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Excerpt from Arturo Herrera’s two-channel digital projection Les Noces, 2007. Installation view, Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago. Courtesy the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Excerpt from Arturo Herrera’s two-channel digital projection Les Noces, 2007. Courtesy the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Interview: Arturo Herrera and Stephanie Smith

SS: To begin, could you talk a bit about your practice in general, particularly your use of collage?

AH: I turned to collage when I was living in New York in the late ‘80’s. Without a studio and on a tight budget I started using paper. It was available and affordable. I searched second hand shops and found a huge variety of illustrated books. As soon as I started cutting I realized that most of the fragments remained full of vibrant references to the original sources. I glued all kinds of paper pieces and the resulting images were fresh, direct and pliable in meaning. Dissection resulted in association, and unexpected relationships appeared where there were none before. The dialogue between the rational and the abstract narratives of collage is what still makes it an essential part of my work.

The digital projection that you’ve contributed to Adaptation is based on Les Noces, a ballet initially produced in Paris in 1923 by the Ballet Russes with music by Igor Stravinsky, choreography by Bronislava Nijinska, and sets and costumes by Natalia Goncharova. Why did you decide to focus on this work in particular?

I have been interested in dance and classical music for a long time. Serge Diaghilev and the artists who worked with him during the years of the Ballet Russes (1909 to 1929) have always intrigued me. [The composers] Debussy, Hahn, Ravel, Satie, Stravinsky, [the choreographers] Fokine, Nijinska, Njininsky [the visual artists] Bakst, Goncharova, Matisse, Picasso, and many others made this wild modernist experiment one of the most successful periods in the performing arts. One of my favorite works from the Ballet Russes is without a doubt Les Noces. Diaghilev asked Stravinsky to compose a new work; Stravinsky chose as a theme a peasant Russian wedding and worked on the music over many years and through countless revisions until its premiere in 1923. Nijinska and Goncharova came later to the project and the three of them produced one of the most influential masterpieces in the history of dance. Unlike other Stravinsky ballets such as Firebird or Petrushka, Les Noces is seldom staged due to the demands it places on the dancers, chorus, and musicians. It is less “Russian,” more austere and mechanical, but its inventiveness and profound humanity continue to surprise me. Every time I hear the music or see a revival I find something new. Severe and yet richly generous, Les Noces is one of those artworks that resonate with each generation.

This choice to focus on one specific earlier source extends your usual practice of taking existing source material and then abstracting and reworking it to make something new and distinctly yours.

For this piece I concentrated on the main components of the ballet: music, choreography and sets. However, I didn’t alter in any way the Stravinsky score, nor am I quoting specific movements developed by Nijinska or the sets by Goncharova. Instead, I wanted to use a timed sequence of my own images to create a choreographic visual study that could be juxtaposed to the multiple layers of the score. The images might recall fragments of movements or could be seen as parts of a stage set and yet they remain autonomous. My proposition takes the seemingly fragmented and depersonalized quality of Les Noces a step further into total abstraction.

Your Les Noces nods to experimental filmmakers such as Oskar Fischinger and Stan Brakhage; it has also been compared to Fantasia, but such a comparison could be misleading. Rather than animating images to accompany music, you are responding to the sensibility of a complete theatrical production: music, set, costumes, choreography. Or at least, you’re responding to limited available sources like design sketches, written descriptions, and later re-stagings. How has your research into the history of the original production informed your thinking about your Les Noces?

Due to its surprising programs and early success, the work of the Ballet Russes is well documented through extensive writings and sketches. Unfortunately Diaghilev was not fond of photographing his productions but a few have survived. It was through these rehearsal photos that I first encountered Les Noces. Wanting to find out all that I could about the ballet, I became familiar with Stravinsky’s long and difficult process of writing the music; Goncharova’s drawings of some dance formations and her initial sketches for a colorful folklorist stage design as well as those for the final minimalist look of the sets; and Nijinska’s concept for the choreography and final look of the ballet. When reading about Les Noces as well as The Rite of Spring, Afternoon of a Faun, Petrushka, Apollo and other ballets, I often wondered what they looked like on stage. What made them so shocking and subversive to those early twentieth-century audiences?

