Shadow Movements: Psychopomps and the Spectacle of Death
It felt less like a forest and more like a nursery school. Felted red blankets, sandbag pillows appliquéd with the letters of the alphabet, charcoal scribble drawings—even oversized dolls. This was the landscape of Kelly Nipper’s Black Forest, on display at UCLA’s Hammer Museum. I wondered at the scope and craft of Nipper’s achievements. But I also couldn’t begin to decipher their meaning. For Nipper, a Los Angeles-based artist whose practice has long explored the contemporary expressive capacities of historical systems of movement, this obfuscated landscape was only a starting point. For her residency and exhibition at the Hammer, Nipper built upon her research on the philosophies of Hungarian modern dancer Rudolf von Laban. His innovations went beyond traditional choreography and into theory, creating complex systems of notation and even applying his movement analysis to Fordist systems of labor in post-war Europe—Laban worked to eliminate what he called our unconstructive and purely emotive “shadow movements.” On a recent Thursday evening, one of Laban’s students danced at the Hammer. Clad in all black, with a mask obscuring her identity, she moved slowly, excruciatingly, through the gallery. Writhing and turning, she leveraged the weight of her body against the walls, the floor, the underside of the low-slung tables of Nipper’s installation. She was both mesmerizing and unsettling. Audience members crowded into the small oblong gallery, queuing against the walls and perching atop those sandbag pillows. This went on for over an hour. And though I knew her awkward movements were about space, and breath, and any number of well-researched “Labanotations,” as the choreographer’s system is called, I couldn’t help but feel a creeping sense of dread as this foreign figure made its way toward my corner in the back. Suddenly, those oversized dolls, with their eyeless patchwork faces, struck me as more corpse-like than playful. And then, she touched me. It occurred to me afterward that Marissa Ruazol, the dancer who occupied that faceless leotard, was herself a kind of shadow figure—in her strangeness, an unintentional translator of the space between the world of our understanding and what was just beyond. These types of figures abound throughout our collective mythological history: the ride of the Valkyries, plucking soldiers from the battlefields of Nordic lands, Charon, ferrying the dead across the River Styx. Called psychopomps (from the Greek “guide of souls”), their significance has expanded slightly in modern times beyond that literal definition. Analytical psychologist Carl Jung often wrote about the importance of the psychopomp as a mediator between our conscious and unconscious selves—in his case, the analyst. A contemporary and friend of Rudolf Laban, Jung believed that the myth of the psychopomp spoke to a universal desire for self-understanding in the face of the frightening unknown—and delivered a methodology for getting us there. And then, she touched me. In the case of Nipper’s guide, the translator’s intentions weren’t immediately clear. I was reminded of one of Italo Calvino’s cities of the dead, where a confraternity of hooded brothers are responsible for moving the city of Eusapia’s deceased from the city of the living to their crypts below—built in a mirror image of the built environment above. The only ones granted access to the crypts, “this confraternity’s authority in the Eusapia of the living is vast…rumor has it that some of them are already dead but continue going up and down.” The psychopomps in Calvino’s story are figures to be respected and feared; admired, but not understood. Because they are the only ones allowed below ground, everything known about the city of the dead has been learned from them. They bring back news of the trades and occupations of the Eusapians below: “corpses seated around laden tables, or placed in dancing positions…a girl with a laughing skull milks the carcass of a heifer.” Like the Labanian dancer, they are privy to some level of knowledge we aren’t, if only through sustained exposure. What is it like for a student of Rudolf Laban to occupy the space of Black Forest? To understand all the symbolism, the strange notational language, the significance of its faux Germanic setting to Laban’s practice, his (sometimes questionable) political beliefs, his contemporary legacy? But if we knew all those things, would we really appreciate Nipper’s exhibition any more? Learning to love conceptual art is often an exercise in infinitely delayed gratification, in becoming comfortable with the thought-provoking, the poetic, or simply the psychically appealing, rather than the fully understood. And moreover, if you feel you’ve gotten all there is to get out of a piece upon first viewing, perhaps it is a kind of congratulatory soft conceptualism—too eager to flatter the intelligence of its audience. There are other ways to keep an audience engaged beyond this kind of mansplaining. In the case of Calvino’s hooded brotherhood, the psychopomps transfix the living of Eusapia with anecdotes of the world below. They suggest that the mirror city implements their own changes over time: “not many, but surely the fruit of sober reflection.” And in a particularly virtuosic turn of postmodern narrative mise-en-abyme, the Eusapians, enthralled, change about their own city everything the hooded brothers tell them about the novelties of the dead. An obsession with the arrangement and activities of the dead. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is more or less the curatorial conceit behind the wildly successful Body Worlds exhibition. Preserved and plastinated cadavers are displayed, ostensibly for educational purposes, startlingly nonchalantly. In order to demonstrate the musculature of the arm and shoulder, for example, a figure winds up atop a pedestal as if to pitch a baseball. Beyond simply his physical form, the irreverent addition of a uniform and cap signals something more immediate about our desire to assimilate (and therefore overcome) our own mortality. Long before the controversial Body Worlds, strange funerary practices, death portraits, and even public viewing galleries with velvet-lined coffins at the Paris morgue have all revealed a common human fascination with the otherness of death. It seems, though, that the otherness of the performer has played a similar role in modern dance and contemporary performance art. The psychopomp, on a more basic level, is someone who looks like us, but doesn’t act like us. Someone whose analogous form gives us the ability to relate and the desire to seek out points of commonality but who challenges or even denies that point of relation. They make us aware of things about ourselves we might otherwise ignore. In Marina Abramović’s 2010 retrospective, The Artist Is Present, visitors would often change their route through the galleries rather than walk through a narrow doorway in close proximity to two naked performers. In the choreography of Pina Bausch, the visceral, almost animalistic display of emotion by dancers is often what’s praised most. When Chris Burden allowed himself to be shot in the arm by a .22 caliber rifle without displaying our expected instincts to “fight or flight,” it was our own physical vulnerability on display. These points of disjuncture, then, while not perhaps capable of semantic explanation, are moments of translation after all. Beyond artistic intentionality, these psychopompic figures are most interesting when they lend insight to our own shadow movements. And then, she touched me. When the dancer arched her back against the bottom of the table, then, testing its weight, or leaped unexpectedly toward the audience, it was not simply a spectacle of otherness on display. Transfixed but also nervous what her next move would bring, I sensed the terrifying scope of my own agency—the childlike unpredictability of what my own reaction might be. The Hammer’s text offers that Nipper’s work “can be understood broadly as illuminating modes of communication…Recognizing that the world is always changing…Black Forest captures a moment in time.” For that moment, that gallery on the second story of a building in Westwood became the mirror city to my own reality. And, like Calvino’s tale, the poetic couldn’t help but spill into my everyday.