Brendan Fernandes calls his sculptures installed in three galleries of the Noguchi Museum “Training Devices,” each titled Still Release and numbered I through VI. Fabricated by Jason Lewis, these sturdy wooden pieces consist of a rounded pyramidal base topped with a triangular seat connected to a wooden extension. This appendage varies for each piece, in one evoking the bifurcated handles of a plow, in another a single pole with a series of knobs attached to it, as if it were a Shaker coat rack. These pieces along with weekly performances by a trio of dancers make up Fernandes’ exhibition Contract and Release, which is nestled inside the larger show entitled Body-Space Devices, organized by Senior Curator Dakin Hart. Hart has gathered over thirty works by Noguchi that consider the relationship between body, space, and object—ranging from set pieces made for ballets by choreographers Martha Graham and George Balanchine to interlocking sculptures and prototypes for a playground. They join objects from Noguchi’s personal collection that belie the wide range of influences on his spare, attuned aesthetic from Japan, Burkina Faso, and Indonesia.
NEW YORK CITYThe Noguchi Museum
Sep 11, 2019 – Mar 8, 2020
Both Fernandes and Hart employ the word “device,” endowing the works with a purpose, one to enact or do something. Noguchi did not use this language, and while he created sculptures for specific contexts and considered their relationship to the viewer, the sterile nature of this phrasing struck me as incongruent with the artist’s organic forms. The wording reminded me of inane weight-loss gadgets and athletic routines that promise results with the purchase of a carefully designed object. A device imparts a relationship to discipline that acts as a stand-in for the tutelage of an instructor—whether it be a fitbit that incessantly tracks your steps or a weight whose heft promises to transform the body when picked up repeatedly. Visiting the museum to see a performance on a Winter Saturday, I wondered what kind of training these devices might seek to impart, and upon whom. Or if, instead, they might be a means of devising material—an inspiration or constraint from which to depart.
The performance begins as three dancers enter the space, spines erect as they nobly walk to their positions. With each step, the dancers spiral from side to side in a series of movements I immediately recognize as derived from the Graham dance technique. Victor Lozano drags one of Fernandes’ Training Devices behind him, its curved, walnut bottom gently sliding across the floor. Lozano situates his Training Device in the center of Area 12, a gallery anchored by a performance copy of Noguchi’s set for Martha Graham’s dance Appalachian Spring. Crafted in 1944, Noguchi’s seemingly simple design evokes the outline of a barn with an abstracted rendering of a rocking chair housed within it. Fernandes’ Still Release considers this set in particular, with the chair-like designs of the Training Devices created in reference to Noguchi’s rocking chair, with one notable difference. Noguchi’s piece firmly tacked the chair to a rectangular platform, rendering it a static and stable base for dancers to sit and dance upon. In contrast, Fernandes’ works are untethered, with their rounded bases mimicking the swaying potential of the rocking chair Noguchi rendered in his set design.
The inherent instability of Fernandes’ Training Devices complicates a traditional understanding of the relationship between a device and its user. Lozano perches on the Training Device and the chair begins to softly rock back and forth while he spirals his body in a twist. As Lozano sought to quell the movement of the Training Device, he exerted additional control over his body, demonstrating the device’s power as he changed his behavior in response to new feedback generated by it. Simultaneously, though, Lozano has power over the device, moving it to different positions in the gallery space and determining when, how, and in what context it is utilized. While the impact of the Training Device quickly revealed itself, its broader meaning remained unclear.
The tension between agency and manipulation reminded me of my own Graham training from ages 14-18, an experience that in many ways both defined and exemplified the angst of my adolescence. In weekly classes I worked tirelessly on contractions, a hallmark of the Graham technique characterized by a tilt of the pelvis upwards as the back arches over it. I found I moved from the deepest space inside of me when I was compelled by intense emotion—often that of frustration, anger, or grief—all of which I easily accessed in my teen years. Much of the angst came from my relationship with my body as I pleaded with it to contract and release, and as it seemed to rebel with pain and constriction in my hips. As hard as I worked, how much agency did I have to manipulate and train my body? How much of my body was ultimately outside of my control?
Fernandes illuminates this often masked tension by queering the form, examining it in new ways to prompt reconsideration. As part of an ongoing series he reflects on his personal history with dance, intentionally destabilizing forms to reveal their power structures. Fernandes began his dance training in ballet and was introduced to the Graham technique in his BFA program at York University in Canada. In contrast to ballet, he described his initial reception of the Graham form as “freeing,” although its challenging movements and even masochistic nature ultimately led to significant injury, ending his dance career. Contract and Release is the second work in his autobiographical series, preceded by The Master and Form, seen at The Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts in Chicago in 2018 (a version of which was then presented at the Whitney Biennial in 2019). In The Master and Form Fernandes explored classical ballet, employing what he termed “sculptural devices” to reveal the pain and oppression of the technique traditionally obscured in illusions of lightness and rigid hierarchical systems. Throughout the show dancers from the Joffrey Academy of Dance Ballet used his devices to extend iconic poses, wielding ropes to support an arabesque for several minutes, for example.
