There are forgotten bodies throughout The Museum of Modern Art. At least, that is how artist and choreographer Maria Hassabi refers to them. On staircases, in the Marron Atrium, and on furniture, visible from balconies and vantage points throughout the building, dancers fall, walk, crawl, or lounge on the floor, alongside accumulated dust and discarded ticket stubs. Their poses are at times distressed, ecstatic, pedestrian; they call to mind a range of associations, from the mundane to the spectacular. These bodies, and their attendant gray “frame,” (the installation is comprised of gray walls and furniture) constitute PLASTIC, Hassabi’s most recent commissioned live installation, created specifically for this setting.
Hassabi approaches choreography from the perspective of image making, and the pacing of the performance lends it a sculptural quality. Her dancers hold poses at length, moving slowly from one to the next. So slowly, in fact, that at a glance they appear completely still. Hassabi has become known for this style of movement—creating a series of still images connected in real time—and this approach links her work to mediums like photography and sculpture. The title PLASTIC refers just as much to the notion of the “plasticity” of the body as it does the “plastic arts.”
To create this visually arresting (and emotionally unsettling) performance, Hassabi created a detailed choreographic score, broken down by intervals of seconds and minutes of held poses. What are the dancers’ internal monologues? Among other things, they are counting: 10 seconds between the turn of a head and pivot of the hips, for example. But Hassabi is quick to clarify that her dancers do not count movements, but moments of stillness. Perhaps frame rate would be an apt comparison.
A rigorous devotion to creating images is apparent not just in the conception of PLASTIC, but also in its afterlife online. Instagram is currently filled with photos that parse out the range of dancers’ poses. Much to the delight of an art historian invested in iconography, #mariahassabi and #mariahassabiplastic include a near-complete taxonomy of positions and affectations, each stunning pose filled with pathos or humor. While photographs of nearly all the artworks at MoMA circulate online, what becomes clear in this case is that the concept of image making crops up at three distinct moments: in Hassabi’s conception of the choreography; in the live creation of the work; and in the work’s mediation. The result is a palimpsest of the visual that speaks to a certain contemporary condition of seeing.
A range of contemporary art has explicitly embraced Instagram, whether as a method of distribution (Amalia Ulman) or a place to mine material (Richard Prince). But Hassabi’s work is ambivalent toward its mediation. It insists upon its “liveness”—the “decelerated velocity” and detailed physicality of the performers demand a concentrated experience of seeing the piece. Additionally, PLASTIC engages both the architecture of the Museum and the flow of visitors, linking the work inextricably to the site. And yet, at the same time, it anticipates its representation through photographic documentation and its proliferation online.
One aspect of PLASTIC highlighted by its digital mediation is its treatment of the audience. In his essay “Living Contradiction,” Tim Griffin writes that this work “underlines how the audience is produced by institutional frames and the protocols of space—and Hassabi prompts audiences to picture themselves within the dance at hand.” This picturing of oneself within the dance happens quite literally in the many images of Museum bystanders watching Hassabi and the cast. Some visitors look intently; some stare at their phones; some are completely unaware of the performance at hand; some purposefully, or even unintentionally, embody the dancers’ poses. PLASTIC consciously frames the viewer as a participant in the experience, affecting the public’s actions as they move through the space. Encountering a body on the stairs, viewers are forced to change their behavior, slowing down and looking more closely. The public becomes part of PLASTIC both in MoMA’s galleries and through its life online.
Returning to the live experience of PLASTIC, we become more attuned to our bodies and their place in the world while watching the performance. Confronted by dancers on the steps of the Museum, we think of the other bodies in the world that lie on the ground, forgotten, cast aside. Combining a lack of specific references with recognizable postures and poses, Hassabi’s work recalls the circulation of images of the fragile human form in the world around us. PLASTIC becomes a Mobius strip of reference and referent, as images of the performance cycle back out into the world.
Maria Hassabi: PLASTIC is on view at MoMA through Sunday, March 20.