The Artist’s Memory: Xavier Le Roy’s Retrospective at MoMA PS1

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In an essay on ‘The Allegories of Love,’ T.J. Clark observes that one of the great achievements of Veronese is a “unique completeness of empathy with the figures he paints, so that one feels him almost physically entering into them, male or female, and deploying their weight and balance as if from the inside” (London Review of Books, vol. 36). I happened to be reading Clark’s article on my way to MoMA PS1 to see Xavier Le Roy’s Retrospective, so, as I entered the exhibition, I was struck particularly by the idea that the artist might reside as an internalized directive force within the bodies of his performers. In this case, Le Roy’s vision is a self-reflective one, harnessing movers—people-as-dancers—to explore his own archival memory, to cast the spectator’s eye backwards through a very distinct and particular lens upon his own oeuvre. In this way, his project is not entirely unlike Veronese’s, though his medium is the de facto substance of bodies and not a two-dimensional portrayal of their illusion.

Le Roy’s project does not so much inspire in me a comparison of bodily and pictorial planes in the museum as it sparks a reflection on the medium of the body in performance as it acts as a living repository of memory and authorial influence. I am fascinated by how Retrospective appreciates and makes visible its own archival complexities and inconsistencies in order to conduct a sincere form of self-visitation. In other words, I am interested in the ways Le Roy activates the archives within his archives, employing bodies whose histories actively intervene with his own choreographies, creating relationships that then are further complicated by the exhibition’s placement within the walls of the museum.

The first expansive, white gallery holds a collection of performers, all sporting a pedestrian appearance and attitude that contributes to an initial, palpable sense of tense uncertainty amongst the visitors; Who is dancing? Who is watching? Here one performer stands chatting to a group of spectators (as I loiter on the fringe I learn that she is recounting her years studying classical dance, and she proceeds to demonstrate a move, elaborating upon her search for a more personally meaningful way of dancing); here another performs a repetitive, perfunctory series of movements doubled over on the floor; still another unfolds a paper and reads what he informs us are quotes from the choreographer.

The exhibition appears to be an exercise in memory; whenever a new visitor enters the gallery, the performers raise a high-pitched, prolonged wail and promptly run through one of the four exits. They then return, crawling and silent, until they reach the central door, where they pull themselves upright and each recite the name of one of the years (“2002,” “2014,” “1998”) highlighted in the retrospective. They disperse and resume enacting fragments of movement, describing a piece of personal history related to a specific year or gathering a group of spectators and herding them to a corner. The memory in question here is evidently that of Le Roy, although those of the performers seem to be relevant in the places wherein they intersect the overall scope of the project, particularly as regards their dancerly history.

I am more interested in the kind of memory this claims to be. A walk around the corner into the adjacent gallery reveals a research station complete with desks, chairs, booklets, and computers whose screens display a single, enlarged folder labeled “RETROSPECTIVE” containing archival footage and other miscellaneous documentation. This sheds some intriguing light upon the contents of the first gallery, where the archive is performed by bodies instead of computers. The scraps of enactment, the repeated movement sequences and the fragmented conversations emerge anew for me, like digital files in folders seemingly archived by year and accessed by an unknown hand in an order that remains invisible.

A lot of the exhibition’s discourse seems to be about power through remembrance: who has it, who exercises it, and who it ultimately affects. As André Lepecki asks in his essay The Body as Archive: Will to Reenact and the Lives of Dances, “Is archiving a paranoiac process about connecting with the past or is it, as Foucault so beautifully suggests in The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972), a system of transforming simultaneously past, present, and future—that is, a system for recreating a whole economy of the temporal?” (Dance Research Journal, 42/2, p. 30). There is nothing of Le Roy’s archive that grasps wildly at its own history, desperate to retain itself in order to perpetuate a misplaced sense of its own finality. Rather, Retrospective emerges in video-like loops that, in embodying a kind of temporal circularity, recall methodologies of both human and digital memory systems. This is almost an amalgamated bio-digital repository in which the intimacy of memory mediates the sphere of communal experience; the past, both personal and public, is continually made anew. In this way, Le Roy’s project is intensely contemporary; such a refashioning of history is unconcerned with loyalty to its own past, but is nonetheless extremely precise in its dedication to maintaining its own terms in the process of self-examination.

