untitled / May Zarhy

I’ll begin with a simple statement:

When there is no light, one cannot see. 

It’s pretty simple, yet at the same time, fundamental in the medium of dance: when there is no light, the spectators cannot see the dancer. They cannot see the dancer’s movement. At the same time, when there is no light, the borders between the spectators who usually sit in the dark and the performer who usually performs in the lit space, blur. In that case, the spectators and the performer are in an equal situation – all are in the dark.

And in the dark, the question arises: what is a movement which takes place yet cannot be seen? Which aspects of human movement come through in the dark and engage with the spectators sitting there, knowing that somewhere in this darkened intimate space, something is happening? A movement occurs. Perhaps even some sort of dance, since the audience has come to see a dance performance. Meaning, if we remove the visual element of movement, of dance, what other aspects remain and become even more tangible by this deprivation of sight? By the absence of light?

In addition, it’s one thing to close one’s eyes and see darkness. It’s a whole other thing to be with wide open eyes when there is no light. To actually see darkness. In the dark, the eye keeps on searching for some kind of light in order to place one’s body in relation to the environment around it; in order to get a sense of the space around and to orient oneself. The eye and the light are so-called friends, seeking to connect to one another.

And then, after sitting for a while with wide open eyes seeing darkness, a small, minor light appears in the opposite direction to the one the eye is directed to. Although minor, it has a great impact on the spectators as they have been sitting for a while with no light at all. Now, they have seen the light! And this minor light brings up the question: how does light form the appearance of the things it falls on? How does it form the way one sees and perceives things, which can be seen thanks to this light? How does this minor light in the above described scenario, influence and shape the image of the dancer moving in the space, who can finally be seen now thanks to it? How does the encounter of the dancer’s body and the light guide the spectators’ perception to what they actually see?

This is the starting point for the working process on the piece untitled

Deriving from the basic question, which like other basic questions can be easily taken for granted and forgotten: what is a body? What can a body be? Or how can a body appear? And in the context of the piece untitled, how can I, as the choreographer of the piece, control and form the image of the performer’s body through the use of a single light source? How can I control and guide the associations this visible body may bring up in the spectators’ minds throughout the performance?

The body is one of the things we have the most preconceptions about. We all have a body, consequently, we all have some kind of criticism directed towards it: “it should be more ______” (thin, tall, muscular, hairless, in shape, etc), “I wish it had been slimmer in this area”, “It used to be X and now it is opposite than X”, “That part of my body is pretty boring so a tattoo might do it good.” Out of the social human tendency to compare, these preconceptions are formed bringing one to compare one’s body to others’ bodies, to body images and values one absorbed from the common, popular culture regarding how a body should be. 

But what about the possibility of one’s body to be several different things at once? Several things that may be unrecognizable or hard to describe, therefore, becoming incomparable? Because one’s body, any body, in itself is incomparable. Similarly to the attempt to grasp a person, whom I know well, in my thought; to form a coherent, unequivocal clear character of this person, I notice it keeps on slipping away, indicating the incapability to completely comprehend another person. Meaning, the motivation to succeed at measuring a person (and anything else for that matter) into a clear, unambiguous, and stable concept, continue to preoccupy us, while in actual fact, things continue to exist as ambiguous, multi-facets, ever-changing. Things that are in a constant state of becoming.  

Returning to untitled. The title “untitled” indicates the non-title. It indicates the impossibility of summarizing a work into a title, into a single word which would possibly contain the piece itself, or to signify it in an unambiguous manner. “Untitled” is a name given to numerous artworks. Many works of the artist Dan Flavin are called like that in various variations, such as: untitled (for Frederika and Ian), not titled yet, etc. His body of work influenced my working process, so I decided to name the piece untitled as a tribute. Flavin’s minimal, humble and clean use of the fluorescent light, leaves a great space for the spectators’ experience, interpretation and movement around the work, which actually completes it. 

In the piece untitled there is a body – the performer’s body – which is my own body.

There’s the maker of the performance, which is me as well.

There’s the musician with whom the piece has been created called Elad Bardes.

Bardes created a sound-installation based on recordings of various human sounds, which emerge throughout the performance from different sound sources surrounding the audience. Due to the fact that aforesaid, the performance takes place mostly in the dark or in a very dimmed light situation, the spectators become quite exposed and vulnerable. Thus, the impact of the emerging sounds produces a surprising, confusing, and at times even uncanny effect. While hearing the sounds, one wonders: is this real? Does what I hear actually take place somewhere in this space? Is there anyone, a performer for that matter, actually there in the corner of the room, whose breath I am hearing? Is this the same performer, who has just passed by to the other side of the room, or is it a mere recording of such a movement? What is really happening? These are the very same questions arising in one’s daily life: while listening to the news, going through Facebook, or after going through significant, intimate experience, one often wonders: “did it actually just happen? Was it real?”

These are a few of the questions that untitled deals with, by using minimal, low-tech means. As if the piece itself states: there is no real need for use in highly technological means since these questions are in fact primal and basic, they are at the core of any human experience. The same human experience, which is an inseparable element from the presence of the physical body from whose description this text began. This is the invisible, unseen dimension I referred to at the beginning of this text. When one’s eyes are wide open, seeing darkness only, the attention to one’s experience through its subtleties and detail, emerges in its full power, and one cannot but face it consciously in real-time.

Returning to the concept of light.

