Exhibition review of “Akademia- performing life” at the Villa Vassilieff
The exhibition “Akademia- performing life” at the Villa Vassilieff attempts to mediate a research archive, contemporary artists responses to a movement, and to critically analyze the phenomena of an early 20th century utopian commune. Between the 1910s and the 1970s Raymond Duncan, an American dancer and artist, established a community and school that extolled socialist principles, arts and crafts, and the veneration of ideals from ancient Greece. Together with Aia Bertrand, a dancer, writer, and expatriate from Latvia; Duncan created clothing, art, dance, writings, and alternatives to modes of living and education. These ‘acts and objects’ were never formally documented, due to the commune’s focus on ‘action’ as opposed to ‘contemplation’, and have largely existed outside of the ‘exhibitionary complex’.
When first arriving to Villa Vassilieff one must walk down a vine laden path lined with other galleries of varying genre. Upon entering Villa Vassilieff, I was greeted with enthusiasm and presented with a billet with an enormous amount of information in French and in English. The exhibition exists on two floors within a standard ‘white cube’ environment. My first impression when viewing the ground floor was that I had physically entered a research project. A multitude of didactic material and photographic information is displayed on the walls as well as original objects and artworks from the Akademia. Amongst this first grouping of referential material I found the first contemporary artist’s response, a video piece called “Green School”, created by artist Ieva Epnere and focusing on the Akademia’s ideas of alternative education; opposed to industrialization, capitalism, and dehumanization. I found the piece to be an interesting intersection between contemporary design and video art, commanding a style reminiscent of the humor of Isabella Rossellini’s “Green Porno” series. In the video “Green School”, young children in well-designed utopian uniforms each with an assigned color ‘play’ at working the land and enact the virtues of labor, self-sufficiency, and empowerment. Walking up the spiral staircase to the second level, I was immediately faced with a column of multi-colored fabric suspended from a skylight. This piece entitled “Vertical” by Barbara Gaile attempts to reference the material culture of the Akademia and provides a visceral interaction between the research and the response. The piece also has a darker connotation referencing the tragic death of Isadora Duncan, American dancer and Raymond’s sister, who was tragically killed when her scarf became entangled in the wheel of an automobile. Like the downstairs area, this room was filled with original photographs and printed material from Akademia as well as a small library and sitting area, which served to further connect the research aspect of the exhibition with the artworks through didactic displays. Next to a group of photographs, two wall mounted ceramic pieces were installed, both works by artist Mai-Thu Perret as part of a project entitled “Crystal Frontier” a visualization of a fictitious female utopian group choosing to leave consumerist, industrial, patriarchal society behind for a more egalitarian society in the New Mexico desert. These pieces have a visually poetic quality in juxtaposition to the source material displayed directly beside and served to enunciate the idea of ‘utopia’ through visual metaphor. In the third and final room the most visually striking piece of the exhibition was tethered to a skylight and made up of plastic sheets embroidered with faux hieroglyphics. This piece from Argentinian artist Mercedes Azpilicueta entitled “scripts” intends to express an interest in alternative means of production through the accompaniment of a performative element in which using the body as a medium the material will be altered. Adjacent to “scripts” was installed the video work of artist Ieva Balode entitled “Equal Tense”. Shot on 16mm film this piece re-enacted dance figures created by Isadora and Raymond Duncan and juxtaposed these images with views of Greek ruins creating a timeless quality; intending to reflect on the cross-cultural, sexual, and humanitarian qualities professed by the Akademia.
The challenge of creating an exhibition like “Akademia- performing life” is in creating a dynamic balance between the display of research materials and the artworks inspired by them in such a way that seamlessly informs the viewer of the subject matter, while opening up ideas for the projection or critical responses made through the artwork. This group show is not the type of sensational exhibition intended to enthrall, but rather an exhibition that persuades the deeper consideration of its source material, the critical responses from artists, and an appreciation of alternative modes of society. True to its title Akademia- performing life is a pedagogical view into an alternate performance of life.
By Jorge A. Torrens