Millie Kapp and Matt Shalzi, a New York based collaborative duo, debuted the performance art piece “BIG BIG A” on Thursday, Feb. 27th in the Zilkha Gallery. As part of a series surrounding Diane Simpson’s “Cardboard-Plus” exhibition, the work nudged social and artistic boundaries through a carefully-planned marriage of music, movement, speech, and visual art. From dancing to Kraftwerk’s “Kometenmelodie 1” and “Kometenmelodie 2,” to swatting imaginary flies and tussling with a folding chair, Kapp and Shalzi’s piece maintained equal levels of artfulness, humor, and discomfort. The performance marked an entirely new response to Simpson’s cardboard structures that effectively achieved its goal of measured irreverence.
Kapp opened the show by standing up from behind a large red cut-out “A” and shouting “big big A.” As she rose, so did the audience’s audible urge to laugh. While at first I struggled to contain my reaction, thinking it would be disrespectful in the gallery space, it quickly became impossible to do so. Welding humorous moments such as these throughout their performance, the duo engaged in a playful back-and-forth with the audience’s expectations. Shalzi would approach spectators with cupped hands declaring that he had figs for sale, creating a moment of obvious humor, only to then relieve the comedic tension by silently walking back across the stage. The couple’s creative process mirrors the rise and fall nature of the performance.
“The work was generated through a lot of playing and improvisation, riffing and association, so it is kind of this very reverent act of being pretty careful…and inside of that kind of taking risks,” Kapp explained in an artist’s talk that Wednesday.
“We take things from improv and try to write them into our performance,” Shalzi added. “We start from a place of spontaneity to then writing and rehearsing so we can try and get back to the danger.”
In executing this sequence of comedic approach and retreat, timing was essential. From speeches about imaginary objects to synchronized dance numbers with bizarre poses, the piece’s moments felt deliberately divided between levels of comedic daring.
“We’re very very careful in how we construct things, [and] we love a cue…. ” Kapp said. “The cues are super luscious and rich for us; we like to build a kind of cue jungle, and that takes a lot of highly precise composition. The work exists in a kind of tension between these crafted cues and compositions and then bad behavior/bad taste. Matt and I love that state so much.”
What set this hyper-organized, semi-comical venture apart from the duo’s previous collaborative work was its unique relationship to the Zilkha Gallery. Dances, visual props, and comedic action revolved around—and at times directly addressed—Simpson’s architecturally-inspired cardboard structures. During one of his fig scenes, for example, Shalzi begged audience members to “buy these figs,” pointing to Simpson’s Winged Biwa, an eerily fig-shaped piece. Clearer connections to the artwork came when Kapp or Shalzi would hide behind the taller sculptures, relating their rigid, cut-out forms to that of the human body. For the duo, the show’s relationship to Simpson’s art was seen on more practical terms.
“With the DIY-ness of the artwork…we felt so connected to [Simpson’s] lineage and still do,” Shalzi stated. “The formal stuff is really interesting for us since we both came from visual art…. We’re just experiencing our work rubbing up against what’s there, so there is a pulling and a knowledge but we don’t directly tell you…‘this is from Diane.’”
“Rubbing up against what’s there” often marks the greatest departure in “BIG BIG A” from previous responses to Simpson’s work. Susan Howe and David Grubbs’ collaborative “WOODSLIPPERCOUNTERCLATTER,” which took place in the same area of the gallery, involved only auditory elements that shied away from directly activating the physical space of the gallery. “BIG BIG A,” by contrast, forced consideration of every aspect of its performer’s surroundings, including the gallery building itself. Towards the end of the performance, Kapp angrily carried the folding chair past the audience and outside the building, placing it in an area clearly visible from a window, and returning inside through a back door.
This subtle interplay between absurdity and spatial reverence was calmly resolved with the performance’s final dance number. To conclude the antics of the previous half hour, Kapp and Shalzi danced to the calm synthesizers of “Kometenmelodie 1” and“Kometenmelodie 2,” confining their stage to the center of the gallery. By the end of the show, silliness had been seamlessly rounded out by artfulness, displaying the duo’s mastery of artistic danger and constraint. One analogy offered by Shalzi during the artist’s talk perfectly predicted this phenomenon. As we sat around the conference room with free sodas next to paper plates, the artist urged us to unashamedly crack open the aluminum cans.
“How naughty is that,” Shalzi remarked. “The act of opening a pop can next to a sculpture, inside a gallery. Just [make sure you] don’t spill it.”
Aiden Malanaphy can be reached at email@example.com.