ST. LOUIS — Performers breakdance in a city park, nimbly contort in a disco ball-lit flat, arabesque in an empty basketball court, arch their backs while balancing on their hands, toes teasing their foreheads. They float through the air as though weightless — ecstatic, invulnerable.

In Nicole Miller’s A Sound, a Signal, the Circus, on view at the Kemper Art Museum through July 25, these wondrous acrobats provide both visual spectacle and sensory backdrop; they invite our gaze, our immediate awe, but are never named or narrativized. To enter the installation is to be immersed in a three-ring synesthetic reality in which sound is the main act — what the multimedia artist calls “an inverted film,” such that “the soundtrack is the film and the image is a backing score.” 

Three screens illuminate the dark, womb-like space of the gallery, each playing a scene of a Black circus performer rehearsing in slow motion, often facing the camera. Before the lens, their limbs move through a liminal space between behind-the-scenes labor and audience-conscious presentation — an interest central to Miller’s larger oeuvre as an artist and filmmaker. Projecting from 24 speakers are dozens of intergenerational voices reflecting on what it means to have a body — specifically to have one in the United States that is recognized as Black. “I think my body’s just the most precious thing to me, but I tend to forget it,” muses an anonymous young woman. “I just realized how tired I am. I guess I push myself way too much.”

Installation view of Nicole Miller: A Sound, a Signal, the Circus at the Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis

In withholding the visual likenesses of those we hear as they recite verse, tell stories, confess fears, rhapsodize, and philosophize, A Sound invites viewers to make connections between the speakers’ perspectives and the kinetic characters onscreen — or, just as pointedly, to confront the tension between the buoyant bodies we watch and the gravity of the voices we hear, voices of Black people who are physically and systemically imperiled in the United States. “I think a lot about … how the history of my body is not aliveness,” shares one pensive female voice. “I feel like it’s underneath. It’s underneath death.”

As if commenting on the speakers’ experiences, animated lasers intermittently form words behind the screens; “here” and “now,” among other phrases, unravel in a tangle of illuminated threads. Created by Miller’s collaborator, Zak Forrest, these statements initially read as didactic, but as they visually accumulate they take on a mesmerizing rhythm, luring our eyes to and fro, to a different beat than that of the speaker channels.

The concept of the “circus” takes form not only in the acrobatic stunts onscreen — filmed in various practices spaces in Las Vegas, a hotbed of performative talent — but in the chaos of the engulfing vocal testimony, much of which speaks to the threat of death faced by people of color in this country. Mixed by Miller’s collaborator John Somers, a cacophony of voices in one section of the space smooths out into a single timbre, often highlighting a single voice or story, as viewers meander through the installation. If the trio of screens seeks the attention of our eyes, our ears are beckoned to the invisible characters we cannot see. “How do you feel in the dark?” asks an unknown speaker. “How do you feel?”

Installation view of Nicole Miller: A Sound, a Signal, the Circus at the Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis

Miller’s third large-scale installation to date — the first two at LACMA and SFMOMA, respectively — A Sound is informed by both her firsthand interactions with the people of St. Louis and Walter Johnson’s 2020 book The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States. “This book shows how American history is the history of anti-Blackness,” the artist said during a Zoom interview in May. “It was important to be reading it as I was meeting people in the city — to see how the past really has structurally created the systems in which my new friends were living.” Connected by curator Meredith Malone to a network of local intellectuals, artists, youth organizations, poets, and activists, the California-based artist was highly aware of her outsider status, and the potential danger of “using the voices of young people” within an academic art setting. “All of the adults I was talking to already had an awareness of representational art,” Miller reflected. “I felt a lot of willingness and consciousness — of the opportunities and limits of the process of recording.”

Within the context of St. Louis’s entrenched history of segregation, Miller hopes that visitors of all racial backgrounds might ultimately “see themselves as the subject and the work.” Explaining that the sound design “forces you to walk over to a speaker … [which] feels like walking up to a body,” the artist sees the bodily vulnerability of the viewer-listener moving through the dark space as a means of “consciously repositioning oneself to traditional tropes of visibility” — considering the urgency of who is heard yet unseen, or seen and unheard. “Making representational work is always tricky,” she emphasized. “It’s always problematic and always very powerful.” Concluding with the piano stylings of jazz icon Max Roach and his poetic rendition of “The Man of Double Deed,” the soundscape gestures somberly to the mortality of us all.  

Installation view of Nicole Miller: A Sound, a Signal, the Circus at the Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis

Nicole Miller: A Sound, a Signal, the Circus continues at the Kemper Art Museum (1 Brookings Drive, St. Louis, Missouri) through July 25. The exhibition was organized for the Kemper Art Museum by curator Meredith Malone.

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Eileen G'Sell

Eileen G'Sell is a regular contributor to Salon, VICE, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. In 2019 she was nominated for the Rabkin prize in arts journalism. She teaches at Washington...

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