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yoga at dia

by Susan Hapgood  

Benita-Immanuel Grosser
Twelve Basic Postures:
participating at the same time
Warming up during the Sun salutation (Surya Namaskar)

Benita-Immanuel Grosser
Twelve Basic Postures:
participating at the same time
Relaxing in Savasanposture
   Earlier this year, in late spring, something remarkable happened on the roof of the Dia Center for the Arts. The artist team of Benita and Immanuel Grosser, (who make art together as Benita-Immanuel Grosser) taught a series of yoga classes. You're thinking, "So what?"

As time-based participatory art, their work is deceptively simple. The Grossers teach yoga as an ongoing art project. The audience for their work is asked to suspend judgment, at least temporarily, and take part, following whatever instructions they receive from the artists. At Dia -- specifically, within Dan Graham's rooftop sculpture pavilion entitled Two Way Mirror Cylinder Inside Cube (1981-1991) -- the activity seemed conceptually clean. The fusion of art-making practice and yoga was seamless. It was even exhilarating.

On the day I decided to participate, the sky threatened rain. Now I have visited Graham's pavilion many times before, since I live only two blocks away. But this time everything was different. Stepping up onto the platform of wood planks in bare feet was already a much more intimate and sensory approach than usual. Due to the weather, only a few people showed up for the class, but we immediately began to work together as a collaborative body, following our teacher's instructions. We unfolded and spread out a large cloth tarp, marking our collective territory. Then we unrolled individual mats on top of the tarp, and lay down to begin yoga. Each person with their own individually delineated space, placed on the collective plane marked by the tarp, within the sculptural environment surrounded by glass walls, in a relaxed position. Certainly not the customary way to experience Graham's architectural sculpture, let alone contemporary art.

We began with tensing exercises, focusing on our bodies, our breathing and on clearing our minds of irrelevant thoughts. Together, we chanted and gradually proceeded according to the teacher's instructions to assume the 12 basic postures of yoga. It was a meditative, intensely focused experience, centering on strenuous stretching and rhythmic breathing for about two hours. My self-consciousness, while omnipresent, merged with immediate perceptions, gradually alleviating any initial discomfort about performing in a public space.

I felt secure, protected with others within our own space, separated from the few passing observers by the transparent walls. I became hyperaware of incidental details -- the sound of a jet flying overhead, an oddly shaped water-tower on a distant rooftop. I keenly perceived the sensations of a gentle breeze cooling my skin while increased blood flow warmed my torso. There was an odd disjunction between my internal concentration, which nearly engulfed my perceptions, and the occasional external sensations, which came as sudden clear experiences.

Since I had never practiced yoga before, I cannot say how this project compares to the typical yoga experience. It both energized me and induced a sense of calm at the same time. What I was most interested in was how it altered the art experience. Without banging you over the head, but rather by physically and mentally channeling your invested energies, this project upends western value systems, and shapes and heightens your experience in a way that invariably makes you question whatever preconceptions you may harbor about art.

The Grossers are not alone in their endeavors. They are part of a broader current that has been identified variously as "relational esthetics" (by French curator Nicholas Bourriaud) as "participatory art" (by New York Times art critic Roberta Smith) or perhaps as service-oriented "project work" (by artist Andrea Fraser). Such art actively engages its audience, and steers beyond the insular confines of the traditional art system with its discrete and marketable objects. Among its practitioners can be counted artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija, Andrea Fraser, Ben Kinmont, Paula Hayes, Laurie Parsons, Christine Hill, Lincoln Tobier and Charles Long, whose various practices may be seen as extensions of the body and process art of the 1960s and '70s, as well as of Joseph Beuys' concept of "social sculpture," defined as "how we mold and shape the world in which we live."

Why now? My guess is that the economy has something to do with it. After the excessive materialism of the previous decade, and then the forced austerities of the early '90s, artists turned to each other for community. After all, we are intensely social, communicative animals. In this regard, the present technological revolution is permeating our culture. Our instinctive behavior, as social animals, is facilitated and magnified by technology's ease of interaction, by our casual and frequent connections. This overwhelming change in our lives is reflected by many contemporary artists, who of course make art for the Internet; but also, they are accentuating communication, interaction, and participation as essential and constitutive qualities of all of their work.

"Participating at the same time" by Benita-Immanuel Grosser was offered in May and June 1997 at Dan Graham's Rooftop Urban Park Project, 1991, at the Dia Center for the Arts.

SUSAN HAPGOOD is an independent curator and art critic living in New York.