To understand “Perception Unfolds,” a video installation currently on view in the 32 Edgewood Avenue Gallery, you shouldn’t try too hard to understand it. For once, you can do enough by simply perceiving.
That’s not to say “Perception Unfolds” is a simple exhibition. In fact, sometimes it can be more challenging to pause and perceive without slipping into analysis. The exhibition, which runs from Oct. 7 through Dec. 5, is the brainchild of Deborah Hay, dance pioneer and, in the 1960s, a founding member of the highly experimental Judson Dance Theater collective. As Emily Coates, director of Yale’s dance studies program, explains, the collective “embraced a democratic philosophy” regarding performance and challenged existing hierarchies of dance. The artists in the collective then shot off into different directions, with Hay moving to Austin, Texas, where she began to grapple with the relationship between perception and choreography. With “Perception Unfolds,” which debuted at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin earlier this year, she makes her foray into the visual art world, moving away from her usual live performances. And the Yale School of Art, too, makes its own foray into the world of movement and dance, representative of an expanding engagement with disciplines outside of visual art.
In the exhibition space, four large and semitranslucent screens hang diagonally with respect to one another along the central axis of the room. These screens serve as canvases onto which a looped thirteen-minute video performance, entitled “A Continuity of Discontinuity,” is projected; it features the dancers Jeanine Durning, Juliette Mapp and Ros Warby each performing her own version of Hay’s score, “No Time to Fly.” In an adjacent resource room, supplementary videos, text, and written scores provide context and insight into the exhibition’s creation.
Contrary to expectations, the kind of perception that Hay demands of us is far from passive; rather, what’s remarkable about this exhibition — and what sets it apart from typical video installations — is that it’s not only the work itself that refuses to be static. Instead, in an appropriately democratic fashion consistent with Hay’s radical approach to dance, the exhibition invites viewers into its dynamism; they can weave their way among the four screens, step back, step forward, lean in, lean out, and in doing so, access wholly different ways of experiencing the same event. This sort of engagement, too, distinguishes the dance-technology-visual art chimera from live performance, while preserving the variability that makes each iteration of a live performance different from the next.
Indeed, for all the exhibition’s outward minimalism and angular composition, it is fundamentally free-form and free-wheeling — the vitality of “Perception Unfolds” comes from the unpredictability, even messiness, of experimentation. Part of this stems from Hay’s unique take on choreography: She’s focused less on structuring the dance itself, a specific sequence of steps and movements, than on facilitating the dancer’s own organic response to the music — almost a sort of planned spontaneity. Rather than telling her dancers to go left or right, Hay formulates her choreographic direction through admittedly baffling “what if?” questions, such as: “What if every cell in your body at once has the potential to perceive time passing, HERE and gone, HERE and gone, HERE and gone?” These convoluted verbal prompts — sometimes poetic, sometimes absurd, sometimes both — do not call for verbal answers; instead, the dancers work out responses in their own improvised movement, directed not by intellect per se, but by bodily intuition. The overall result, a multi-disciplinary composition of movement, sound, film, software and multimedia, is anything but verbal, and entirely visceral.
As such, the dances captured on film are not fully polished works. Yet, the dancers don’t seem to hesitate or over-think their movements — and there’s something refreshing about that, and about Hay’s desire to “undermine,” as she says, “the response mechanism that leads all of us, including myself, to want to get it right.” From this, a freedom emerges, a freedom of individuality nourished by the spontaneous and context-sensitive nature of perception. According to Hay, this freedom exists in our very cells. “Perception Unfolds” not only makes the process of perception itself explicitly visible, but also validates the dizzying range of perceptive possibilities.
Go for the experience, if nothing else. Plan your visit if you want, but once you’re there, lose yourself in experimentation, in wandering, peeking, and casting inadvertent shadows; as dancer Jeanine Durning describes it: “You really have to be empty and not have a notion of how it’s going to go.” Perhaps, though, in that emptiness we can begin to discover perception itself, and a fullness of being.