Christine Davis: Not A Woman Dancing
by LESLEY JOHNSTONE
To name an object is to support three quarters of the enjoyment of the pows, which consists in guessing little by little: to suggest it, that is the dream.1
— STÉPHANE MALLARMÉ—
Entering the gallery, we are immediately absorbed by/immersed in a moving image. Butterfly, bird, flower, angel, phantom—each of the various visions conjured up is more seductive than the next. The focus of our gaze is a short loop from an archival film of a dancer enveloped in the swaths of white fabric she throws repeatedly in the air. The size of the image (3.65 meters wide), the blue-black tint of the clip and the transparent, shimmering quality of the woven copper screen all contribute to creating a spectacular, phantasmagorical effect. Did I Love a Dream? 2 is one of a series of interrelated works by Christine Davis that take as their point of departure two key figures in the imagining of modernity: the poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) and the dancer and choreographer Loïe Fuller (1862-1928).
There is a Mallarméan tension between "naming" and "suggesting" in many of the slide dissolve works,3 multimedia installations and photographs Davis had produced over the past twenty years. Fragments of text and image are projected onto screens that are thickly textured with a diversity of materials, including buttons, butterflies and flowers. Images—sometimes barely legible—appear and just as quickly disappear, come in and out of focus. The artist's sources are multiple but the relationships between them remain elusive. She examines the underpinning of modernity by employing processes of veiling and unveiling—weaving desire, information, materiality and signification. As she explains:
What interests me in particular is the methodology underpinning the progress of modernism. Touching on the feminine, violence, the sacred and the scientific, my work does not explore any one of these phenomena in isolation. The focus of the work resides more in the relational spaces between them. It seems a tangle of woman/electricity/cinema is configured at the inception of modernity. It is a kind of bachelor machine that I felt compelled to undo/do again. Perhaps every installation I create is a bachelor machine…4
Two of Mallarmé's four texts on dance—which he convinced as the ideal form of poetry-as-theatre—were devoted to Loïe Fuller, a fascinating figure in the early history of modern dance.5 She embodies the poet's view of the dance as an ideal sign, "…not a woman dancing, for the juxtaposed causes that she is not a woman, but a metaphor summarizing one of the elementary aspects of our form, sword, cup, flower, etc., and that she does not dance…"6 La Loïe's trademark choreographies involved hurling huge swaths of gossamer silk into the air; attached to long wands, they created complex patterns evoking fire, flowers and butterflies. The dancer's body was all but engulfed within the resulting forms, which, however ephemeral, took great strength and stamina to achieve. Her pioneering experiments with electricity, lighting, mirrors and glass flooring, as well as her use of coloured gels and chemical compounds, led Mallarmé to describe her work as both "intoxicating art" and "an industrial accomplishment."7 Highly innovative, she was widely copies, and her numerous imitators crowded the stages of Europe and the United States. Her image was employed regularly by Symbolist artists in the early twentieth century, the radical nature of her experiments with lighting and electricity brought her into contact with Thomas Edison and Pierre and Marie Curie, and her fusion of movement and light led to her being credited with having "created cinema before cinematography."8 Despite all this, she has been accorded practically no space in the history books.
Davis's representation of Fuller in Did I love a Dream? is mesmerizing. 9 The artist makes manifest Mallarmé's perception of "the dance sign as not only a representation but also a symbolic embodiment of whatever ideal of beauty the spectator might interpret it to represent."10 As we gaze at the image, we slowly become aware that something is askew: the swaths of fabric are moving against their gravitational pull, and we eventually grasp that the film is being projected backwards. With remarkable sleight of hand, and exploiting an inherently cinematographic technique, Davis allows the flow of fabric to achieve that to which the dancer aspires: defiance of the laws of gravity. This reversal, combined with the constant stream of images, imparts and uncanny quality to the piece, heightening its oneiric impact.
But we are never permitted to completely lose ourselves in the experience, for we are constantly drawn back into real space by the work's technical components. A large, specially modified 35-mm film projector sits squarely in the centre of the gallery, its commanding physicality explicitly declared, the distinctive sound of its mechanisms in no way disguised. The copper screen on which the images appear hangs from the ceiling and extends along the floor towards the projector, its transparency producing an evanescent multiplication of the dancer within the exhibition space—the viewer's space. By prolonging the screen up to the projector, Davis integrates machine and projected image into a dynamic sculptural object, creating a closed-circuit event that involves the viewer in an open-ended experience.
