A beginning on Nothing in a new video installation by Anna Krzystek

published 22 June 2017
The three screen video installation ‘Untitled #0.5 – Who, What And Where Is Anna’ begins Anna Krzystek’s new ‘Untitled Series’ exploring the premise of Nothing. Creating a video installation is a shift for Krzystek who till now has focused primarily on live performance works. This new ‘Untitled Series’ is also a continuation of her opus operandi – that of creating a series of works that sustain an investigation into one area of enquiry – a way of working that began with her ‘Wait Series’ of five works (2004-2013). ‘Untitled #0.5 – Who, What And Where Is Anna’ is also a continuation of Krzystek’s interest in the solo performer and in her questioning of what it means to perform. Bringing her trade mark qualities – a formalism, an interest in line and in repetition, a pared backness and a smidgin of subtle humour – to three video screens, Krzystek creates a choreography of enigma and complexity that thinks sculpturally about the installation set up and the body(ies) within the screen(s) and that, in its ambiguous hinting at the interior world of a life being lived, introduces a more intimate quality to her oeuvre.

Three monitors – black-framed, each supported by a black stand, equal in size and equidistant from each other – greet the visitor on entering the space. In front of the screens on the floor a black rug. In front of the rug four black chairs, equidistant from each other, positioned facing the screens. The set up alludes to the theatre, to a frontal presentation to an audience seated on the ‘fourth wall’ of the theatre space. It exerts an almost static sculptural presence in the gallery space, a self-conscious assertion of the one way optic of the theatrical or cinematic frame. The installation uses a fixed video frame throughout, with a distinct spatial scale to each of the screens, evoking a kind of constancy of three separate worlds; an inner world, a home space and a theatrical event is one possible reading – though whether each depiction is fact or fiction remains ambiguous. It is towards the movement(s) within these three worlds that the eye is drawn. The installation runs on a ten minute loop.

Reading left to right across the three screens, the first film is shot in close up, head shots, one after another, always oblique, alluding to the talking head shot we are familiar with from interviews, cutting from interviewer to interviewee. But here each face is Anna’s. Later the face is covered: by a face mask, by a white drape. There is limited movement within the fixed frame. The viewer’s eye is called to the facial expression, and later, when the drape covers the face, to the gesture of a hand. The central screen, a wide angle shot, shows a hallway with open doors leading off to left and right and a central closed door to an outside world. The hallway’s walls are red, a small yet dramatic presence amidst the black and white that pervades the screens to left and right and within the black that frames the whole installation. The hallway remains unchanged throughout – with one small yet dramatic (if noticed) change: the door to the outside world opens.

The third screen has a predominance of black. It shows what could be a performance, a figure (Anna) is still or moving slowly, costumed in a body suit that both conceals and enlarges the body. There are two costumes – one black, one white. The white costume, empty of the performer, becomes a kind of headless human presence kneeling downstage as the black-costumed performer kneels, turns, rises behind, almost melting into a pervading blackness within which her head seems to float. The positioning of these figures corresponds to the spatial composition of the first screen though at a larger scale: diagonal and oppositional. In another shot the performer is clothed in the white costume. The camera frame is close. We see the folds of the white as if skin, a voluminous shifting as the performer moves slightly from side to side. We see the stitching of the costume – a massively oversized wet suit – a slash of humour while the actions and framings speak of a concern with formal and minimalist sculptural aspects of shape, volume, line, contrast, weight.

These formal interests can be traced to Krzystek’s period in New York – which included studying at Merce Cunningham Studio from 1990-93 and her affinity with the work of minimalist visual artists working in sculptural forms such as Donald Judd and Dan Flavin. Cunningham’s combination of a rigorous technical investigation of a dance vocabulary stripped of emotive expression alongside his acknowledgement of the individual qualities of each dancer spoke to Krzystek’s passion for technical prowess and abstraction in dance. From 1994 the solo became for Krzystek the choreographic form with which she could explore these passions and through which she could address another driving interest: what it means to be a performer – to perform in front of an audience.

Her work has been celebrated for its rigour, intelligence and humour. Her investigative approach has taken as its starting point weighty philosophical themes: the notion of Waiting in the five works – ‘TEST’, ‘STILL’, ‘Figure This’, ‘Face On’ and ‘No End’ – of the ‘Wait Series’ and the current theme of Nothing in ‘Untitled Series.’ Her choreography involves repetition, a stripping back of extraneous movement, endurance – what she calls a “strict approach” – one that asks “what is just enough and no more?” Her preferred “lean palette” with regard to movement is echoed in her organisation of space where repetition of clear unembellished lines and facings are chosen. This aesthetic is echoed too in the video element that accompanied several of the works of the ‘Wait Series’: ‘STILL’ included five TV sets showing the same living room from different vantage points; ‘Figure This’ included two monitors showing a continuous panning across a still photograph of the room from ‘STILL’, the panning continuing off of the photograph onto whiteness; ‘Face On’ included two monitors showing a sixty minute take of the performer as she ‘waits’; ‘No End’ included one monitor showing a fabricated slow motion zoom in and out of performer’s face.

