Back to the Rest of Us: Isabel Lewis at Dia
Isabel Lewis: Occasions and Other Occurrences at Dia: Chelsea
June 24 to July 17, 2016
541 West 22nd Street (between 10th and 11th avenues
New York, 212 989 5566
3 Beekman Street
Beacon, NY, 845 440 0100
“Isn’t she so kind and warm?” Dia’s PR staff swooned as they took turns leaning into me. I watched the artist and host Isabel Lewis float past her guests while circling her wrists into widening arcs. “Hi, welcome.” Lewis cooed as she spun around and drifted through the clusters of curious people sipping their Summer Ale, lovingly provided by Brooklyn Brewery. I myself held an eco-friendly carton of water, which I had plucked out from one of the ice buckets scattered around the back of the immense space.
I was at Dia: Chelsea’s garage party loft, like one of those factory-turned-nightclubs in Williamsburg where you are a minority if you don’t have a tattoo. The music, interior, and vibes felt hip, too. Chic white couches were scattered throughout the space where exotic plants (Spanish moss and air plants) hung from the ceiling or sat on top of the furniture. Some visitors clutched their beers around the round tables with wiry legs. Mysterious speaker-like boxes emitted a faint scent concocted by the artist’s collaborator Sissel Tolaas, a Norwegian chemist and olfactory researcher. The bass-heavy music (composed by Lewis herself) began as quiet pulses and escalated into mobilizing booms. A few couples got up from the long white couches to step to increasingly dance-friendly beats. I declined to take from a plate of vegan hors d’oeuvres; pickled vegetables, said one of the PR staff flanking me. The air felt sultry after the rainstorm had passed — the lingering humidity fit the environment created by the artist.
Berlin-based artist Isabel Lewis comes from a background in choreography and literary criticism. While she lived in New York City from 2004 to 2009, she presented her dance works at major hot spots such as Dance Theater Workshop, the Kitchen, and New Museum. She has created and presented site-specific “occasions,” such as this one commissioned by Dia, to choreograph not just the movements of people’s bodies, but also their olfactory, visual, auditory, and gustatory experiences.
At first I was skeptical. Wasn’t this just another party with some pretentious art people? The hostess and DJ happened to be an artist, but this Friday night “occurrence” didn’t seem so different from other exhibition openings, aside from the original music and some interrupting philosophical lectures. Surely this work is a reference to the happenings of the 1950s and ‘60s. But Allan Kaprow did weird things like throw tires; nothing seemed weird in Lewis’s occurrence at all.
Shortsighted judgment. Nothing weird is precisely the point of Lewis’s work. The artist had created a modern-day happening in a way that addressed our contemporary climate and needs. In the late 1950s and ‘60s, throwing hundreds of tires into a room made sense because it radically merged mundane everyday life with so-called elevated art. On the other hand, strange acts now do not merge the everyday and “high” art, but rather create a greater disparity between real life and the mysterious luxury called art. This is now truer than ever with the post-1980s art market and celebrity culture surrounding a select number of big-shot artists. Art is an inaccessible luxury of the 1% who can afford to visit a gallery or museum during work hours. Art is an inaccessible language spoken and understood by a select few — the more cryptic and exclusive that language, the better and truer the art it refers to.
Lewis brings art back to the rest of us. She understands the function and purpose of art to be a connector — among ourselves and between us and the cosmos. I agree. Art was once a practical necessity for survival. Art not only helped the people of the pre-writing age pass down wisdom, but also brought a community together through collective sensory experience.
During one of her lecture interruptions on the Friday night occasion, Lewis spoke of “erotic sociability,” a concept articulated by scholar Roslyn W. Bologh in Love or Greatness (1990). To the artist, erotic sociability can guide us back to where art should take us, but often no longer does. She invites the rest of us — the ones with full-time jobs to support ourselves and our families — to unwind after another day when we had to sacrifice true connection in the name of practical survival. She invites the rest of us to follow her on a short escape from the city to a languid waterside upstate, where we are allowed quiet contemplation and a return to the larger universe where we all belong.
The artist prepared an aperitif for our one-and-a-half-hour trip to Beacon. On the way to the occasion, Lewis primed us with a streamable mixtape with tracks that correspond with each stop, beginning at Grand Central Terminal. The mixtape is meant to be a companion to her occasions, and was a collaboration between the artist, Dia, and the MTA. The tracks begin with voices and familiar sounds of the city but slowly ease into a gentle rhythmic beat that continues at the site up north. At Scenic Hudson’s Long Dock Park in Beacon, the host didn’t work the room like on Friday, but stepped back after providing the tools for each of us to fulfill our private but neglected tasks of connecting to the cosmos, the natural world.
Lewis, leading us from the city to upstate, brings us back to where we must return, a place to meditate and to connect back to each other and the world. In the midst of human priorities, we often forget the importance of true connection to each other and to the natural world, so much that we become blind to the destruction that our oblivion and negligence has caused to ourselves. In a contemporary society in which screens and devices increasingly distance us from each other, feigned connections destroy genuine empathy and lead to destructive hatred. Lewis — as host, as choreographer — directed us to that place where she waited with music that beat to the splash of waves. She directed us to a place where 15 dancers came and went, swaying with their eyes closed as though they were intoxicated from the salty air and regular beat under the sound of water.
Lewis’s background as a choreographer is clear in her latest work at Dia: her aim is to direct people’s movements into a carefully drafted trajectory. And she succeeds. She does for us what we need from art. We often forget one of art’s most important functions, which is to unite us through a collective sensory experience. She provides us this platform, not through years of expensive art education or through knowing all the right people, but through something all of us do — eat, drink, dance, talk, and play — at a time when most of us can be there to do it together. Lewis gives us what is usually a luxury for the few who can afford not to work during gallery or museum hours: art that the rest of us can partake in too.