Lepecki proclaims: “In dance reenactments there will be no distinctions left between archive and body. The body is archive and the archive a body” (31). In Retrospective, I am impelled to ask where these dances have been living all this time, between their birth, their last performance, and this moment: in a world of digitized components, video files, and documents that, when dissected and reassembled, become something that resembles a dance? In the body of the choreographer, who acts as an archival vessel for the material, able to recall and transmit the movements he once felt compelled to enact? In an absent and inaccessible collective cache of memory housed simultaneously within each enactor and each witness the dances have ever known? Which is more reliable? Some might be inclined to answer that the body can hardly be termed trustworthy; variability is its only constant mode of being. But Lepecki argues that the “will to archive,” closely linked with the “will to re-enact,” is not concerned with a wholehearted fidelity to the original it re-stages. Its purpose, in Lepecki’s words, is “not only to reinvent, not only to point out that the present is different from the past, but to invent, to create—because of returning—something that is new and yet participates fully in the virtual cloud surrounding the original work itself” (35). In initiating such a project, Le Roy thus seems exempt from Laurence Louppe’s claim that “the dancer is imprisoned in ‘the innocence of the first act’” (Traces of Dance, 22). These dances are given their own lives.

One performer guides a group of us to a corner where she begins to enumerate the things she “hates to admit.” This list includes the fact that, as a choreographer herself, she lives with an acute awareness of the arbitrary and uncomfortable power the dance-maker is likely to wield over the dance-enactors. Le Roy’s project hones in on that very critical point. But in transferring his bodily archive onto or into the fabric of other bodies, by utilizing their own personal timelines as context for the work which is then staged in the museum, Le Roy is operating on several different archival planes. If we think of his choreography as in some way inextricable from his own body, we seem to see Le Roy, not unlike the way T.J. Clark described Veronese, inhabiting his dancers’ bodies; by reenacting his dances, the performers absorb his oeuvre and become a facet of his living memory. But Lepecki maintains that works of art become independent of their creators, and it is this autonomy that wrests dances from the grasp of the desire to imitate, to emulate past selves, liberating the dances to the possibility of an endless potential waiting to be activated by each successive reenactment (45). In a way, by releasing his dances into the inner lives of his dancers, by letting his movements inhabit their personal timelines, Le Roy frees his retrospective from the need to re-enact itself, to remain loyal to its own history. Retrospective looks backward, certainly, but it does not do so with the aim of returning to its many former iterations with a high level of accuracy. The dances exist as memories do, attaining new meaning each time they are remembered. And ultimately, it is a far more interesting project to observe what happens in these impressionistic, liminal spaces of memory, in the places where past and present merge and converse.

For the dancer, to cast one’s gaze backwards is supposedly to tempt the very premise of one’s art. Dance is supposedly without past, its history in the process of continuously erasing itself. The notion of staging an embodied choreographic archive complicates much of the existing literature that waxes poetic on dance’s ephemerality; Retrospective nods to movement’s transience—acknowledges the unreliability of the medium of dance as a narrative container for history—and chooses to archive it anyway. Yet it does so within the walls of a museum, an institution whose archival authority is considered to be foremost in the tacit agreement as to who determines historical importance. Le Roy’s retrospective is thus a meta-archive, exhibiting bodies that produce and merge the dances they hold with the highly contrasting archival space of the museum.

The museum is an institution of implicit power structures that has spent its history finding ways to disguise or render them invisible. Politics of accessibility, representation, and labor have all been skillfully negotiated as the gallery confronts the enormous task of convincing the public that the white of its walls somehow achieves the ultimate neutrality. By turning the gaze of the spectator onto the very bodies that the traditional museum has historically disregarded, without allowing any distraction or mode of retreat, Le Roy reverses the project; his archival goal is not to attempt neutrality but to create a resonant space filled to the brim with the thousands of evocative subjectivities it holds.

