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Arturo Herrera’s Les Noces: A Marriage Made Through Time

Nell Andrew, Visiting Assistant Professor, Art History, Northwestern University


Criticism on Arturo Herrera’s work often highlights the artist’s rigorous mining of modernist art history, from the use of collage and action-painting gesture or large scale, to his play between flatness and depth, figuration and abstraction. This remains a rich framework for viewing his installation piece Les Noces, but in placing the work within the exhibition Adaptation, I want to consider the multiple layers of adjustment Herrera used to adapt a work of dance and music to plastic art. Just as exciting in Les Noces is Herrera’s adaptation of his own past work by using fragments of photographs from previous work in his projected images. In both instances, Herrera modifies the static and material medium of collage into a transitory medium of projected moving images.

Herrera’s work takes its name from the stage production Les Noces composed for the Ballets Russes in Paris by Igor Stravinsky between 1914 and 1923, choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska, and designed by Natalia Goncharova. The ballet and score are divided into four scenes, or tableaux, that follow a bride and groom through the preparations and ritual of a marriage in a rural Russian community. Goncharova’s stark set and costumes place the dancers in an earth-toned atmosphere before a towering clay-colored wall broken only by a single geometric window and low doorframe. The women are undifferentiated in costume, each wearing a white tunic and brown apron-dress, while the men are dressed in rough brown pants and white shirts. As tableaux, the stage formations are largely organized through oppositions. The live choir performing Stravinsky’s score was placed on stage as in a Greek chorus: static and vocal, in contrast to the dancers’ mute expressive bodies. Scenes alternate across gender with the bride and her friends beginning the ballet, followed by the groom and his entourage. The voices in Stravinsky’s music also alternate between male and female, underscoring the bride and groom’s opposition. The choreography, too, shifts between women and men until the final scene when the bride and groom perform a brief pas de deux and the marriage union occurs.

Herrera’s installation is set to the identical twenty-seven-minute score for Les Noces. Stravinsky’s score is a vivid and unsettling combination of the composer’s modern dissonant harmonies and surprising rhythms punctuated by citations of traditional Russian folk music. Nijinska’s choreography creates a striking aesthetic union with this modern yet nostalgic music. The dancers likewise create new forms within traditional ballet, emphasizing pyramidal or linear formations and geometric gesturing. Yet Nijinska’s modern choices easily transition into Russian folk movements of lyrical skipping and staccato footwork. Like the partnership of Stravinsky and Nijinska, Herrera’s Les Noces works to create evocative paradoxes of opposition punctuated with union, organic forms combined with mechanical ones, newness and surprise with repetition and return. This effect is most possible through Herrera’s move to the time-based and multisensory medium of his installation.

Entering the darkened space of Herrera’s installation, one finds a rectangular room with two screens at opposite ends that project changing displays of images while Stravinsky’s soundtrack plays. A bench in the center of the room is placed parallel to the screens so that, if sitting, you must face one of the two screens. Each screen displays a computer-randomized and irregularly timed sequence of fragmentary black-and-white images of the artist’s past work.

There are a number of ways in which we can see Herrera’s direct homage to the original dance production. The action on one screen is intensified as it competes for attention with the varying images that appear simultaneously on the opposite wall. Each screen moreover is divided vertically in two to create a diptych format, with images shifting at varying intervals on the left and right of each screen. The two screens seem to mimic the narrative and formal poles between Nijinska’s bride and groom, and the changing imagery within each diptych reenacts the same sense of frenzied fussing of the bride’s and groom’s entourages. Like Stravinsky’s music and Nijinska’s movements, Herrera’s imagery finds rhythm through difference, dissonance, and surprise, but the artist retains an aesthetic unity through the repetition of those image fragments that reappear regularly on both sides of the room. By reducing his palette to black and white, Herrera also carries over a visual continuity that recalls Goncharova’s monochromatic costumes, and his citations of childhood memories—the cartoon fragments—mixed with abstract marks and cut-outs might stand in for the Russian artists’ homage to their folk past amid the modern angularity of their current art.

