Ushering the Body (Back) In

Still of Beth Gill's "Electric Midwife," presented by the Fusebox Festival and performed at the Museum of Human Achievement in Austin, TX. Video produced by Thinklab Productions.

Corridor

It’s marked out in black tape on the white floor, a path a foot or so wide, easily transgressed. But as Beth Gill’s Electric Midwife unfolds—quite literally unfolds, with the six women swinging their limbs, curving and extending them in a manner both elegant and matter-of-fact—these lines are never crossed. The channel is a structuring device, dividing the dancers, the performing space, and the audience into equal halves. Equal-and-opposite activity is generated on either side.

The corridor is also a passageway through time (a wormhole?) that draws together histories of modern dance with mostly-male art histories from the 1960s and 70s. Gill’s set-up and movement recall artworks from and related to the landmark 1969 exhibition Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials at the Whitney Museum in New York as much as they invoke the dance of the period, which shared many of the same concerns and some of the same spaces. Nearly fifty years later Gill’s Electric Midwife underscores what the choreographers and dancers in dialogue with the Minimal and Post-Minimal artists featured in Anti-Illusion knew all along: there is no conceptual without the corporeal. Indeed, ideas are material.

For the Whitney exhibition conceptual artist Michael Asher also created an invisible plane, a gentle curtain of air blown down from a doorway, whispering a reminder that art is something one feels on and in the body. Bruce Nauman installed an actual corridor in the exhibition: basic wallboards braced by two-by-fours, which he had used previously for a performance in his studio, Walk with Contrapposto (1968). The video of that performance shows Nauman’s walk through the narrow passage as he assumes the relaxed-alert pose of classical sculpture. His hips sway to brush each of the parallel vertical surfaces, which emphasize his body’s leans and curves—an effect also explored by Gill’s dancers, whose leans are pressed all the way to the walls of the performance space. If Asher and Nauman demonstrate how physical and ideological structures organize and orient the body, Gill lets this play out on a larger stage, with a rich and detailed view. Throughout the piece the dancers, paired in three perfect mirror images, toy with the tension between a plan and its execution, the abstract and the actual, the formal and informal. Electric Midwife’s symmetrical positions and patterns are juxtaposed with simple movements, smoothed-out transitions, and a relaxed muscle tone, establishing continuity with a “minimalist” or “conceptual” dance tradition that was also pioneered at the Whitney in the 1960s and 70s. Its minimalism reveals color in the black and white, soft surfaces beneath hard edges, and an excess of detail. Indeed, Minimalism is maximalism.

Mirror

Just before the 1969 opening of Anti-Illusion, Deborah Hay, a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater, presented a concert of dances at the Whitney that made their organizing structures apparent to both performers and viewers. In pieces with titles such as 20 Permutations of 2 Sets of 3 Equal Parts in Linear Patterns, her large groups of dancers, dressed in white and arranged in simple formations, executed scores for repetitive actions that developed in predictable patterns, encouraging the easy “reading” of the dance.1 The previous year, Hay’s works had been favorably compared to Mondrian’s paintings for their simplicity and repeated vocabulary; those at the Whitney foregrounded process and evolution in ways that were also continuous with the Post-Minimal sculptures, installations, conceptual works, and performances of her own moment, by artists in her own social circle: Robert Morris, Richard Serra, Nauman.2 Trisha Brown, another Judson choreographer-dancer, was at the same time experimenting with a form called “Accumulation” that made its own generative structure especially legible. In these dances, Brown would introduce a gestural movement, repeat it, then add another. The whole sequence was then reiterated, adding a movement and going back to the first one each time. It’s a fun game—like the car-ride pastime about remembering what grandma put in her suitcase—but in its simplicity and readable rules Brown’s well-known work has come to stand in for minimal and conceptual impulses in dance. Along with several others, she and Hay provide a feminist counterpart to the largely male Whitney exhibition and larger visual art context, especially now that Brown’s oeuvre is starting to be considered in relation to serial, permutational artworks by artists such as Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt.3

Gill’s Electric Midwife inherits and builds on the experimentation and dialogue in dance and art in the late 1960s and 70s, using a seemingly minimal vocabulary of gestures, movements, and poses to inject mystery back into what first looks immediately apparent. The mirror-image precision teaches viewers to follow the dance, as the devices do in Hay’s and Brown’s works. What will happen on one side will happen on the other, at the same time. But the overall effect of Electric Midwife—rather than make it more transparent—is to make it more opaque. Is the dance’s rigor generated from within or from without? Is each dancer exactly the same as her counterpart or exactly different? Is the dance’s dazzling surface also its interior? Is the dream of an interior only ever an illusion?

