Monthly Archives: October 2014

Nick Mauss: 1NVERS1ONS

This article appeared in the weekend edition of the Financial Times1:

Nick Masuss©Jenny Lewis

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.

In addition to her curatorial role in the Frieze Projects programme, Lees was involved in shaping the new Live gallery section at Frieze London. I suggest, by way of reply to Mauss’s question, that such initiatives, though laudable (the six selected galleries will exhibit new live works and restage historical performances free of charge), sit oddly within an object-dominated environment geared towards profitmaking. The artist admits to having reservations about how performance exists in those settings: “My way of addressing the expectation of a commercial delivery of something live was to show that it is something that must be built up and unravelled, that doesn’t operate like an object.” Hence “the impulse to stretch the entire ballet, not simply to offer it like a sort of confection, but also all the work involved in it, the moments when it doesn’t add up.”

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”.

‘Concern, crush, desire’ (2011) by Nick Mauss at the 2012 Whitney Biennial©303 Gallery
‘Concern, crush, desire’ (2011) by Nick Mauss at the 2012 Whitney Biennial

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.”



Marvin Gaye Chetwynd

These impressions from Chetwynd’s Iron Age Pasta Workshop at Studio Voltaire appeared on

Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, Iron Age Pasta Workshop, 2014. Performance view, Studio Voltaire, London, September 6, 2014.

AS I LEANED over the table to assess the respective merits of two equally intricate pasta necklaces that were being fashioned before my eyes, a participant in Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s Iron Age Pasta Workshop spoke my thoughts out loud: “It’s like kindergarten.” Her painted face (and arms), homemade costume and headdress seemed to bear this out. Other similarly disguised Chetwynd familiars and some laymen were applying themselves to the task of stringing and gluing together an assortment of painted pasta, mostly of the tubular variety, laid out for that purpose on two makeshift tables.

Only this was adult entertainment in the making. Serge Gainsbourg’s “Sea, Sex, and Sun” greeted me upon arrival at Studio Voltaire and, stepping inside the main vaulted gallery space (a converted Victorian chapel whose walls had been decked for the occasion with large black-and-white photocopies of blown-up feline creatures, fish with gaping mouths, reptiles, palm fronds), I found myself on the set of Chetwynd’s Hermitos Children 2. Subtitled “The Case of the Poisoned Dildo,” the first installment of the trippy crime drama starring Joe Scotland, the director of Studio Voltaire, as female detective Joan Shipman had received mixed reviews at Nicolas Bourriaud’s “Altermodern,” the fourth Tate Triennial, in 2009.

Footage from Saturday evening’s live performances, continually recorded by a member of Chetwynd’s troupe (in full costume), will feed into the second episode, which will be shown at Studio Voltaire October 12–December 14 alongside props and stage sets used in the production. Hermitos Children 2 promises to feature, among other things, “catting (similar to dogging, but solely with women and on boats).” But for the time-being we had to content ourselves with pasta-necklace making.

Once completed, these were then presented to the Discerning Eye, seated high up on a mound, at the bottom of which some tangerines and baked figurines had been placed, presumably as offerings. The shrouded black figure would hold each necklace up to the light and carefully inspect it, before emphatically demonstrating its approval or disapproval by either returning it to the supplicant or dashing it to the ground along with his or her hopes, amid cheering or alternately booing from the audience gathered near to witness the trial.

The Iron Age Pasta Workshop and accompanying rituals, which dominated the first half of the evening’s proceedings, directed by Chetwynd herself, periodically gave way to other forms of entertainment, above all acrobatic feats loosely inspired by Minoan bull-leaping. These were nimbly performed by the artist, wearing nothing but a red loincloth and a patterned swashbuckling cape, which, if anything, made her look like Spartacus, the Thracian slave whose name she took on in 2006 and discarded last year in favor of Marvin Gaye. (This is meant to be her last, but give her a few more years, I say.)

Together with a fellow aerialist, also topless, Chetwynd would leap into the air and somersault above a “charging” black plush-toy bull with gilded horns (its discrete parts barely held together by a crew of dedicated two-footed bodies), suitably unnerved by being repeatedly struck beforehand with olive branches to the sound of beating drums and amid drifts of incense—a spectacle designed to stimulate all of the senses.

“We come from Imagination,” a young woman remarked, after I made conjectures about her distant Greek origins, largely based on what she was wearing: a white tunic with stark geometric patterns in a palette of blue, ochre and yellow. In fact, the next “number,” riffing on the Hindi cinema classic Sholay (1975)—and in particular the famous scene where the female lead Karisma Kapoor dances barefoot on shards of glass—catapulted us from Minoan Crete to Bollywood, in one of the imaginative leaps Chetwynd effortlessly makes, even if she doesn’t always quite pull it off.

She did on this occasion. As the event drew to a close, I stopped trying to add it all up and let myself be dazzled. Chetwynd’s merry band of revelers, wanderers of the night, had won me over in the end with their infectious enthusiasm, their shoddy outfits, their childish talk of “baddies,” their pathetic attempts at lip-synching as they strutted their stuff and danced around to an eclectic mix of pop tunes. Orange and white neon lights bathed the whole scene in a warm pink glow, as if to encourage those present to see the evening’s antics through rose-tinted glasses.

Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s Iron Age Pasta Workshop occurred on Saturday, September 6, 2014 at Studio Voltaire in London.