Navigating the Portals Between Works by Ligia Lewis and Firelei Baez — Dixa Ramírez D'Oleo

Hyperallergic, 09.26.2019

As a fellow Dominican-born black diasporic subject, I saw the recent High Line commissions as portals into what Sarah Cervenak and J. Kameron Carter call “the black outdoors”: a space of “gathering” for thinking about how to “hold” instead of “to have.”

What is the post-Enlightenment humanist project but ruin? What are the temporalities and lives of ruins? How can racialized and gendered bodies — and I mean literal bodies — resist the structural and social powers that would have them do the bidding of disembodied Universal Man? Do our bodies only repeat the quotidian rhythm and telos of capitalism or can they render these rhythms nonsensical?

These questions grow out of my encounters with two works commissioned by the High Line this summer: 19.604692°N 72.218596°W, a sculpture by New York-based Firelei Báez, and the dance performance Sensation 1/This Interior, created and choreographed by Berlin-based Ligia Lewis. Both born on the island that saw the hemisphere’s first maroon communities of Afro-descended and indigenous peoples, each artist’s larger bodies of work theorize the prismatic and intertwined legacies of enslavement and fugitivity in the African diaspora. In these two specific pieces, Lewis and Báez prod at the continual wreckage and violence of European “civilizing” projects and so-called modernity as each artist extends her reach in the U.S.

Though both Dominican-born, neither Báez nor Lewis create art that offers easy national(ist) signifiers. Compared with Báez’s paper and canvas pieces, as well as her large-scale sculpture at the High Line, Lewis’s numerous dance works are less referential to the Caribbean. These differences in content and form nevertheless have the commonality of growing out of questions pertinent to the broader black diaspora. As someone who writes about cultural expression that stems from an island that had to defend its ban on slavery for decades (from 1804 in Haiti, and from 1822 in the neighboring Dominican Republic) while surrounded by hostile slaveholding colonies, the sheer coincidence of these two artists’ work being featured on the High Line at the same time compelled my interest in juxtaposing their work.

Ligia Lewis’s choreography creates anti-representational grammars of sound and movement. Considering the extent to which the history of modern dance is irrefutably connected to racialized ideas of the body, her work is often intertextual, citing the histories of film, sound technology, storytelling traditions, and black theory. Sensation 1/This Interior, as well as another recent work called Water Will (In Melody), subverts teleological, linear time. In the hour-long Sensation 1/This Interior, seven dancers who blend in from the surrounding audience at different times sustain considerably long physical holds. What I’m calling “holds” do not involve stillness, per se, but rather muscle tension and discomfort, in some cases to the point of ecstasy. What they are holding, as described by the High Line’s description, is the “concluding note of a vocalist.” But towards the end, when the dancers stand in formation, they are no longer individual vocalists but a chorus. Energy pulsates out from some of the dancers’ fingers as they extend outwards from their expanded diaphragms. The sheer kinetic energy building up within each dancer’s body transforms the tunnel-like space, perhaps pulling some intrepid audience members to seek a proximity that was at times inappropriate and uncomfortable to watch.

Though the dancers themselves emitted no sound from their open mouths, a score created by Twin Shadow (George Lewis Jr., who is also the choreographer’s brother) filled the open-ended tunnel and thoroughfare that partly framed Lewis’s piece with clips of songs that sounded as if they came from a broken record. At different points during the hour, each dancer emerged from the (mostly standing) audience into the performance space to stand in a shaky pose that recalled a broken automaton. The effect was powerful and uncanny. At the end of the piece, the dancers and the audience enjoyed a  kinetic release through Twin Shadow’s live performance of a lullaby-like song.