Simulations: Living Sculptures on the Public Stage
Ximena Garnica and Shige Moriya's performance-based public artwork, Correspondences, confronts the passersby at Astor Place.
October 1 – October 4, 2020
Like miniature copies of the buildings that surround them, the three square pillars glint in the afternoon light. Each pillar has two sides of white board, and another two of clear acrylic, the latter through which we peer. Inside, a body huddles or lies sprawled in its vitrine of sand. They are barely clothed; their tight garments mimic the texture and color of the dancer’s flesh. On their heads, a gas mask. Without clothes, and with features obscured by headgear, these performers appear as otherworldly bodies, sealed off in their individual tanks. Their audience, ebbing and flowing about the pillars, is a mix: some have arrived specifically to see the installation, and others are simply passing by.
This is Correspondences by Brooklyn-based Colombian and Japanese multidisciplinary duo, Ximena Garnica and Shige Moriya. Initially conceived in the summer of 2019, the project has now been redeveloped as a public artwork. Its visual resonance is immediate. The performers, writhing in the sand of their dusty chambers, reflect to the mask-wearing public a kind of horror laden with the imagery of contamination and confinement ubiquitous with the events of this year. Speakers hidden around Astor Place emit a low rumbling soundscape. Distant tolling mingles with what sounds like slow rasping breath.
Every so often machines at the side of each vitrine generate a 10 second blast of air into the tank’s base, causing the sand to shift and billow up. Triggered by the sudden unsteadiness, the performers slip down as if sucked and garbled into the sand. However, the force of the disturbance is not nearly strong enough to always instigate such a reaction, and the performers compensate by letting themselves flop down, with soft jiggling movements, and nestle deeper into the settling sand. As the blast finishes, their bodies lie still, folded over or face up, half buried, or occasionally covered to their necks. They freeze, limbs hang in the air like an upturned insect, toes kinked. After a while they emerge very slowly, looking upward, unfurling, staggered as if stirring from a long sleep. Before long, they drift back to standing—only for the sequence to begin again.
This cycle encapsulates a possible meaning of the work—the correspondence between human and environment, between man and nature. It's a dialectical oscillation of defeat and survival, between opposing, yet interdependent poles. The repeating rhythm of collapse coordinating with the whirr of the machines evokes a malfunctioning robot, a stalling, failing attempt to recalibrate. The dusty, arid sand and gas masks tap into an already existing dystopian vocabulary. With the units’ white exterior and trailing tubes connecting the blast motors, they collectively resemble a scientific experiment or simulation, where human specimens are pitted against the elements.
However, is there another “correspondence” occurring here? The title of the work conjures the sonnet of the same title by Charles Baudelaire from 1857, where the opening stanza reads:
Nature is a temple where living pillars
Let sometimes emerge confused words;
Man crosses it through forests of symbols
Which watch him with intimate eyes.1
Here, as in Garnica and Moriya’s work, is the interrelation between Man and Nature. Moreover, the “living pillars” in the poem appear to find a novel embodiment in the pillars assembled at Astor Place, whose “intimate eyes” belong to the performers encased within. Meanwhile, the remainder of the sonnet’s fixation with intoxicating “scents” and “perfumes” resonates with the gas masks and swirling of dust.
Yet in Baudelaire’s poem is also the correspondence between viewer and environment, between the alluded-to protagonist, the flâneur, and the “living pillars” through which they trespass. The blend of repulsion and intrigue captured in the poem is relayed now to the passersby at Astor Place, who flinch and recoil when a sideways glance discovers these bodies in boxes. Hurrying off, the same viewers betray their curiosity by peering backwards over their shoulders.
