Wrapped in the Interstitial: Janine Antoni, Anna Halprin, and Stephen Petronio at FWM


Fabric Workshop and Museum

April 21 – July 31, 2016

By Sarah Muehlbauer

INTERSTICE [in-tur-stis] noun

  1. an intervening space.
  2. a small or narrow space or interval between things or parts
  3. Roman Catholic Church. the interval of time that must elapse before promotion to a higher degree of orders.
  4. an interval of time.

On view at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, the exhibition Ally features work by collaborators Janine Antoni, Anna Halprin and Stephen Petronio. Facilitated by the process-driven FWM residency, Ally activates the boundaries of form—the interstices—methodically examining the nature of intimacy, of poetry of the body and material. The artists ask: How might the ethereal forces of performance be encountered in the exhibition space where objects have long reigned?

It is not simply a question of material but of energetics—looking at form not as a barrier, but as an opportunity to diminish the space between artist and artist, artist and audience, maker and made.

Centered on four performative acts complemented by a static exhibition, Ally opens with a micro-examination of the experience of experience, turning viewer into third-hand witnesses. Evidence of the first floor’s Rope Dance is not the dance itself, but a wall-sized projection of Halprin’s face as she watches her audience and the dance. The video loops and a gallery guide speaks a narrative description of the event. Her landscape of expression— attention, surprise, tears, and delight—sets up an anticipatory tone with respect to the absent content. It is an initiation to the question: Is there resonance that carries beyond the moment, some energy that infiltrates the space?


Janine Antoni, Anna Halprin, Stephen Petronio, Rope Dance, 2015. Courtesy of the artists and The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. 


Janine Antoni, Anna Halprin, Stephen Petronio, Rope Dance, 2015. Photograph and © Hugo Glendinning. Courtesy of the artists and The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia.

With this beginning, Ally presents viewers with a fundamental lack, an unfulfilled desire to discover what can only be experienced with presence. Rope Dance as an artifact holds a place as simple as the expression of emotion as it relates to the act of creation and desired intention. It also holds the complex position as signifier for an almost infinite range of all that is to be desired in presence.

Moving deeper into the exhibit, viewers are led by gallery guide through the sites of Paper Dance, The Courtesan and the Crone, and Swallow—conspicuously sparse rooms with materials implicated as tools of performance. The only act I am to witness in “real time” is Paper Dance, a performance art mash-up of Antoni and Halprin’s work, which situates past and present creative preoccupations together, embodied by Antoni’s improvisational response.

Paper Dance commences in a bare room full of crates of artwork. The performance changes each time with respect to the work chosen. I sit on a low, flat box, which is to be the first that Janine chooses to unearth. I move and resettle. Staring at Coddle, a 1998 Cibachrome print in a hand-carved wooden frame, we see a representation of the artist cradling her own leg in a position that suggests Madonna and child. The piece points directly at the experience of self-and-other, of love across boundaries, of history, spirituality, duty, duality, and creation.

Janine Antoni in collaboration with Anna Halprin, Paper Dance, 2013. April 20, 2016 performance view from Ally, produced in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum. Photographed by Carlos Avendaño. Courtesy of the artists and The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia.

Antoni pauses to reflect on the print and continues to perform with a roll of brown paper, a piece of material from Halprin’s work, evidence of which is projected in the room before and after the performance. The improvised Paper Dance becomes a link, a storyline, a memory, and a material metaphor for the space between these artists and their work, in states of fusion and separation. Through Antoni’s movement, I trace themes of cocoon and metamorphosis, of death and rebirth. I see the shape of the body and its absence of form molded in paper, reminiscent of works like Saddle. In her handling of the paper, we see the past is shaped by the present, at times constructive, at times destructive.  We watch innocent play become ecstatic dance, wrapped, packaged, and repackaged. We see material become precious, taken care of as a child. We see it eaten, ripped apart, and discarded.

At moments the dance is absurd, sad, uncomfortable, and banal. At its culmination, we witness a violent, self-led transformation—an artist frustrated by the mess of it, but determined nonetheless to succeed. Sacrifice, death, and transcendence are followed with an aggressive discard of the paper, into a pile of previously “performed” papers. This is a message that the dance is through, but never finished, as long as the artist is felt and observed, the objects packaged and disseminated. As a writer, I am here as a witness, an echo of the performance. These words reverberate some archived truth, a transmission that reached me and now passes on to you.

Janine Antoni and Stephen Petronio, Swallow, 2016. Exhibition detail from Ally , produced in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum. Photographed by Carlos Avendaño. Courtesy of the artists and The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia.

The concept of transmission is amplified in the piece Swallow, a one-time performance limited to ten audience members, audio “witness statements”, and a staged ceremonial space. Its main feature is a gold and glass reliquary for a ten-foot gauze cloth, jointly swallowed by Antoni and Petronio. In an almost scientific investigation of intimacy, the viewer is invited to magnify the “evidence”, the point at which the artists’ bodies met.

Each of the ten witnesses held a symbolic role. The Poet’s account delivers an overview confirming ceremonial and religious themes. He relates to the gauze as a surrogate object for a shared, unspoken language, a type of metaphysical intercourse between Antoni and Petronio. He also suggests cultural images of the sword-swallower and “Lady and the Tramp”; in these resonant comparisons, we grasp a sense of grotesque spectacle that is simultaneous with romance and loyalty.

I proceed to other accounts. The Healer contemplates art’s ability to transform its audience, while The Listener considers the difficulty of real closeness with another person. The Mole questions the artist’s personal experience of the piece, while The Defender looks to define the relationship between performers in terms of narrative drama. The Mother and Twins’ experience reveals a youth’s anger at their physical discomfort, and a sense of empathy unsettled by the room’s complicity. In sum, the audio component is a fascinating, but challenging, comparison of experiences that “reveals” as much as one is willing to provide in attention.

Anna Halprin and Stephen Petronio, November 2015. Photograph and © Hugo Glendinning. Courtesy of the artists and The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia.  

In some ways Ally feels like just the beginning of an alliance—a ground clearing, an act of respect and exploration into what is shared and what is “other”. It is in essence both a micro-conversation digging into the history of each of these artists, as well as a meta-conversation on the function of objects and the role of the museum. The position FWM embodies as an institution engaged in arts production is an essential frame for this work’s development.

As viewers, we are primarily recipients of the affect, not the act, and this theme runs throughout Ally. The “real” is situated in presence and engagement, the “new” is born of the old, and the boundaries that separate artist and viewer are similar to those that separate the arts from each other. The object – its making, its presence or its absence, transcribed by the position of the artist’s body in relation to its viewer – becomes a metaphor for the viewer in relation to the world. If the goal of creation is the transmission of a message, then meaning lives wrapped in the interstices, the space between. The creative act sends a ripple on the water, with waves that rise and fall with its resonance.

Sarah Muehlbauer is a performance artist and writer based in Philadelphia.