WHOS THE TARGET? Niki de Saint Phalle later wrote that she wasnt sure, but she may have been shooting her father or brother, both of whom sexually abused her, or herself.
  • WHO'S THE TARGET? Niki de Saint Phalle later wrote that she wasn't sure, but she may have been shooting her father or brother, both of whom sexually abused her, or herself.

When it comes to the role of women over the last 100 years, why are women so much more powerful in dance than in visual art?

"In dance, women are not just makers but spectacles," Catherine Cabeen said yesterday. "Perhaps this is why they've been allowed to be the exception. ...I've always known that I was using my body as a visual spectacle."

John Rockwell, the renowned critic, once called Cabeen "a goddess," so, yeah. And put crassly but probably truly, men may have little interest in looking at women's paintings, but they like looking at women's bodies. Cabeen is spending 2011 through 2015 making three dances about art. (The first was Into the Void, inspired by Yves Klein; the next will be based on Jean Tinguely.)

Cabeen brought her principles to life while she talked yesterday, giving a presentation in a UW dance studio. The dancers in her company performed behind her as she spoke. Two dancers across from each other were connected by a long, thick strand of gray yarn. One sat on the floor working the yarn onto a large red circular knitting loom while the other wore the knitted yarn around her body on the other side of the stage. As the standing woman turned and turned, the gray knitted garment—like a body sock—was being unraveled and reknit again on the loom by the seated woman, who tugged at it as she went. I couldn't help noticing that the turning woman was very beautiful, and the way she turned while arching her body was a way of showcasing herself, like a dessert in a moving bakery case. She was both captive and captivating.

"I can control how I present myself," Cabeen said while this went on, "but I can't control your gaze. I can't control how you see me." Her presentation was called "Hair Trigger: Femininity, Objectification, and Violence," and this is the loaded portrait she used to illustrate it on her web site (a shot of her, by Alan Kimara Dixon):


"Very early, I got the message that men had the power, and I wanted it." That's Niki de Saint Phalle talking. She was an artist who described her mother, aunts, and grandmother as "guardians of the hearth"—whereas she wanted to be a full citizen of the whole world, not just domestic life. Eventually, she rose to stardom and made a series called Shooting Paintings. These paintings, packed with balloons of color under their surfaces, literally exploded and bled when she shot them with actual guns. She started wearing a white catsuit while she did it. Cabeen thought this was hot. She started creating a full dance piece inspired by de Saint Phalle, commissioned by On the Boards (it runs all next weekend). It's called Fire!

"Hair Trigger" was the story of how Cabeen's thinking shifted from finding this sexy to finding it complicated. De Saint Phalle's rage was in part motivated by years of sexual abuse. Her shooting only lasted two years, anyway. She eventually created giant sculptures of rotund, rainbow-colored women. She also created the monumental Tarot Garden in Italy, the world's largest sculpture park devoted to the art of a woman. The garden ended up being more inspiring to Cabeen than the Shooting Paintings. When Cabeen visited, she was taken with the fact that the place was crawling with schoolchildren and she started climbing the sculptures herself. It was wondrous and innocent and beautiful and redemptive—a place far from violence and rage—when suddenly, she slipped and fell. One of the sculptures cut her from elbow to wrist. She wasn't seriously hurt, but she felt the violence right there alongside the innocence. Fire! is about both sides now, she said.

I'm looking forward to seeing the results. Here's a roll of fragments from the last installment, Into the Void: