‘The Work Is Never Done’ at MoMA: enacting and obscuring archivesby Benedict Nguyen
Beyond the title itself, there’s something about the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)’s exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done, running from mid-September 2018 to early February 2019, that brought up meta thoughts about what work I’m doing.
What could this writing, this work, do? I could write the usual thoughts and responses on the live performances themselves: the collection of dancers’ stark gazes and starker elbows cutting below a cavernous ceiling in David Gordon’s The Matter, the feeling of seeing a few people of color in this work and Simone Forti’s Dance Constructions. I caught these performances on October 20, and there’s much that could be said on all of it. But a week after the show, my mind still lingers in the live enactment of certain archives, and, inevitably, obfuscation of others.
On one level, Forti’s Dance Constructions made me think of casual clothes and unceremoniousness. The work felt performative in the abrupt non-transitions between sections and the occasional nods as the performers looked our way but kept looking past us. Gordon’s The Matter (2018) at first featured projections of the script directing/narrating the performers’ actions, but then morphed into two wide screens with four separate feeds playing at once, including excerpts of the 1971, 1972, 1979, and 2012 iterations of the piece.
Yet still, the audience’s attention remained fixed on the performers, moving through a version of material first created nearly fifty years ago. The juxtaposition of the archival footage and live performance hurtled the work and viewers between past and present moments. As I watched, I thought about what details might have shifted over time, what contributions by what people are lost to me.
Over the course of my time in NYC, my viewing of performances has become more deeply layered with my knowledge of the people dynamics imbedded in what I’m seeing—among the performers, between me and the performers, among the performers and other collaborators. As always, there are people I don’t know, dynamics I’m not privy to. But viewing this exhibition, or most things in a museum, inevitably takes the complexity and fleshiness of real people in exchange for fewer and simpler stories.
Of course, an exhibition isn’t a novel. Wall text is usually meant to give us a small and square bite of info to digest. It can’t fully depict the messy reality surrounding the monolithic figures whose names are printed biggest, or most frequently, in the telling of history. But for me, the complexity of these contexts—interpersonal and sociopolitical, as much time as they take to understand, as impossible as they are to know fully—are what give most things the kind of wrenching meaning worth caring about.
Organized in three sections—Workshop, Downtown, and Sanctuary—the exhibition traces the people connections (in Workshop), maps the geographic links (in Downtown), and organizes some of the aesthetic and conceptual themes (in Sanctuary) marking this period. The accompanying videos and visuals give a brief glimpse of what this looked like at the time. But why stare at these samples when the live breaths of performers were floating in from the next room?
Outside MoMA’s walls, the exhibition has surfaced countless conversations among artists who have worked with, performed with, and knew of these figures. These quick anecdotes shared before a show or in the middle of a rehearsal have, predictably, shed a more intriguing light than one could probably gather from an exhibit. I’ve heard snippets about what it was like working with certain folks, challenges learning past works, and musings on this particularly shiny fascination with this history in this moment.
Looking at the many live dancing humans and flat screens of dancing humans, I also thought about in what times and contexts #judsonsowhite is a useful hashtag. Alastair Macaulay’s review of the exhibition mentions the influence (read, appropriation) of dance forms in India on Merce Cunningham, hinting at more linkages that aren’t often talked about. Postmodern dance can sometimes feel like a “white thing” and this exhibition doesn’t do much to showcase otherwise. The influence of black arts and culture on the inquiries, aesthetics, and sounds of the times felt decidedly ill-addressed.
In mainstream written and visual documentation of dance, it’s easy to trace how people of color are erased from these sweeping narratives all the time—who gets recognized for their ideas, who gets acknowledged for themselves alone. So, it’s hard to believe that Judson was as white as the images and videos at MoMA could make one believe. Before those radical Judson artists “discovered” them, the embodiments of what are sometimes called “pedestrian” movements and “gestures” have long been embedded in the philosophies, practices, and rituals of Indian and Afrodiasporic cultures, among others. While it's impossible to locate a source for every movement we see, we can't consider Judson artists' innovations outside the context of these complex cultural lineages.
Out of context, the Steve Paxton quote of “The work is never done; sanctuary always needed,” could refer to so much. For now, I’m thinking about all the stories being told now—by people, live, usually complex, sometimes in performance. While nothing new, it’s funny that Judson Dance Theater, a collective that once prided itself in its avant-garde obscurity, has taken center stage at a major arts institution, threading together histories that have always been there and histories that are always beyond our knowing.
Benedict Nguyen is a writer, dancer, and arts advocate currently based in the South Bronx, NY. They're a member of the National Center for Choreography's year-long laboratory on dance writing.