Essays

Navigating the Portals Between Works by Ligia Lewis and Firelei Baez

This summer, 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.”

A Drexcyen chronocommons (To win the war you fought it sideways) (2019) (detail), two paintings, hand-painted wooden frame, perforated tarp, printed mesh, handmade paper over found objects, plants, books, Oman incense, palo santo, 373 1/4 x 447 x 157 in (948.1 x 1135.4 x 398.8 cm) © Firelei Báez 2019 (image courtesy of the artist and James Cohan, New York, photo by Phoebe d’Heurle)

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. 

From Ligia Lewis’s “Sensation 1/This Interior” (2019) at the High Line (image courtesy the artist, photo by Rowa Lee)

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. 

From Ligia Lewis’s “Sensation 1/This Interior” (2019) at the High Line (image courtesy the artist, photo by Rowa Lee)

But Lewis’ choreography does not generally concern itself with providing closure. In an interview with Catherine Damman about Water Will (In Melody), Lewis muses about how to “build a fugitive choreography, one that’s always in the process of escaping itself, then coming back to reaffirm itself, only to slide away again.” Indeed, the notes of Twin Shadow’s lullaby carried themselves outwards in waves un-contained by the High Line’s indoor/outdoor structures. I imagined some of these waves bouncing off of Báez’s sculpture, which sits a few blocks north of the tunnel. 

Part of the High Line’s En Plein Air series, Báez’s 19.604692°N 72.218596°W takes the shape of a collapsing archway, conjuring the ruin of the Haitian Sans-Souci Palace, and in doing so, also alludes to Frederick the Great’s Sanssouci and the Haitian Revolution leader Jean-Baptiste Sans-Souci. Curated patches of wilderness envelop the sculpture, which, to me, evoked the Caribbean hills. By referencing the three Sans Souci, the painted brick sculpture offers a reminder of the death knell of Western civilization combined with the persistent jabs of black insurrection and the wilderness that grows over ruin. The archway itself suggests a portal; perhaps passing through the threshold might land us back in the realm of Sensation 1/This Interior. I imagined the two works looping into and out of each other during the three evenings that Sensation 1/This Interior was performed. 

Firelei Báez, “19.604692°N 72.218596°W” (2019) (image courtesy of the High Line, photo by Timothy Schenck)

Like Lewis, Báez’s larger body of work references and subverts a long history of Eurocentric painting and artistic representation by culling from a variety of other discourses and media. Báez’s work engages with the back and forth between the so-called great men of history and those who are most likely to be expunged from written and visual records: black femmes. Both 19.604692°N 72.218596°W and her exhibit A Drexcyen Chronocommons (To win the war you fought it sideways), which was on view at James Cohan Gallery earlier this year, featured the same print of panthers, hair combs, and hominid figures in tribal headdresses rendered in white against a sky-blue background. At James Cohan, the print appeared on the blue tarp that ensconced the viewer  in a figurative and literal shelter at the main room of the gallery; at the High Line, it appears on the painted brick of the sculpture. Spurts of vegetation interrupt the repetition of these black and indigenous signs. A Drexcyen Chronocommons felt like an inside-out version of the arched sculpture on the High Line. As the gallery’s website states, the tarped space, which also contained two enormous figurative paintings of black femmes facing each other, offered a “geo-specific map of the stars as they appeared in the night sky at the onset of the Haitian Revolution.” I experienced that part of the exhibit as evoking the safety of a cave, which is a kind of outdoors refuge. Yet these dual evocations (of a cave, and that of a particular starlit night) do not contradict each other; they each reminded me of our earth-boundedness, our relation to other critters here, and of both violent and beautiful histories that make up the black diaspora. 

A Drexcyen chronocommons (To win the war you fought it sideways) (2019) (detail), two paintings, hand-painted wooden frame, perforated tarp, printed mesh, handmade paper over found objects, plants, books, Oman incense, palo santo, 373 1/4 x 447 x 157 in (948.1 x 1135.4 x 398.8 cm) © Firelei Báez 2019 (image courtesy of the artist and James Cohan, New York, photo by Phoebe d’Heurle)

In those two evenings I spent on the High Line studying Báez’s sculpture and watching Lewis and her dancers perform, I witnessed several forms of patterned misbehavior worth mentioning. A white woman climbed over the railing that divides the walking path from the shrubs and sculptures to recline against rest atop19.604692°N 72.218596°W, as a white man who accompanied her took pictures with a large camera. She  leaned against the structure in faux-languid repose, as if the sculpture was a fainting couch. As my companions and I stared in shock, a black Latinx High Line worker told the couple what they already knew. They pretended they had no idea and scampered off to pose elsewhere. In the two performances I saw of Sensation 1/This Interior, several spectators whom I could not help but notice tended to be white women also misbehaved by imitating the movements of the dancers as they stood mere inches away from them. Later, I would remember that these misbehaving spectators enacted these invasive behaviors especially (perhaps exclusively) near the black female dancers. My thoughts in the coming days were not so much on the unruly audience but on the choreography and score’s relation to the sculpture. However, these forms of trespassing upon black women’s artistic work echo the historical violence of a performed white innocence. 

For me, a Dominican-born black diasporic subject myself, Sensation 1/This Interior and 19.604692°N 72.218596°W are 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.” To hold, perhaps, is not only an exercise in prolonged muscle tension, but instead an invitation to inhabit this planet in nurturing ways. Here, the black outdoors is not the High Line, but rather  the loops that existed between the two works.

Editor’s note: Hyperallergic’s in-house style guide typically capitalizes the terms “Black” and “Indigenous” when referring to markers of identity in an effort to encourage greater specificity. As per the author’s preference, which she has elaborated on elsewhere, Hyperallergic has opted to format these terms in lowercase letters, due to the author’s position that doing so emphasizes the plurality of black and indigenous identities in relation to this article.

Firelei Báez’s 19.604692°N 72.218596°W remains on view at the High Line through March 2020 as part of En Plein Air. The exhibition is organized by Cecilia Alemani, Donald R. Mullen, Jr. Director & Chief Curator, with Melanie Kress, High Line Art Associate Curator. Ligia Lewis’s Sensation 1/This Interior was presented on the High Line at 14th street on July 23, 24 & 25, 2019. The performances were organized by Melanie Kress.

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