Les Noces was the strangest of all. Stravinsky’s music hooked me the first time I heard it. He created a haunting and original score for four pianos, six percussionists, and a chorus. Through a lucid structure of proportion and interconnection of musical lines he focused on the theme of a wedding as an essential and universal event. Nijinska’s odd machine-like dynamic movements, antirealist steps and groupings paid tribute to [the radical Russian] Constructivists. But at the same time she altered the traditional language of ballet to push forward her ideas about feminism and neo-classicism. Goncharova’s deceptively simple sets of blank walls (with a single door and a window) as well as the monochromatic peasant uniforms worn by the dancers distilled architecture to its minimum and made a mass of people behave as anonymous members of a unit participating in a fertility ritual.

I thought I would only know Les Noces through documents but in the late ;80’s there were several reconstructions and revivals of the Diaghilev ballets by dance historians. They did an incredible amount of detective work to be able to patch up some of these forgotten ballets. The result was a renewed interest from academics, choreographers, dancers, and the general public in the remarkable legacy of the Ballet Russes. Luckily Les Noces was kept alive and without modifications to the original choreography because Nijinska was able to teach it to several companies. One of the most important revivals was in 1966 at the Royal Ballet in London where she taught the ballet to the company. A later restaging of this version is the one I saw in the 90’s and it confirmed all I imagined. It is a relentlessly powerful piece like nothing else in the dance repertoire. It is impossible to forget after you see it.

You’ve described Stravinsky as a mentor. What first drew you to his music? What about the man or the music have you continued to find meaningful in relation to your own work?

I first became familiar with Stravinsky’s music through his ballet scores. After the “Russian” ballets I started listening to the middle period and late works which drew inspiration from the past and led the way towards his personal approach to classicism. I love Stravinsky’s ever-changing combinations of instruments and the variety in his works. I am always surprised by his sense of order, his pulse and release, the architectural balance and his clear objectivity. Even though his music is deeply emotional, none of the composer’s feelings are present. Stravinsky never ceased to explore asymmetrical patterns of sounds woven with mechanical precision in which every note is essential to the entire concept of the piece.

In a choreographic treatise written around the time that she was working on Les Noces, Nijinska talked in beautiful ways about movement: “Rare is the artist who, executing a dance, uses movement for its design; rare he who sings the movement of his dance, and rare, in consequence, the spectator who hears with his eyes the melody of the dancer’s movement and who sees the form of this movement. The artist, especially of the dance, must perfectly see and know movement in its entire nature, must work the movement as the material of his art.” I found this helpful in thinking about your Les Noces. Here, for the first time, movement is one of the materials of your art. Your classic wall drawings suggest motion with big looping lines, but here I love the way your animated lines recur and thus begin to read as gestures or dancers.

The basic language of classical dance is made up of a few steps and positions that may be arranged in countless variations. The same principle applies to my version of Les Noces: a limited set of images react to the pitch of music to create ever-new combinations. I used repetitions and exact time changes to suggest movement that generates its own forms. This visual sequence collages itself to the musical texture in order to create another plane in which images react like dancers following rhythmical counts. In this continuous stream of sound and images the audience is invited to grasp these combinations as suggestive of movements, dislocated elements of architecture, characters, gestures, all linked in a nonlinear narrative.

You’ve reused your own past work to make this new piece. Could you talk about the images that you’re using here?

In my work I tend to use my own drawings, shapes, and fragments in different configurations. I am interested in seeing the same forms in different media to probe their potential for multiple interpretations. I have been thinking about the ballet Les Noces for years so as soon as I completed a series of eighty photos in 2004 I knew I wanted to use them with the ballet. The first version was shown at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, England in 2007. The final version is being premiered at the Smart Museum.

That first version of Les Noces at Ikon was quite different. In the first version, you created only one sequence of images and the editing was much gentler, with many slow fades rather than quick cuts. It was also presented as a fairly large six-channel projection rather than this somewhat more intimate two-channel version. Why did you rework the piece so dramatically?

The presentation at Ikon was part of a large solo exhibition in which you could move freely from room to room taking in different works at the same time. The exhibition space where the six-channel projection was shown was a squarish room with doors opposite each other, which allowed access from either direction unifying the entire upper floor of the exhibition. You could see fragments of the projection while looking at large collages or a metal floor sculpture from the adjacent galleries. I wanted slower sequences and many more images so the viewer could find recurring motifs within the exhibition.

