kumar: I agree with you. Maybe this is a way to come full circle to the point at which we started about it being open-ended and the completion of an experience, whether it is through collaborations with people working across mediums … [or] ultimately engaging with the viewer who comes in and is going to be in that space and in some ways completing [her] own personal experience of a piece, of a work, of an exhibition.
Gillian Jakab is the dance editor of the Brooklyn Rail.