Visual Arts Center, Austin
Through December 8
by Rachel Cook
Pause: mid-action, a moment of reflection, an element in a sequence; Pose: mimicry, the history of representation, my body in response; Discompose: capacity, frame, re-purpose, imagine, apart
Emily Roysdon’s latest project at The Visual Arts Center in Austin, Pause, Pose, Discompose, encompasses portions of her overarching interests, but also addresses key issues of subjecthood and objects in contemporary culture. Roysdon’s exhibition breeches multiple topics including performative practice’s inhabiting artistic practice and a more malleable understanding of institutions all of which are being heavily discussed at the moment. Currently based in Stockholm, Roysdon has a long-standing dialogue within the New York context of Queer politics, performance history, feminism, critical writing, and abstraction, including staging a collective “herstory” as a one-night performance event at The Kitchen1. Other recent solo projects have brought together bodies of works that surround “a dialectic consideration of language, choreography, and political representation” or have addressed “the limits of representation and legibility—the limits of the intelligible, and strategies that undermine hegemonic oppositions.”2
Pause, Pose, Discompose employs a conceptual approach to a black box theatre as a way to construct an installation in the VAC’s enormous Vaulted Gallery. The black box was itself an act of resistance to traditional notions of theatre. Beginning in the sixties and seventies, the black box was a way to produce low-cost theatre while stripping away excess material in order to focus on the gestures of performance itself. Constructed in a similar manner as the white cube exhibition space⎯which came into vogue during the same time period⎯the black box is meant to give the audience the sensation of anyplace by taking over abandoned warehouses or repurposing odd spaces without track lighting or tech booths. Roysdon’s approach takes this form and inserts it back into the white cube. By utilizing this gesture, she pinpoints a conversation currently occupying contemporary cultural institutions with the understanding of the boundaries between performative and artistic practices⎯a notion quickly becoming increasingly difficult to identify and distinguish.
At the VAC Roysdon has painted the gallery walls black with a white frame bordering them, allowing the entire installation to be seen as a single unit. A video projection space created out of two walls, whose corners intersect and hug the mezzanines ceiling, appears like a large open book standing in the gallery, an aesthetic device that links us to a more porous understanding of objects and their agency. The black and white video projected on its surface combines the movement of a woman sitting on a chair raising her legs up and down with other abstract gestures that disrupt our notion of gendered bodies in space. Along the perimeter the gallery walls are lined with black chairs. Some of them face the video while others indicate the potential for a larger performance space yet to be inhabited. A large black panel is placed in front of some of the chairs, a tactic of resistance that prevents audience members from occupying the space. The panels also function as display spaces for framed photographs and mimic the structure of the video wall. Photographs of static objects, photograms, and prints (some of drawings others of text) hang above and around the chairs. One photograph in particular exemplifies Roysdon’s practice; a carefully composed black and white photograph presents a seemingly innocuous still life of a butt plug and a toy train. Roysdon talks about how the photograph arrests movement; how things can be linked to choreographic thinking and queer seeing; how formal concerns can be political ones; and how spatial politics are utilized within the gestures of performance. By taking and re-appropriating movements, histories, objects, space, and time this action leads to finding a new grammar that is “rarely imagined,” and addresses issues of subjecthood and the agency of bodies and objects, a topic ripe for further investigation.
Three recent curatorial endeavors relate to Roysdon’s practice and her current project at the VAC. On view at the Sculpture Center, A Disagreeable Object explores a host of artists who are thinking about “how trauma, technology and capitalist culture inform representations of the body” and “how notions of the self are influenced by objects, materiality and impact those very same forms and materials.”3 At MoMA PS1 the exhibition New Pictures of Common Objects explores the ever-expanding understanding of the relationship between photography and sculpture by attacking the elastic and diffuse nature of images, as well as considering how images can “challenge expectations of genre, form, and meaning.”4 Finally Anti-Establishment at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College presents a group of artists who re-imagine the institution as something to be embedded with a critical gesture; who consider “novel collective relationships and emergent models of engaged citizenship, and where power is not dispensed with but instead re-routed to other ends.”5
I bring these exhibitions up not as footnotes, but as points of contact and intersection with Roysdon’s larger practice and Pause, Pose, Discompose. While the exhibition leaves much unresolved, it also digs up much that needs to be considered. In our current political and economic climate it seems more and more important for artists to be asking the questions Roysdon is. Finding the language in which to articulate how and why the female body is still a site of contestation, how power and politics play out in space through gestures, and how resistance and choreographic thinking is a key to remembering our critically engaged bodies and selves, is what gives Roysdon’s exhibition its real power.
Rachel Cook is the Assistant Curator at DiverseWorks in Houston. Presently she is thinking about radical hospitality, human rights, and the agency of images and objects.
1. Roysdon’s project A Gay Bar Called Everywhere (With Costumes and No Practice) at The Kitchen, New York City in 2011.
2. Roysdon’s recent solo projects include Positions at Art in General, New York City in 2011 and Ecstatic Resistance, which the artist curated an exhibition at Grand Arts, Kansas City in 2010.
3. Taken from Ruba Katrib’s essay from A Disagreeable Object, SculptureCenter, on view until November 26, 2012.
4. Taken from Christopher Y. Lew’s text from New Pictures of Common Objects, MoMA PS1, on view until December 31, 2012.
5. Taken from Johanna Burton’s essay from Anti-Establishment, CCS Bard Galleries, on view until December 21, 2012.