Did I love a Dream? is indeed a bachelor machine. Everything Rosalind Krauss characterizes as inherent to the bachelor machine is there — the plan for perceptual motions, autoerotism, narcissism a sterile cycle and a complexity of interconnections.11 The bride (dancer, virgin, ignorant desire) and the bachelor (machine, desire motor) are caught in "an utterly self-enclosed system in which desire is at one and the same time producer, consumer and re-producer."12 Both, in fact, are machines that produce desire and are desire, both are desiring and imagining one another without any possibility of mutual comprehension. Did I love a Dream? and the show's other major installation, Satellite Ballet (for Loïe Fuller), situate the viewer between the bachelor's world of production and the bride's domain of inscription, or (in the words of Deleuze and Guattari) between "the desiring machine and the body without organs."13
— A RETINAL RUSH OF TIME AND SPACE —
Installed in a small dark room with a low ceiling, Satellite Ballet brings together in a very short video loop a dizzying array of images: stills of Fuller's Serpentine Dance filmed by Thomas Edison in his "Black Maria" studio; positive and negative scanned pages from an 1847 hand-tinted edition of Euclid's Elements; images and diagrams of high-energy particle collisions; a particle accelerator track; fireworks; a drawing from one of Fuller's applications for a patent; and an Art Deco fairy from a turn-of-the-century cigarette package. In a moment of pure self-reflexivity, the clip begins and ends with the views of Davis smoking a cigarette, captured by the camera of her computer as she edits the clip (miss an abyme oblige).
The clip is presented in iPod Touches arranged in the four walls of the room so as to reflect the positions of the Faun, the Nymph and the members of the Nymph chorus is Vaslav Nijinsky's dance notations for his ballet L'Aprés-midi d'un faune. Each wall corresponds to one page of Nijinsky's score, while the characters are identifies by the speed at which the loop is projected: the Faun is represented by a lazy unfurling of images and the Nymph chorus by a very quick image flow, while the speed of the main Nymph lies somewhere in between.
In this piece, the viewer intuits an inherent system: each still image seems to play a role, the placement of the iPods is deliberate and the varying speeds are significant. But we are not provided with the context needed to bring the images into a network of defined relationships. How are we to make sense of this montage of old and new media (cinema, photography, lithography, the printed page, digitization) that spans the twentieth century?
Davis's description of Satellite Ballet as a "retinal rush of time and space" is illustrated most explicitly in the juxtaposition of the Euclid diagrams and the particle collision images. The geometrical system defined by Euclid, architect of the first comprehensive account of the nature of three-dimensional space, reigned supreme well into the nineteenth century. It was not until the modern era (the era of Mallarmé, Fuller and Nijinsky) that non-Euclidian geometry appeared. At the other extreme in the history of science lie the very recent and controversial experiments in high-energy particle collision, which are aimed at detecting the elusive Higgs boson, ominously labelled the "God particle." The artist thus combined two radically different ways of imagining space-time: the first efforts to describe three-dimensional space via pure thought, with no reference to the physical world, and images of the experiments it is hoped will "crack the code" of that world.14 (Two other works — a slide dissolve projection and a series of collages — also employ pages from Euclid's Elements. In the aptly titled Euclid/Orchid a single page is projected onto a live orchid, which in Euclid/Mallarmé the mathematician's text is replaced with lines from Mallarmé's L'Aprés-midi d'un faune. In the first, the artist lays and image of time-free space over the very slow movement of plant growth, making clear allusions to the dualities of intellect and emotion, culture and nature. The collages, interestingly, provide the viewer with the only direct reference to Mallarmé's central role in the exhibition.)
Nijinsky's ballet, which references Mallarmé's poem of the same name, constitutes a defining moment in the early history of modern dance. In contrast to Fuller's vaudevillian and all but forgotten contributions, it is part of the established lineage. Yet in Satellite Ballet, Nijinsky remains an unidentified structural trope, which Fuller is given centre stage. Is Davis positing a revised history of dance, intimating that Fuller created a more radical choreography and represented the essence of Mallarmé's conceptions of dance more completely than Nijinsky? As Mary Lewis Shaw has pointed out, there are two traditions in modern dance criticism — one that identifies dance with ritual (the primitivist tradition), and one that conceives dance as an abstract boldly writing and points in the direction of the modern formalists George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham.15 Mallarmé allied and gave equal force to these seemingly contradictory views, and by embedding Fuller's image into Nijinsky's dance notations, Davis uses montage to declare her own espousal of this more complex reading.
