They were made for each other. Meg Stuart, the choreographer in search of the absolute zeros of the body, and Gary Hill, the artist who makes language physical, will together present their unusual collaborative work of art Splayed Mind Out.
It is easy to imagine such couples as a writer and a director or a musician and a choreographer, but the encounters of a visual artist and a stage artist are rarer and thus perhaps more precious. In fact, they are in practice unfeasible due to the fact that the visual artist may finally become a mere stage designer, his or her own art disappearing in the background - this happened to Jean-Charles Blais who worked with the choreographer Régine Chopinot - or the dancers may become mere animators of a visual artwork, and the contribution of the choreographer dissolves. The encounter between Stuart and Hill is reminiscent of the encounter between Rauschenberg and Cunningham: this is not about domination of one of the disciplines, but about the common good. It should be no coincidence that both artists were born in the U.S.: both acknowledge the influence of American culture in their art. "It's true that I feel completely American," confirms Hill, "although my philosophical and literary culture is completely bound to Europe. No doubt this enables me to be 'ahistorical', to work without being preoccupied and rushed, to see a difference between those who know what they're doing and those who are just doing." Stuart gives a nod. These two seem to be joined together like two childhood friends.
The truth is they have met only lately, still, Stuart emphasises: "I knew perfectly well what we had in common." She is a nomad, spending a lot of time abroad and experimenting, but first and foremost she allows herself time to wander when approaching the body, like the dancers of her group do. She has named her group Damaged Goods. That more or less says it all.
Meg Stuart belongs to no school. Her credo is the fragmented body, worked to reform the original chaos. Her choreographies are not physical, neither in an aesthetic nor a performing sense: she merely works the distressing simplicity of certain movements, and does not direct merely for the sake of directing. Her dance has often been compared to Bacon's paintings, but her need to extend the form even beyond that point inevitably connects her to other visual artists.
Hill was naturally interested in collaborating with a choreographer: the Californian, now in his late forties, has since 1973 conducted in his videos, screened and acclaimed around the world, research that combines texts and bodies and carefully studies the physical essence of language. His films contain an entire language of signs: putting the hand on the mouth (Incidence of Catastrophe, 1987); a book being browsed through and hands turning (Liminal Objects, 1995); a hand being looked at as if it was being read (Hand Heard, 1995).
Studying art in Woodstock between 1969 and 1974, Hill was in charge of the artists' Laboratory TV and later directed Synergisms, a series of performances with dance, music, and videos. Stuart explains that the current work was directly constructed on the stage: "At one moment the dancers make with one hand a gesture to symbolise taking root, and Gary sees a tree and projects an image of a tree on the wall. The work was realised through a series of artistic responses to one another's suggestions. We were fascinated by the constant relationship to measurement that we set. Dancers are always comparing the distance of their limbs, and the sound that Gary worked dissolves the frames like a film screen: you can see close-ups and wide shots at the same time."
Hill has realised videos and virtual images; in addition to the backdrop, he has placed monitors on the stage between which and with which dancers create their dance. He has even written a text he reads aloud on the stage, and makes gestures. Just as he uses voice and breathing and the body and the text in his videos, he has incorporated a collection of his concerns and materials into Meg Stuart's choreography. Yet the more minimalistic his presence the more powerful it remains: it is simplified to the essential and leaves full liberty of movement to the choreography. At some moments the dancers speak, read, even write on each other's bodies. Hill, who is a bad dancer ("But he's getting better," laughs Meg Stuart), walks, smokes, moves a chair, reads a text whose syllables he disjoints almost totally, making the text all but incomprehensible: "Gary's presence is connected to my wish to convey a strong feeling of the weight of the body to the viewer. Our co- operation is not an answer; it is a study on the relationship between the body and the thought." In her own way, Stuart contributes to this minimalism by leaving out all unnecessary gestures from the choreography: "I wanted to show gestures that are physically very strong, something that you don't usually see: pinching the skin, tearing a few hairs and kissing them. This is why I wanted to create the performance for small stages. It enables a closer look, gives you a possibility to show the relationship of the limbs. It also enables a stronger feeling of intimacy."
Performance, video, text: Hill's entire production is present, and yet it does not push itself at the expense of the dance. In the same way, the disordered choreography of Meg Stuart incorporates into the artist's works a stronger feeling of the physical aspects of language, and also a rough appearance of chaos, of the communication breaks and cul-de-sacs of a permanent stage adaptation. It is here where the entire paradox of the duet works: that a dialogue with such richness is able to tell us about our daily failures in our mutual relationships.
Jean-Max Colard & Pierre Hivernat Interview originally published in Les Inrockuptibles, February 18, 1998.