New Performances by Kate Gilbert, E.J. Hill, and Alise Spinella, Monte Vista Projects

Apr 27, 2012

In their usual understated fashion, Monte Vista Projects has been quietly organizing evenings of performance work that are really worth checking out. A little over a week ago, three disparate artists presented individual works that were not necessarily connected to one another, but made for a good varied evening, with each work resolving itself in a satisfying way.

E.J. Hill started things off in a startling and intense way with a piece called Help is on the Way (for Mark Aguhar, Trayvon Martin, and the rest of Us). Without warning, Hill, dressed in a leotard and high-heel shoes, came running from the street around the corner of the building, screaming “Help me! Help me!” He plunged into the crowded gallery and kept screaming as he approached a pair of mirrors that had been mounted on the wall.

At this point I lost sight of him as the crowd was too thick, and I was stuck outside on the sidewalk. But I could hear crashing noises and felt palpable thuds against the side of the building, as Hill punched and kicked at one of the mirrors until it fell apart. The intensity of the energy was disturbing; even if I couldn’t see it directly, I could still see it reflected on the shaken faces of other viewers. Hill left the other mirror intact and then ran screaming out of the gallery, exiting the same way that he came.

Without knowing the title of the piece ahead of time, I gathered that it was about a struggle with identity. The fact that it started in the public arena of the street, where shocked onlookers expressed concern for Hill’s well-being, and moved to the privacy and self-reflection of a gallery space, where an audience was made into an uncomfortable witness, was an effective way of evoking how the battle with society’s perceptions informs the battle with one’s perception of one’s self. It was also interesting that Hill chose a quick and violent mode for his performance; while identity is a protracted lifelong struggle, situations can often come to a head in an unexpected instant.

I emailed Hill the next day to find out the title, which filled out my understanding of the performance. While Trayvon Martin has been all over the news lately, I had to Google Mark Aguhar to find out that she was an influential young genderqueer artist who committed suicide this past March. Here are Hill’s own words: “I knew Mark personally as she was a part of Chicago’s art and queer communities and Trayvon, I had never met although I felt connected to both of them in similar ways. When they died, I felt as though a little part of me went as well. I had been thinking about how different bodies (whether we are aware of it or not) are read differently in different contexts. For Trayvon, his body was threatening. For Mark, her body misunderstood by many. Ultimately, two people gone way too soon. Their deaths hit me hard for different reasons and they’ve been on my mind a lot lately. I don’t know how comfortable I am with calling myself a Black artist or a Queer artist, (or a Queer, Black artist) as I am generally averse to labels, however, I do identify with both of those bodies regardless of what we call them. I’m angry, I’m hurt, but I’m also hopeful…”

Alise Spinella’s The Apron also touched on death and the missing, but it was as long, slow, and meditative as Hill’s was fast and brutal. In her previous performances, TUESDAY (Transcribed) and The History of WEDNESDAY, Spinella enacted poetic invocations of time passing in particular spaces, weaving a sort of invisible history net through corporeal performance. She likes to utilize additional performers as a sort of collaborative chorus, recalling the importance of the oral tradition in transmitting histories. The new piece expanded on her past work by drawing on larger specific histories and myths, and employing other performers in a more aggressive way, to dramatic effect.

In the midst of a crowded, chattering gallery, Spinella began by removing her shoes and silently taking a central spot, standing for a few minutes in silent meditation. The crowd eventually quieted and gave her space. She began to speak: “In Japan there’s a god named Jizo who protects the recently dead. To pay homage, an apron is tied around his statue at the cemetery. When my grandmother died, I inherited a lot of fabric. I cut things up and put them back together. I realized much later that I was making her an apron—but I don’t know how it works.” As she spoke, lightly sketching stories of passing, remembrance, and tradition, various people from the audience would pipe up, either echoing her phrases or simply saying “I’m here.” The phrases were always broken up, repeated, and interspersed with silence, so that the overall effect was more like a field of birds chirping than a linear narrative.

