‘I’ve never seen the gallery like this before’: Experiencing Toi Art through dance

‘I’ve never seen the gallery like this before’: Experiencing Toi Art through dance

Transfixed by BodyCartography Project’s Follow tour of Toi Art, Head of Exhibition Renewal Frith Williams wrote down her thoughts in the middle of the night, “so I could remember it later.” Here’s what she wrote.

Open. Her face through a gap in a wooden sculpture. It’s the perfect frame – two arms cradling her head. Close.

Open. The flickering light and swirling, bubbling forms of a Len Lye projection. She drips down the wall beside them. Drip, drop. Close.

Open. Her legs in the mirror. She’s surrounded by ancestors – chiefly faces from the past against a deep red background. At first, she scuttles backwards on the floor, spider-like, the way we used to do as kids. It’s an odd juxtaposition. Then she stands and it’s just her legs I see. Two limbs, black tights. Then the legs of visitors walking by. Suddenly, I’m aware of all the legs in the gallery. Legs walking out of the past and through the present and into some other space I cannot see. Because the frame of my vision is restricted. Close.

Woman poses in front of Portrait Wall mirror reflecting back to the viewer
Footnote’s Anu Khapung performs Follow on Toi Art’s opening weekend. Photograph by Jo Moore. Te Papa

I laugh. A lot. Is it nervous laughter? Am I self-conscious about being led around the galleries with my eyes closed, dodging visitors? Embarrassed by this young blonde woman writhing around me on the floor, or darting backwards down the Promenade, leaving me stranded?

But I’m not. I just find it all so bloody funny, these small scenes she’s setting for me.

I’m too absorbed in the moment to think about being an actor in this little play we’re creating, this strange art work we’re forming. If anyone’s uncomfortable, it’s the people looking on, as I was the other day, watching someone else in my place. Intrigued and uncomfortable at once.

The dancer too – she’s nervous. I can feel her hand tremble slightly as she holds mine. I want to reassure her, which is odd in itself, given she’s the one in control. It makes me like her even more.

Open. A wall of white on one side – I’m right up against it. A slither of gallery on the other. I’m at an entrance, but lodged against the edge of it, as if peeping in. I laugh again. And then I notice a shrivelled head in the background, almost like a mokomokai, and I stop. Close.

Sometimes I cheat. I turn my head a little so I can see more. Sometimes, she teases me by bringing a hand or foot into my peripheral vision. But mostly I focus on the frame she’s created for me and nothing else.

Woman poses in front of a wall of art, looking skyward
Footnote’s Tyler Carney performs Follow on Toi Art’s opening weekend. Photograph by Jo Moore. Te Papa

Open. A doorway with a window looking into a stairwell. She’s right behind me, and then she’s gone. I see her in front of me, but I can’t tell where she is. A reflection in the window? The woman in the video behind me is reflected there too. I watch her eating a bright red flower, which is oddly captivating in itself, but I’m more interested in working out where the dancer is. Is she in front of the video, but still behind me? I can’t tell what’s what. Which slice of reality is which. No, she’s in front of me, through another window in another door on the other side of the stairwell. I’ve never seen this door like this before, though I’ve walked past it hundreds of times. I laugh. Close.

Open. Green envelopes on the wall. A question: Where’s your tūrangawaewae? Below me, she slides backwards on the floor, making a circle around me, a place for me to stand. I refocus on two words visible in the envelope in front of me. Kāpiti Coast. My tūrangawaewae. Weird. Close.

Open.
Close.
Open.
Close.

Oddly, I trust her. Sometimes, when the light suddenly brightens or dims (I can tell that, even with my eyes closed), I flinch and have to tell myself to relax, she’s got me, this young, ridiculously lithe creature. I’m aware of the times when there are more people or things around me. I know these galleries well, but it’s not the knowing that tells me. I’m hyper aware, using all my other senses. I’m reminded of the acting classes I used to do in that redwood forest by the sea, when I was equally young and lithe – everyone walking around a room with their eyes closed. If you bumped into someone, the whole room had to stop moving. We hardly bumped.

Woman raises her body from the floor in the gallery
Josie Archer performs Follow on Toi Art’s opening weekend. Photograph by Jo Moore. Te Papa

I’m increasingly conscious of my body. My breathing. When you can’t rely on your sight, or can only look straight ahead, you notice these things. You ask yourself if you’re relaxed. I shake my arms and head from side to side, like a dancer does when limbering up, which makes me feel kind of cool – and then self-conscious. (OK, so I’m not entirely in the moment at every moment.)

Open. Close.

It’s getting darker. Open. Multiple rods of colour hang from the ceiling. Her hands fall through the air to the sides of my head. Up and down. Close.

Open.
What are you doing Mum?
I’m doing a tour, with that woman over there.
[Confused look.] But she’s left you alone.
Don’t worry. She’s coming back – look, I can still see her over there.
But what are you doing?
She’s dancing me around the gallery. It’s really cool, seriously – I’ve never seen the gallery like this before.
[Blank look.]
Don’t worry bub, l’ll explain later.
Close.
Come on Sanchia, let’s go.

Open. The flick-flick of colour. Rainbow-coloured rectangles clack down the wall, like the ticking of a clock. My shoulder’s against the wall so I’m looking along them rather than at them. She’s down the other end with her back to me, also up against the wall, her arm going tick-tick in time with the colours. She leans her head against the wall. I do the same. I’m her mirror. Close.

Man faces a wall while a performed lies by his feet
Josie Archer performs Follow on Toi Art’s opening weekend. Photograph by Jo Moore. Te Papa

Open. A kaleidoscopic black and white projection. I know this one well – Paterson. Her hands dance above her head, blocking the light and casting shadows across the work. I raise mine, and our hands dance together. The artist ends it by cutting to black. Close.

At one point, she forgets to say close. But I know.

My two hands on a railing. Open. Raindrops and ribbons of colour. We stand side by side, soaking it in. She leans forward slowly. Mimicking her comes naturally now. We lean together until we’re both looking down into a well of white. Close.

Open. Kids. Cushions. Coloured blocks. A smile. Close.

Open. End.

BodyCartography Project’s Follow is a new commission for the National Art Collection. Follow was formerly known as Walk with me.

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