When I showed up at The Atlanta Contemporary Art Center on a stormy Friday night earlier this month, I found it absolutely crawling with patrons and buzzing with energy. Over 450 people had descended on the gallery, drawn in by the promise of witnessing Shana Robbins‘s most recent performance, Supernatural Conductor, scheduled to coincide with the opening of her exhibition by the same name. Amy Myers‘s Feminine Space also opened that evening. The place was packed.
A strong turn-out, however, can come at a price: Peaked anticipation eroded into frustration as many found themselves struggling to catch a glimpse of the action across the dense sea of heads and shoulders clogging up the gallery. The long commentary thread under BURNAWAY’s video of Robbins’s performance originally posted here, which I strongly recommend reading, gives a very clear and fair sense of the concerns many visitors were left with.
Click below for Kombo Chapfika’s video documentation of Shana Robbins’s performance, reproduced with this review for your convenience.
For my part, I sympathize with those who were unable to get a clean look at the performance they were so excited to see. Nevertheless I think we, the audience, should be cautious about confusing the kind of intact viewing experience we would expect from a work of theatre with what we can reasonably expect from a work of performance art. Still, all parties would have benefited from a little more planning.
For those of us who were lucky or assertive enough to see most of Supernatural Conductor, the performance was not without its bewildering moments. I was absolutely dumbfounded as Robbins, dressed in the costume of her persona called “Monstrous Feminine,” emerged from behind an enormous, patchwork doily-scrim. She hurled a handful of sparkling dust into the air and, with the help of America’s “You Can Do Magic,” suddenly converted the previous 30 minutes of the performance into an extended introduction to what was now a one-woman, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”-esque music-and-dance routine. What was she doing?! I was so confused I was giddy.
Prior to this moment, the audience saw her buried alive (lying interred in a cutaway coffin that was pressed up against the glass of a gallery window like a terrarium) and exhumed by a concert pianist amidst the building lightning storm outside. Robbins then entered the gallery clad in a moldering, black Victorian dress. Walking and then crawling backwards, she entered her installation where she stood with her face protruding through a hole in the middle of an oversized dreamcatcher. Despite the melodrama of it all, an intense seriousness had taken hold throughout the performance to this point.
But now—as Robbins danced popping-and-locking her way across the gallery floor—all of her carefully cultivated solemnity was suddenly and unapologetically thrown out the window. This was a perplexing move, and one that put a lot of demand on the viewer. To go from somber Gothic drama to the glitter of VH1 with almost no transition was tough.
But if you could hang on, those several moments of emotional free-fall provided a unique kind of ecstatic reward. Contemporary art often espouses a clichéd goal of subverting expectations—but it’s not every day that our expectations are actually subverted. Robbins’s closing act was gutsy.
Still, I was left uncertain as to what kinds of conclusions were meant to be drawn from the work as a whole. I half suspect that what Robbins had secretly hoped for was that her appearance as a grooving green mummy would have been enough to induce the audience into a spontaneous dance party. Perhaps she wanted to whisk everyone away in a wave of blissful rapture? Now that would have really been something!
What remains in the gallery after the performance is the residue of a practice that could be categorized as contemporary shamanism (a term Robbins resists). The artist uses performance, video, sculpture, photography, drawing, and painting as a means to invoke the spirits, primeval forces, and consciousnesses of the estranged natural world around us.
For their part, Robbins’s sculptures, drawings, and films are as much artifacts as they are art. Like the costumes and stage props left behind from some bygone opera, they constantly point the viewer back to that instant of performance when these objects must have been charged with power. They’re less awe-inspiring by themselves, but they do make us wonder what that generative moment was like, and what it would have been to experience it.
Despite the artist’s insistence and the insistence of others, notions of the feminine surrounding the work are of exaggerated importance. What we perceive is more a by-product of Robbins’s own distinctly feminine appearance and presence than any intrinsically female aspect of the imagery. One could argue that, rather than emphasizing her femininity, the personas the artist adopts take her further toward the realm of androgyny.
What would happen if Supernatural Conductor was performed again by a male? If we re-tailor the mummy costume and substitute a Victorian top hat, cane, and coattails for the dress, we might find the larger meaning of the work surprisingly unchanged. And this might be true for much of Robbins’s oeuvre. With so much focus on concepts of self, it’s easy to confuse the coincidence of the artist’s gender with the artist’s choice of themes, such as her role as a spiritual medium.
Where Shana Robbins’s work focuses on the role of the artist as spiritual emissary, Amy Myers’s work is about helping us see the spiritual world for ourselves.
Myers’s massive drawings are imposing. As with Robbins’s performance, these images have to be seen in person to be fully understood. They are often discussed in nonrepresentational terms. But in the context of this exhibition, they function almost as portraits: the abstract representation of a fertile infinity, a universal creative force. This makes Myers’s categorization of her drawings as “feminine” all the more profound and exciting.
If they are female, they are female gods. They are the deities toward which Robbins’s rituals and actions make petition. Their vulviform shapes are the pathways through which stars are born. When I approached Myers about my animistic interpretation of her work, she responded that she knows one of her drawing is finished when it “feels like somebody is there in the room” with her.