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ACTION ARRESTED
by Elisabeth Kley
 
Originally inspired by Eadweard Muybridge’s late 19th-century stop-motion images of animals and human beings, French filmmaker Babette Mangolte found an ideal outlet for her fascination with stillness and movement when she discovered downtown New York experimental performance in 1970. Almost immediately, Mangolte began making movies (which captured) and photos (which froze) the revolutionary Minimalist dances created from ordinary actions by Lucinda Childs, Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown and other artists.

For Mangolte’s 1978 P.S.1 installation (recreated in this year’s Whitney Biennial), photographic portraits, landscapes and still lifes of her images on the floor were both hung on the wall and placed on a table where viewers could rearrange them. Thus pictures of actions arrested by the photographic process began themselves to move, a visceral way for the audience to manipulate events they were seeing at second hand.

One of the first female photography directors in French cinema, Mangolte has been making her own films and installations since she arrived in the United States, ranging from performance documentation to investigations of artistic process and studies of landscape and nature. In her third solo project at the Manhattan gallery Broadway 1602, the main room holds Presence, an installation of two large videos –- one silent and one with sound -- projected on walls that meet at 90-degree angles. Eight small vintage black-and-white photographs hang between them.

Conflating different areas of her life and work, Mangolte sets up a dialogue between decades that takes place within the gallery’s present tense. The photos were made in the late 1970s, the films were shot in the 1990s, and the footage was edited in 2008 for "Berlin Biennale 5." Since the projections are shown on two different walls, the viewer has the choice of watching them one at a time or shifting between them, creating another more spatial conversation. Identical sequences often appear on either side, as if the same actions are unfolding in two different temporal streams.

Embedded among landscapes and interiors, a short performance called Now begins with a hand on a chair. Scattered on a table, postcards of landscapes increase and then are taken away. A man and a woman pile packages of Now cigarettes into a wall construction that eventually collapses. The man begins to rebuild it, but the woman places her hands over his on the table as if telling him to let failure be. Like figures in a Renaissance genre painting, they freeze, stroking each other’s hands.

Foregrounding cinema’s time warp, the name of both the cigarettes and the performance draws attention to the fact that as soon as something is filmed, its immediacy becomes an illusion. This effect is compounded when the yellow forsythia bushes simultaneously projected on the other wall reappear on the left after the performance is finished, followed by a lush green landscape shot from a moving car.

The outside and inside of a house, with plants, an unmade bed and a little dog, can also be seen at different moments on both screens. A barn with a white interior is demolished on the right while remaining intact on the left. A truck moves debris. A closed door appears, along with a sound that could be someone violently knocking, trying to enter or leave.

Hanging on the walls between the projections and framing the door to the next room, the two groups of vintage photographs also set up a dialogue between inside and outside, while reaching even further into the past. In addition, they offer up another form of viewing with changes in scale, as if to undermine the projections’ illusory world.

Abstraction Cape Cod (1979) consists of five landscapes, all without skies. One features the ambiguous cast shadow of a figure standing on a hill watching some breaking waves, and the others are close-ups of textured grass and sand. Motion Study (1976-78), three pictures of men walking inside a loft, provides a thematic bridge to Movement and Stills, another installation on view in the back room. A film, a slide show and a group of photographs are included, all documenting performances that took place between 1972 and 1981.
  
Calico Mingling, a 1973 dance by Lucinda Childs that took place outdoors at Robert Moses Plaza in Fordham University, is recorded in a grainy ten-minute black and white film. Seen from a distance, and sometimes from above like chess pieces on a board, four dancers march backward and forward, raising and lowering their arms. In the photos, others performers are sometimes caught frozen in midair, while the slide show is a shifting succession of static photographic objects.

Structurally dissecting their movements, these artists replaced emotional expression with simple actions that people perform every day -- walking, sitting and running in ordinary clothes. Almost 40 years later, some of the performance sites have disappeared, and the people seen dancing are now on the verge of growing old. They strived to make dance quotidian, but time makes everything unique. The past can never be ordinary.

Prices for the photos range from $3,000 to $6,000, and the installation is $40,000. The show runs until August 20, but the gallery will be open by appointment only after August 6.

Babette Mangolte, June 25-Aug. 20, 2010, at Broadway 1602, 1181 Broadway, third floor, New York, N.Y. 10001


ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and writer.