Xavier Le Roy’s ‘Retrospective’ at MoMA PS1 represents more than a decade of this French choreographer’s practice. First shown at Tapiès Foundation-Barcelona in 2012, ‘Retrospective’ aggregates various performance works in the same space, with each performer calling out the name and date of each work once its fragment or entirety has been completed. Given that this is a large square gallery with no sense of a proscenium that would split visitors from performers, these actions take place in proximity to us, at a distance from us, and even sometimes in relation to us.
Exhibitions of performance and dance often manhandle, annoy, intimidate and embarrass us. Often they can also amuse, seduce, and submit to us as spectators. This project manages to achieve both. Le Roy’s choreography can seem at once elegant and weighted, elevated and foolish, and in this context they enclose their spectators within an active and dynamic aura that hyperbolises the experience of looking at art, rearranging the habitual motions of viewing that we form in galleries. The direct address of performers can also be intimidating, and the minimal, quotidian and often absurdist edge to Le Roy’s choreography is difficult to watch from within the proscenium and under the glare of the space itself. Whether a particular movement or choreography should be funny, sombre or aggressive is always slightly unclear. Being unsure of whether one can laugh, look serious, engage in conversation or move in a particular manner within this large bright space thus casts a spotlight on every visitor. The act of observing Le Roy’s work here is also an act of self-restraint and self-surveillance.
Speaking very simply however, there is also an easy pleasure to be had from experiencing dance and performance in the ‘white cube’. One’s sense of space is rearranged and walls are de-emphasised. Yet given that performers are not static objects like sculptures that can be moved around quietly, so too is one’s sense of floor, door, and architectural space. By their very nature, performance projects in galleries also present curatorial and spatial forms of display that would appear gimmicky if applied to more object-based art practices. Arguably this is thanks to the curatorial and artistic acknowledgement that exhibiting aggregated performances entails some form of compromise, with each individual work somehow vying against its environment and the other works that it partners with at any given time. When the anxiety of this juxtaposition and antagonism is folded into the works’ display, the results can be extremely exciting.
As viewers we enter into an intimate contract with the artist(s) and curator(s), who reveal their own negotiation with the problems of the very project we walk into. Pierre Bal-Blanc’s ‘La Monnaie Vivante/The Living Currency’ curatorial project that was held in various venues between 2006 and 2010 is a pertinent example of an aggregated arrangement of performance works (in this case by different artists) that when performed in combination enlivened and informed one another, while also occasionally interrupting and conflicting with one another. The structural intimacy of Le Roy’s exhibition is laid bare within a room off the main space in which a handful of computers are available for viewers to ‘research’ videos of Le Roy’s back catalogue. Supervising this room are various performers during their ‘off time’ who, awaiting their next turn in the main gallery, support this space of open, convivial and honest conversation about the show, the artist, and their own role within it.
This conviviality even extends into the main space, where, in a particular zone of the gallery performers – one by one – engage visitors in conversation, perform their favourite fragments of Le Roy’s works and describe their relationship to it. When I visited, artist and dancer Takahiro Yamamoto laced such fragments of Le Roy’s choreography through a personal history of his childhood aspirations to be a performer inspired by pop singers on television in Japan, impressions of which he also conveyed to us. While there are loose curatorial directions that performers (around five or six in the space at one time) are working to, spectators also witness a tangible sense of performers’ own choices and thus their ‘power’ to be more than skilled robots of movement here. ‘Retrospective’ is intimate, charming and elegant. It is also perfectly awkward, transparent and worldly.