Janine Antoni: "Swoon"; Capp Street Project * San Francisco, California
by Kevin Radley
Capp Street Project has for nearly fifteen years provided San Francisco art audiences with an outside perspective of installation work stretching beyond the Bay Area's own regional boundaries. In recent years, artists such as Fred Wilson, Mildred Howard, and the Art Guys have contributed to Capp Street's on and off-site projects with exceptional results.
The most recent installation to this ongoing lineage is Janine Antoni's "Swoon." What is immediately apparent about the installation is the lack of the obvious. Since Antoni's much-chronicled working process and material selection has preceded her, there is anticipation as to what is to be expected of the artist. As the viewer enters the gallery, it becomes abundantly clear that the previous material strategies and applications are nowhere to be seen. Antoni has not left a trace of herself anywhere in the gallery. There are no 600-pound blocks of intensely chewed-upon chocolate, or masticated chunks of lard oozing over a slightly raised platform, nor are there expressionistic swaths of hair care products on the gallery floor.
With "Swoon," the viewer approaches the outside wall of the installation. A pair of speakers mounted to the top of the wall plays a looped audio tape of a woman taking short, staccato-like breaths. Behind the draped wall, the space is divided in half by a ceiling-to-floor curtain of deep red velvet, highlighted by a series of small spotlights. A large video projection screen is the only other source of illumination, and is placed behind the slightly raised curtain. The projected image on the screen is of ballet dancers working in pas de deux. The sound track filling this narrow, hollowed theater set is Tchaikovsky's overture to "Swan Lake." From underneath the curtain, only the dancer's lower torsos can be seen careening around on the bare stage. There is a mesmerizing quality about the moment, the power and beauty of the dancers, and the music is undeniable. The pair's dancing bodies and legs twist, spin, and spiral in tandem across the screen's surface. The turbulence of the moment is taken to another level when you realize that your image is also being included in the whirling composition, via an enormous mirror opposite the curtained screen. In effect, the mirror doubles the scale of the installation--this gesture alone has sweeping implications, where once the viewer passed as a mere witness to the "Classical" moment, the viewer now is being swept away by it, in essence, swooned. The only escape from this visceral dislocation is to move to the opposite side of the projection screen. There, the viewer can watch the ballet pair perform in full frame, and escape their "projected other."
Over the last few years, Antoni's work has been aligned with a number of motivating working strategies, which have served as foundations in the execution of her pieces. Feminism, Performance, Action Painting, Minimalism, even Classicism have all played a role in development of the work. Antoni doesn't view these as separate ideological "isms" nor is she interested in emulating these issues for their historical overtures. This is about process and procedure. This is about the physical transaction between materiality and meaning. To some degree Antoni shares more with her Classical/Modernist counterparts than she does with her late Postmodernist peers. Antoni, you might say, is a RE:modernist.
Though "Swoon" rides a precarious rail combining Minimalist strategies with the lyricism of Classical Ballet, it is Antoni's editorial skills that forge these unlikely others together. Through a Minimal presentation of curtains, mirrors, and compositional layout, Antoni precisely establishes a Phenomenological and Psychological relationship between the viewer and the piece. It is, however, the projected scale of the ballet dancers whirling in the fanciful world of Tchaikovsky's music that sweeps us off our feet. Antoni is keenly aware of the power of these images and that Classical Ballet has long been held the embodiment of beauty, strength and precision, high art, and culture at its finest. At a point when the work could get wrapped up in its own nostalgic, romantic sweep, Antoni deftly re-contextualizes our perceptions by removing the soundtrack all together. Stripped clean of their Classical cover, the dancers are forced to fend for themselves. Gone is the grace and purity that once blanketed the dancers physicality. The pair now seem to be awkward, gawky, and out-of-balance. Without the music, all that is left are the squeaks, pops, and grunts of the dancers. Even the costuming takes on an air of being misguided. At one point when the female dancer is held at post and is on point, she extends her free leg and begins to tap the tip of her toe in quick succession. Without the music the metaphor is lost, and the action reads as obsessive, even annoying. As the pair move through another series of dance sequences, the music returns, reframing once again the Classical moment. The tape loop completes itself, the title and credits role, the performance concludes.
As with previous work, Antoni has stated that she initiates an idea by constructing an experience for herself. It is through research into the conceptual and material structure of the work that ideas begin to take direction and purpose. The viewer often witnesses the after-effects of theses investigations. "Swoon," on the other hand, incorporates the viewers' own experiences and plays with their expectations of that moment. By removing herself from the context of the work, Antoni only serves as a conduit to the piece, and asserts that it is up to the viewer to locate and define their own visceral and conceptual relationships to the given environment.