In Satellite Ballet, Davis forges a link between technological shifts that occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century and those that took place at the start of the twenty-first, moving us from the edge of mechanical reproduction to the age of digital reproduction within the space of a highly abbreviated loop. Davis's interest in the sattelite-linked iPod Touch — one of the most sophisticated and popular electronic gadgets available to the twenty-first century consumer — is twofold. Aside from the device's elegant design, its high-quality image is clearly part of the attraction, and the artist uses it to produce a decidedly spectacular effect not unlike a constellation of shooting stars. On a more conceptual level, the iPod Touch permits an unprecedentedly free circulation of information and triggers vital questions regarding intellectual property and the ownership of such intangibles as air space. Because it allows users to produce, send and receive, at will, images (moving and still), music and text, the device embodies one of the most acute threats to intellectual property in history and had rendered the enforcement of copyright legislation virtually impossible. By including Fuller's application for a patent of one of her costumes in the video clip, Davis evokes the dancer's own precursory battle to retains copyright of her work.16
There is an act of technological détournement at work here, a tangential utilization of a commercial telecommunications system, In Davis's piece the iPod Touch, "an instrument of spacial and temporal displacement,"17 is paradoxically loaded with a controlled sequence of images that is presented in a fixed pattern and offered within the structures and conventions of collective experience. Rather than exploiting the iPod Touch's inherent potential, the artist divers its functionality and renders its very mechanism irrelevant. Once again she insists on bringing the viewer back into real space via the overt technological materiality of her machine and thus offsetting the immaterial, phantasmagorical quality of the images. Both the iPod and the film projector function (literally) as working machines and (metaphorically) as surrogated for the dancer. Through the highly "feminine" nature of these works, as well as the representation of dancer' choreographer and self-made entrepreneur Loïe Fuller as subject, object and trope, Davis proposes a feminist interpretation of the decidedly masculine nature of the bachelor machine, claiming herself, for the dancer and for the viewer the domains of both bride and bachelor.
1. This translation was taken from Dee Reynolds, "The Dancer as Woman: Loïe Fuller and Stéphane Mallarmé," in Richard Hobbs, ed., Impressions of French Modenity: Art and Literature in France, 1850-1900 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988). p. 169.
2. The work's title is taken from a line near the beginning of Mallarmé poem L'Aprés-midi d'un faune.
3. For a discussion of Davis's most recent slide dissolve work, see the text by Josée Bélisle in this publication. Not I/Pas moi, 2006-2007, is part of the exhibition The Collection: Some Installations, curated by Josée Bélisle and on view at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal from February 28 to August 16, 2009.
4. Christine Davis, e-mail to the author, January 30, 2009.
5. For an in-depth study of Loïe Fuller, see Ann Cooper Albright, Traces of Light: Absence and Presence in the Work of Loïe Fuller (Moddletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univesity Press, 2002).
6. This translation taken from Felicia McCarren, Bodies of the Text: Dance as Theory, Literature as Dance, ed. Ellen W Goellner and Jacqueline Shea Murphy (New Brunswick, N.J,: Rutgers University Press, 1995), p 218.
7. This translation was taken from Ann Cooper Albright (see note 5, above), p. 181.
8. Tom Gunning, "Loie Fuller and the Art of Motion," in Camera Obscura, Camera Lucida: Essays in Honor of Annette Michelson, ed. Richard Allen and Malcom Turvey (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1995), p. 85.
9. The dancer is not Fuller but a certain Miss Baker. The clip is an excerpt from La Féerie des ballets fantastiques de Loïe Fuller, a film based on Fuller's choregraphies made by George R. Bugsby in 1934, after her death, with the assistance of her long-time lover and collaborator Gab Sorère.
10. Mary Lewis Shaw, Performance in the Texts of Mallarmé: The Passage from Art to Ritual (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993), p. 55. In the chapter entitled "Dance: Rite énoncé de l'ldée," Shae provides a most astute analysis of how Mallarmé perchieved dance as an ideal language of the body and an ideal form of ritual through which to supplement and celebrate poetic texts.
11. Rosalind E. Krauss "Sherrie Levine: Bachelors," in Bachelors (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005), p. 180.
13. The expression recurs frequently in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's book Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983).
14. Joel Achenbach, "At the Heart of All Matter," National Geographic Magazine online, March 2008: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/03/god-particle/achenbach-text (accessed February 14, 2009).
15. Mary Lewis Shaw (see note 10, above), p. 52.
16. Fuller set legal precedent by suing for copyright infringement in relation to her Serpentine Dance, ultimately losing her case on the grounds that it is impossible to "own movement." She was subsequently granted patents for many of her technological innovations, but it was not until the late twentieth century that choreography came under the jurisdiction of copyright laws.
17. William J. Mitchell, Placing Words: Symbols, Space and the City (Cambridge, Mass,: MIT Press, 2005), p. 182.