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Monday, January 24, 2011

Black sutra

Chelsea's Rubin Museum of Art, a beautiful home for the classic arts of the Himalayan region, regularly looks far beyond the Himalayas for ideas, imagery and energies that resonate with its spiritual focus. Last Saturday, the Rubin hosted If We Breathe, a living installation by Chicago-based multidisciplinary artist Theaster Gates that featured members of The Black Monks of Mississippi, five Black men and women whose performance practice involved the unexpected blending of gospel, blues and Buddhist chant; yoga asanas and the strumming of cello.

At their 2pm public performance, Charisma Sweat's mellow gospel vocals led us up the museum's spiraling staircase to a tiny gallery. There Khari Lemuel plucked spare notes from his cello, while Aya-Nicole Cook performed a smooth yoga sequence before sitting in meditation. In a short while, the monks quietly retreated, and the audience dispersed.

That performance--part of an afternoon in which the group appeared on each hour, from noon to 3pm, and in "a special salon concert for high-level members"--could not have lasted much more than five minutes. For something so short and so understated, though, it left a residue of serenity with an undercurrent of soul that said firmly, without shouting, "We are present." To me, it suggested a place for difference, and our awareness of difference, within the context of sameness, the context of expectations--Buddhism is Asian; Buddhism in today's America is white and affluent; yoga in today's America is white and affluent; Black Americans are Christian, period. In its quiet way, this installation blew down all kinds of boundaries.

I didn't expect, though, that it might have something to suggest to me about dance writing. But I found a thought arising, unbidden, about dance criticism and about how prominent critics of dance and other disciplines have recently taken defensive postures about the value and even the very survival of their profession. It was this question: "What if we were to think of our dance criticism not as 'my job' but as 'my practice?'"

How might that shift things? How might commitment to practice open up, for each of us, the possibility of humility, curiosity, attention, creativity? What if we realized we had nothing to protect and much to learn and exchange?

Really, I don't know why that thought about practice arose at that particular moment, but I thank Gates, Sweat, Cook, Lemuel, Yaw Agyeman and Dayna Lynn for planting the seed.

Theaster Gates: The Black Monks of Mississippi performing at 2010the Whitney Biennial

More videos:

The Black Monks of Mississippi on

Theaster Gates lectures at Milwaukee Art Museum

For information on current and future programs of the Rubin Museum of Art, click here.

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