For the next month, there are fifteen 3,000-pound dancers in residency at the New York City Ballet. Through March 1, Dustin Yellin’s psychogeographies — massive sculptures taking on human form suspended in glass — have moved into the Lincoln Center’s cavernous lobby. The installation is part of the NYCB’s Art Series, which sponsors annual collaborations between contemporary visual artists and the ballet. Yellin is the third in the sequence, preceded by street artists FAILE and JR. As in these past collaborations, Yellin’s installation is also accompanied by three special ballet performances on Feb. 12, 19 and 27, in which audience members will receive a special Yellin-original, limited-edition giveaway.
Yellin’s psychogeographies are meant, as their name suggests, to be maps of the psyche and the ones at the ballet are part of a larger six-year project aimed at creating one collective organism. Most of the psychogeographies are housed in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood at Pioneer Works, a large warehouse-like space founded by Yellin to promote the “creation, synthesis and discussion of art, science and education.” But unlike his previous, static creations, Yellin’s NYCB dancers are in motion. In them, the body moves with a grace meant to capture that of the ballet dancers that Yellin so admires.
The sculptures are really three-dimensional collages that, when combined, create a sort of suspended animation of the human form. Yellin cuts up art history and fantasy books, magazines, encyclopedias and trash he finds on the streets to make collages on individual panes of glass. Sometimes, he also makes acrylic paintings on the glass sheets. He then fuses them together through a process he likens to gluing many windows together to make a “giant window sandwich” with someone trapped inside.
The materials used are randomly selected to give the sense that all of the works are born out of accidents. Yellin reveals the innermost building blocks of any person — the psychological version of bone marrow that has been pried apart to reveal all of the memories stuck inside. Yellin said in an interview about the NYCB installation, “My work is about the weather. These mundane things that repeat themselves every day yet affect the way that your bones feel, the way your blood flows, the way that you feel.”
But what he has done in the NYCB series takes this mission one step further. These new psychogeographies reflect the way our joints move and our limbs flow, the way the body twists and bends. His works recall the late-19th-century chronophotographs of Eadweard Muybridge. Like Muybridge, Yellin breaks down the continuously moving body into its individual phases.
Yellin’s work transcends the limitations of Muybridge’s earlier two-dimensional medium. Unlike the chronophotographer, in breaking down the different phases of a body in motion, Yellin does not lose the continuity of movement. We can, through Yellin’s works, imagine the sauté that could have come before and the pirouette that could follow if these suspended dancers were to break free from the glass block to which they are confined.
Perhaps it is in this total destruction of form that Yellin achieves the holistic sense of movement. His figures are very clearly not human — they shimmer pink, orange, yellow and blue. They have no distinguishable facial features or even easily identifiable genders. But they are so clearly alive. Yellin has captured the spirit (or spirits) that lie within us all — a depth of emotion echoed in the dances performed inside the NYCB’s walls.
Yellin has said that he had a visceral experience when he first saw the ballet. These 20-something dancers moved him; he could not fathom how they were on their toes for so many hours. His psychogeographies belie their heavy materials, lending them the daintiness he so admired in the dancers of the ballet.