Mai-Thu Perret's Performances | Presented by Nasher Sculpture Center and SOLUNA Music and Arts Festival

Nasher Sculpture Center
May 10, 2016 6:35PM

This June, Nasher Sightings artist Mai-Thu Perret will stage two performances in collaboration with the Soluna Music & Arts Festival. The first performance will be a restaging of a work entitled Figures, originally performed at the 2014 Biennale of Moving Images in Geneva. Perret’s second performance is a newly commissioned, world premiere entitled o that will function as a series of happenings throughout the Nasher’s building and garden.

For the past 16 years, Perret has been making work born from a fictional feminist art commune she created called The Crystal Frontier. Under the aegis of the various inhabitants of this imagined world, Perret collaborated with her many fictional selves to make works in a variety of media and disciplines: ceramic, papier-mâché, textiles, literature, and song lyrics. In recent years, Perret has turned to performance as a way to collaborate with others outside of The Crystal Frontier, working with friends who specialize in the various disciplines of dance, choreography, song writing, theater, and music. With performances such as The Ballad of a Russian Doll (2010), a musical collaboration between Perret, singer-song writer Tamara Barnett-Herrin, and musician Nigel Doyle, or Love Letters in Ancient Books (2011), the artist’s first dance project for the stage that was inspired by George Herriman’s famous comic book Krazy Kat, Perret is able to move out of the world of her creation to realize performances that are relatively self-sufficient and explore her interests beyond her long-standing work The Crystal Frontier.

With her two performances at the Nasher, Perret presents works that represent both her recent past, as well as her current areas of interest. Figures reflects the artist’s research into woman’s role in the development of computer technology and the writings of Indian author and former computer programmer, Vikram Chandra, whose 2013 book Mirrored Mind: My Life in Letters and Code describes the aesthetics of code writing and the connections between art and technology. Further influences include Perret’s readings on meditation and the tantric practices of Kashmir Shaivism, as well as her fascination with American Utopias and the various religious and non-religious movements in the U.S. during the 19th and 20th centuries. These wide-ranging and diverse interests culminate in Figures, which features a life-size marionette, whose body is animated by dancer Anja Schmidt. During the performance, the two figures (dancer and puppet) enact an elaborate narrative that involves an Indian mystic, a 19th-century American Shaker, a 1950s computer programmer, an Artificial Intelligence, and a journalist. The performance begins with the dancer and puppet as separate entities, and as it goes on, the two gradually merge then disappear, to be replaced on stage by a character with a typewriter (the journalist, played by Perret), who is typing text that describes the Artificial Intelligence. The staging of the piece recalls the Japanese style of puppetry known as bunraku, in which the manipulators appear on stage alongside the puppets, providing a parallel performance of real and artificial bodies in motion. Vocals sung by Barnett-Herrin relate the script of the performance that is set to percussive beats played by musician Beatrice Dillon.

While Figures is a complex stage performance that focuses on language and movement, o will shift the focus away from language and lyrics to the juxtapositions of movement and stasis, attack and decay, amplified and disjointed sound, and pageantry through collective procession. In a two-week residency in Dallas in May 2016, Perret, together with Barnett-Herrin, Schmidt, and Dillon, will create the parameters and musical score that will comprise o to be performed by students of the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University. Unlike Figures, which shares its script with the audience and is performed on a proscenium stage, o will remain largely unscripted and will disrupt the traditional space between performer and viewer with unexpected sounds, music, and movements loosely choreographed by Perret and Schmidt. In this way, o falls into the context of happenings, a type of performance art coined in 1957 by American artist Allan Kaprow.

The lineage of happenings can be traced through the various avant-garde movements of the 20th century: Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and Fluxus, as well as the deconstruction of traditional dance as found in the work of dancers Trisha Brown, Anna Halprin, and Steve Paxton. Blending artistic media and incorporating elements of chance, temporality, and the mundane, happenings revolutionized performance and theater when Kaprow began staging them in 1957. Artists such as John Cage, who experimented with musical happenings as early as 1951 at Black Mountain College, and Claes Oldenburg, who staged Dallas’ first happening in 1962, along with many other visual artists who developed interests in movement and working with the body (such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jim Dine, and Carolee Schneemann), likewise contributed to the evolution of dance, theater, and the breaking of the fourth wall. Performance was no longer confined by a clearly identifiable setting or framework, but it was now limitless in terms of activities, locations, performers, and audiences.

Perret’s o assumes the mantle of happenings and experimental performance. During two hours, musicians divided across galleries and throughout the garden will play intermittently with live and recorded sound, percussive beats, and a range of musical styles and scales. Dancers will speak and create vocal sounds as they lead pageants and carry effigies reminiscent of the marionette in Figures, that here relate to images Perret saw of Roman Catholic processions honoring the Virgin Mary. The title of the work relates to Perret’s and Barnett-Herrin’s shared interest in speaking and semiotics: “o” can be a sound, a discrete word (“Oh!”), as well as a symbol for a circle or the integer zero. The simple title also refers to primitive languages that begin with sounds and utterances that are subsequently assigned meanings and become the words of a developed language.

Blending visual arts with dance, music, and theater, SOLUNA provides opportunities for international artists to connect with the broader network of musicians and performers in the Dallas area. Likewise, the collaboration directly ties into the Nasher’s mission of challenging traditional notions of sculpture and further promoting the study and display of sculpture in all its various forms.

—Leigh Arnold, Nasher Sculpture Center Assistant Curator 

"Figures": June 2, 2016 at 8:30 p.m. in Nasher Hall | Free with advance registration

"o": June 4, 2016 from 2 to 4 p.m. throughout the Nasher Sculpture Center | Free to members/free with admission

Nasher Sculpture Center