Within the performance element of that minimalist aesthetic, dance itself and the performer performing in front of an audience is very much present. The direct communication with audience that Krzystek strives for alongside a minimalist aesthetic is a distinct feature of her performance work. Her propensity is towards frontal presentation, a direct address to audience, a steady and open gaze extending through that fourth wall, an acknowledgement always of an audience’s presence. The movement is swift, with deft footwork and extended lines through to the extremities of the body. The philosophical questioning is asked of that moving body. It is a phenomenological investigation – evident in the endurance of ‘waiting’ for minuscule changes within a wash of ongoing movement in the final work of the ‘Wait Series’, ‘No End.’ Through her unrelenting and rigorous pursuit of that phenomenological investigation – and with that final work of the series ‘No End’ – Krzystek arrived at a saturation of waiting, at an endlessness to waiting, at a kind of nothingness. This ‘nothingness’ produced a period of existential self-questioning that continued – and continues – into the investigations that inform the current ‘Untitled Series.’

Her preference for the solo form (with herself as performer) and her perpetual questioning of what it means to perform in front of an audience might indicate an existing existential undercurrent to her work. However, the existential dilemma provoked by the sense of nothingness directly experienced at the end of the ‘Wait Series’ brought to the surface a more personal mode of questioning. For example she asked: What does it mean to be a performer when the majority of your time is spent ‘off’ stage? When your sense of identity has so little ‘on’ time? When you are for long periods in a kind of nothingness, suspended, waiting?

She began to explore these questions during research residency periods for ‘Untitled #1’ during 2014 – 2016. ‘Untitled #1’ is conceived as an installation that has a daily performance element and that, within a purpose built set, has designated ‘on’ and ‘off’ areas. Through the presence of the solo performer the work investigates being ‘on’ and being ‘off’ stage while remaining in front of an audience. Notions of ‘on’ and ‘off’ are addressed spatially through the set design. They are addressed temporally through the performer having extended periods of being ‘on’ daily. They are addressed conceptually through the staging of both ‘on’ and ‘off’ states. ‘Untitled #0.5 – Who, What And Where Is Anna’ – its title suggesting that it is on route to ‘Untitled #1’ – picks up the investigations through the medium of video installation.

Accruing material from both ‘personal’ and ‘performer’ related sources, constructing scenarios for ‘on’ and ‘off’ material, stripping these materials back to “enough and no more” Krzystek began to sense the relation between ‘on’ and ‘off’ and its association with Nothing in an increasingly paradoxical way: as a kind of mutual abiding with the ‘on’ and the ‘off’ each being present with the other. And for Krzystek there never is Nothing “you strip back but there is always something e.g. the empty stage with lights out is still something – it still calls something to attention.”

The sculptural set up for the installation, the four empty chairs looking on to the three moving screens, initially calls to attention a sense of theatre and a sense of absence. The visitor may choose to occupy the place of absence, to sit on a chair: to enter into – and so change – the sculptural form of the work. Another visitor may choose to stay further back, to look on to the three screens beyond the chairs – so leaving the absent presence of the empty chair intact. The power of the audience to effect a small (even if imperceptible to some audience members) modification to the sculptural form of the work is the initial indication of a departure by Krzystek from her usual performance based compositional methods. This departure takes off from a firm base in her characteristic compositional tropes including: the frontal presentation – performatively exaggerated before the empty chairs;  the solo performer – it is only Anna who appears in the screens; the colour black – her usual costume colour and a striped backness – here in terms of the content of each of the three screens. There is also a familiar insistence on the fourth wall of the performance space, a wall that maintains the audience as onlookers – though the question of whether that wall is situated in front of or behind the four chairs remains ambiguous.

A further familiar aspect is her working with her long-time collaborator Tom Murray who uses his usual method of sound composition – layering and repetition. For ‘Untitled #0.5 – Who, What And Where Is Anna’ the  sound score is constructed through multiple layering and speeding up of Krzytek’s voice reading from some of the texts on transactional analysis that formed part of her early research for the work. The resulting sound is indecipherable as words and is akin to the noise of a swarm of buzzing bees going around and around. It hints, metaphorically and viscerally, at a qualitative feeling of existential dilemma – at a state of non-stop thinking.

