William Forsythe: Choreographic Objects

Words and Images by Morgan Rose Beckwith 

Internationally recognized choreographer and educator William Forsythe is headlining at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston with his first comprehensive U.S. exhibition — William Forsythe: Choreographic Objects — now through February 21st, 2019. While most of us in the dance industry recognize Forsythe as someone who brought dancers a unique spatial understanding of ballet, he is, in fact, someone who has been deeply involved in the contemporary art scene for years and is even represented by mega-gallery Gagosian. The exhibition at ICA Boston brings together both previous and new work by Forsythe that challenges the way in which we think about the choreographic act. Choreographic Objects also coincides with Forsythe’s five-year residency with Boston Ballet.

Before visiting the exhibition I would recommend reading this essay from Forsythe, which can be found on his website. In this eloquent piece of writing, he reveals his thoughts behind this body of work. His words on choreography are particularly relevant:

“Choreography is a curious and deceptive term. The word itself, like the processes it describes, is elusive, agile, and maddeningly unmanageable. To reduce choreography to a single definition is not to understand the most crucial of its mechanisms: to resist and reform previous conceptions of its definition.”

An entire floor of the ICA Boston is currently filled with interactive sculptures, video installations and objects that beg for engagement. Just before the entrance to the exhibition visitors are met with a thick 90’s era television screen showing William Forsythe discussing and physicalizing his thoughts on improvisation in the human body as geometric forms. This visualization becomes a touchstone for the remainder of the exhibition. The unfolding series of rooms each offer wall text commands from Forsythe on how to interact with the objects he has provided.

The Fact of the Matter asks visitors to traverse a room using only polycarbonate rings hanging from a ceiling, a task that most struggle to finish. Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time, No.3, challenges the viewer to walk in the space without touching any of the sixty small and moving pendulums. Towards the Diagnostic Gaze is a wonderfully subtle work that taunts the visitor by commanding them to hold a feather duster completely still. Forsythe has provided these simple tasks that reveal themselves as a specific mobilization of the body into action. This is particularly thrilling and unprecedented within the hallowed halls of a museum.

However, for someone who likes to enjoy art in a very specific and personal manner, being commanded through a space was at first uneasy. But as with dance and in life, there is a certain excitement in finding personal freedom within boundaries of instruction and restriction. And as Forsythe points out, each person will execute “individual choreographies” while experiencing his exhibition. Museum-goers witness these “individual choreographies” in execution, arguably sometimes a more intriguing task than participating.

Choreographic Objects is an exhibition that deserves further study and speculation; but first, it should be celebrated for offering new ways of experiencing choreography and for bringing kinetic energy into a museum on such a large scale.

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