Baudelaire’s “Correspondences” presents a relational dynamic whereby the viewer is an equally active participant. Garnica and Moriya’s work similarly encourages the wondering movement of the spectators. The pillars stand empty throughout most of the day, with performers arriving only for a few 30-minute “activation periods,” and, noticeably, the press release does not privilege performance over the other elements, calling it a “performance-based, public art installation.” The priority granted to the spatial elements, the shape and distribution of the pillars around which the public moves freely, brings the work closer to sculpture. A dancer stands erect atop their mound of sand, gazing out, their almost-nude body in contrapposto, like a marble figure upon a plinth. Their acrylic casing, in that moment, appears like a museum vitrine, or a transportation crate, encasing its precious contents.
These living pillars recall the work of Minimalist artist Robert Morris. While married to the dancer Simone Forti in the early 1960s, Morris explored the relationship between dance and sculpture, predominantly through the figure of the column. His Untitled (Box For Standing) (1961), for instance, actualized the artist’s presence by way of a rectangular shape inside which he stood. The body’s relation to the space was mediated by the box. Morris’s work with columns epitomized Minimalism’s locus at the border of sculpture and performance. These works deflected the viewers’ attention onto themselves; how spectators approached the objects, circulated, retreated, paused, all contributed to the lived experience of the pieces. As critic Douglas Crimp wrote, “the coordinates of perception were established as existing not only between the spectator and the work but among spectator, artwork, and the place inhabited by both.”2
There is no doubt that the Correspondences of Astor Place are enacted most vividly in the spatial and temporal interactions of the audience that gathers there. Following Minimal art’s straddling of sculpture and performance, our attention is thrown back on ourselves. One can see through each tank’s transparent walls to the other side of onlookers. We face each other through the living pillars. Faces of bewilderment, contemplation, and passive interest reflect our own. Some arms hold up mobile phones, while others hug coffee cups. People FaceTime the performance live to others—one man to his wife, another to her co-worker—and we hear responses crackle out their phones’ speakers. The rectangle of the box aligns nicely with that of the phone screen. Visitors outstretch their arms, waiting to capture the blast of sand, the most dramatic part of the cycle, before contently walking on.
Onlookers slowly circulate the work, and, like Baudelaire’s protagonist, walk about the living pillars. Yet, despite this spatial invitation for active spectatorship, the work’s choreography seems intent on maintaining a severing between performer and audience. The dancers rarely make eye contact with the audience, and instead avoid our gaze. Unlike the “intimate eyes” that return Baudelaire’s gaze, the eyes of these performers look past us as if oblivious to our presence.
A child plays with sand around one of the tanks. Later, a man without a mask causes a disruption when asked to leave by security. Voices raise; crowds disperse while those who remain encourage him to go. This is the precarity of performing in a public space. The unpredictability of crowds is more volatile and more uncontrollable than the harshest burst of sand inside these simulations. In all these situations, the performers continue their gentle movements, indignantly unmoved. It is as if their acrylic screen protects them from the swirl of affect beyond their encasements. At these moments, the correspondences between spectators and performers are shut-off, foreclosed.
Crimp wrote in 1986 that the attempt at site-specific work by Minimalist art practices was “left incomplete.” He explained:
The incorporation of place within the domain of the work's perception succeeded only in extending art's idealism to its surrounding site. Site was understood as specific only in a formal sense; it was thus abstracted, aestheticized.3
Similarly, in Correspondences, we sense an idealized mode of interaction: of silent contemplation and gentle wondering around the vitrines. Our presence is essential to the work, however, only in the abstract. The idiosyncrasies of public performance, the bursts of confrontation, the invitations to play, are not embraced. The choreography continues its cycle unphased. The installation simulates a kind of engaged spectatorship without welcoming the complexity of public performance. Very little of the audience’s response at Astor Place finds its way back into the simulation, making the artists’ intention of Correspondences being “a hyper-local work,” to tour all five boroughs, appear confused. Presumably, without responding to each unique locality, all iterations would be remarkably identical.
- Translation: Geoffrey Wagner, Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire (NY: Grove Press, 1974).
- Douglas Crimp, “Serra’s Public Sculpture” in Richard Serra/Sculpture, ed. Rosalind Krauss (The Museum of Modern Art New York, 1986).
- Crimp, “Serra’s Public Sculpture”.