Eyes of the Skin Feels Its Way Towards Tenderness

Written by Christin Call
Dancers in the installation “Eyes of the Skin”
Photo by Tim Summers

The performance and sculptural installation “Eyes of the Skin” opened on Thursday, January 26, 2012, at the HenryArtGallery, offering a multimedia exploration of the nature of tenderness.  The piece is a collaboration between Jennifer Salk, associate professor of dance at UW, and Maja Petrić, a PhD candidate in UW’s DXARTS (Center for Digital Art and Experimental Media).  Performances took place throughout the gallery as well as in a centralized space in front of a sculptural wall created by Petrić where themes of tenderness, in particular the way we respond both viscerally and emotionally to the sensation of the tender touch, were unraveled.

The dancers placed throughout the gallery—the entrance ramp, the master stairway, the elevator—interacted in their spaces by molding themselves to the architectural surfaces.  A dancer on the stairs lay along the rail in an open arabesque.  Lights attached to her wrists and ankles flashed on highly reflective lineations on the wall.  Another pair of dancers, also with lights, crawled along or in various ways flattened themselves against the walls of a small cove in the room, reflecting a similar linear/skyline pattern installed there.

The main show began with a group of women with country-kitchen style chairs in tow moving into the area of the gallery where a large, stucco white wall with geometrical protrusions texturizing an ascending pattern was installed.   The UW dancers appeared well-coached in gentle and compassionate expressions and approached the gestural movement with the solemnity of vestal virgins performing ceremonies of the temple.  Caresses under the eyes, brushes at the cheek, tugs at the ears, and the sweeping of hair from each other’s faces were strong gestures because of their subtleness and specificity.  Their meaning was enhanced by the dancers’ loyalty and sincerity. 

Dancers in “Eyes of the Skin”
Photo by Tim Summers
Most intriguing was the dancers’ manipulation of the wall.  As they pulled and prodded it, small, jagged openings were peeled apart, revealing the soft silhouettes of birds flapping their wings.  This recognizable trope of birds as the hidden fragility of human need and desire was saved by being done impeccably well.  The texture of the wall itself suggested a landscape, a flock of birds, the hint of a trail, or a direction softly escalating into the unknown, as well as human skin.  The use of white kept these suggestions understated, allowing stage lighting by Amiya Brown to make use of its reflectivity; the room glowed with an ethereality approaching the sublime.

The beauty of lighting, the wall, and the dancer’s handling of it, was dampened by one unaddressed aspect.  As a work about human nature, designing the installation so that it also humanized the audience would have allowed the audience to be a part of the story of human tenderness.  The interstitial pieces were a missed opportunity.  The dancers ignored or were oblivious to the audience even though they were occupying the parts of the building designed for the audience, to be most functional for them, spaces built with a desire to ease and guide the flow of the audience’s movements in a particular pathway.  The effect of maintaining this traditional stage convention was awkward and unnecessarily excluding. The main performance space also reinforced the separation between the audience and the performers with a black box-style setup where the wall became a backdrop. 

There could have also been more focus in the performance’s thematic development.  In exploring our difference in receptivity to touch, the instances of reacting with minor irritation or annoyance unraveled too quickly.  Inexplicably, the movement became a full-blown physical fight between two of the women who wrestled each other, knocked each other down, and generally menaced and antagonized each other. With this, the piece lost sight of what is interesting about our reaction to tenderness—that it can be both a pleasure and an annoyance simultaneously.  The big, athletic finale was too generically emotive and not performed with enough technical strength to be effective.   

“Eyes of the Skin” will be performed again February 2-3 at 7:30pm and February 4th at 2:00pm at the HenryArtGallery. Performances are non-ticketed and free with museum admission.  Petrić’s installation will be on view through February 4, 2012, during museum hours.