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Embody, Friday March 17 at John Doe Gallery

I’ve seen Shani Ha’s captivating sculptures in action before; entitled Embody, the series consists of Ha’s wearable body sculptures paired with a dancer who is engulfed by the giant, malleable cloth tubes and performs movements with the amorphous matter. If you catch a glimpse of the disembodied sculptures prior to the performance, it is reminiscent of a bean bag, formless (though somehow still light) with a donut-like hole running through the middle. Any resemblance to a bean bag dissipates as soon as the performance begins, however, as the stretching, flexible material effortlessly yields to a series of surprising, playful, even disturbing forms in the hands (or more accurately, the bodies) of its handler.

The previous performances I’ve seen featured dancer Amélie Gaulier-Brody. Her movements are poetic and slow — almost uncannily slow. Her body looses its autonomy and becomes part of the mass before your eyes. Identity of any kind is nearly forgotten, making the occasional glimpse of a body part seem alien, especially when it is unexpectedly upside down or twisted and convulsed into unfamiliar forms. It feels almost mystical, even in the airier, more humorous moments. The rules of time and gravity seem somehow different as the undulating substance continuously morphs in slow-motion. She pulls you into the mass with her — into this separate place, and you are easily lost with her in the gentle, weightless form.

I love Gaulier-Brody’s engrossing, other-worldly Embody performances, so when I had the opportunity to see Embody activated by another dancer, Mathilde Chapellière at at John Doe Gallery, I was intrigued at the idea of a new experience with a somewhat familiar work. The piece was shockingly different, and I left almost as flushed and breathless as Chapellière was by the end of her powerful performance.

From the beginning, Chapellière was much more present as an entity in the piece, directly exploring her relationship with the object. This relationship was sometimes playful, with a foot or leg peeking out and twirling, and other times fraught with tension — at one point near the beginning as she held the sculpture behind her creating a rectangular silhouette, I was struck with the impression of a body bag. At another time the sculpture seemed like a garment, other times like a pillow. But by the end, as Chapellière moved out of the staged area and into the crowd, the performance turned almost violent, with people disconcertedly shuffling out of her way. Her tiny body wrestled with the mass, hurling it about and slamming it again and again against the concrete gallery floor. She was panting and flushed, but strong. Her thin limbs, suggesting fragility, challenge the idea of weakness, even victimhood, as she wielded an unseen power against the bulking sculpture that seemed at least twice her size.

The energy was palpable, though not frenzied. It was a frustration, anger, angst that fueled strength, that drew me in, that brought me close to tears. I was surprised — why was this so moving?

It hit me that the performance had embodied my own feelings — frustration, anger, even helplessness — that have been ever-present for many people since the last election; that have fueled me into the streets in protest; that fill my feeds and thoughts and conversations, especially with the uncertainty of the travel ban throwing countless lives into chaos.

This connection between political anxiety and the work can hardly be a coincidence. The creator of Embody, Ha herself, is directly threatened by the travel ban. Both her work and her art are impacted by the fact that she is now essentially trapped in the country she has chosen to call home. Should she go abroad for one of the many art projects she has outside the US (or for work, which also calls for international travel) there is no guarantee she will be allowed back into the country; to her apartment, her work, her art, her belongings, her home. What makes this even more ludicrous, even more frustrating, is that her native France is not on the list of banned countries. But as a Parisian with an Arabic last name on her passport and a heritage with stigma attached to it, the risk associated with simply being who she is is all too real, both in the airports and the streets. Though we have talked about it, vented about it, railed against it, there is an unspoken angst we can’t voice to each other, perhaps even to ourselves. It is the pit in our stomachs that won’t leave.

The room that night was full of these unarticulated pits; and as we pushed together to witness those last moments of frenetic battle between woman and form, I think we each sensed the giants we are wrestling every day in our psyches, the dark masses that seek to swallow us, that may sometimes loom like a body bag. And we felt hope. We clung to the proof that darkness can be rendered limp and lifeless even by our fragile limbs. That at the end of the day we still stand, hearts pounding, faces flushed, not defeated yet.

(Video courtesy of Shani Ha/Facebook)


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