The photographed drawings and prints projected on Herrera’s screens are, however, layered with other visual associations. We see organic pencil and charcoal marks that create lyrical lines and index the artist’s own gestures, mixed against amorphous inkblots. These are contrasted by images not indicative of Herrera’s hand, like the rough-cut geometric shards or mass-produced cartoon images shown in cropped fragments. But it is a paradoxical association with texture that leads us into the kinesthetic realm of dance. Despite the digital impossibility of depth—this is a medium of transparent light on a flat wall—we see texture all over Herrera’s screens. The ink is often porous or bubbly; the white surface or ground seems modulated by washes of gray, perhaps watermarks or shadows left behind in the multiple generations these images have undergone from their original. Because of the uneven white ground, the black marks themselves become a type of collage—appearing to lie atop the rough surface. A number of fragments carry anthropomorphic elements, further indexing the artist’s living presence and carrying us toward the kinesthesia of dance. I couldn’t help thinking of a motif from the ballet—the bride’s ritually long braids that tether the women dancers together as they send her off to her fate—when looking at the many drawings that show an awkward line moving in or out of the frame and seem to mimic heavy plaits fallen across the surface. We also see fine marks that might refer to a strand of hair caught in the lens, or we might associate the pocked surfaces of white ground with skin. One repeated image even contains a fingerprint-like mark—an oblong gray implant on the white surface textured with ridges.

The viewer’s body cannot avoid contact with Herrera’s work. We sit or stand between the battling imagery on either wall, glued into his collage. Our point of view is mobile and contingent; there is no front or back, inside or outside to this work, it can never be taken in as a whole. This is a crucial element of time-based media, and must be one of Herrera’s fascinations with the Stravinsky ballet. In contrast to Herrera’s previous work in collage—largely grand-scale color works for the wall—this is a pared down palette of fragments. Using photographs, he has further rarified the collage medium by his now seamless surface of projected light. The collage cutting becomes the filmic cut, which does the work of layering and replacing signs. Since Cubism, the history of collage has been told as the creation of a new semiotic structure; each cut fragment works as a sign in a network of meaning through juxtaposition and difference. But in motion, that linguistic element falls away; we experience the collage as a formal and kinesthetic object whose signs can never be returned to and re-read, but only build upon and aside one another. Stravinsky’s music has a similarly unflinching ritualistic movement and rhythm. The music’s energy feels as though it must be leading us to some destination, yet it continues shifting between crescendo and return, thwarting any sense of completion.

Herrera’s shift to a time-based media has filled viewers of his work with expectation. As we watch the moving image, we follow the sequence in time and begin to want something from it, so that the viewing cannot be passive, but must be felt. The contrasts in tempo and form create in the viewer a desire for the completion of phrasing, either harmonious or dissonant, which in turn activates the viewer’s senses beyond vision and makes each form seem to work in the building up of an almost physical structure.

From the moment we enter Herrera’s sound-filled space, the images become rhythmic. Looking at one screen, we cannot help but feel the pulse and rhythm of light behind us too. The absorbing sound waves connect both screens and weave us into the dance. While the music is randomly associated with each image through tone and computer chance, the imagery still seems to follow the sound. At the end of the work’s run, I found the female voices became hollow and wailing just as the imagery seemed to shift to more transparent light tones marked by thin lines. The drums then kicked in, and the low male voices seemed to bring on thicker inky black washes across the screens.

The addition of time and motion to the once static images creates a psychological content for the viewer—if certain images reappear more often than others, they take on a character of will, fighting for notice. By the expectation and desire set up in the timed sequence, we no longer focus on the image as a flat surface arranged with forms, but instead animate the moving forms with intention. As we perceive foregrounds and backgrounds, positive and negative forms, motion and stillness, the work seems to contain both the artist’s gestural mark and the urgency of the musical accompaniment.

Working for the first time in a time-based medium has allowed Herrera to create a continuous collage that emphasizes not the linguistic reconstruction of meaning, but the kinesthetic process of cutting and juxtaposing. That the images of his collage are taken from fragments of his earlier work also gives Les Noces the historical, self-referential element consistent with his interests in modernism. But Herrera’s history is an incomplete pastiche—for we see not works, but fragments, which disappear as quickly as they pass before us. Like the ephemerality of music and dance, his new medium and his history are felt more than seen.

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