Andre Alves’ Mute Motives at Semantics

In the late1950s and into the 1960s, the philosophies of composer John Cage permeated the arts. Allan Kaprow took Cage’s notion of incorporating all of life into (and as) music and invented the “happening,” where the human body took over as the artist’s medium, the environment the “canvas,” and the spontaneity of actions and occurrences surrogated the artist’s autonomy and hierarchy. Artists, writers, and musicians such as La Monte Young employed chance operations in their work, another principle, and virtue extolled by, Cage, influenced by the I Ching, the Chinese book of oracles, in his compositions and teachings.

Through chance and happenings, the way an artist’s work or event was perceived could be in constant flux, and therefore have endless opportunities to be experienced or interpreted. Andre Alves’ Mute Motives, continues in this vein, with the opening of the exhibition acting as the “happening” of sorts, and the subsequent viewings throughout the month serving as a standard white cube presentation of art, or as a documentation of the opening event. In turn, Alves’ exhibition becomes almost two different entities based on not only when you saw the show, but how.

For Mute Motives, Alves collaborated with the Cincinnati composer Jennifer Jolley on a “non-instrumental musical performance,” titled Silence It Is, that is a riff on Cage’s notion of a reversal in musical hierarchies that places silence as subordinate to sound. Eight female performers were assigned the vocal component of this piece, all uniformly dressed in white sweater dresses and fabric grayscale belts made by Alves. Each performer was assigned a verbal cue (yell, murmur, etc.), and engaged in a heavily choreographed exercise in corporeal placement, turning their backs on one another, facing opposite sides of the wall, etc., all shifting from being filed in a single line. The choreography is designed to make the verbal cues either more or less audible, further playing with the dichotomies of seeing, hearing, silence, and sound.

When the composition ended, the performers removed their belts and either hung or pierced them through nails already placed on the wall for the occasion. Following this, they all filed into the closed off upper room of Semantics emerging together to hang Alves’ large black and white graphite drawings onto the walls. When this action was completed, they all returned to the upstairs room leaving behind just one performer, another Cincinnati artist, Gabbi Lanza, who then knelt down and slowly tore open a small, wall-hung fabric bag, that resembled the performers’ belts. The contents, road salt, slowly spilled on the floor and when this action was completed, Lanza left the room joining the other performers.

The actual act of hanging the work became an important component of the exhibition, incorporated into the performance and therefore made as an extension of the thematic concerns of Silence It Is. The series of drawings, entitled Gasp, furthered this idea, depicting intricate and delicate renderings of the grayscale belts worn by the performers, each one progressively escalating in reductivism and visibility, the final piece cut to appear to be fading into the wall itself. Through these works, Alves’ medium of body and drawing on paper collide together in a thoughtful combination of orchestrated action, performance, composition, object, and metaphor/concept.

At times, the heavy handedness of the performance, coupled with the drawings and the dramatic gesture of hanging for the artist, seemed over orchestrated, also overly engineered, veering into an accidental kitsch territory. However, Alves, knowingly, or serendipitously, played with the variables that are always present in any performance or art exhibition, making the event appear more spontaneous and loose, than perhaps the rigid framework laid out would suggest. First, the heat in the building was nearly 100 degrees on the exhibition’s opening day. The show began at 7pm (the performance at 7:30) and the visitor who arrived exactly at this time, got to see Alves, in something of a preamble, barefoot, wearing black and white blouse, and gray slacks, dissolved into character by switching off a small box fan (the only thing keeping Semantics slightly cool), and stand among the entering crowd. If someone sat down in a location that would be used during the performance, he wordlessly motioned for them to stand up; if someone approached him he acknowledged their presence only by silently ushering them to file against one of the four walls of the room.

The scene that ensued was admittedly uncomfortable: a smattering of gallery-goers all sweltering together in, aside from Alves’ presence, an empty gallery. This accidental happening from the crowd, served as a fitting preface for the exhibition: the audience, just by the suggestion of either a silent gesture from Alves, or from their standing in complete silence, muted themselves, out of respect for whatever was about to happen. It was a wonderful moment where etiquette, a willingness to participate, and a sense of social conformity all came together.

Second, the performance, despite its geared intentions, seemed to almost want for variables, with even the exhibition’s press release remarking the difficulty and stress put onto each performer to properly convey movement and phonetic utterances in the way desired by Alves and Jolley. Again, you can consider the heat as a factor here, as wearing heavy sweater dresses in extreme temperatures surely hinders focus. Couple that with at least 50 or so sets of eyes watching your every move, and you have a recipe for some variations on the expected action. This is not to imply that any performer appeared off, or seemed to detract from the overall desired effect; if anything the level of control was so striking that I could not help but notice the slight variations.

The variation in postures, the shaky legs and stances, opens up exposition of the gaze, and continues the question that could be raised by Alves’ constraint manner taken with his uncomfortable/confused audience. Who is dominating who in this exhibition, the artist (and his surrogates, the female performers, suggested by their appearance in his absence) or the audience; need domination be such a dominant/primary question? Which brings me to the variations in the exhibition itself. Subsequent viewings of this exhibition did not activate the viewer in such a way, not solely due to the experiential variables, or the absence of chance and the happening, but because Silence It Is, originally in the foreground now moves to the background on a small television screen in Semantics upstairs room (the last room the viewer would get to) and lacks’ Alves’ preamble. The gender politics of the piece, which played out well during the performance, become more ambiguous. Without the hint of Alves’ relation to his performers as potential surrogates to the artist himself (the dress, both are barefoot, slipping into a character, etc.), the rationale behind the uniformity and usage of the women in this piece becomes slippery.

Further, with the performance no longer being put at the forefront, the show invites more contemplation of the works on paper. Ultimately, this offers a different look at the muting Alves is bringing to the forefront, one that perhaps enters into more of a visual discourse and thus not as confrontational as the aural and visual one brought forward on the exhibition’s opening night. The remnants from Silence It Is are still displayed: the belts, titled Repression and Release, still hang from the nails, and the salt from the torn bag is still on the floor. Yet, with their new status as remnants or objects hanging on a wall and on the floor to be scrutinized by the viewer as art, their potential is re-evaluated, relying on documentation via a gallery map to clue them into their meaning. While the option of viewing the video can apply some clarity to the viewer, the rich suggestions of silence, repression, and to Alves himself that were delivered in the performance, are themselves muted.

Silence, according to Cage, was what placed limitations on music. The failure to embrace the non-audible as audible was what made compositions such as his 4’33 such an enduring work. Alves borrows a page from this playbook, and in his exhibition heightens this riff, but reworking it in his own terms, opting instead to investigate refraining from speech and sound. In this way, the exhibition is successful in both of its incarnations, one that brings this concern to its heights with the viewer, and another that acts mute itself, leaving it up to us to break and interpret temporary speechlessness.

– Chris Reeves

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