Hammer Projects: Maria Hassabi
The artist and choreographer Maria Hassabi’s performances and live installations of the past decade have been described as explorations of stillness, slowness, and sustained movement. Even more so, her works—produced for galleries, theaters, and public spaces—address the separation between the spectacular and the everyday, between subject and object, between performer and audience. Her extended-length choreographies often require dancers to move slowly, sustain positions, and hold poses while performing in a variety of contexts. In INTERMISSION—first presented as part of the Cypriot and Lithuanian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2013—Hassabi and two other dancers performed continuously for consecutive days in a cavernous gymnasium that housed the exhibition, becoming part of a tableau that included the work of other artists and the bodies of visitors. Hassabi’s PREMIERE, which debuted in 2013 at the Kitchen in New York, similarly addressed the expectations of viewership by calling attention to beginnings and endings in performance-based works. Extending over eighty-three minutes, PREMIERE pitted the rapt attention of a seated audience against five dancers performing a slow rotational turn. The length of the work was determined by the time it took for the performers, who started out with their backs to the audience, to turn 180 degrees in order to face the onlookers.
In PLASTIC, presented here for the first time, Hassabi expands these themes to relate specifically to the spatial conditions of the Hammer Museum and the disparate conventions of display within the performing and visual arts. Throughout the duration of the exhibition, her performers continuously enact a form of live installation in the gallery and the museum’s outdoor spaces, bridging the conceptual and physical divide between performer and object, bystander and viewer, while addressing the ways in which dance and the spectacle of performance are presented in theatrical and exhibition contexts.
Hammer Projects: Maria Hassabi is organized by Hammer curator Aram Moshayedi with MacKenzie Stevens, curatorial assistant.
Performed by Hristoula Harakas, Maria Hassabi, Molly Lieber, and Oisín Monaghan.
Additional performances by Alison D’Amato, Ellen Gerdes, Casey Lin Brown, Gwyneth Shanks, and Devika Wickermesinghe.
Sound design by Morten Norbye Halvorsen.
Lighting consultation by Chu-Hsuan Chan.
Styling by threeASFOUR.
Produced by Ash Bulayev.
Maria Hassabi: PLASTIC is co-commissioned by the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.
By Aram Moshayedi
The performance-based works of the artist and choreographer Maria Hassabi are rooted in the discourse of sculptural time. As much as they negotiate the specific parameters of exhibition, display, and presentation in the murky area that sits between museum and theater contexts, Hassabi’s works are equipped to reconcile the living and breathing temporality of sculpture with the forms of movement that are inherent to performance. To this end, the curator Raimundas Malašauskas recently characterized them as “living sculptures,” akin to a “volcano that moves slow, takes its time and attempts to be still.”1 This description of INTERMISSION (2013)—a live installation developed and performed in the context of the exhibition oO in the Cypriot and Lithuanian Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale—plays on metaphors of stillness, potentiality, and the slowness of geologic time, which have been key aspects of Hassabi’s work for more than a decade.
INTERMISSION was my first encounter with Hassabi and her work. Set in an ordinary Venetian gymnasium—perhaps a strange thing in and of itself to encounter the “ordinary” within the overbearing weight of history that Venice exudes— Hassabi’s durational choreography was performed during the exhibition’s opening days by the artist and two other performers. In a cavernous theatrical space, framed by stadium seating and a basketball court, INTERMISSION unfolded among and within other sculptural works, at times seeming to be a part of, and in dialogue with, the Cypriot artist Phanos Kyriacou’s installation Eleven hosts, twenty-one guests, nine ghosts (2013). The performers’ presence receded, however, almost like discrete objects or passive observers sharing in the alienating experience that I often have when visiting an exhibition. As part of the tableau, an ominous sound track rang throughout, a composition by Morten Norbye Halvorsen that evoked the body’s innermost groaning. The performance seemed to move in unison with the slow pace of this resonant droning sound.
But when I entered the exhibition through one of two possible means of ingress at the gymnasium’s uppermost level, I saw Hassabi and her performers on the opposite side of the stadium seating and remember thinking that they appeared to be just hanging out casually on the steps of the bleachers. It was hardly a performance in the spectacular sense. Their presence was everyday and fluid within a scenography that was apparently attempting to exploit the parameters of discrete art objects and their insistence on an otherwise pristine context of reflection and display. Amid this, Hassabi and the dancers Hristoula Harakas and Paige Martin were grappling with another convention of presentation inherited from the theater by performance artists as early as the 1970s, which presupposes a standard relationship between subject and object, performer and viewer. The spectacular nature of early performance art is a precedent from which more recent practices like Hassabi’s have departed, insistent as they are on the temporally and spatially dislocated possibilities of dance and theater as integral links to exhibitionary logic.
