Project Space: Nancy Douthey

by Surpik Angelini

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      Click here to watch an excerpt from Nine Swimming Pools and an Interruption.

      To Nancy Douthey, performance is essentially a subversive act trespassing boundaries. Metaphorically, she sees it as a “jump into the Void,” a concept Yves Klein epitomized in 1960 in his photograph Leap into the Void where he literally hurled himself into the Void from a rooftop with arms spread like an eagle. In contrast to Klein’s highly symbolic acts, Douthey’s performances are simply subtle interruptions in the rhythm of ordinary life. Thus, conceptually, the artist grounds her creative process in the liminal, un-codified interval separating art and life. This interval, known as the “In-Between” is a spatial category that Elizabeth Grosz defines as a distinct notion in feminist philosophy. There, in the “In-Between” is where Douthey conceives her performances.

      Douthey, as well as the two performance artists that have inspired her, Elia Arce and Adrian Piper, sees revealing deeper psychological and philosophical layers beneath the folds of the everyday as an essential part of her work. In fact, before Douthey engaged in performance art, she photographed a woman doing the wash and folding sheets for several months. Only later, she discovered that what fascinated her was not how beautiful the sheets looked when folded, but how her relationship with the woman evolved into something infinitely more meaningful than the images she produced. Thus, Douthey recognized that performance art was the perfect vehicle to capture the ephemeral magic of ordinary life.

      Appropriating three pieces from Adrian Piper's 1970 Catalysis series, Douthey's replicated Piper's strange behavior in public places in Houston, eliciting spontaneous reactions. The main point in her re-enactments was to observe resulting contextual differences, while paradoxically gaining authority, affirmation and empowerment as a woman and performance artist. Douthey thus proved that repeating a common action, or “bracketing” the everyday, not only transforms a real experience into art, but on an abstract level, it spatializes time, rendering perceptible the unseen continuum: the vessel of the liminal unconscious, described so brilliantly by Gilles Deleuze in The Logic of Sense.

      Exploring the visual qualities of photography and video as well as the socially and politically expanded field of performance art, Douthey's recent work included in her Master's thesis exhibition, Nine Swimming Pools and an Interruption, combines both expressions successfully. The artist filmed her "jumps in the void" between October 2009 and February 2010, in nine videos shown simultaneously on a gridded screen. The unedited three- to twenty-two-minute video segments document repeated actions: descending from her car, approaching the pool, jumping in and getting out in wet clothes. At first, the cacophony of local sounds and the handheld camera's jittery images seem to be part of the natural chaos of an ordinary scene. A closer look reveals nine staged events in separate sites: one at the artist’s home, seven in her neighborhood, and another in a university campus.

      Trespassing properties in her neighborhood, the artist sneaks into seven unoccupied houses for sale with pools. Douthey gains access to the backyards of the unsurveilled houses in between showings to film her pool jumps. At the university campus, the pool was unattended for a shorter period, so Douthey was caught in the act and reprimanded by authorities who saw her project as an inappropriate and inconsiderate act in relationship to the country’s current state of red alert. "What if someone had tried to jump in and save you?” they asked. Next to this loaded social and political commentary, Douthey curiously points out that the most accessible pool — her own — was the one she resisted most. Subverting the male gestures objectifying the female subject, the artist's feminist immersion and embodiment are the roots of her own Becoming.

      Linking her video performances entitled Nine Swimming Pools and an Interruption to Ed Ruscha's book of photographs titled Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass, Douthey crops her pool images accentuating their perpectival depth and abstract lines in a similar manner to Ruscha's signature images. However, this is how far Ruscha's influence can be traced in her work. Douthey’s deconstruction of Ruscha’s Nine Pools… is far more illustrative of her critical feminist point of view. For one thing, Douthey does not treat the pool's image as a static mirror of a distant Void. Rather, declaring “the pool is my closest sky, my closest field of blue," she interrupts its perfect stillness by jumping into it, making waves, filling and feeling it. It is Douthey's way of challenging the undisturbed, suburban Hollywood icon painted by David Hockney and critiqued by Ruscha. Picking up on the tragic, suicidal overtones of Ruscha's final image of broken glass, Douthey defiantly jumps into her nine pools fully dressed.

      Modest narratives, simple gestures and fine humor are the tools Douthey uses to voice social or cultural critique. In a recent series of photo-performances, Douthey and collaborator Jacinda Russell foiled the grandiloquence and ecological insensitivity of Heizer's and Turrell's famous Earthworks using the man-made landscapes as backdrops for their subtle, ironic actions. In contrast, Douthey honored the Navajo Indians' delicate glass skywalk at the Grand Canyon, joining the cleaning crew. Poetically reaching for the closest thing to flying like an eagle, she cleaned the skywalk wearing an eagle's image on her shirt.

      Douthey's performances may seem like small acts but, once signified in her work, they are transformative, capable of unfolding the secrets of what is marvelously closest to us in the here and now. It takes a sensitive artist to reveal the unseen, because, after all, what is closest to us is what we resist the most.

      Surpik Angelini is an artist, independent curator and director of the Transart Foundation for Art and Anthropology in Houston, Texas.

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