Whereas The Master and Form unveils pain and hierarchy, Contract and Release peels back an overlay of emotion and drama to expose Graham’s obsession with the body. Graham never sought to mask the struggle of the dancer, and instead worked to harness it in service of the performance. As a Graham student I was taught to ground myself and to pour my weight into the floor as a place from which to yearn or launch. In Contract and Release, Fernandes challenges this foundation, using the Training Devices to highlight the dancers’ physical exertion separate from the emotion tied up in the technique. The dancers’ blank expressions and repetition of movements cast into relief the exaggerated narrative impulse in much of Graham’s work.
After a brisk clap from a bystanding museum worker the dancers leave the Training Devices and move into a nearby gallery filled with several of Noguchi’s interlocking sculptures from 1945–47. These six bronze pieces consist of flat shapes fit together in three-dimensional forms. Nearby, on a gallery wall covered in pegboard, hang carved, wooden pieces that match the shapes of the Noguchi sculptures, though not always to the same size and scale. The dancers begin to construct and dismantle these models in a section Fernandes calls “assembly time.” As the dancers fit together pieces they mimic the actions of the artist, recalling the glorification of creation and the supposed genius of the maker. I later learned that museum employees use these maquettes to practice the assembly process, one might even say choreography, before doing so with the large-scale, metal sculptures.
In this section it seems the fetishization of the sculptures had gone too far, even though it is initially satisfying to see the dancers touch pieces that are normally sacrosanct. The novelty of this choreography begins to wear off quickly, and I start to roll my eyes in response to the dancer’s tenderness as they rock pieces back and forth like babies or roll on the floor with them like lovers. Fernandes has explicitly described his work in relationship to the fetish, writing on his website that he “explores the ways in which physically demanding techniques such as Graham’s fetishize the body and in turn are fetishized themselves.” Notably, materials published by the Noguchi Museum do not mention the word “fetish” at all, nor do they include any reference to Fernandes’s previous works that have reflected on BDSM—a particular surprise given that restraint, discipline, and the balance of power is central to this exhibition. This playful section departed significantly from the control imposed by the Training Devices; given the stoic, even intense, nature of the previous section, I could not take it seriously. The choreography felt too precious, and the focus on building shapes out of pieces rather than deriving meaning from physical response seemed at odds with the previous investigations.
That being said, there is an element of Graham technique, and the mythos of Graham herself, that prompts similar eye-rolling in me—and which Fernandes deftly examined as Contract and Release continued.
After another crisp clap from a museum worker the three dancers return to the previous galleries, picking up their movement phrases in conversation with the Training Devices. Tiffany Mangulabnan begins a challenging solo with material drawn from Graham’s 1930 piece Lamentation, carefully balancing on her coccyx on the base of a Training Device in a contraction. As she yearns toward the sky in a desire for ecstatic release, the wooden base, inevitably, begins to rock ever so slightly—seeming to betray her supposedly serious, though deadpan, pleas. Fernandes undercuts the intense emotion of Graham by focusing anew on the movement and the physical strength it requires.
There are parts of Graham’s technique, and indeed her own performance, that can often seem over-the-top. After reading Susan Sontag’s essay “Notes on Camp” in college I remember working with a classmate to define a list of artists or pieces that exemplified camp, and was astonished when he turned to me and said, “Well, of course Martha Graham.” For so much of my upbringing Graham had been the utmost serious artist, a strong woman role model whose works conquered timeless issues of strife, passion, and pain. And yet as I looked back with more distance from her work and my training in it I began to find some of it almost… funny. Her overwrought, self-seriousness as she sought to illustrate herself as a kind of icon, wrapped in the mythos of the characters she embodied—Clytemnestra, Medea, Joan of Arc, and Emily Dickinson among others—began to seem like the epitome of what Sontag described as camp, “its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” Graham has become a kind of queer icon, a beloved inspiration for artists Richard Move and Dito Van Reigersberg (also known as Martha Graham Cracker) for her audacity, raw emotion, and unwavering commitment to drama.
With a final clap the dancers converge on Noguchi’s 1975 piece Play Sculpture, a red, plastic looping curve elevated above the ground. The dancers lay their bodies across the languorous shape of the work designed as a prototype for a piece of playground equipment for children. The object seems to spark joy, encouraging the dancers to climb around its hefty bulk and investigate its crests and falls. While at times the dancers balance atop the sculpture, recalling some of the more poised moments of previous sections, their work in relationship to this sculpture is playful, sensual, and even lazy. With this work’s emphasis on pleasure and relaxation it did not initially seem like a “training device,” even though it elicited specific responses. Watching this section I wondered if training does not always have to be disciplinary. Do we need training to play? Or at least training in setting aside time and space to do so unencumbered?
Just as Fernandes’s work reveals the understructure of disciplines, it also exposes the systems of power and dynamics at play within the museum. Contract and Release offers a subtle institutional critique that questions the role of the dancer—or perhaps more broadly the body itself—in the museum. In this way, Fernandes’s pieces trains the Noguchi museum community at large, pushing them to consider their collection in new ways, and to more broadly reflect on the body and its exertions within the space. Curator Dakin Hart wrote in his accompanying essay that Noguchi’s work seeks to “exercise our perceptual awareness.” Fernandes’ work does this well, training us to see beyond what is initially visible.