Michel Groisman Opens PS 122’s Season

I have to admit it up front: I was pretty skeptical. I told Michel Groisman as much when we met briefly seated next to one another at The Long Table on Proximity on Saturday at 61 Local. Often when I go into a performance from an artist I’m not familiar with, I enter with a very open mind. I don’t know what to expect. With Groisman, though, a couple weeks ago PS 122 shot me an email and asked whether I might be interested in interviewing him for a preview. As is often the case, I agreed and only then went on to research my subject. Not much is written on Groisman in English, and not wanting to strain my Portuguese translation favors, I relied mostly on Internet videos.

So what was I supposed to expect from a guy who tapes cards to his audience? Gets them to play with water? Straps candles to himself and lights them while contorting? Or who does a performance of making shapes with his hands “composed of 3 independent parts” of “1 hour of duration each”? While conceptually cool, I suspected to find the work leaning more toward self-indulgence than inspired.

But, as is often the case when I get an idea like that in my head, I was wrong. Very wrong.

Groisman brought four works to New York last week, where he was presented by PS 122, covering more than ten years of his career: Transferencia (Transference) (1999), Polvo (Octopus) (2000), Sirva-se (Help Yourself) (2004), and Porta das Mãos (Door of Hands) (2007). A fifth piece, The Long Table on Proximity, is an installment of Lois Weaver’s dinner party-as-performance, and featured Groisman and his partner, Weaver, and anyone else who wanted to sit at the table and talk.

Let me set the scene for Transferencia, which took place on the second floor (with a lovely view out the window) of the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn. You enter the room to find chairs, benches, and tables with cushions all surrounding a small, maybe six-by-six-foot wooden platform raised about eighteen inches off the ground. On it lie the steampunk-looking accoutrements of the piece, all brown leather straps and plastic tubing. You sit, and eventually Groisman, dressed down in a tight tan outfit, enters, takes off his shoes, climbs on the platform, and after carefully inserting lighters under the thigh-straps of his shorts, begins to strap on the gear. The process is slow and contemplative, taking several minutes. By the time he’s finished, there are two long candles strapped to the bottom of his feet pointing backward, and two more strapped to his upper-arm, pointing down from the elbow.

He then lights three of the candles with a lighter before slipping it back under the leg of his shorts, and then proceeds to assume a sort of tableau showcasing the three lit candles. Then, very carefully, he shifts position to recreate the trio of lights by lighting the forth candle and swapping out its flame for another’s. Simultaneous to the moment of ignition, he extinguishes one of the other candles by way of the plastic tubing, which snakes from his mouth down to a guide on the candle-holding apparatus that aims it right at the flame. A light puff of air, and one candle is doused as another flutters to life. Then the process repeats for perhaps ten minutes. Then the sequence ends. Groisman stops, changes positions for the candles, perhaps adds another pair, and proceeds for another roughly ten minutes. There was a short break halfway through for him to rest; the performance was roughly an hour.

It’s hard to explain exactly why it’s so captivating, or such a moving experience, in words. Suffice it to say that my initial doubts were due mostly to a failure to appreciate how a piece can work from a truly successful presence based artist. Proximity certainly plays a role. In The Long Table discussion, a few people mentioned how compelling it was to watch Groisman as the flames came dangerously close to his skin. The postures he assumes seem sometimes precarious, and all the more so as he shifts through positions. Nor is his movement fluid and graceful in the way of a dancer–the pacing is even and there is a distinct flow created, but this emerges mainly by virtue of training your gaze on the candles. What Groisman is actually doing is rotating about as far as he can in certain joints, then shifting slightly to finish the movement, which occasionally leaves the flame for what feels an interminably long time mere centimeters from sometimes bare flesh. The nervous male in me almost flinched numerous times during one sequence where the shift occurred with the flame dangerously near his most sensitive masculine area (the protection offered by the spandex-y shorts notwithstanding).

Perhaps it just my own experience, but for all that, I rarely found myself watching Groisman himself. Instead, what I saw was the movement as reflected in the positions of the candles, and this fundamentally altered my experience of the transference for which the show is named.

You might suspect that this act should be occurring by transferring the flame from one candle (lit) to another (unlit), but the actual experience is quite different. With the focus shifted from the performer’s  body to the flames, what you see is a flame disappeared from one place (the extinguishing candle) and reappearing somewhere distinct at basically the exact same moment (the lit candle). In other words, it has nothing to do with lighting and dousing four candles, it’s about three flames which seem to be able make spatial leaps. The experience is Zen-like and meditative; space and time sort of collapse during the experience, opening up a fantastic, magical space. It’s the work of a very subtle but talented artist.

Another story. Porta das Mãos (Door of Hands) I didn’t get to see because of other engagements (it played here twice, on Wednesday and Friday). This is the piece I was most skeptical of–identified as an up to three-hour-long performance “about connection and transformation. Just by touching two fingers of one hand and two fingers of the other hand and never disconnecting them, it reveals an innumerous series of forms in constant transformation.” Performance documentation shows Groisman doing it over a projector, so that the images of his hands is blown up in massive scale in site-specific or gallery spaces, which I understand is how it was performed the first night. But outside 61 Local, I got to talking with Vallejo Gantner, the artistic director of PS 122, who told me an interesting story. Wanting to show the work to some other presenters on a trip to Brazil a while back, Gantner got Groisman to simply perform part of the piece for them in a bar or cafe, and the result–much like my experience of Transferencia–was electric.

If I understand correctly, for the second performance, Groisman shifted perspective to something closer to what Gantner described, perhaps better suited from the smaller scale Invisible Dog space.

In my interview with Groisman, I tried asking about these relationships in his work. A three-hour performance in a museum gallery that can engaged and disengaged in passing is different temporally and spatially than a more traditional, sit-down-and-watch-this performance. Responding, Groisman described his work in a way I wouldn’t understand until I experienced it:

[I]t is very important to question the barriers, especially if this is possible in a gentle and sensitive way, promoting a natural process, without forcing anything…I noticed that some knowledge is only possible through experience. For this reason I created works that were like an invitation for people to come out of a conceptual relationship to enter into a relationship sensory, experiential and dynamic.

So yes, I made a big mistake by not recognizing the potential in Groisman’s work from the beginning: had I spent all of the latter half of last week seeing and experiencing Groisman’s performances, I think I would have had a better time than I did. I do hope some readers out there have the chance to come across this before they make the same mistake I did, and hope I have the chance to experience it again.

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