Through works like INTERMISSION, Hassabi confronts exhibition time and the standard modes of operating that institutions within the visual arts have come to rely on. The very same year that Hassabi debuted her work in Venice, there were a handful of other “living installations” by artists such as John Bock, Manuel Pelmus ̨ and Alexandra Pirici, and Tino Sehgal that elided the same conventions of display as a static phenomenon but to very different ends.
The tendency to use living actors as theatrical props/agents in extended performances has become an industry standard, rooted in a recent discourse of presence and presentness that was ushered in (again) with no statement as grand as the presentation of Marina Abramovic ́: The Artist Is Present at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010, which provided visitors with the opportunity to engage the historically significant artist in an unscripted staring contest. Writing in response to this monumental work, the performance theorist and historian Amelia Jones asked, “What are we to do with the fact that, when the art world and its corollary discourses such as curating, art criticism, and art history scholarship . . . embrace performance they seem inevitably to turn live acts into objects?”2 Commentary such as this is commonplace enough in an era that has become ever more dependent on the role of “live art” within museum programming that responds to the demand for novel ways of engaging a public that seeks out entertainment rather than the potentially alienating encounter one can have when viewing otherwise indifferent objects of art.
In contrast, and perhaps shying away from “engaging experiences,” Hassabi’s prolonged choreographic works pursue unmediated forms of presence and presentness as an encounter with the physical body as an almost sculptural form. By extension, the very mediated nature of performance as a form of spectacle with theatrical origins is at the crux of her practice, rooted more in the relationship between physicality and stillness, dance and sculpture—and the conditions that are specific to their presentations in black-box and gallery- like settings, respectively—than in the recent insistence on living bodies as impactful objects within installation- based artworks.
Having debuted as part of Performa 13, Hassabi’s PREMIERE (2013) is a further example of how these choreographic interests are capable of upending the expectations and demands of viewership by prolonging and emphasizing the contours of stillness. Extending over eighty-three minutes, PREMIERE is a stage work that begins from the moment its audience enters the theater. Five performers inhabit the stage, fixed as if they were part of a sculptural frieze. At the Kitchen in New York, audience members flooded past the dancers toward their seats, for this moment becoming part of the work. Reviewers of the performance aptly picked up on the pared- down minimalism of what ensued, both for those onstage and for those in their seats: after a glacially paced rotational turn, set amid slight changes to the lighting and a barely noticeable sound track, the performers face their audience, as one writer put it, “motionless as ever, but glowing with exhaustion.”3 In the video documentation of the performance, the rapt attention of the audience is apparent, as is the restlessness of certain onlookers, as they shift their weight back and forth in their uncomfortable seats, in what the reviewer Andrew Boynton described as “little dramas” within the audience.4
Hassabi’s choreography is characteristically in pursuit of stillness through movement, and the changes that occur during the performance of PREMIERE are almost imperceptible and are made audible only by the movement on the hollow black floor of the theater. This style of movement—characterized by a glacial, tectonic rate of change—is a common thread in her works, which equally engage the specific conditions in which they are performed, whether in theaters or galleries or in ordinary public spaces. Whatever the context of presentation, her live performances recede, evading presence in the traditional sense of the word. Her works point to their own mediation; they are discrete despite the ways in which they unfold throughout varied spaces and over extended periods of time. Hassabi is a choreographer of an antispectacular medium, indifferent to the expectations of viewer, audience, witness, bystander. This indifference is crucial to the exploration of new modes of presentation within both the performing and the visual arts, all the while remaining firmly rooted in a history of dance.
1. Raimundas Malašauskas, “oO,” Cypriot and Lithuanian Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale, exhibition brochure, unpaged.
2. Amelia Jones, “Temporal Anxiety / ‘Presence’ in Absentia: Experiencing Performance as Documentation,” in Archaeologies of Presence: Art, Performance, and the Persistence of Being, ed. Gabriella Giannachi, Nick Kaye, and Michael Shanks (London: Routledge, 2012), 198.
3. Siobahn Burke, “One Step Forward, One Step Back,” New York Times, November 11, 2013.
4. Andrew Boynton, “A Dance of a Million Premières,” New Yorker, November 15, 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/culture /culture-desk/a-dance-of-a-million-premires.
Hammer Projects is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, Susan Bay Nimoy and Leonard Nimoy, Hope Warschaw and John Law, and Maurice Marciano.
Additional support is provided by Good Works Foundation and Laura Donnelley, the Decade Fund, and the David Teiger Curatorial Travel Fund.
Hammer Projects: Maria Hassabi is presented through a residency at the Hammer Museum.
Special thanks to 4Wall Entertainment, Acne Studios, the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, the MAK Center for Art and Architecture, and the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance.
The artists would like to thank Steven Kahn for his kind support and generosity, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Extended Life Dance Development 2013–2014 program, French Institute / Alliance Française, and the Office for Contemporary Art Norway.