As I discussed in my last post on Theaster Gates, performance is well represented in the New York art scene right now – even though most exhibitions don’t feature live performances.
This was true, for example, of Tionia Nekkia McClodden’s recently-closed exhibition at The Shed, “The Trace of an Implied Presence” (August 3 – December 11, 2022). Based in Philadelphia, McClodden is a multidisciplinary artist who has worked in film, sound installation, and sculpture. According to a statement by the artist, she is interested in “how the past, present, and future can intersect visually and thematically within time based work.” The Shed is an enormous, still fairly new art space in Manhattan that offers intimidatingly wide-open rooms to contemporary artists. McClodden filled one of its smaller hangars with four large, nearly cinema-sized projection screens. The exhibition presents the results of the artist’s research into four modern Black American dance forms and the communities that practice them: tap, modern, concert, and the Philly Bop (as one dancer explains, they used to just call it the Bop, until they learned that people in other cities practice their own version of the dance, and that Philadelphia’s, too, is distinct). She began by looking into the 1983 “Dance Black America Festival” that took place at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, immersing herself in BAM’s archives. (For those who are interested, Charles Moore made a documentary about this event.)
On each screen at the Shed was projected footage relating to each form, mostly interviews and recordings of dance performances that McClodden has gathered. Running through them all is the voice and presence of Mikki Shepard, a former director of the Apollo Theater as well as a dance programmer and arts consultant.
As a research-based project, and despite the wonderful moves and varied personalities that feature in the videos, the exhibition had the potential to be somewhat dry, like a documentary. But one element of the installation significantly shifted its relationship to performance. Each of the four large projection screens faces a square dance floor, of the type that would be used by the practitioners of that particular style of dance. In one of the exhibition’s brief, first-person wall texts, McClodden explains that tap dancer Michael J. Love taught her the importance of the right kind of floor to a dancer, a question of both safety (the wrong kind of surface can cause injury) and aesthetics (tap in particular requires the bright, percussive sound for which it is known). Made of different materials – wood, rubber – the floors are thus distinct not only in terms of their appearance but also in their physical qualities of hardness, bounce, etc. The viewer is thus encouraged, both implicitly and explicitly, to discover these qualities for themself by walking, jumping, or indeed dancing on each of the four different floors.
McClodden speaks of the floors as a kind of invitation: “These dance floors are open to you. It is my hope that dancers from all backgrounds and locations can come to this presentation, access these floors, and document themselves performing. Awareness of social distance has been built into the exhibition layout, so you feel comfortable visiting and moving in whatever capacities you feel you want to. Whether professional or novice, you can come in and work something out within and outside your body.”
Live performance, then, is brought into the exhibition by the viewers who come to see it. Some of the floors also featured a full-length mirror at one corner, a further invitation to dance. The viewer/dancer thus encounters their own image in the exhibition along with those of the dancers and experts who feature in McClodden’s videos. It was difficult not to dance when I found myself standing on these dance floors to watch the videos, even though I wasn’t familiar with any of the moves depicted. While dancing, the viewer’s body is close to the represented bodies of the dancers on screen. A kind of relationship is implied. I wasn’t sure, however, what to make of the artist’s hope that viewers will document themselves dancing. For one thing, this can be a rather awkward maneuver (unless a friend holds the camera for you), and for another, the very presence of the floors suggested the limits of documentation: dance is not only a form of art to be viewed, but also a universal form of human movement, both a response to and a creation of rhythm within the body. Photos and videos can convey very little about the physical qualities of each dance floor, or about the internal experience of dancing. I appreciated the way McClodden’s show brought visitors’ own bodies to bear in representing performance in a museum setting.
The exhibition’s title, “The Trace of an Implied Presence,” comes from the artist’s ruminations on a photograph of a dancer and his shadow. She found the photo of Al Perryman’s performing a dance associated with Earl “Snake Hips” Tucker in the archives of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. McClodden writes, “I’m deeply fascinated by the shadow as an archival trace of performance. Light highlights the movement of the past, suggesting a prior presence. The shadow has often played a very important factor in how I track movement during performance, as well as how I think about what can exist as a real-time reflection or trace of the body.” I find the notion of shadow as a trace of the past rather provocative: how to make sense of real-time history, real-time conservation? In technical terms, of course, she is right: the speed of light is limited, however instantaneous its travel seems to us. And there are ways in which shadows can be captured, such as via various photographic processes.
I will need to meditate further on this approach to shadow and what it might mean for the conservation of performance. But if I am still uncertain about McClodden’s explanation of the exhibition’s conceptyal framework, I was intuitively – and corporeally! – convinced by the effective simplicity of the installation itself. In combining video documentation of performance, discussions of performance, and physical artifacts, McClodden invited the viewer to implicate their own body in the performances portrayed. This element of performance – the sympathetic response in the viewer’s body – is all too often ignored.