Indeed, Gill’s dance recovers (is built out of) elusive but fundamental strains that were edited out of Minimalism’s and Post-Minimalism’s theories and canonical examples: bodiliness, color, femininity. Minimalist sculptor Morris evacuated his own body and those of the performers in Simone Forti’s Dance Constructions (1961) when he turned the plywood props he made for Forti’s works into static sculptures after her first solo concert.4 The Dance Constructions use the unpainted wooden props and ropes to generate simple tasks such as climbing, a radical approach to inventing and organizing movement for dance that was elaborated later by members of the Judson Dance Theater, including Hay, Brown, and others such as Yvonne Rainer. Forti’s works stay in one place like a sculpture which viewers can walk around and observe, but keep movement and the body explicit in their operations rather than just implied. The body and its motion are key features of Minimalism according to Morris and the art critics of that moment, but were largely repressed within the simple geometric objects and relocated to an ambulatory spectator.5 Likewise color was repressed: one of Minimalism’s detractors, Clement Greenberg, made an exception in his distaste for the movement: Anne Truitt’s person-sized wooden monoliths painted with glossy primary colors. Truitt’s works had terrified him when he visited her studio in 1962, and later he claimed their color prevented them from being the first examples of Minimal sculpture (and was evidence of a “feminine sensibility”).6 In the contemporary moment, Electric Midwife puts the recuperation of figures like Forti and Truitt on view in practice, demonstrating how soft surfaces can be impenetrable, a collection of colors monochromatic, and the superficial quite profound. The dance’s duplication is dizzyingly disorienting, even vaguely threatening, the power that spooked Greenberg lingering still.

Trench

The emptiness at the center of Electric Midwife, as it suggests the error of seeking hidden interiors, also provides a caution about eliminating humanity and specificity in history, representation, and really anywhere else. It recalls yet another work by Nauman, Live-Taped Video Corridor (1970), a bad dream down the path cutting through Gill’s contemporary work. In a corridor resembling the one at the Whitney, Nauman installed a video camera and monitor so that as you approach the monitor, your back recedes from view. Another monitor, stacked on top, contains video of an empty corridor. It is at first curious and then a little desperate to recognize your own figure (a side of it you never see) as you move closer to the destination yet move out of the bottom monitor’s frame. As the top monitor remains unchanging, it pictures the essential emptiness of both origins and destinations, as well as the transience of those passing through. Rosalind Krauss has suggested that Nauman’s televisions demonstrate the formation and ultimate unknowability of the self; Gill’s dance demonstrates the warmth, specificity, and collectivity of such a project.7 Although subjects and their formations may ultimately be opaque and unassimilable in certain ways, they are not erasable—and in fact trying to eliminate the particulars of an individual only amplifies them. As Electric Midwife’s life and texture haunt the void running down its middle, it taunts Nauman’s surveillance situation, insisting that it is people who make physical, ideological, and historical structures. Indeed, we design and are designed, articulate and are articulated, make and are made.


  1. Program for 911, A Dance Concert by Deborah Hay in Performing Arts Series, Frances Mulhall Achilles Library, Archives, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY.

  2. Jack Anderson, review of Deborah Hay & Co, Anderson Theatre, April 4, 1968, in “Reviews,” Dance Magazine (June 1968), 35.

  3. Susan Rosenberg’s book Trisha Brown: Choreography as Visual Art (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2017), draws out these relations throughout, but in particular in Chapter 4, “The Economy of Gesture,” 107-150. Meredith Morse makes similar comparisons in Chapter 7 of her book Soft is Fast: Simone Forti in the 1960s and After, “Disoriented Perception: Simone Forti in the 1970s and Process Art” (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016), 149- 170.

  4. In the 1980s Morris discussed building the structures for Forti’s Dance Constructions, “objects that had to be negotiated,” and their role in his developing sculptural practice, noting, “I built some of these [objects] for her. Some of these boxes I used as sculpture.” Benjamin Buchloh, “A Conversation with Robert Morris in 1985,” in Robert Morris, ed. Julia Bryan-Wilson, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013), 56.

  5. Key texts in this regard are Morris’s 1966 “Notes on Sculpture, Parts 1 and 2,” reprinted in Continuous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993); Michael Fried’s 1967 “Art and Objecthood,” reprinted in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock, (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1968), 116-147; and, Rosalind Krauss’s response to it, “Mechanical Ballets: light, motion, theater,” in Passages in Modern Sculpture (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 1977), 201-242.

  6. Truitt reported this in a 2002 interview. James Meyer, “Grand Allusion,” Artforum 40 no. 9. Clement Greenberg“Changer: Anne Truitt,” Vogue (May 1968): 212-213 and 284.

  7. Krauss, 240-242.