The video installation introduces some distinctly uncharacteristic aspects. Notably, Krzystek’s limited palette is addressed to the act of movement in a different way: there is no dancing; there is a lot of stillness and what movement there is is small, gestural. While the solo performer remains present within the screens, and while the screens are presented in a front-on mode, within the video frame the performer is always at an oblique angle, never gazing out towards the front, towards the audience’s gaze. The performer is no longer conducting the attention of the audience, no longer calling the attention by her presence. Nor it seems is the choreographer conducting the gaze. The three screens function alongside each other, yet independently. There is no sense of an edit in one screens operating to conduct the audience’s gaze to a movement in another screen. The viewer, as with her choice of where and if to sit on entering the gallery space, chooses how to watch the work – when to shift her gaze from one screen to another, how long to linger on one, or another. The distinctiveness of each of the films makes it impossible to watch all three screens simultaneously. The two outside screens in particular call you in, disrupting any expectation that the central frame is a main image that the other two support. Here then there is a conducting of the audience’s gaze, but a conducting that effectively forces the viewer to make her own choices about viewing. With this each audience member is invited into a personal type of encounter with the work.

Each screen, with its small acts of movement, of gesture and of stillness evoke distinct associations. There is the screen that suggests a personal inner world – a face contorted by weeping, a face absorbed in self-reflection, a face covered as a hand with extreme slowness gestures enigmatically. There is the central screen, a domestic hallway with walls of glowing red and open doors that hint at more intimate spaces – the possibility of ease, of comfort. But the camera remains fixed on this passing space through which no-one passes. A space of absence, a space waiting, a space persisting in stillness. There is the third screen with the (apparent) performance of the black and white costumes variously with and without habitation by a human body. These costume-bodies – with and without the human body’s presence – are equally present, equally object-like. There is no interaction between them. They co-exist as sculptural objects indicating towards a fictional or theatrical world of formal means – of placement, volume, gesture. Their still weightiness, their small slow shifts of placement, the pervading blackness within which the bodies are always placed obliquely, never looking out from the frame, evoke a feeling of quietness, tenderness, farawayness. Together yet separate, each of the screens suggests a world that is distinct – in scale, in content, in atmosphere. Each is constructed with a formal clarity that refuses to reveal if its basis is in reality, in fiction, in performance – and so each action is inflected by a quality of enigma. It is between these three formally constructed enigmatic worlds that the viewer’s eye wanders.

While Krzystek has continued to work as a solo performer in this installation, there is a limited sense of this being a solo work. The solo performer who is there – Anna – inhabits, in the third screen, a sculptural quality of presence equivalent to the costumes. The ‘person’ of the performer is quiet. The first screen with the close up of her face perhaps more evidently suggests the lone artist. Yet while she has drawn from what she calls “existential dilemmas” in developing the material here, that material is treated with the same weight and formality with which she treats the more evidently choreographed material of the third screen. There is perhaps a hinting at autobiographical content, but the formal treatment tilts this away, pulls forward the sculptural forms of the face and its coverings. The “existential dilemma” is material, is form, line, stillness, gesture. It is suspended in the video frame, contrasting in scale while corresponding in spatial arrangements with the frame of the performing costume-bodies. That is not to say that there is no appeal to an emotional response; it is to say that an emotional appeal is backgrounded, that the formal elements of composition within the whole are given more weight than the expressive gestures of the face and hand. This provokes a subtlety and uncertainty in the reading of the work – even as those gestures may be affecting the viewer. It distances the “existential dilemma” from the person on the screen as it too becomes object-like. It is the means by which Krzystek plays between what is real and what is constructed, lets loose possible fictions and leaves the viewer to her own experience of the work – or perhaps invites the viewer to read the work through her own experiences.

Drawn from a period of “existential crisis”, developed through choreographic and sculptural means that distance a sense of ‘truth’ of autobiographical content ‘Untitled #0.5 – Who, What And Where Is Anna’ is a particular development in Krzystek’s output. The first work in the new ‘Untitled Series’  addressing the premise of Nothing, it subtly flits with an always something that is almost nothing. Drawing on her usual minimalist approach, reducing movement to the smallest of gestures and shifts of weight, the installation inhabits a sculptural form – both materially in the space and visually on the three screens. While retaining her formal approach to choreographic making, the installation invites viewers into the material space of the work and into a personal space in their experiencing of it.

‘Untitled #0.5 – Who, What And Where Is Anna’ premiered at Tramway Glasgow as part of Dance International Glasgow 4-21 May 2017
Anna Krzystek – concept/performance/edit
Simon Fildes – camera/edit
Heather MacCrimmon – costume
Meri Ekola – lighting
Tom Murray – sound
Rosanna Irvine – occasional eye/writer

The article draws from private conversations between Anna Krzystek and the author between February and June 2017 and the public conversation held at Tramway as part of DIG on 13 May 2017.

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