Guest Blog Post by Julian Carter
I’ve had a chance to sit a little with Ryan Tacata’s durational performance “Lolas,” held on Thursday night at the Asian Art Museum. As it filters into me I find my enthusiasm and respect growing. At the time there were a few elements of the performance that I might have questioned; but these have faded and the memory I will retain is of entering a lovely soft absorption, punctuated by moments of confrontation with sorrow, the poignancy of loss and the sobering endlessness of labor.
I had trouble parking so came whisking up the beautiful Beaux Arts amber-cream staircase almost seven minutes late. The doors into the gallery were open. My experience of the performance began with my friend Erika, who has made work with Ryan, getting up to come say hello and whisper that although they’d been told to move freely in the space everyone was sitting squarely in their seats. There were perhaps 40 people in stackable chairs ringing the room in loose groupings that established a spacious central rotunda. In the center of that space there was a large indistinct pile of brightly colored stuff, and by it, a balding Asian man sat in a white molded-plastic armchair. Somehow I had the information that this was Ryan’s father making his performance debut. He was naked but for white underpants and let his spine sag like we do when we’re home by ourselves. The posture could read as defeated if it weren’t so comfortable. Every once in a while, Ryan’s father reached between his knees, took the edge of the chair in his hand, and used it to scoot himself forward around the ring a few feet. After a full rotation, he was joined by three more white chairs populated by young brown people in housedresses and boots. This group slowly circumnavigated the central pile. The scoot-shuffle gesture grew variations and elaborations, and a hand gesture was added that also had some variants. Its essence was a full-arm scoop with a double hand flap signaling come here, come here—though in some of its variations it could just as well mean get outta here, or even move, you’re in front of the TV. It was utterly compelling.
I did feel a little conspicuous about wandering around at first but I didn’t have a chance to claim a chair anyway so took up the invitation to follow the performers around the rotunda, perching briefly on the occasional empty seat or slipping behind a pillar as I pleased. The structure of the piece and its 2.5-hour duration engendered a kind of free-form engagement that was shared, in different ways, by all observers. Groups of museum-goers came and went and a few stayed on. At one point I noticed I was getting a headache and went downstairs to drink some water and shift focal length for a minute. A handful of artily-dressed people who seemed to have come specifically for this event stayed the whole time; other equally fabulous folk came late or left for a break. A man wearing a camera split off from his tour group to watch longer and stayed until the tour leader came back to collect him. The ebb and flow of the audience in the space meant that the social and energetic frame of the performance changed from one moment to the next. Over the course of the evening, more and more people shifted their comportment in response to the long relaxed unfolding. At 7:30 Muriel Maffre balanced upright at easy attention, her elegant head poised and her elegant legs folded elegantly. At 8:30 she was leaning back, her knees slightly open with her weight behind her. One beautiful young man wearing beautiful fashion lolled sideways to rest against his companion’s shoulder, and then eventually reclined onto her lap. People got up and moved around to watch from a new place. Julie Tolentino reached up from her relaxed sprawl on the floor to whisper into Stosh’s ear, one hand broadcasting delicate yet emphatic air signals as she talked. The glamorous blonde to my left watched me watching Julie and laughed in a conspiratorial way, then mouthed to me that she knows we have met before and was it at Franconia Salon? Or Stanford?… During all this, the performers moved along their prescribed paths, either solo or in canon without any form of interaction or acknowledgment of one another’s proximity. There was a kind of reversal here, in which the audience was mobile and social, the performers comparatively contained.
The overall structure was a series of tableaux, linked together in a loose sequence that could be seen as the artist’s lola, grandmother, making a garden plot and tending it. Perhaps this was also a depiction of others making Lola’s grave in the image of her garden. However you interpret the construction project of the piece, its most prominent and consistent materials were rolls of Astroturf and white-painted rocks; its live sound score (by Derek Phillips) includes the oddly soothing repetitive clink small rocks in a clay saucer, fans whirring, a lawn sprinkler…My companion for the performance whispered that these were the sounds of remembered summers in central California half a century ago. The soundscape merged with the slow, slow movement to create a sense of endlessness, the spacious temporality of childhood and extreme old age.
One of the things I found especially satisfying about “Lolas” was its array of characters. Three people in housedresses, one in white underpants: at first I assumed that the housedress meant “grandmother” and accepted that the artist’s grandmother had, through some creative necessity, assumed three bodies, while the man in his underpants was representing a man in his underpants—perhaps her husband, or perhaps Ryan’s dad, her son, both of whom must have watched her working. As the performance progressed the possibilities seemed to expand. After all, Ryan was performing his grandmother; perhaps his father was too. Perhaps all the housedresses were one Lola; perhaps they were Lola plus aunties; perhaps they were the three graces, or a chorus of mourners, or both. Perhaps Ryan’s father was a Lola too. I let my attention shift to enjoying the patterns in the movement unfolding before me.
About an hour into the performance I asked Erika “why doesn’t he call this work dance?” She whispered back “too much school.” Perhaps I’m undereducated but I want to identify it as dance because I care about the artfulness, the formal intentionality, and the technique of this patterned abstract movement for ensemble with rotating soloists. A good deal of the piece was built on the movement vocabulary of gardening, as executed in old age. It featured the shuffling slow gait of bodies with bad knees, sore feet, and hips that don’t work right anymore. We watched as these Lolas built mini stages for each tableaux. Spines arched like question marks, faces pointed down, they brought rolls of astroturf from the central pile, spread it out just so, and held down its edges with the white-painted rocks. Even with three Lolas sharing the labor, moving rocks with your chest bowed and your pelvis immobile takes a long time. It was made even slower by patterned pauses: a lola would simply stop and rest while the others continued with the task at hand; then another would stop. In another section, the performers built a fountain out of their bodies, Ryan’s dad in his white plastic chair at the base, framed by the three younger performers. The two who rested their heads on his breast each extended one leg out to the side in a lovely flying-buttress kind of pose. They held this position for about 4 minutes, long enough for me to ponder geometry and line and the classical aesthetics of garden statuary, and how Jerome Bel underscores the enormous disavowed labor of transforming oneself into a decorative object.
There were moments of intensity, too. The most memorable of these for me was a sequence that began with the three housedresses sweeping the ground between their feet with little hand-held whisk brooms. Stooping over to remove imaginary imperfections from the Astroturf gradually unfolded into full-body movement, all three whisk brooms flicking in a circular gesture at shoulder height while the other hand rested in the vicinity of the heart. The abstraction and development of sweeping worked in part because the original gesture was so potent and so communicative in its literalism. I saw this as a recreation of Ryan’s grandmother’s absolute refusal to tolerate dirt out of place; in that refusal was contained a rich relationship to housework, husbands, and the natural world.
I could go on and on, like hot summer afternoons, or housework, or gender relations, or grief, or old age. I suspect that is the point. So I’ll just stop here, with a final observation about the performance’s paradoxes. It was about the endlessness of labor, and it left me feeling creatively refreshed; it explored a kind of lonely isolation in that work and yet left me feeling warmly connected to the performers and the other audience members; it gestured repeatedly toward loss, yet created a space suffused with an active love; it had a clear formal structure and temporal duration, yet left me free to engage with it as felt right to me. I left deeply impressed by what I saw as the mixture of craft and integrity in this work, and I am looking forward to Ryan’s next production.