Light needs a light fixture, something that can ‘hold’ the light source in order to illuminate the object one wants to see. Paying attention to the artificial lighting environment, one can notice that light sources are always put inside ‘light holders’. These ‘holders’ are light fixtures, whose purpose is to illuminate the space they are directed to and anything which is in that space. 

In continuation to the above mentioned question ‘what is a body’, and if in order to see a body one needs light, I asked myself what would happen if the performer’s body has been the light-fixture itself? Meaning, what if the performer’s body were the one holding the light source, while being the object which this light asks to illuminate at the same time? 

The eye loves the reflection of light. That is, when a source of light hits a surface that enhances the light effect by returning the light powerfully (such as: a glowing, reflecting, or bright surface), a more powerful light is created than when there is no reflection.

Skin is a surface that may reflect light, depending on its color and reflectability. Light skin, for example, may serve as a reflector much more than a dark blue cloth. My skin, specifically, turned out to be a pretty good light reflector throughout the work process. While exploring different surfaces and their reflecting abilities, I realised that the walls of the Center for Contemporary Art (CCA) space, where the process of the performance and the performance itself took place, were very effective light reflectors for the single light source I was using. From there, I developed a choreographic sequence, which used the reflection of the different surfaces combined with the principle of using my own body as a light-fixture, in order to form the dramaturgy of the body-image, which unfolded throughout the piece. This dramaturgy used the transitions between different reflecting surfaces, getting closer and further away from them, and the ratio of different reflection doses, in order to transform the created body-image, and to evoke different associations accumulating and dissolving in the spectators’ experience throughout the performance.

The tension between that which is seen and that which is concealed, i.e: the invisible light source (hidden by the performer’s body / light fixture) versus the visible light source, or the play between the visible body parts and the unseen ones, is a major theme in the work. It aims to shed light from another perspective, on the elemental question: what is real? And to possibly expand it into: what is whole? Is there ever a whole? Can the eye perceive a whole of a certain thing? 

One of the first visual references for my work was an anamorphic piece by Jonty Hurwitz. A sculpture, which only when looking at the cylindrical mirror set in its center, one can see the whole image in its so-called correct proportions. Otherwise, it looks like this.

© Jonty Hurwitz

Another preliminary reference was an MRI of a heart.

Out of the desire to explore a primal, absolutely necessary source – a bodily driving force.

And in this context, an image of a burning match also served as a reference. The moment of ignition, when the red color shifts from whiteness to redness, and the energy of the fire comes through, was a significant inspiration for the energy of the piece. The red color induces the association of bonfire – the first, elemental and primitive light source – and the association of blood etc, serving as an important reference at the beginning of the process.

This work led me to insist on minimalism, on minimal means and maximum effect; an ‘ecology of materials’, enabling the audience to experience the possible richness of that which might seem as minor, little, insignificant, in the attempt to touch that which is primal.

I wanted to resist in my own way the culture of ‘more and more’, not to use sparkling, sophisticated elements of light, but rather use a simple and familiar light fixture, a ‘ready-made’ in that sense – an office fluorescent light. From it, I wanted to produce the most, like using tomatoes from which one chooses to make a soup, a salad and a pasta sauce. I manually filtered the fluorescent light with a light filter used for theatrical light-fixtures. Completely low-tech.

It was essential for me that the work, as well as all of its elements, would be as physical as possible, deriving from respect for the material itself and its physical presence. Hence, it was important not to manipulate or abuse the materials, but rather leave them as close as possible to their initial physical being, both in terms of the material and the processes applied on it.

What does it mean? It means that I prefered to filter the light fixture with a light gel, rather than to easily find a sophisticated light that could have easily done the job, assuming that one could feel the manual procedure applied here, rather than an easy technological solution.

It also means that in terms of the work on the sound, the recorded materials of human sounds all derived from a single body – my own body. And the way we worked on them was not by using manipulation, such as fast-forward, a strong reverve, or other various filters that can massively manipulate the original sound and change it completely from its original. The attempt was to be as close as possible to the human, to the real, as it would be experienced by someone from the outside – by a potential audience. So that the tension between the real and the unreal would be constantly present, physically activating the future spectators of the piece. So that they would not be able to distance themselves from the environment they would be in, and would experience it as an aesthetic experience only. My desire was to create an immersive experience, where one cannot ‘escape’ into a purely aesthetic experience (if there is such a thing), but that one’s own physicality would be present and underlined in relation to the body of the performer. 

At the same time, the fact that I, as a performer, am holding in real time the light source that shapes the spectators’ sight, enhances my agency – my power and ability to navigate the spectators’ gaze in relation to what I am doing in real time. In this sense, as a performer, I am not a victim of the gaze, subordinate to it, rather I am conscious about it, guiding and shaping it as I choose. As opposed to the male gaze, passing through the red-light district for example, here I choose to lead the gaze to body parts, which are not the immediate suspects, thus revealing the plasticallity, materiality and possible sculpturality of the body, allowing a breaking down of the default gaze and perception of the naked female body. Because the body in untitled is naked. Nakedness which follows the motivation of the piece which asks: what is left when one tries to remove all the so-called “extras”? 

The layers, the pretence, the civilized. 

What is a possible essential source?

The piece untitled is a production of HaZira Performance Art Arena, developed with the support of the CCA – Center for Contemporary Art and Mifal HaPais for the Culture and Arts. Premiered in Diver Festival 2019.

translated by: Dina Yakerson

Photos by David Kaplan:

Photos by Roy Siegel: