Bewitching Stagecraft and Competing Objects
Lucifer Landing II
Abrons Art Center
May 2 – 4, 2019
When Jonathan González first emerges from the stage curtains, dragging an ominous, glowing spotlight, only his boots are illuminated. We do not immediately see González’s body, beyond his feet, but we can make out his figure periodically reaching into the light, expanding his stance, and genuflecting towards the spotlight in what looks like prayer. In this dynamic sequel performance to the installation Lucifer Landing I at MoMA PS1 a few weeks prior, the artist’s solo continues to explore alternative modes of living, post-colonialism, and survival. The source material for Lucifer Landing II draws from the ideas of Claudia Rankine, Buckminster Fuller, and possibly Ralph Ellison. González builds on their lessons of spectatorship and power in order to subvert basic assumptions of observing a performance; the work resists the notion that González is there to dance while his audience rests content. The post-apocalyptic island González creates on the stage with an oar and other washed-up gadgets feels like a reprieve from the accompanying vanity, excess, bigotry, and aggression blasted through audio messages of a radio-like recording. At other times, the island feels desolate and a marooned González, lying down in dim light, mourns an annihilated humanity he left behind before arriving at this isolated shore. But the most compelling aspects of the performance are moments when stage props and set design appear to hauntingly come to life and even compete for center-stage with González.
González races at a foot-on-the-pedal rate through meta-theatrical exercises, including polluting the entire theater with special-effect smog; lighting up objects while he remains reposed in the shadows; and dancing to an automated drum. These moments never feel hokey or obscure but rather imbue the tools of stagecraft with life. Amidst a spoken-word cacophony of everyday conversation, artist statements, and a sudden, threatened yelp to “Get down!”, one might catch lines of González’s snappy commentary: “Oh! So they want to see me dance...” Moving sometimes out of the audience’s line of vision, González wakes up the props around him—an oar, a broken TV—and we watch him turn stage lights on their side, now glowing as if they were otherworldly moons. The heightened focus on inanimate theatrics earns Lucifer Landing II the title of “post-anthropocentric,” which departs from human conventions of performance and spectatorship and instead allows objects to shine onstage. In service of this gesture, Lucifer Landing II deploys a number of techniques to conceal González and toy with the audience’s vision. The effect made this critic feel oddly like a stage prop.
Finally, in a long-awaited moment, González is completely visible in front of the audience, skirting across the stage with quick footwork and sharp, percussive movements; the work is lifted into a fuller, perhaps spiritual register. Buck, wing, hip-hop, twerk—so many iconic moves of Black dance are available in his movement vocabulary. In a crucial twist, just when González gives his audience what he has teased at this entire time, full visibility, the performance makes a quick turn: lights facing the audience begin to brighten, and brighten to a point where it’s impossible not to squint. The act of watching González dance actually becomes difficult. While González gives the audience what they have wanted—and it only takes a few seconds of González’s dancing to get us to cheer—he establishes that observing can reduce what is observed to a prop, a dead, passive thing and that Lucifer Landing II will not afford that reductive power to its audience. What will happen instead is that the performance will work its magic on you.
The imaginary division between performer and viewer, through which González ambitiously cuts, relates to his race-centered multi-disciplinary work. In a related text the artist writes:
To get back to my point on the spectator-performer interrogation, the public exhibition that closed my residency came, and I was troubled with how to represent this time of creative enclosure and precarity into an isolated object in the main gallery. It didn’t make sense to leave the site. We, the architecture and I, had wrestled to encounter those grounds of intimacy. Similarly, I recognized how I was wrestling with those familiar constrictions of blackness, and my allegiances to black-being, in the entanglements of notions of abstraction.1
In Lucifer Landing I and II, Gonzalez’s political arguments on race also dovetail with ideas of colonizing an island, improving versus damaging existing landscapes, and creating structures for sustainable living when existing housing policies have fallen short for POC, especially in urban areas.
This is more clearly communicated in Lucifer Landing I, which featured geodesic domes in exploration of alternative architecture and the environment more prominently than the sequel piece. Lucifer Landing II is more concerned with finding a way to survive and carrying-on in a space that is empty but for bleak memories and a sense of loss. By fabricating so many methods to blind his audience, González, in a way, sets the terms for his performance: when he will be seen and when he will not. I cannot help but admire how effective he is at accomplishing this. The work’s activist ambitions–to critique environmental destruction and inhumane violence—are indeed large, so it is good that Lucifer Landing is a serialized performance with hopefully more parts to come. But in what new ways can González hex his audience with stagecraft? How many theatrical conventions and clichés can he crack when he has broken so many rules of the stage already?
Break a leg, Jonathan.
- Marronage: Elaborations on Performance, the Stage, and Staying Alive, by Jonathan González, CQ Vol. 44 No. 2, Summer/Fall 2019, p. 7