Monday, November 2, 2009

Draped and folded: entries and exits

A Sultry World was my last opportunity to participate in the LIVE2009 festival, so I treated myself on Saturday afternoon to a couple of slow hours inside and around a lot of red velvet drapery.

Of all the work that I was able to see at this year’s festival, this piece by Norico Sunayama invited the most direct participation. Visitors were able to not just gaze on a lovely woman wearing an impossibly large velvet gown (a spectacle in the way it nearly filled the cavernous gallery), but also we were invited to crawl and explore underneath the dress. Some cushions, books for writing, lavender scent, and velvet-swathed flashlights were positioned under the platform that supported, out of reach, the unclothed bottom half of the performer. Copies of the artist’s provocative statement were also set about in that boudoir-like space. Sunayama’s text made a connection between women’s lack of power to their dreams of skunks. Like most of the participants, I couldn’t put together the statement’s ideas with the work of the installation, but I enjoyed the weird memories it called up of my own skunk dreams. [And, I wondered to myself inside that red chamber, do Japanese women also dream of skunks, when the island is apparently free of that particular large rodent?]

With all of that time in the work and those many possibilities for participation and interaction (daydreaming included), the meanings became for me increasingly dynamic. This was a surprise, because one could say that each element used in this work (besides the skunk perhaps) is right now heavily determined and cliché. For me the mass of red velvet seemed opulent, gothic (even in a cathedral sense) and burlesque. Draped, it formed a chamber or boudoir or opera hall for secret meetings as well as extravagant theatrics. And of those operatic theatrics, the immobile and unreachable woman trapped at the top of an eternal ball gown seemed to materialize a persistent fantasy of the debutant whose emergent sexuality is so elevated it imprisons her within a fetishized trap. But with the opportunity to enter the underside of that trap, mobility and imagination seemed to break its worn-out spell.

The interior that we were invited into was a place to have conversations and reflect on our reactions by writing in a set of black books. Since those books had already been nearly filled during the exhibition in Toronto, we had an added opportunity for voyeurism. (From memory: “I just saw the mayor of Toronto! I wonder if he will come in here?!” “Yes, that’s right, I am in here too, and I like it.”)

This installation brought a large crowd of willing participants and observers from near and far. The Hastings street locals who are at times the most discerning about what is worth crossing the threshold for made enthusiastic and troublesome entries into the gallery while I was there, though I didn’t see any of them enter the installation. Sitting near the window, I could also hear exclamations of delight from women passing by outside: “O my god, I should get a dress just like that!”

Finally, the conversations inside “A Sultry World” included a discussion with Manolo Lugo about his performance a week earlier. I posted a photo here but I wanted to add more about it. Lugo’s performance of folding the entire household’s laundry (over the two-hour duration of the evening event) resulted from his becoming aware of how domestic duty offered a potential site for formalist artistic experimentation.

From what I saw of LIVE2009 this year there was more formalist experimentation and less participatory detourment than past years. But still it gave many of us in the city memorable opportunities to join in the minor spectacles with admiration, annoyance, side-splitting laughs and determination to make laundry and drapery come alive.

Lois Klassen

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