A visitor follows the rope in Rope Dance, 2015, by Janine Antoni and Stephen Petronio, in collaboration with Anna Halprin, commissioned by The Fabric Workshop and Museum. On view in Entangle, Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College. Photograph by Arthur Evans.
Embedded in the Skidmore College campus, the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, more succinctly known as the Tang, is adept at connecting the dots. Since its founding, the Tang has showcased its ability to present exhibitions that offer the visual arts as an active influencer, connector, or counterbalance to a myriad of other studies and disciplines, from chemistry to political science, music to psychology. (See The Alt’s “A multi-discipline orgy of patterns . . . ”) The museum excels at student and faculty engagement, and that’s important given its setting, but the Tang offers much more than a supercharged academic experience for its internal audience – it presents an opportunity for the public to engage and participate with visual and performing arts in new and interesting ways.
Recently, the museum announced that Janine Antoni and Stephen Petronio would serve as this year’s McCormack Endowed Visiting Artists-Scholars, which according to the college, is a program “designed to provide total immersion for both the artist and the Skidmore community.” During their residency, the artists will interact with faculty, students, and the public; offer performances and discussions; and present new work. The exhibition that accompanies the residency, Janine Antoni & Stephen Petronio: Entangle, is a perfect example of the type of dynamic, provocative work that the museum can offer its audience.
To note that Antoni and Petronio are both accomplished, award-winning artists is an understatement. Antoni was born in Freeport, Bahamas. As a performance sculptor, photographer, and installation artist, she has exhibited nationally and internationally at many world-renowned institutions such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and many, many others. Her long list of awards includes the IMMA Glen Dimplex Artists Award, a John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship (“Genius” Award), and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship. Petronio has been a leader in the contemporary dance field for more than 30 years. He has received a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, awards from the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, and a New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Award. Throughout his career, he’s collaborated with a wide range of artists in many disciplines. The integration of multiple forms is fundamental to his creative drive and vision. The Stephen Petronio Company, which he founded in 1984, has performed in 26 countries, including more than 40 New York City engagements with 21 seasons at The Joyce Theater. In other words, these are two talented, respected, and renowned artists with a rich history of collaboration and working across boundaries.
Antoni and Petronio began collaborating in 2013. For the Tang, the exhibition, among other things, is an exploration of collaboration. “The Tang explores how media and ideas intersect, so it’s inspiring to work with Janine and Stephen who make collaboration central to their practice,” notes Ian Berry, the Tang’s Dayton Director and curator of Entangle. Berry, who saw Antoni and Petronio’s collaboration in action at the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia, was interested in their process. At the same time, he was interested in “making a stage” inside the Tang, which is something the teaching museum hadn’t done in the past. Antoni and Petronio’s work seemed a natural fit. “The Tang is a lab, a place for experimentation,” Berry explains. “I’m excited to see and share with the community what the process of making art looks like.”
One at a time, over the course of six months, the exhibition offers three distinct works that combine dance, video, and art installation elements. Rope Dance, On the Table, and Honey Baby blur the line between artist, dancer, choreographer, and audience. This is new terrain for the Tang in many ways, but the artists’ work fits nicely into the Tang’s ethos.
A few days before the show opened, I visited the museum and spoke with Antoni. Her enthusiasm and passion for the work was contagious. Antoni notes that she likes to “explore what happens in the translation between one form and another,” and that act is certainly on display in Rope Dance, which has elements of theater, dance, visual art, installation, and video.
Rope Dance opened on Jan. 28 and it runs through March 19. Attempting to explain the exhibition will do no good. It is meant to be experienced. That said, picture this — you’re standing on the edge of the gallery, and the first thing you encounter is an empty chair below a video of elderly woman, which is projected on a scrim. The woman’s expression is joyful, intense, focused as she watches something off camera. At first glance, the video is faded, ghostly. You enter a dark room with only a rope to guide you. Your senses shift and you become aware of your body, the touch of your fingers along the rope, and your loss of balance without your vision. The wing empties to the opposite side of the scrim, where the video is crisp and colorful above another spot lit chair. Ambient sound filters in, and you understand that the woman is on a deck, overlooking her garden and some sort of performance. The woman is legendary movement artist Anna Halprin, who’s watching her rope dance being performed by Antoni and Petronio. It’s a moving video. Afterward, the visitor travels down the opposite wing, in the dark, once again guided only by a rope. The installation is transformative, but it is only one part of the larger work. Several times during the exhibition, the artists in performance will facilitate a group experience that employs the rope as originally activated by Halprin.
The audience, in its many forms, is central to the work. “Anna has a wonderful ability to put herself in the body of the audience,” Antoni notes. The video demonstrates this ability. Petronio adds that “the time on the rope, the lack of light, the restriction of fences encourages a quieter and clearer communication between us. I wanted that experience for the viewers who are ready to make the walk.”
“I’m thrilled to unpack the exhibition with students and the public,” Antoni tells me. “During the performance, there’s a sense that we’re discovering it together. The viewer is allowing me to witness myself in the moment, to be there, to exchange energy.”
The sometimes overt, sometimes elusive exchanges between Antoni, Petronio, and Halprin (and the Tang, for that matter) is what makes Rope Dance profound. Both Antoni and Petronio speak about how collaboration cracked open their process to let new light in. Petronio notes that collaboration has always been part of his practice. “My world began as a result of collaboration on the stage with composers and visual artists.” Over email from halfway around the world, he explains, “I like a good fight, to measure myself against a partner, and to push beyond my way of seeing and creating.” At the Tang, I ask Antoni about collaboration. “You have to break out of your own rules,” she says. “It helps me stretch and grow, and it’s an opportunity to let go of some of those rules.”
Parts two and three of the exhibition will offer additional ways to engage the body and mind. Beginning on April 6, the Tang will transform the space for On the Table, which will run through April 30. Imagine a theater set in the gallery that resembles a dining room. The tablecloth in that room is made of 200 neckties, twelve of which can be worn by visitors who choose to sit at the table. The Tang will host a series of dinners with students in the exhibition, and the setting will allow them to discuss issues they feel are important. (Antoni and Petronio will participate in the first of these dinners.) During museum hours, the public will be invited to enter the installation, have exchanges at the table, and even have the opportunity to adjust the lighting to reflect the mood of the conversation.
Lastly, Honey Baby will run from May 13 to July 16. The installation will offer an immersive experience for the viewer. Visitors will be able to recline on a horizontal plane and view the video that hangs above them. The experience aims to confound the notion of the body’s relation to gravity, says the Tang. The 14-minute video captures a folding and tumbling male body suspended in a honey-filled environment. Viscous liquid dripping down a body in development transformation reveals a uniquely sensual relationship between subject and host. “We are engaging the viewer by making them shift their bodies to experience the work,” Petronio notes. “The shift to prone gives the relationship between viewer and installation another kind of meaning.” The work, which originated on a proscenium stage during one of Petronio’s dances, has been transformed. “It was profound to have it evolve into an intimate, personal, and much more delicate experience.”
The Tang as laboratory helps make this evolution and experimentation possible. As the artists test and retest, mine the material, and weave the maker, the mover, and the viewer together, the Tang itself serves a collaborator and framing device. As for Rope Dance, the first part of the three-part exhibition, this dynamic makes for a compelling and profound experience – one that shouldn’t be missed.
If you’re interested in learning more from the artists themselves, Antoni and Petronio will be on the Skidmore College campus in March and in April. The first public talk is scheduled for 5:30pm on March 2 at the Tang.
For more information on the exhibition and the schedule of the events, visit tang.skidmore.edu.