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Maria Hassabi's Plastic, at MOMA, and the Power of Interruption

Scene from Maria Hassabi's Plastic at the MOMA

Scene from Maria Hassabi's Plastic at the MOMA

I went to see Maria Hassabi's Plastic at the MOMA this afternoon, my curiosity piqued by the suggestion that the dancers would be spending the entire day descending the stairs. The concept is a pure, durational one-liner - a concept easy to digest and explore. I tend to be suspicious of such things, but it's rare that you get to witness an exercise in durationality like this. All day descending the stair of the MOMA. 

But what does it end up being about?

The audience experience is pretty interesting, actually, depending on how you engage it. Take a look at this little cellphone video I took:

Maria Hassabi dancing in her piece Plastic.

The first thing you note, more than anything about the actual movements of the dancer is the contrast between the tempo of the dancer and the tempo of the space. MOMA is kind of insane - people move incredibly fast through the space as compared with your standard museum. There is a tempo to the experience we show up in the museum expecting to have. When something is outside that tempo, it is hard to see. Look at how people flow by, some almost catching the standing woman in their attentions and then losing her. At the entry stairs, two dancers slowly descend, and it is incredibly hard for people to slow down or stop to watch them on their way in or out. The interruption is essential to the activity. 

Dancers at the entry stair

Dancers at the entry stair

But, of course, if you came there, as I did, intending to watch, you slow yourself, like mooring a rowboat in a swift stream, and then the frame of your attention slows to meet the dancers. Museumgoers flow by, deftly not tripping on the dancers beneath them. The guard nervously tries to protect them, discomfited by his inability to speak with them. Then a school group of kids with Downs syndrome arrives and are loudly and enthusiastically instructed by their leader, who asks them how the dancers are different than actors in a play on stage. Such a bright light shone on the thing which is so quiet!

Where is the art? Where is the frame of the art? What are we here to see? The slowness of the dancers' movements makes us look at them, see their bodies as forms (especially when they assume more dancerly poses.) But sitting there makes you think that perhaps the moment of art is the moment of taking in the contrast between the pace of the dancers and the pace of the museum visitors, between the simplicity of their movements and the complication of trying to figure out how find a good experience in the galleries of the museum, and in the interruption of the ordinary with this small spectacle. There is a provocation in it, as I think there is in any contrast that forces you to change your way of seeing in order to appreciate.

Of course, at some point the content is important: how the dancers are dancing or what the painting is depicting or what tune the composition is resolving into, but perhaps it is the experience of the break in the ordinary that draws us to art as an activity. Perhaps it is the strangeness of the image and the difficulty we have in integrating it that draws us to sit and contemplate a painting, or it is the break from the narrative we already know in our everyday lives that draws us to a story, or the break from the ordinary mode of assembling words that draws us to a poem. Perhaps it is the small shock - the small wakening that comes from these breaks - that motivates us to keep coming back.

-Abraham Burickson