Author Archives: llkoo

Body + Camera 2019: The Un/Certain Body

On Sunday, Mana Contemporary staged their annual Body + Camera festival at the Chicago Cultural Center, where they screened a variety of short films based around the central theme of moving bodies in moving imagery. This years title was The Un/Certain Body, reflecting upon the incertitude of the human form as seen in the entries from their open call submissions process. The all day screenings were further broken down into smaller categories, with the Chicago leg (having previously been screened at their Jersey City and Miami locations) featuring several live presentations of work and artists talks. As I did not have a whole day to spend screening experimental films, I decided to attend the section entitled, Public Place, Private Worlds, featuring short films focusing on ‘…navigat[ing] private lives in public spaces and distort[ing] the physical form of everyday reality.’

Though not entirely billed as such, it came off largely as an experimental dance film screening, which wasn’t really what I had been anticipating. Perhaps I should have expected it, as the festival is put on in partnership with the Chicago Dancemakers Forum and Montom Arts, but they do describe the event as a ’dynamic forum celebrat[ing] the intersection between the moving body and the moving image, focusing on risk-taking and independent artists, and featuring contemporary experimental projects that stretch mediums to their edge.’ Though there were a few films that were more movement, less dance—Jillian Mayer’s Day Off 1; Erika Roux’s Psyche and Cupid; Xiaqing Zhu’s Mutual Measurement—the dance based works overwhelmed the others. Maybe because there were more of them, maybe because the section ended on a bunch of dance heavy features—maybe because the ones featuring dance appeared, in many ways, less straightforward, more ambiguous, and yet simultaneously, more narrative. Most of us experience movement as part of our everyday lives, even if we do not think about it for being what it is—it is always labeled as exercise, or transportation, walking. I would venture to guess that most do not think about how they actually move through space, as it relates to their body.

And yet, many of the films that employed dance as movement, tell stories of the common, the relatable, the ‘normal’ that is experienced daily, and turn it into something else, something which is somehow out of reach. Consider Camiel Zwart’s Platform 13: a beautiful, poetic, moving story involving a Japanese train conductor, a lady with too many suitcases, and the suggestion of time travel. Over a million people in Chicago alone use the the L train—granted, this is not the same experience as a Japanese train station, but I’m sure even their commute experience is nothing like the one suggested in the film. This piece was definitely the most well received, if I remember correctly, it was the only one to receive applause. Maybe I am wrong—perhaps people do not want to focus on the odd, out of place movements of average human bodies in unusual circumstances, whether they come from Mayer’s taping of a person experiencing VR, or Roux’s endless, minute adjusting and framing of hands, or Zhu’s insertion of her body into public, artificial structures around Chicago. We do however, as was mentioned before, all move: the navigation of space is an intensely personal negotiation, one informed by our past experiences and where we perceive our place to be in the world. Rather than focus on the odd, singular movements specific to one person, the employ of dance in these instances offers us a chance to view our daily, at times mundane, routines in a different light, to rethink what we think we already know. Certainly, by the time we have been transported from the modern day Japanese train station to a disused, crumbling one, and then once more to a neon hued, futuristic station via The Great Wave and our train conductor, we have ‘distorted the physical form of everyday reality.’

Before Relevancy: Laurie Simmons at MCA

Occupying the top floor of the MCA, Laurie Simmons’ retrospective Big Camera, Little Camera is laid out in the typical, cyclical route which shows in that space follow. And while it may be a standard practice for the MCA, it is perhaps more fitting than it would ordinarily be. When you first approach the galleries, a short video plays of the artist talking about their practice, as way of introduction. This again, is typical for shows in this space, but two things stuck out: one, where Simmons states, ‘my subject has literally been the same from the first day in 1976 that I picked up a camera and shot a little sink in front of a piece of ivy wallpaper. I’m still shooting the same thing somehow.’ This statement points to the cyclical nature of her work–fittingly, as you exit the exhibit, you again approach the entrance, which echoes Simmons’ explanation of how she maintains her practice, and will return to certain methods. The second point that stood out was this: ‘The first pictures I made were about trying to reconstruct a memory and talk about the nature of artifice, talk about both the beauty, the light side and the dark side, of what I understood to be happening around me when I was a child.’

The main wall text viewers encounter as a prelude to the exhibition states, ‘Since the late 1970s,…Simmons has explored archetypal gender roles with her work. Turning a critical eye on tropes that dominated the postwar era of her upbringing, Simmons creates fictional scenes that mirror and unsettle the American dream of prosperity and feminine domesticity.’ While this is certainly an aspect of the work, through these explorations of gender and the American dream and the use of ‘props’ to ‘help define who we are,’ what Simmons is really exploring is the nature of constructed artifice. However, the curation of the wall text–both out front, and dotted throughout the duration of the galleries as anecdotal interjections–lean more towards issues of gender identity and fluidity, and the traditional constructed façades of femininity and masculinity. While it is unclear how much input Simmons had into these texts, it is clear that there is a certain push towards particular aspects of the work that more clearly address pressing, relevant issues of today, despite the fact that, as Simmons says, she has been making the same work since 1976. Museums do, after all, have a bottom line and struggle, as with all cultural institutions, to stay relevant. Gender, and particularly the achievements of women are highlighted: Sarah Charlesworth, Barbara Kruger, and Cindy Sherman are mentioned as ‘pioneers’ of the Pictures Generation alongside Simmons herself. When the constructed artifice Simmons is exploring is mentioned as such, it is alongside mentions of media, and reality– connections which have only been amplified in the digital age of the internet. In fact, in reading some of the texts, I couldn’t help but think of the MCA’s recent show, I Was Raised On The Internet, which was housed in the same space I was currently occupying.

And as with the I Was Raised…show, the themes and ideas feel less specifically relevant to a particular place, and more to the human population as a whole, although it does feel somewhat targeted towards younger generations, which I imagine the museum is trying to attract. But for Chicago, I think it always feels important to bring in bigger artists that can draw people in. And though Simmons may not conduct the same audience or name recognition of someone like Murakami, the visual draw of her images holds power in their accessibility.