Groundbreaking minimalist dance/visual art crossover by Matthias Sperling

Installation photograph of Loop Atlas by Matthias Sperling: copyright Pari Nadari

Minimalism is my preferred style in any art form and today at the Barbican I had much to get excited about as I experienced an artwork that broke new ground in this genre. Minimalism in music and the visual arts often relies on loops of repeated patterns. As Steve Reich realised with his tape loops in the 1960’s, once a copy is made of the original and the two channels played back out of phase a new world of creative possibilities emerges. Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s 1982 seminal work  Fase  choreographed four of Reich’s Phase compositions and began the process of dance responding to minimalist ideas in music. Last seen live in the UK at the Tate Modern in 2012, many interesting filmed versions are viewable on Youtube.

Performance image of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s dance Fase

However, Matthias Sperling has taken the phasing technique to an entirely new  level in Loop Atlas which premiered at the Siobhan Davies Dance performance installation, material/rearranged/to/be, at the Barbican Curve this week. Using video capture and playback directly from his live performance, this remarkable “solo” artwork left me reeling with its originality and ingenuity.  I write “solo” advisedly as his work is a choreographed phasing of up to 30 video loops created in real time, each of approximately sixty seconds in length. So in the first iteration we see him live against a back projection of the opening minute of his performance. His creativity, expressed through his interaction with the previous loop, is facilitated because the basic movement “unit” is a rotation of the upper body focused on swinging arms with his feet relatively static. These movements change slowly with each repetition into a slowly evolving progression. As the piece builds up the previous video loop recedes into the background getting fainter but still visible as seen in the above photograph.

Towards the end of the performance the early loops are slowed down and degraded by the relatively clunky Raspberry Pi computer processor until the image transforms into an eerie blur of pulsating light. At this point I got a sense of a measured, tranquil life being played out against the gravitational pull of an incendiary vortex.  To emphasise this tension Sperling wears heavy welder style sunglasses as if to protect him from the glare like a Frink gogglehead  but this is contrasted by his graceful swinging arm movements which evoke nurturing actions (rocking a baby or sowing grain). It is only in the final loop that his hand gestures form devil horns.  Have we now entered Dante’s Inferno? The performance ends with the dancer squatting, watching his loops fade into darkness. He can now remove his shades.

Goggle Head 1969 by Dame Elisabeth Frink 1930-1993
Elizabeth Frink Gogglehead -copyright Frink estate

Although de Keersmaeker was responding to phased music, it seems to me that  Sperling’s application of video capture technology has allowed him to produce the true dance equivalent to Reich’s innovation. Because the phasing is manifest in the movement loops themselves the musical accompaniment need only provide a regular slow beat. This Sperling has achieved through a loop of his own overdubbed vocalisations that mimic the sound of waves rhythmically pounding a beach.

Interdisciplinary art like this is a pleasure to experience when sound, movement and visuals cohere in such a mutually supportive way. This exhibition/ performance installation features several other dance and visual artists all inspired by the Warburg image archive of gestures and runs until 28 January but is also touring the UK during the next six months.


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