In a way, Retrospective toys with what Paul Chan in an interview with Helen Molesworth termed “first principles,” meaning the source of a direct connection with the world provided by the body. “When we return to first principles—to the body—we want to believe we’re returning to something that is directly under our control. On the one hand this signals possibility, new steps, change, but on the other hand, the return can also be regressive—a rerun of old ways of thinking and of who we want to be” (Dance/Draw, 37). Retrospective illustrates the possibility of such a homecoming, but makes explicit its impossibility in light of all that the human body is capable of holding. There is no such thing as a clean return; no body is without memory. But if in the journey to its source the dance is able to acknowledge the body as possessing its own store of memory, it thus becomes capable of creating new potentialities instead of regressing into a blind and oblivious acquiescence to a past that can no longer sustain itself.

Included on the list of things the dancer says she “hates to admit” is her inability to tell if we really care what she’s saying, or if we’re merely indifferent visitors exercising our rights as “members of a democratic society” to wander through a museum on a Sunday. I begin to wonder about my role in this particular archive. It is an astonishing and elaborate form of meta-commentary on the contemporary museum experience when an artwork actively questions the viewer’s motivation for looking at it at all. The rest of my time spent in the exhibition is equally fraught with uncertainty; upon reentering the first gallery, one of the performers approaches to greet me but cuts himself off mid-sentence with the same high-pitched keening sound, which all of the performers then again take up as they promptly run out of the room. Perhaps I am the activator of this archival trip, but if so, I am not its director. My movement is not limited by any means other than bodies occupying space, but my path nonetheless feels quite controlled; though I ostensibly have free range, I become acutely aware of where eyes will follow me if I stray. The exhibition seems then to be in fact an elaborate system for examining human behavior in the context of systems of control.

The third gallery of the exhibition forces another eerie confrontation with the idea of participation. Relying upon the eye’s natural process of adjustment, the small room is initially so completely dark that I am unsure whether I am alone in it. This uncanny feeling of presence is magnified when my eyes adjust enough to register the series of figures huddled against the walls and in the corners. Though I learn later that these are dummies derived from a 2005 work, in the moment I am unable fully to process my own isolation in the gallery; the sharp transition from my role as participant-viewer in the previous galleries has unsettled this encounter to the point where, disoriented and made hyper-aware by the blackness of the room, I find myself in a peculiar communion with inanimate dummies.

By viscerally dislodging the viewer from a position of certainty, Retrospective is able to approach the past as a nonlinear voyage whose route is far more concerned with scenery than it is with destination. Retrospective does not endeavor to arrive at any conclusions. Rather, its jostling of the museum visitor into a state of heightened self-consciousness allows it the freedom to examine possibilities left unexplored in its many previous lifetimes as separate dances. In this way, it inhabits a memory-space that allows for intrusion, disruption, and new growth, airing out its own past in light of the ever-evolving present. It renders visible the choice involved in memory: How will we remember? How do we allow our memories to be permeated by the presence of others? How are we to let the past display its under-harnessed potential and reveal its subtle inconstancies and particularities that can somehow only now arise?

Works Cited

Clark, T.J. “Veronese’s ‘Allegories of Love'” London Review of Books 36.7 (2014): 7-12. Web.

Lepecki, André. “The Body as Archive: Will to Re-Enact and the Afterlives of Dances.” Dance Research Journal 42.02 (2010): 28-48. Web.

Louppe, Laurence. Traces of Dance: Drawings and Notations of Choreographers. Paris: Editions Dis Voir, 1994. Print.

Molesworth, Helen Anne. “A Conversation between Paul Chan and Helen Molesworth.” Dance/ Draw. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2011. N. pag. Print.


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