Emily Mast, ENDE (Like a New Beginning) Again, Night Gallery, July 5, 2014

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A huge crowd was gathering outside the door of Night Gallery at the amber twilight hour. I spied the faces of several people who don’t really go out much these days, making a rare effort to attend this event. The large rollover gate finally opened with a dramatic bang some time after 8, and people filed in. I pressed inward with my friends and noticed two staging areas stocked with props and semi-separated by a curve around movable walls. At the far end, a band was set up. Two walls at opposite ends of the space were designated for live video projections.

There was space for the audience in the areas around and between the staging areas, which were delineated with tape, and Emily directed us to sit or stand so that the performers would have the room they needed to do their thing. There were over a hundred people squeezed into the space, and wherever you were, you could only see a portion of what was going on. Emily announced that the performance would be run through at least twice, so that everyone could see as much as possible. For the first performance, my friends and I stood at the rim of the first staging area, close to the band, and facing the large video projection wall. We were surrounded by viewers behind us and faced the viewers who sat under the video wall.

The air was thick and the anticipation was electric. Everyone was so excited for this event, described as an expansion of Emily’s commission for the Hammer Museum’s current Made in L.A. exhibition. It would include “14 performers, live sound, live lighting manipulation, live video feed and and live directing,” according to an email from the artist.

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For those of you who aren’t as familiar with her work, I would describe it as a series of conceptual theater collages that traffic in the world of semiotics, exploring language, representation, gesture and symbol with humor, poignancy and whimsy. I actually haven’t seen any explanatory text for ENDE (Like a New Beginning), but I would say it’s visually similar to The Least Important Things, a breathtaking site-specific performance she did at LACMA earlier this year, and B!RDBRA!N, a piece that was performed several times throughout the city in 2012. A diverse cast of performers, spanning a wide range of ages and body types, enact a series of gestures with one another and with common objects. The gestures range from the ordinary to the magical. In ENDE, there is a distinct yellow and brown color scheme, with lots of lemons, loaves of bread, and brown paper boxes.

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Emily often puts individual works through a variety of iterations that tease out different aspects of the work. For example, B!RDBRA!N was performed a few different ways, including an audience-directed “on demand” version at Public Fiction. Both B!RDBRA!N and Six Twelve One by One (her pregnancy dance created in collaboration with Hana van der Kolk) were made into videos that were not documents so much as they were new works altogether.

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At Night Gallery, ENDE (Like a New Beginning) Again took the core elements of the work (the actors, the color scheme, the objects, the music, the absurdist vignettes) and blew them up into an interactive symphony of gesture. Over the space of about 20 minutes, the performers changed their clothes, arranged some of the objects, poked one another, held one another, wrestled briefly, posed under spotlights, sang a beautiful song (T. Rex’s “Life is Strange”), marched together in flank formation, and many other things that are a blur that I can’t remember. One of the performers operated a hand-held video camera, capturing select portions of the action, which were then projected onto two separate walls, in different parts of the performance area. There was lovely, jazzy/minimalist musical accompaniment throughout with drums and guitar.

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Sometimes we’d be very close to the action, so close that we’d have to move our drinks out of the way so the performers didn’t spill them, and at other times it would be happening around the corner, out of our sight range, but we could hear the noises the performers were making and maybe see some of it via the video projection closest to us. Sometimes I felt that my experience of the audience was more intense than my experience of the performers; the way that it was set up, the audience was as deeply immersed with one another as we were in the performance, as we sat in close quarters and faced one another, seeing and feeling each other’s responses.

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Indeed, I had the feeling that we had been “directed” by Emily, that we were in fact part of the performing ensemble here. And Emily herself, dressed all in brown, was part of the performance too. Throughout the evening, she moved among the performers, whispering directives in one person’s ear, telling the guitarist when to start up, holding up a spotlight and counting to three while a group of performers posed. She blended in easily and unobtrusively, making herself an equal part of the action, adding transparency while also rounding out the dimensions of the work.

This was such a complex and spectacular piece, with so many different ways to engage with it. It evoked the beauty of the everyday, the beauty of humanity, the beauty of this moment, the beauty of being with other people. It was transparent and interactive, and it was a complete, consummate work. Most of all, in the end, it felt deeply generous.

Stay tuned for a Q&A with Emily Mast later this week!

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