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Reading Rämistrasse #82: He Shen on Trajal Harrell's Deathbed at Kunsthalle Zürich

[Kunsthalle Zürich disclaimer:

Shen He writes here about a performance at Kunsthalle Zürich]

Under such oppressive circumstances, what’s a queer fabulist to do? – Tavia Nyong’O (1)

Death has just occurred. The body is sent backstage (the back of the closet), some of the audience take their belongings and stand up to leave. However, the dancers re-emerge, catwalking in chic furs to commence the second loop of the performance. The show seems to have ended, yet it has not. As in Samsara, death is never an end of something, but rather a mark of the start of a seeming repetition.

But nothing repeats itself. The dancers perform differently, and we – the audience, some of whom are leaving, the others hesitating over whether to stay – also behave differently. We are part of the show, and we have played along, no matter whether we choose to stay longer or not.

Trajal Harrell, Deathbed, 2022, Schauspielhaus Zürich at Kunsthalle Zürich

Image: © Orpheas Emirzas

When a performance ends, does it die or is there an afterlife for it?

José Esteban Muñoz uses the term ‘burden of liveness’ (2) to describe the violence behind the assumption that liveness is the only nature of performance. He argues that queer performances such as voguing grew from the context of denied histories, oppressed voices and unspoken emotions. Liveness can become a burden, because it admits only what happens on stage. It allows the erasure of the history from which a performance emerged, and flattens the performance to a circulating commodity.

When Tavia Nyong’O wrote about Trajal Harrel’s piece Twenty Looks or Paris Is Burning at the Judson Church, he argues that through techniques of deferral, recycling, and subtle redirection, Trajal ‘at least partially dematerialize(s) the black body within presentational environments that tend to engage it as vivacious surplus’ (3). During Deathbed, Trajal was sitting with us. He would occasionally do his hand performance while remaining seated, or he stood up and joined the dancers on stage, dressed them up or walked with them. Beside dancing, the dancers sat in front of their spot, exhibiting objects or putting them away. Not only the structure of two consecutive repeated loops, but the dance itself also serves to consciously confuse and frustrate the threshold between the stage and the audience. The result is a critical mirror effect: as one realises that performing and watching do not always oppose each other, sometimes even overlap, the performance has achieved an afterlife through this contradiction. If we were already performing with them, are we not doing so all the time? Through this mirror, if we start to see theatricality in the quotidian, can we rethink our everyday life in a performative manner?

Trajal Harrell, Deathbed, 2022, Schauspielhaus Zürich at Kunsthalle Zürich

Image: © Orpheas Emirzas

Trajal states that he is not a voguer. (4). The vocabulary of voguing is present in Deathbed, yet not in its typical manner as in the ballroom. It is rather reduced and entangled with other elements. Perhaps, instead of its established language, the crucial influence of voguing is its possibility to contrast and contradict. The coupling of realness and authenticity (5) is still legible through Deathbed, in the mirror effect he has been playing with.

The power of contrasting and contradicting can be read from the development of butoh too. In the social-political context where butoh was invented, the general antagonism between Japan and the West forced the aesthetic of the body to become a racialised one. Butoh was the extreme fruit of attempts to find other possibilities for dance – occupying the opposite pole from the ideal aesthetic that could never be achieved. To celebrate the opposition to beauty: the ugly, the sick, the uncanny and the dead. When the Japanese writer Mishima Yukio influenced the development of butoh, he also noted its motto in his own work: ‘Beauty, beautiful things … are now my most deadly enemies.’ (6)

Perhaps the dressing-up of voguing and the body make-up of butoh both subverted clothing politics in terms of race, gender and class. And when Tatsumi Hijikata was keen to develop a new formal language ‘more suitable for the Japanese body’ (7), he was also making a point about aesthetics, just as Crystal Labeija did when she declared ‘I have a right to show my color’ and ‘I know I am beautiful’. But Deathbed is a ritual. It is Trajal’s attempt to engage in a conversation with Katherine Dunham across time and space, life and death. It would be too literal to read the piece as merely an assembling of voguing and butoh. Instead, it is the continuation of his imagination of the possible in-between. ‘I am looking at butoh with the theoretical lens of voguing and voguing through the theoretical lens of butoh’ [8]. From this starting point, he has constructed a fantasy of thoughts, feelings and emotions that never actually existed. Deathbed reveals a shared solitude that has too little vocabulary to be expressed.

Trajal Harrell, Dancer of the Year Shop #4, 2022

Performer: Titilayo Adebayo. Image: Gina Folly

Deathbed dwells in between performance and exhibition. In the adjacent Dancer of the Year Shop #4, Trajal’s personal story is told through the exhibiting of his belongings. The objects – wigs, bags, clothes, bath towels, his diary, computer, painting, broken dildo sculpture, maumet – have inherited the crystalised memories and emotions of his cosmos.

The rectangular shop layout resembles the stage set of Deathbed. It evokes a spatiality between the inhabited, the exhibited and the ritual. Yet isn’t the Deathbed set a modest version of the Shop space? The piano stools, wires and cables, perfumes, necklaces, even costumes – are constantly used as props during the performances. Their material history is fuel for the performance story. Even when the show is over, the set – the piano stools and the closet as a backstage, a stuffed toy – continues to sparkle, reminiscent of the show’s narrative. To what extent have these objects created an architectural space whose meaning is only complete when the bodies come to dance?

Trajal Harrell, Deathbed, 2022, Schauspielhaus Zürich at Kunsthalle Zürich

Image: © Orpheas Emirzas

Departing from Deathbed, I cannot stop thinking about Harrel’s attempt to break through the ephemerality of performance and sustain its afterlife. Inversely, architecture has long been criticised as physical incarceration, as its longevity fails to foster the desires of ever-changing bodies. Architects who are concerned about queerness, in particular, seek to break the confinement of architecture and cultivate ephemeral events, emotions and experiences. With their mutual interest in body and space, will architecture and performance meet at some point? Can there be something derived from the in-between of architecture and performance?

[1]: Tavia Nyong’O, “Critical Shade: The Angular Logics of Black Appearance” in Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life (New York: New York University Press, 2019), 44.

[2]: José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queer of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis: Universsity of Minnesota Press, 1999), 182.

[3]: Nyong’O, Afro-Fabulations, 35.

[4]: Trajal Harrell and trans Magazine, “trans magazine in conversation with Trajal Harrell”, trans 38 Reproduction (Spring 2021), 34.

[5]: As in the ballroom, ‘realness’ refers to the ability to blend into a group that is not your own. For example, if a voguing category for a ball is executive realness, the challenge will be to present your most high class business attire on the runway. Here ‘authenticity’ would mean to be an actual business executive in real life.

[6]: Mishima Yukio, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (New York: Tuttle Publishing, 1959). 402.

[7]: Susan Blakeley Klein, Ankoku Butō: The Premodern and Postmodern Influences on the Dance of Utter Darkness (New York: Cornell East Asia Series, 1988), 56.

[8]: Harrell and trans, Reproduction, 34.

Reading Rämistrasse

If art criticism is losing ground, we must act. That’s why we created space for criticism – Reading Rämistrasse – on the Kunsthalle Zürich website and publish reviews of current exhibitions. What is published here does not represent the opinion of the Kunsthalle Zürich. Because criticism has to be independent.

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