Entering ICA’s Upper Gallery, a visitor might have the destabilising impression that they are in the wrong place. A dark corridor opens on to two rooms, each hosting the complementary parts of the multimedia installation turned exhibition (or vice versa) ‘We move in her way’ by Sonia Boyce. The contrast between the steadiness of the architecture and the unpredictability of the moving images on display is attenuated by the kaleidoscopic fragments of the all-encompassing wallpaper, which reproduces the same distorted still from one of the playing videos from floor to ceiling.
The show is the result of the re-working of video material documenting a collaborative performance piece, which Boyce developed in partnership with choreographer Barbara Gamper and vocalist Elaine Mitchener. As the main player in a game of shifting dynamics of authority, Boyce enables a fairly unpredictable performative situation but avoids direct involvement in the action. Later on, the artist reshapes the remains of the past event, so to create an installation that aims to become a space for new experience. The exhibition takes into consideration the interplay of absence and presence in the fruition of performance art via a critical (re-)use of documentation. ‘We move in her way’ is a trick of impossible encounters. The spectator is invited to attempt participation in a no-longer-present action, whose liveliness is only simulated by the installation’s immersive setting.
In the videos we see the three performers in sparkling silver leotards, moving around colourful metal and fabric sculptural objects, engaging in uncertain and precarious choreographies. Members of the audience, faces covered with masks inspired by Sophie Taeuber-Arp’s ‘Dada Head’ (1920), participate in the improvisational acts, while Mitchener’s voice completes and comments upon the scene. Indeed, the vocalist, all dressed in black, occupies a peculiar position in the bigger apparatus: she stands slightly decentred, in almost apparent opposition to the rest of the players. Boyce seems to underline this element of disconnection in the construction of the installation itself, showing the video excerpts portraying the singer on a separate screen.
If the positioning of the black female body, in predominantly white male-dominated social environments has been a central object of investigation in Boyce’s work to date, here it translates in a wider and subtler reflection on questions of difference and relatedness. The many bodies participating in the performative apparatus come together in an apparently cheerful assemblage which is in fact the result of a submerged interaction of conflicted forces of reciprocal domination. Not only the role of the spectator as consumer and that of the artist as creator is scrutinised and questioned but also the very capacity of an artistic product to overcome the subtle system of division and categorisation that determinates structures of power in society.
Navigating the exhibition, it comes as no surprise to discover certain sources of inspiration from art history, like Lygia Clark’s performative psycho-physical therapeutic methods or DADA’s anti-hierarchic approach to knowledge in art (and life). Indeed, Boyce inscribes herself within a long genealogy of socially engaged performance-based artists. ‘We move in her way’ is just one more example of her understanding of the acting body as a favourite instrument to investigate reality and, perhaps, change it.