TABLEAU VIVANT, PETIT MORT
By Jorge Alberto Perez
Ali Van enters first, slides her shoes off and glides onto the carpet. She sits like a geisha, legs to the side crossed at the ankles, back perfectly erect. There is something utterly feminine in her body language, beguiling in both senses of the word and though she may appear demure, she is in total control. This is her orgasm after all. Hers to do with as she pleases.
Three men appear from different directions and also approach the large square of gray carpet that dominates the 3rd floor space at the Fisher-Landau Center for Art where Van has positioned herself. She holds an i-something in her hand from which a splitter dangles with three bobbing receptors. The men also remove their shoes and sit as if in a dojo, seiza style. Despite the strong sense of ceremony, and the fact that we the spectators are here to experience a performance, nothing feels overt. The lights do not dim, but they feel as though they did, no more or less noise permeates the space as the foursome sit to face each other, but the present silence becomes more distinct. These are the elusive factors that matter to Van, a 2013 MFA candidate at Columbia University, near-invisible markers of time that she, with her subtle curating of objects, and now performance, weaves into highly dispassionate deeply personal work.
The men unravel earphones and each in turn inserts the male prong into one of the female receptacles. They close their eyes and she looks intently at each of them, her acolytes who have dutifully come for her today. Van presses play and manipulates the volume on her device and the men are seen to listen, wrinkles between closed eyes. A long and narrow groove in one, a short deeper trench in another, a gentle pulling inward of the eyes in the third. Though we can assume they are listening to the same sounds, each man appears to respond differently to what he hears by his outward expressions. It happens slowly, and builds on itself. They are climbing the same ladder, they help each other, though they don’t seem aware of it. One man is all breath, shallow and superficial. The next is a low moan, a growl that rumbles in the chest. The third is higher pitched ecstatic releases. Together this chorus performs a unique rendition of what can only be the complex aural orchestrations of the female orgasm. But not just any, it is hers, the action, the reaction and the reenactment. Possibly her most personal experience repackaged as a product for consumption.
From one vantage point Van has an open computer on a mid-century desk playing a clearly dated video of a brain surgery. When I first saw the video the week before this performance I thought it was a document of a wartime operating theater. It seemed so improvised and shoddy. Later I learned it was her father’s footage, who, wanting to see the operation for himself was only able to experience it when mediated by the camera. Today it waxed sexual. The wet, bloody sulci of the brain being probed gently by anonymous hands whilst in the room a trio of breathy moans burst like smoke-filled bubbles. As in most of Van’s art, the tidy compartmentalization of individual elements create untidy relationships in her tableau, discordant notes that when experienced together somehow create an unforeseeable 3rd thing.
This reenactment of her onanistic behavior slowly becomes unhinged somewhere between a science experiment and a defiant stance against male domination as the pitch slouches toward release. It is a petit mort syncopated both in duration and stress to better understand what it is not rather than what it is. Likewise, the fragments of other objects mostly in the periphery of the rug speak to the partiality of any experience, whether intentionally mediated or not. What tooth is this? Is it a human incisor or that of a wild animal? It bothers me to not know. The bag of what I think are desiccated figs, might be tangerines. A mound of lint from a dryer with a streak of pink in it begs to reveal something. A framed image of a foggy field is the 25-year-old blotter from her father’s desk. Every object asks a question, a single compulsive question. There are many objects, and if you let them they will haunt you. For a moment, however, they are held at bay, as most mundane matters are when we succumb to corporeal needs.
After reaching a pitch, a height, a precarious angle from which one can only fall, the breaths, growls and moans come together again in silence. The men emerge from behind shutters, looking guilty despite their best efforts; is that a self-congratulatory grin? We all smile, there is relief in the air. Almost in ostensible synchrony the men unplug and wind their now flaccid wires back into tidy little squares. Van stands and proceeds to the edge of the carpet where she puts her shoes back on and walks away. The men follow her example. We are left to our own devices.