The Fabric Workshop and Museum has never shied away from provocative art; its late founder and artistic director Marion Boulton “Kippy” Stroud, who died in 2015, seemed drawn to exhibitions likely to challenge the average museumgoer. No doubt then that she would take particular delight in the performances and artworks that comprise “Ally,” the first major artist-in-residence exhibition at FWM since Stroud’s death, and one she helped realize. Even by FWM standards, “Ally,” which takes up four floors of the museum, is highly idiosyncratic.
Uniting the talents of sculptor Janine Antoni, the artist-in-residence; Anna Halprin, the acclaimed California movement artist; and dancer-choreographer Stephen Petronio, the show comprises three live performances (two incorporating video) that will occur at various intervals through July 31 and an exhibition of sculptures by Antoni containing relics of a singular action performed by Antoni and Petronio for a group of ten people in November 2015.
Antoni, who attended a workshop at Halprin’s Mountain Home Studio in Kentfield, California, before being invited for the FWM residency, wanted her “exhibition” to be a retrospective of her art making as told through dance; however, it eventually evolved into a collaboration between Halprin and Petronio, though Antoni and Petronio are the only performers and only one performance, Rope Dance, was borne of the efforts of all three.
Halprin provided the concept for Rope Dance, a performance in which Petronio and a blindfolded Antoni navigate an open space holding ropes and eventually inviting audience members to join them. Before and after the piece is performed, a wall-size video shows a close-up of Halprin, now 95, watching a dance in progress on her outdoor dance deck in Kentfield. Her changing facial expressions suggest a carefully choreographed portrait.
Petronio performs on his own in The Courtesan and the Crone, conceived by Halprin in 1999. In it, a courtesan dances, beckons seductively to her audience, then removes her mask, exposing her age. This is the only performance of “Ally” in which Petronio gets to show off his dance moves, and he gives a convincing impression of a female courtesan who turns out to be male (his “crone” is less believable, Petronio being a youthful-looking 60). The minimal-but-dramatic installation of red velvet curtains, a rope on a pulley hung from the ceiling, and a blinding spotlight at the back of the long, darkened empty gallery recalls the existential loneliness of a de Chirico painting.
Paper Dance, a solo performance by Antoni, is the epicenter of “Ally.” Derived from Halprin’s influential 1965 theater work, Parades and Changes, it is improvised on by Antoni using long rolls of brown paper. Antoni’s performance is riveting. Striding around in a black shirt and pants with a tote bag of tools and a power drill, Antoni examines wooden packing crates arranged around the gallery, props up a portrait of her parents, and picks up a wide roll of brown paper, which she unrolls onto the floor in front of her audience members, who are seated on the crates. Next thing you know she’s lying on the paper, wrapping herself in it, coaxing it into odd shapes, and in the process removing all her clothing. There’s a childlike rapture in Antoni’s frolic with paper, as if, after a day of packing up her belongings, she can go a little crazy. Her abandon is contagious and hilarious.
Swallow, a lugubrious installation of relics from a private performance you may be glad you didn’t attend, has a floor to itself and is the only “exhibit” component to “Ally” that visitors to the museum who have not reserved seats for performances can see.
A gold reliquary holds a folded ten-foot-long piece of cloth woven by FWM that Antoni and Petronio each swallowed half of in a private performance for ten invited “witnesses” last November.
Audio speakers hang above pairs of chairs arranged along the walls, allowing visitors to listen to the testimonies of the ten witnesses to the live swallowing act.
At the front of the gallery, a glass vitrine holds another piece of cloth screen-printed with the only photograph of Antoni and Petronio in their swallowing ritual. It’s being slowly devoured by tiny moths.