Spinella slowly made her way over to a large painting that hung on the wall opposite Hill’s mirrors. Laying one hand atop the painting, she continued the incantations: “There’s an old painting in here, an old map of Wednesday. The one sung to for a very long time. On the back are traces from the woman who counted her breath, as I am counting mine. To make it, I pinned and cut away the history, learning my own limitations.” Here, long periods of silence would pass between the passages of speech. During this time, other performers emerged from the audience one by one, the first laying a hand on Spinella’s shoulder, the next laying a hand on the first person’s shoulder, until a linked line formed that was five or six people deep.

There was a vibrant energy to the performance. Even when I was sitting there for a long time listening to silence, watching the motionless performers, I felt that the room was pregnant with the memory of people and things that have passed through or are in other realms now. The traces of them lived in the spacious moments between speech and action, held in a meditative space by the performers’ concentrated energy. Spinella seems to have an enormous patience to sit with things and reflect on them, and this patience informs her evocative work. The chorus of other performers both speaking and contributing their bodily presence also acted as a lively testimonial, reinforcing the artist’s conjuring of histories. I wondered if they were all speaking internal monologues during those long moments of silence.

I later found out from Spinella that the painting in question had, in fact, literally been sung to by two opera singers as part of a show that took place in Europe. Thus, it was a vessel for another layer of history/performance, recalling Spinella’s own action of speaking into a sheet of paper during TUESDAY (Transcribed).

Eventually the other performers peeled away one by one, and Spinella made her way back to the center of the room. “I made the apron for Diana, but it didn’t come out right. It’s sideways and the strings don’t tie. It’s too large for a small stone. (She lived a long time.) But underneath the road is a road, and this road is for another.” When she put her shoes back on and left the space, the performance was over.

Kate Gilbert ended the night with probably the most approachable piece, Presence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder. She walked amiably into the space with her “portable performance work” under her arm and proceeded to set up, tentatively chatting with the audience as she did so. She laid some white tape out on the floor in an apparently random formation, perhaps delineating a space for the work, or perhaps just physically interacting with the audience in preparation. She admitted that she didn’t really know what was going to happen, but that this was a healthy state to be in. There was a likable air of goofy awkwardness about her, totally different from the vibes of the two previous performances, and as we’ll see, germane to the work that was about to unfold.

After she finished affixing tape to the floor, Gilbert pulled out her main prop, a large folded dress made out of cellophane, plastic, and tape. The dress came out in several pieces and she had to tape them together first. Then, she proceeded to wiggle her way into it with all of her street clothes on. It was difficult to do and took several minutes of struggle, during which time it seemed certain the dress would tear and fall apart, but it never did.

When she finally got all the way into the dress, she began taking all of her clothes off inside of it. The dress was transparent, so that when all of her clothes were finally removed, she pretty much appeared naked before us. Then she finally seemed to relax as she assumed a variety of poses in the dress—standing, prancing, lying down, rolling slowly around on the floor. Gilbert blossomed into this strange monstrous creature, unfurling herself slowly and with curiosity. The dress crinkled really loudly with every move that she made, making for a mini noise symphony. She was actually incredibly graceful, but the klunkiness of the dress roared around her like a lobster shell.

The performance seemed to gather a number of notions we have about the display of female bodies—that fashion should be strenuous and difficult, that it’s designed to suggest the beauty of a naked body even as it’s covering it, that it turns women into something that they are not, that social ideas of beauty can just as easily be ugly, that everything we wear is really a costume. The cellophane dress—awkward, ghetto fabulous, and eager to show off—seemed to question what we actually see, and what we really want to see, when we look at women who are on display.

After a while, Gilbert wiggled her way back out of the dress and put all her clothes back on. She remarked that the blouse she had worn was a nice one, one that she wears on dates, and now it had “performance dirt” on it. She asked if any of us had memories of “precious moments” at Monte Vista that we wanted to share. She had a memory of hanging out with Dawn Kasper when she debuted her Nomadic Studio project here last year. And just as comfortably awkward as it began, her performance ended.