Last Wednesday evening at 8 p.m., audience members loosely filled the benches of the very ecclesiastical-looking auditorium inside New York’s Society for Ethical Culture for a performance of Agatha Gothe-Snape’s Performa 15 commission, Rhetorical Chorus (LW). The LW stands for Lawrence Weiner. A press release necessarily discloses, “Rhetorical Chorus (LW) [was] inspired by a chance encounter with legendary conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner that explores the role of the physical body in transmitting and receiving knowledge.”
It goes on to explain that the work compiles a “gestural lexicon” of Weiner’s hand movements, presented by an improvised cheironomic choral performance together with a real-time PowerPoint presentation, “each illuminating the dual lexicons of Lawrence Weiner.” Cheironomia, it is noted, is an antiquated musical system notated by hand gestures. The performance is intended to “[unravel] the interconnecting legacies of modernism and conceptual art in their [Weiner and Gothe-Snape’s] respective practices.”
Above the stage, engraved gold letters read “THE PLACE WHERE PEOPLE MEET TO SEEK THE HIGHEST IS HOLY GROUND.” A white-haired woman in a white shirt and flowing black-and-white checkered pants sat on a bench at the back of the stage, posed with an attitude of vacant complacency, a vacuum amid the audience’s quiet chatter.
Twin screens on either side of the stage portrayed images simultaneously akin to: a half-unbent paper clip, the letter S with a short tail, a cartoon ear, a stick figure in a fetal position, or a sideways question mark, to give you a well-rounded idea of the shape. Superimposed on a simple architectural blueprint of the very building we were in, they rotated, out of sync with each other.
At around 8:10, the lights went down and a video began to play on a small TV screen. An impressively bearded man (Lawrence Weiner) spoke. “Do we accept Aristotle?” he asked, refraining from stroking his beard. “There are only two possibilities. All things are happening in the same time and the same place.” He broached other, indistinguishable questions. The woman in the checkered pants remained as she was: blank.
A man emerged from a door in the back of the stage, attired in head-to-toe white. He cleared his throat under a spotlight. It was then that we learned he had an Australian accent. “Each rock has a place in the sun,” he said. He laughed maniacally. He began to twitch spasmodically, flapping his arms and stretching in contorted positions. “I don’t think it has anything to do with anything!” he shouted. “Use the work to soothe desire. The work has no metaphors. Graphic design is viscerallllll.” His vowels took a deep dive on the last word, resulting in what offensively sounded like a severe speech impediment.
“You only make art when you’re not contented with the figure of the world presented to you,” he finally said, coherent at last. I looked away. When I checked the stage again, the door was open again, and he had disappeared.
An auditorium door slammed, then creaked open. The figure of Lawrence Weiner was still playing silently; his beard moved incrementally right to left, up and down, along with his voice.
Alone on stage, the woman in checkered pants arose, hesitantly, of course. In a roundabout way, she wandered to the center of the stage, then slightly to the left, where there was a projector. Slowly, she moved her hands; open, then closed, as if in wonderment. The projector turned on, and her hands appeared above the stage. She continued to experiment.
Then, something amazing happened.
Audience members began to rise from their seats, as though responding to an inaudible call. Six in powder-blue robes and four in peach, each wearing flat white tennis shoes, filed onto the stage, arranging themselves as a choir to the right of the entranced woman. Their robes, which all had the image of hands stretching across to each other similar to those in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, could have come straight off the racks of Opening Ceremony. The videos on either side of the stage faded into a soft ombré of corresponding blue and peach.
They began to sing, but it wasn’t quite singing. Conducted by the woman in checkered pants—recall, too, that this was an improvised performance—the singers began to trill and shriek softly, in a perfect, cacophonous harmony. They chirped individual tiny scales and arpeggios, which turned into wild calls and ululating. Some sang “ahhhh,” as though they were sitting in the dentist’s chair, while others sighed or laughed or whimpered like babies. The singers constantly rotated positions as they performed this most beautiful opera, like a shapeless choir of angels. (The hands on their robes could be confused for mini-wings.) They laughed and wailed and made “choo-choo” noises. One woman said, “Ha!” sharply, in the midst of a general pause. The singers crested into a crescendo of chatter, sounding as though they were euphoniously delivering a monologue of nonsense in their own private plays. Someone said, “Stop!” And it was over.