In the equestrian sport of dressage—a theatrical adaptation of ancient equestrian military training—meticulously groomed horses demonstrate power and agility while behaving as if at a tea party. Points are deducted if a rider has to verbally command the horse to jump or turn in a circle; the control of the rider should already be ingrained, down to the rhythm of the horse's walk (four beats), trot (two beats), and canter (three beats). Occasionally, the horse commits a "refusal." He approaches a fence, say, and will not go over it—it is a curious act.
Dressage is the founding metaphor for the newest performance series by Seattle collective Implied Violence, according to director Ryan Mitchell. The performances, which have taken place in Austria, New York, and Seattle, are highly formal. They are also designed to induce heightened states in the performers: exhaustion brought on by extreme conditions (performing outdoors in a cold shallow pool in the rain for five hours, as the group did at the Frye Art Museum last Saturday) is coupled with practices including repetitive dances based on the Shaker religious tradition, costumes so tight they're like mummification, archery, ethering, and leeching. "The early American presidents used leeches to remove bad blood," Mitchell enjoins. Implied Violence shows are devilish to describe, but if you had only three words for The Dorothy K, they'd be: animals, aristocracy, America.
Since 2008, Implied Violence has been refining that triplet of themes. Throughout that summer, at a yawning warehouse north of downtown, it presented three shows that incorporated dance movement, enigmatic speech, sleep deprivation, heaps of fake blood, a moving van, bales of hay, a fictional king, a fictional chickadee, and a live chamber orchestra and live chicks. IV performers—there are somewhere around 15—are like a black-metal band. They exhibit extreme discipline while channeling messy and chaotic scenes; they also add the element of poetry, both visual and verbal. The result is the creation of a legible madness that exercises the ardent American desire to resist, which stretches from Walden to Kandahar.
If Implied Violence, cofounded by Cornish College of the Arts grads Mitchell and Mandie O'Connell (no longer with the group), once had the slightest air of juvenile delinquency about them, they now come across as full-fledged adult masterminds borrowing from various world traditions, including Butoh. With perfect timing, curator Robin Held at the Frye Art Museum presents an exhibition of their sculptural props—masks dripping with wax, a wearable wooden ether machine that looks like Hannibal Lecter crossed with refined and simplified Shaker furniture (it is said to be gentler than the classic ether rag)—plus photographs and video excerpts of performances going back to 2006. The museum exhibition is called Yes and More and Yes and Yes and Why, a phrase by Gertrude Stein that is tattooed on the forearm of the conspicuously absent O'Connell (the break was never explained; a black dress made of lace and ribbons hovering in the museum's entrance is like a ghostly homage to her). Stein's phrase is apt in its "verbal construction with a dense visual result, its breathless repetition-with-a-difference," as Held describes it.
The proposition is that IV are performance artists as much as theater artists, and it sticks. (They won the Stranger Genius Award for Organization, not Theater or Visual Art, two years ago.) They've gained supporters including crossover theater artist Robert Wilson, who has hooked them up with a gig this winter at the Guggenheim Museum in New York—the same spiraling Guggenheim that recently held the object-free exhibition of conversations orchestrated by Tino Sehgal and, prior to that, a series of controversial reenactments of performance-art classics by the legendary Marina Abramovic (whose own retrospective was the hit of the Museum of Modern Art this year—it's fair to say that visual art is obsessed with performance at the moment).
Compared to Sehgal, Abramovic, and Chris Burden (the performance-art fountainhead famous for having himself shot in the arm), IV is far more grounded in the conventional terrain of art: objects and images. Matthew Barney jumps to mind as a comparison, since the props for his films are meticulously crafted and stand alone as sculptures in addition to playing roles in the films. The central sculpture in The Dorothy K performance at the Frye last Saturday was an exquisite stand-alone piece: a gold-leafed human skeleton wearing wings of bird feathers sitting astride a horse skeleton (Barney famously shot zombie horses at Saratoga). The sculpture hung from a gallowslike armature and was movable by a system of pulleys operated by a puppet-master (Mitchell). When he pulled the rope and turned the pulleys, the bird feathers flapped slowly as red daisies set in wire cups rose up and down, blooming and contracting, setting the large black body of the beast in motion.
Now that the outdoor performance at the Frye is over, pieces of it (I hope including this exquisite puppet-machine, created by IV sculptor Casey Curran) will be brought into the gallery to join the other sculptures: the masks, the ether machine, and a jar full of the actual leeches that ate the artists' blood when they performed in Austria; the animals were transported back by suitcase. ("It's like a DNA library," Held says, harking back to her 2002 experimental Seattle exhibition Gene(sis): Contemporary Art Explores Human Genomics, which also included live materials.)
Barney turns out to be of limited use in considering IV. Where his objects are high-budget, high-polish symbols that may be loaded with meaning but are Masonically closed-off and secretive, IV's visually powerful (mnemonic, even) symbols are low-tech and literal. The blooming daises are a small wonder, but it is no mystery how they work, and how they work is essentially what they mean—they stand for an object being commanded, repetitively, by a master. Also low-tech and literal: A performer being ethered actually does pass out; when he reawakens, he has to figure out what has happened without him in order to rejoin the encoded world of the show.
When a male performer holds a knife to the throat of a female performer in The Dorothy K, he holds it for so long that the initial tension drains out of the action and a new tension arises: How long can he hold up that fatiguing arm? His grimaces become expressions of his own internal struggle, to which she only bears witness. Given the violence of this couple and the use of archery—an archer who otherwise sits still in the freezing-cold pool shoots arrows into a wax chair every hour—The Dorothy K brings to mind the 1980 performance in which Abramovic and her partner Ulay held a taut bow and arrow to her heart. There's another performance-art classic to consider here, too: Burden's final performance of self-punishment—when he lay under a sheet of glass in a museum for more than 45 hours until a museum employee intervened to give him some water. At that point, reality having broken in to save him, he got up, smashed a clock he'd placed nearby, and left that style of performance forever, figuring he'd taken it as far as it could go.
That was 1975, in the waning moments of the last wave of American resistance movements. Thirty-five years later, there is another hunger for resistance, characterized by marches and rallies and TV-news satirists. IV is part of this larger political context. Throughout Saturday's performance of The Dorothy K, Mitchell stood at a microphone and evenly told the others what to do—"Larger bounces, please," "Thank you, archer," "More, Lily," "Start the sequence, please." (Speakers, cameras, and recording devices sat on top of the museum's roof, wrapped in transparent plastic in the rain.) The performers followed every cue, but struggled as they grew more tired, colder, and wetter. Were they overly obedient—broken, like horses?—or super-strong? Framed by the concrete columns of the museum building, the choreography often dictated that they move in synchronized pairs or groups, calling to mind contemporary Chinese performance art. How is "breaking" a group different from "breaking" an individual? What about "breaking" an audience? The onlookers stood in the rain for hours. (One seemed to be having a breakdown, and eventually landed facedown on the street; an IV collaborator insisted he was not part of the performance, but I had my doubts.)
About halfway through the show, two women lay in the pool for something like a half hour with their backs arched, heads and feet held out of the water, frozen in strain. One of them assumed the position quickly and calmly, like a mime, and wore a blank facial expression the whole time; the other fell to her knees, thrashed around, and finally collapsed into the position, her face continuing to contort with rage as she held it. The women were responding to torture differently—one, almost as if it were religious training; the other, like a defiant captive. After September 11, Abu Ghraib, Tiananmen Square, and the crashing American economy, what are we, as Americans, in training for? IV is asking the big questions.