What might be seen as a cross between a dance, a mime and a photo shoot, Cypriot artist Maria Hassabi’s live performances incorporate choreographic movements through time and space, common human gestures and the expected behaviour of the audience, to create a startling performance that viewers might mistake for someone taking a break from work.
In fact the whole performance Plastic (2016) at MOMA seems to be created around the expected reaction of the visitors to the museum, which can be characterized as one of ‘indifference’ or ‘obliviousness’. Perhaps it is a New York phenomenon, or an American one, where the avoidance of eye contact is preached to children against anyone who might be spending time doing something on the floor, otherwise trouble would befall them. And so people have become good at pretending that nothing’s wrong, even if all around people are falling down.
“Some people will see the work, and some people won’t.” Maria Hassabi, 2016
In this respect, the reaction of the visitors has really become part of the show. It is also a part social experiment; highlighting the absurdity of people visiting an art museum to look at art, yet obliviously walking by, even anxiously getting away from, a piece of ‘art’ just because it reminds them of something they’ve been taught from birth that is ‘dangerous’ or ‘troublesome’. In fact out of nearly 100 people that walked by the performance on the stair, only one woman bothered to inquire with a security guard whether something was wrong, and she also ended up being one of the few to realize what’s going on.
It certainly would be different if this was in China. People there would definitely be crowding around and looking, not necessarily wanting to help or that Chinese people are more caring, but due to the difference in interpretation to what someone doing something on the floor means, socio-culturally.
But one cannot blame them for behaving like this, since it really is dangerous on the streets, sometimes. The only query one might have is, what led them to not be able to tell whether they were walking in a subway station, a mall or in an art museum? How did people become like this? Is architecture to blame?
An overview of the poses and human gestures contained in each of the ‘dance’ / time-based sculptural performances reveal a relationship to the city, for they are implicit of gestures one has seen somewhere around town before or even felt like doing sometimes. In a subway tunnel, on a street corner, these are poses and gestures of the struggles of the masses as the city, stares them down.
The length of time that the piece demands of the viewer in the location where its conducted, is also a problem for people. Characterized as more of a sequence of still poses linked together with slow, minor movements of the body, the time demanded of viewers in order to gain an appreciation seems to lead everyone towards a state of ‘settling down’. ‘Settling down’ also seems to somehow be equated with ‘having nothing to do’ which is the perogative of lower, unimportant persons, a designation which a lot of people in general, try to avoid.
The title ‘Plastic’ refers to the connotation of molding the body, and in this case it is by the ‘forces’ of the immediate environment as well as the environment outside. But ‘Plastic’ also contains the inherent contradictions of the piece. While the title might describe a sculptural aspect, there’s actually nothing ‘plastic’ about it; its all human. Raising questions like, whether breathing be considered an artistic performance, it challenges the boundaries between a performance, a gesture and a dance.
The actual choreography takes into account the physical attributes of the space in which the performance will be conducted and uses it as a stage prop which may sometimes require imagination to visualize. In the performance on the stairs, it is at times a bed with caverns to sink into, and other times it is symbolic of a ‘ladder’ which people struggle to climb. In other places the floor might have just become a mirror.
Show (2016), held in the courtyard of the Louvre Museum in Paris, is a study of how the slightest changes to a pose can communicate something completely different from before.
As Hassabi and her partner go through slow deliberate motions, sometimes moving towards and other times away from each other, soon one realizes that it is in fact a love story between 2 women. Their un-interrupted eye contact with each other is both a source of socially-incorrect tension, with one as the pursuer and the other the rejecter and a captivating gesture as one wonders what they would do next.
At some point the slightest shifting of the angle of the torso of the pursued towards Hassabi signifies a change in attitude; Hassabi’s affectionate overtures are being accepted as visitors in the background passby, obliviously. They’re becoming an item.
Taking the structural limits of the human body to the edge in a representation of the ‘flight’ or ‘weightlessness’ of ecstasy, Hassabi’s partner elevates her upper abdomen with her arms and back bent backwards, as if her arms were rearranged front to back, during this moment of intimacy.
After some more gravity defying ‘flights’ presumably representing the maneuvers required to negotiate life, they both get up, and while still looking at each other, walk off together.
Careful to characterize her ‘dances’ as slow but not slow-motion since they aren’t a series of predominant poses but of the movement in-between poses, Hassabi challenges the traditional conventions of what a dance, a silent mime, and a performance are. Hers is not really a dance, unless sitting around can be called a dance, neither a mime, since there are some fantastic, monadic dance constructs, nor a performance, unless one would consider breathing a performance, in which case everyone would be performing whence one gets out of bed in the morning. But it, Hassabi’s performance, does prejudice an upstairs downstairs connection to an image, oft baroqian in flight lest she induces the surrounds in darkness and shadows, where the audience stands, becoming a beacon, shimmering on the way to the supreme. Often times it is of the mundane, with their estranged faces that is beckoned, as rivers rumble by, chasing rainbows on gilded pedestals, tangent trajectory divergent shadows, emergent discoveries, between viscous backs, as time, stands still. Frightful breeze, cold hard floors, fallen. A breath, a stare, towering indifference. Counting time passing-by, stillness broken by rambunctious gazers, disavow.