This article appeared in the weekend edition of the Financial Times1:
What do you think?” my interviewee throws the ball back at me, catching me off balance, halfway through the interview. “What do you think about this tendency, or desire for live aspects to a fair?” Nick Mauss’s overall approach as an artist working across different media – on the cusp between fine art and decorative arts – consists precisely of such “attempts to take something that is understood in a certain way and shift the frame a bit”.
Fittingly titled 1NVERS1ONS, his most ambitious collaborative project yet – a “multi-faceted ballet performance” made with dancers from Northern Ballet in Leeds, northern England, choreographers Kenneth Tindall and Lorena Randi acting as dramaturge, with texts and music performed live by Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth fame and the DJ Juliana Huxtable – will be staged in the midst of the fair for the duration of Frieze London. When we meet at a café in Hackney, east London, the New York-based artist has just been to see Nicola Lees, who commissioned the work for Frieze Projects after seeing an installation Mauss made for the 2012 Whitney Biennial. Based on the antechamber decorated by set designer Christian Bérard for Guerlain’s Champs-Elysées Institute in 1939, the theatrical space “triggered something for her in the direction of performance”, says Mauss.
For Mauss, ballet held the attraction of an unknown idiom. He was familiar with Judson Dance Theater and Merce Cunningham’s work long before he saw a Balanchine ballet. “It’s not my natural language by any means,” he says, though the sinuous gestures with which he illustrates the odd point speak to the contrary. So why choose to do a neoclassical ballet, then, as opposed to modern or contemporary dance? Mauss thinks that “to have done something with contemporary dancers would have gone down quite easily within the context of an art fair, and there are aspects of ballet movements and repetitions, the extreme athleticism of it, that are very jarring”. And yet, by his own account, shock is not really a direction he goes in. It’s more about “counter-posing with a detailed sequence of events the frantic, anxious pace at which people run through the fair”.
1NVERS1ONS is designed to hold up a mirror to fair-goers and fold them into the sphere of the performance. “Kim Gordon did it in a specific way through her text, narrating the movement through a partly remembered, partly imagined art fair, which is maybe all the art fairs she’s ever been to lumped together into a kind of nightmare,” Mauss says. More literally still, walls of mirrors that dancers use when they rehearse in the studio have become an important element of the set. The artist sees them as a way of “expanding the space and making it a bit more confusing and layered. Transparence, you know.” A “transparent ballet” – with a nod to Francis Picabia’s densely layered “Transparences” series of paintings – is how Mauss describes his work in progress.
Those ballets that have served as reference points for his own have come down to him mainly through pictures or archives. “One ballet that I really love is Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Biches,” says Mauss, whose wider interest in the Ballets Russes stems from his research on Bérard and a whole scene of gay practitioners that he and his lover Boris Kochno mapped out. “Not much actually happens. These women are carousing and gossiping in a living room . . . a sort of salon,” he says, “but it also has this kind of self-reflexive quality. When it was performed, people in the audience knew that they were being portrayed as fluffy, sometimes venomous, androgynous, bisexual. It gets quite cartoonish, verging on ballet as a caricature, which is also . . . beautiful.”
When I ask Mauss why his creation for Frieze London is called a “living” stage, he concedes that “it’s probably more like a living room than it is like a stage”. This dedicated space, split into lower and elevated levels linked by a spiral staircase, has been furnished with chairs and loungers for the dancers to recline on but also for Gordon and Huxtable to use as part of their performance. Mauss invited both artists to “write texts that could float as kinds of tracks, not always in perfect alignment with the ballet”. Their words, accompanied by music, will overlay the dance performance as an added layer in a polyphonic structure, rather than a script or a libretto.
Mauss’s rather nebulous role in what is essentially a collaborative endeavour proves harder to pin down. “I’m putting into motion a constellation of artworks and ideas that are interesting to me and that I want to see in interaction,” he says, after giving it some thought. Whenever he mentions that he’s doing a dance piece, people’s immediate reaction is: “Oh, so you’re doing the sets”, to which he replies, “well, kind of . . . ”. But there’s also the architecture, the mirrors, fashioning the costumes, painting them on the dancers’ bodies, putting on their make-up. Then it dawns on him: “Perhaps that’s also my role. I’m the one who’s always there – that’s my performance.”