Adaptation is another show altogether and one that brings four very different artists and gives them tailor-made spaces to show their work. In this version I wanted to highlight and contrast the duality of the bride and groom. In the score, the young people are violently uprooted from their familiar environments and thrown into the collective social world of adults. It is a traumatic event filled with uncertainty and without embellishment. The installation (two projections separated by the length of the gallery) presents pairs of images that don’t offer a specific message or a resolution. Instead, the relentlessly changing sequences interact with the harsh percussive rhythms until the end when the bells sound several times with a premonition of the cycle beginning all over again.

You’re mixing chance and control to animate these images. Could you talk about that process?

Every time a ballet is performed it is different. Musicians and dancers contribute to the rich fluidity and expression of each of the performances. For Les Noces I worked with a computer software designer to devise a program in which images respond to the high and low tones of the music. When the music plays, the program randomly picks from a stack of images, each time creating a unique sequence.

Do you think of your Les Noces as an adaptation?

I wanted to propose a new reading in a different medium using an existing work that is very dear to me. I chose Les Noces because of its richness and complexity but at the same time because it also feels strangely two-dimensional. The ballet has a frontality that is powerful and uncanny. The dancers move in geometric groups and parallel rows that are stiff and blunt and yet totally satisfying in their economy and simplicity. The legs and feet are grounded to the earth, pounding the stage floor over and over. The jumps purposefully yield to gravity and we see flat-footed steps that look like poses from ancient friezes. The set with its two walls and a raised platform is so reduced in detail and color that it looks like a painted curtain. And then we have the music, a fortissimo from beginning to end without pauses. The music has a chilling mechanical precision and strict tempi that make it feel monochromatic. These seemingly different levels of flatness have always fascinated me, so I decided to add yet another texture using images that responded to the pitch of the music. The piece is basically an investigation of the possibility of creating an audio-visual collage.

Your piece gets at one of those recurring, basic issues in modern and contemporary art: the relationship between popular culture and abstracted forms of aesthetic expression. The artists involved with the 1923 production of Les Noces all grappled with this issue, and it runs through much of your work as well. Could you talk about it in relation to your practice more broadly?

Goncharova, Nijinska, and Stravinsky worked a long time to cement their modernist aesthetic based on innovation while taking inspiration from the past. All the elements in the ballet are abstracted from current sources familiar to each of the artists. The fragments of folk songs and popular verse that Stravinsky collected for the libretto are just bits of conversations and sayings spoken at a wedding ritual. The costumes are abstractions of everyday country wear. The sets are all the same color recalling a generic interior space that could be found anywhere. Fragments from popular culture remain intriguing to me because of the clues, references, and baggage they carry. Fragmentation shifts the focus somehow from the collective, social impact of contemporary culture into a more intimate connection in which the viewer has to come up with a personal relationship to meaning.

What would be your ideal encounter with the piece? Do you care whether or not viewers understand the references to the original production of the ballet?

Les Noces is still a rarity even for classical music and ballet enthusiasts so I don’t expect visitors to be familiar with the original Diaghilev Ballet Russes production. But even if the audience is not able to identify the composer, the language in which the chorus and soloists sing, the meaning of the words, the date of composition, and so on, I am confident that the striking emotional power of the music will come through. I hope that the recurring images will encourage the audience to engage with a narrative that is neither objective nor entirely linguistic.

You’re based in Berlin now. What do you like about being based there? I’m also curious about how your years in Chicago shaped your practice.

Chicago was a very nourishing and generous city to me. It was very important for my development as an artist, especially during my two years at the University of Illinois. I enrolled at UIC in 1990 and the MFA faculty and students were a very smart and supportive group of people. After finishing school I stayed in the city working in the studio, doing some teaching, and waiting on tables at a restaurant. In 1998 The Renaissance Society invited me to do a show. It was a tremendous honor and experience for a young artist to work with Susanne Ghez and Hamza Walker. In 2003 I moved to Berlin after receiving a DAAD grant. I immediately liked the city, but it was after six months that I decided to stay. Berlin offers a vibrant community of artists and many places where one can see art. The music scene is huge and its classical and opera offerings are truly exceptional. But most importantly I think Berlin, like Chicago (and in contrast to New York), gives you space to think and to work and that is extremely important for an artist. Berlin is constantly changing and I feel fortunate to be part of this reinvention.