Exhibition in Motion: Objects Performed took place at the Bellevue Arts Museum in Bellevue, Washington on the evening of May 28, 2011, in conjunction with the Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG) conference. Objects Performed was a marked shift in the format of SNAG's annual exhibition in motion, from a runway fashion show to an extemporaneous dance performance. The 40 minute performance was curated by Venetia Dale and Tia Kramer, choreographed by Amelia Reeber and featured the work of 25 artists and ten professional dancers.
Inherent in both dance and performance art is a thematic relationship with the body, a theme also shared by jewelry. Despite this relationship, performance has been conspicuously under-exploited and under-explored as a strategy for contemporary jewelry. (There are, of course, notable exceptions: the work of Yuka Oyama comes readily to mind.) The importance of Objects Performed lies in its institutional endorsement by SNAG and its location at the Bellevue Arts Museum, a museum with a national reputation for excellence in art, craft and design. This endorsement does not in itself make the work a success, but it signifies that performance has come into the view of mainstream contemporary jewelry. Objects Performed stands as a landmark of performance’s arrival upon a national jewelry stage.
While the use of performance was a milestone for the field, Objects Performed was marred by serious logistical failures. The foyer of the Bellevue Arts Museum was chosen as the venue for the performance, which by the start of the performance was clearly folly. Crammed with over 450 audience members, the space was simply not adequate for the number of attendees, most of whom were forced to stand at floor level, resulting in a largely disenfranchised and uninterested audience who did not have line-of-sight to the performance. The ability to physically view a performance must be seen in any context as nothing less than crucial, although admittedly, this failure did not affect the artistic merit of the performance.
The number of people and entities that came together to realize the work made Objects Performed necessarily experimental. In the performance, the choreographic vision of Amelia Reeber could be felt most strongly, especially in the decisions to make the performance improvisational and to only allow the dancers to see the objects for the first time at the performance itself. From the outset – with the cartoonish boinging sound of springs and suspenseful horror strings – the musical soundscape played a central role in governing the movement of the performers. The tempo, tone, timbre and emotive quality of the sound became an under-billed yet crucial third pillar of the work along with the dancers and objects. The soundscape had clear stylistic divisions, marked by silence for several moments. Each time the music stopped and returned it announced a new act and direction in the work.
The performance could be characterized by its repeating themes. First among these were the crisply executed gestures by a focal dancer that slowly built through the ensemble until as many as eight dancers echoed the original movement. Often, there were two or three distinct groups interacting with separate objects creating a call and response within and among the groups. Some of the most successful moments of the performance took place as two performers negotiated an object as if trying to figure out its proper mode of use. It was the natural history museum vignette of man making fire, inventing the wheel or tying stick to stone. It was primal, intuitive and powerful. The clues embedded in the objects themselves facilitated their performative use but the conclusions were reached only with attention and contemplation.
The action built slowly towards the audience from the back of the stage onto the floor and eventually right on top of the first row. Once the space was fully explored, multiple focal points developed, making for a disjunctive visual experience that was only heightened by the musical score.
Each dancer moved with a determined seriousness of purpose. The objects were used in a slow, methodical and contemplative manner. In contrast to the banal intuitive experimentation, comedic gestures punctuated the performance proving the creativity of the dancers through their improvised use of the objects. Most memorably, Rachel Timmons’s Growth One was adored before being abashedly defiled and Joe Casey Doyle’s Curling Collar was dropped from a second-story portal. The dancers returned to several objects multiple times including Chelsea Culp’s Reason Where it Comes From and Jessica Pizana’s Encased, while other objects including Auburn High School Collaborative’s Inclusion and Kristi Sword’s Chain Pen enjoyed long periods of use within the work. Still other objects were used only briefly or else ignored entirely, proving that certain objects are more conducive for performance than others.
The decidedly and unapologetically intuitive performance was a stark contrast to many of the tightly crafted objects used by the dancers. This created a palpable anxiety along with the discord of the musicscape. The most palpable source of tension, however, was the subservience of the objects to the dancers. While the music and objects gave structure to the performance, the dancers were undoubtedly the foci. Within the scheme of the performance the intentions of the object makers were all but erased, the objects becoming mere props. This was activated most spectacularly by the dancers' violation of the objects. Objects were thrown, twisted, torn, shaken, stretched and knotted. The dancers’ level of removal from the fabrication of the objects allowed them to explore the objects to a degree that jewelers would never dare go – of course, to the horror of some in the audience. But this was boundary-breaking; it was experimentation at its most appreciable. Only performers detached from the dogma of the art object could have pushed the limits of an object quite literally to breaking point. For the viewer, only the intention of the dancer and the emotive quality of the music remained visceral. The object became an abstract conduit. For an audience composed largely of makers and jewelry enthusiasts this was a difficult aspect of the performance to process. For autonomous jewelry objects – each with their own story, and their own intention and ego – the performative structure of the work resulted in a marginalization of each object’s potency.
Craft media, including jewelry, with its history of marginalization certainly does not like to be suppressed by any other artistic mode, even if it is an invited partner. However, this was the reality of this particular collaboration. The decision by the curators and choreographer to present an extemporaneous work meant that the objects would only receive passing consideration, rather than careful and intentional reverence. Ultimately, the decision to place the dancers's intention at the center of the work presented a proposition to the insider audience; to consider their work as capable of being supplemental, rather than an artistic end in and of itself. Even if a distasteful proposition to some, it is notable for its divergence from the party line.
Supplementality is but one strategy and perhaps a future work in this vein could be more equitable. Objects Performed asked the question, what can performance offer to jewelry, without seriously entertaining the opposite question, what jewelry has to offer performance? In future, by commissioning makers to create works that challenge performers and are built to withstand strenuous use, the objects could take on a more equitable role in the performance. Also, set choreography, or else makers helping to shape the choreographer’s vision early on, could also help create a more unbiased collaboration.
For a medium and a field that is desperately seeking strategies to project itself into the future, Exhibition in Motion: Objects Performed was a compelling proposition. It was a credible effort that opened new avenues for exploration and therein lies the true achievement of the work. One can only hope that there will be future works to follow this one and that lessons will be learned from this event’s shortcomings and logistical failures.