Fallback Friday: Dressing for Space

by Jonelle Mannion

May 18, 2016

Ralph Lemon. Scaffold Room, 2015; installation view; The Kitchen, New York City. Pictured: Okwui Okpokwasili. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu.

In 2016, polymath Ralph Lemon staged an all-encompassing happening at the legendary performance space The Kitchen, in New York. Ranging over two floors viewers witnessed a wide-scale and multifarious performance and installation. Among them was writer Jonelle Mannion, who embraced the power of being present in the moment and harnessed it into this piece for Degree Critical, “Dressing for Space.” With visceral urgency, Mannion captures the emotion of being amongst Lemon’s performers and set pieces in rousing and kinetic prose.

—Jessica Holmes, Editor-in-Chief

There is a scream that goes on until it feels normal, until the alarm reflex has long passed. Not obviously tethered to a body, this scream fills The Kitchen’s vast performance space, a black box at the center of which sits a two-story scaffold-structure, moodily lit. This space is the setting for the performance element of Ralph Lemon’s Scaffold Room, which exists as a complex of readings, performances and an exhibition, occupying both floors of The Kitchen. The show unfolds in two distinct halves, the first performed by Okwui Okpokwasili, and the second by April Matthis. The scream belongs to Matthis, but she has retreated to some recess of this stark space, and its impact is undiluted by an attachment to any visual source—the scream itself becomes a sonic environment that is lived in, as if its shrill frequency were a default setting. One stops waititng for it to end, submitting instead to a passive state of emergency.

Another moment that climbs inside of time and stretches it out: Matthis arrives on stage, profoundly unhurried, in the charged wake of Okpokwasili’s performance. She sits on the floor and props herself up, her legs splayed out like a doll. She begins to absently emit the words of Beyoncé’s “Party,” which escape form her lax mouth at the pace and pitch of a leaking air mattress. Her body is not invested in enlivening the song’s delivery, or in moving it along. She looks at her nails.

There is a claustrophobia produced by moments like these that shifts one’s mode of attention, and gives way to complacency. They are experienced as deflationary counterpoints to the frenetic restlessness that is generated, in the first half of the performance, by Okpokwasili’s manic energy—by her breakneck romp through increasingly bizarre songs and costume changes, each performative fragment punctuated by a level and controlled “thank you, very much.” When it seems like there is nowhere else for her to go, she puts on a space suit.

Throughout Okpokwasili’s performance, there’s a sense of an oppressively unlimited scope of possibility for movement—that is, for moving beyond the activity or place or costume at hand. “Dead is something you can be,” she says at one point. Although transgression is always an option, she seems compelled to try and exhaust things anyway: pop culture, the planet, even her own body, which is worked up into a blurred frenzy as if trying to erase itself. But it doesn’t matter if this erasure is achieved, because she has another body—its current form is just one iteration of the character that she and Matthis share. The stage can only hold these bodies one at a time; Okpokwasili’s departure halfway through the performance makes room for Matthis. Containers and frameworks of all shapes are collapsed—identities leak from bodies, and planets become readily permeable membranes.

One experiences a revving and yielding of the body’s internal time: Okpokwasili’s feverish energy is abruptly weighed down, thickened, by Matthis’s slow, sober movements. If momentum’s range is inexhaustible, so is the depth of a singular moment. The tension between these polar velocities is tautened by the references to literature and pop music that are woven throughout: Beyoncé, Kathy Acker and Herman Melville mingle in the air above the podium. Within this tumult of reference, there is a slippage between generations of artists that perhaps reveals as much sameness as difference: Janis Joplin fades into Amy Winehouse—“white girls with black voices” who are still dying at 27.

If the sense of eternal return in Scaffold Room causes the structure of time to feel eerily choreographed, Lemon injects rupturing elements into this looping continuum. While the performance is thoroughly scripted and considered, some aspects remain negotiable. Chairs get handed out after a fixed length of time to an audience who, until this point, has found their own way to inhabit the space. Some people use the chairs, others stay as they are: standing, sitting on the floor, curled up on a sofa in the corner.

Upstairs is The Graphic Reading Room, which is cold, white, bright and tiny. It can’t contain more than a few people at once, so the readings it hosts become choreographed over-spillings of bodies into the room’s surrounding spaces. The audio is piped in downstairs, making the activity of deciding how to engage a central one.

And then there is the “scaffold room” itself, around which the main performance is staged. The versatile two-story structure defines a space of provisionality and becoming: another container able to expand or collapse its boundaries, its form is activated by the potential for transformation. Lemon’s choreographed framework is consistently balanced by improvisational energy.

A video plays in the upstairs gallery: four older people, two women and two men, plant flowers inside a curious circular structure that resembles a makeshift stage with a roof. Their movements are careful, slow, and sincere. They are un-theatrical. Because no information is given about the context, a viewer might observe this video as they would a scene stumbled upon in the woods—its curiosities fully intact, and charmingly impenetrable.

There are things one could know about this video: that these people are the relatives of a man called Walter Carter, who—before he died at age 102—was the oldest resident of Yazoo City, Mississippi; that this man was Lemon’s long-term collaborator (known to Lemon’s audience simply as “Walter”); that the structure is a spaceship that they built together so that Walter, who did not believe that humans have been to the moon, could act out his own space travel; that the planting of flowers was a gesture that followed Walter’s death.

And if one did happen to know these things, Lemon’s work has a knack for leaving a viewer healthily unsure of what’s being looked at, loosening preconceptions so that the surface of things can float. This feeling of displacement might be akin to Walter’s own experience, each time he was directed by Lemon to act out a set of instructions, which is how their collaboration typically worked: engagement without frame of reference. Did these activities—untethered as they were from context—amount to art for Walter? Or was this collaboration just another odd job in a life full of them? Perhaps it was both, and he saw no conflict. Sometimes he would forget the instructions and improvise.

All of the work in Scaffold Room exists in a space where the scope of the possible is still being determined. The Carter’s hometown is called Little Yazoo, an area within Yazoo City that is classified as a U6 community, meaning that it is not officially recognized or census designated—a scaffold town, staked out by its people as place.

Downstairs in the performance space, between shows, another video plays: a collage of all of the scenes in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris that don’t have people in them. It presents a disquieting calm after the performance’s body-laden storm, the universe emptied of implacably transgressive human energies. This cleansing gesture of Lemon’s generates a lacuna—an opportunity to reimagine how bodies might occupy space. The moments of illumination orchestrated by Lemon’s Scaffold Room are invariably fostered by such unmapped enterprises. A spaceship is fashioned from household junk, and its door left just noticeably ajar.

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