My First Acquaintance with Visual Artists & Ballerinas in Eugene

Fig. 1. Faye Mullen, still from: "to never forever-à jamais," 2011. Salt, Three story building, Artist's body. Three-channel video installation, 6min24secs. © Reproduced by permission of the artist.

Looking back, each term of my first year of grad school has offered its own distinct set of lessons. This quarter, after some really good experiences, I’ve realized just how crucial it can be to connect not only with like-minded passionate scholars in the field, but with contemporary practicing artists as well. As a result, I’ve arrived at a greater appreciation of the importance of getting outside my own work, concerned as it is with art and literature of the historical past, to interact and network with creative minds working today, particularly those with similar interests in critical theory. Early on in the term I had the opportunity to to see the Eugene Ballet Company’s final performance of the season that featured a visually stunning experimental performance called Tyranny of the Senses. Later, for this year’s University of Oregon Art History Symposium, we hosted an artist’s talk given by a really fabulous performative video installation artist and sculptress Faye Mullen (MFA Student, University of Toronto) who spoke on one of her latest video pieces, to never forever-à jamais. I’ve included examples of both here in hopes that some of you might take a moment to look at the works and respond as well, being that it is after all (and at last) summer break.

Also, on your end, I’m interested in seeing you all comment on a couple of other things:

(1) The type of interchange that occurs in your respective departments between creative writers and literary historians. If there isn’t any, would this be something you’d find desirable?

(2) Whether or not you feel that you’ve benefited from exchanges across the divide between creative writers/artists and scholars.

In Lawrence Hall–at the UofO–us cultural historians are definitely very much the minority. We’re surrounded by architects and artists working in a variety of media, running the gamut from printmaking, metalwork/jewelery, new media, to painting. Oftentimes, even in Art History seminars, we’re outnumbered by architects and artists. I feel as though I’ve really benefited from a dialogue between those who study art and those who create it. So, I’d definitely love to hear whether or not there are similar dynamics that go on in English graduate programs.

That said, to share a couple specific works with you all, I have to say that I’m totally captivated by choreographer Gillmer Duran and composer Brian McWhorter’s Tyranny of the Senses. The ballet left an indelible impression on me for the way it collides contemporary dance, projected images, and a soundtrack that pans intensely across the stereo-field (think U2-Joshua Tree).

One of the things I’ve found most exciting, in chatting with a couple ballerinas from the company that have subsequently become a part of my core group of grad school friends, is the recognition that shared concerns on both sides of the scholarly/artistic divide can really line up. Since my interests in critical theory are primarily geared towards understanding the process by which works generate their meanings through continuing processes of (reader/viewer)ly interaction, I was most struck by a conversation I recently had with one of the ballerinas who talked about the way Duran’s work created a space in which she and the other dancers are actively encouraged to re-interpret each individual performance through their own acts of improvisation against the ballet’s multimedia elements. For me, it was really cool to see that the post-structural concepts we’re exposed to as scholars actually do resonate with the ways in which contemporary practicing artists working in a variety of media think about their own work.

Lastly, and along these same lines, I thought it a good idea to share with you all Faye Mullen’s work (given that it engendered such a good discussion at this year’s grad symposium up here) (fig. 1; For a 9 minute excerpt of the 52 minute piece, please click here.) In my view, Mullen’s art really engages some crucially important issues related to the contemporary domestic-sphere that, because of its embodied exploration of identity, for me recalls Mary Wolstonecraft’s ideas concerning the detrimental way dependence of mind and body are integrally related. I found it interesting in talking with her after the talk that theory still drives work on both sides of the artist/scholar divide. At least in Canada, artists are strongly encouraged to deploy theory in explaining their art when applying for public grant funding. What really impressed me was that, while some artists react negatively to such a demand playing being placed on their work, others view it as a challenge that can spark the absorption of additional layers of creativity into their artistic practice, something that I imagine resonates with the way many of us might view the role and continued relevancy of critical theory within the humanities.

Increasingly, I’m realizing that the divide between scholarly and creative work runs even thinner that I’ve initially believed. Hope you enjoy taking a look at these works, as I have, and I strongly encourage comments, since I’d love nothing more than to continue the conversation.