Loosely Ballroom

Lionel Popkin at REDCAT

June 18, 2024
By Rossen Ventzislavov


On March 9 and 10, 2024, artist Lionel Popkin presented his exhibition “Reorient the Orient” at the Roy and Edna Disney CalArts Theater (REDCAT) in downtown Los Angeles. The work encompassed physical, sound and video installations, reading materials and what the show poster identified as “scored movement activities.” Most public spaces in the theater—its main gallery, its two lounges and the stage itself—were set up with television screens and projections as well as sound equipment like microphones, speakers and headphones. Curious props punctuated some of these sets, from a large elephant costume draped over a step ladder in one space to an archipelago of neon-lit rugs strewn about the floor of another. Reading materials varied in format and presentation. Some were just piles of books replacing the usual art catalogues in the bar’s library, some were article printouts hanging on metal rings and others were formatted as informational brochures and propped on dedicated lecterns.

Four artists—Popkin himself together with Jay Carlon, Arushi Singh and Wilfried Souly—took turns engaging in the “scored movement activities.” At various times over the show’s two-hour duration, I witnessed certain actions performed by different artists. For example, sometime after watching Popkin twist his body around a wooden stool in front of a brocade curtain in the venue’s small lobby lounge, I chanced upon Carlon engaging in the same routine. I likewise managed to see three of the four artists dance on various colorful carpets across REDCAT. I suspect that Souly was not the only person who got to don the elephant suit and climb the step ladder, but his was the only such action I witnessed. Since much of this was happening simultaneously in different spaces, the cumulative effect was that one was made aware of both missing out and, at the same time, being able to catch each action performed at least once. The suggestion of interchangeability seemed intended. In the exhibition press release, Popkin refers to the ways in which American orientalism reduces the artistry and expression of South Asian performers to “dubious histories and experiences.” The musical chairs approach to performance in “Reorient the Orient” offered a fragmented picture of what is normally presented to western audiences in tight focus—an exoticized “mirage of authenticity” that, in Pokin’s words, whitewashes “the complex experiences of brown bodies within the American art world.”

All photos by the author.

One installation in particular, “Ballroom” (2022), caught my attention because of its evocative simplicity. Upon entering the main lobby gallery of the venue, I spotted a small space gently cordoned off with what looked like gauzy floor-to-ceiling curtains dotted in neon green. As I approached the installation, I realized that the curtains were actually strings beaded with bright wiffle balls. The space felt like a conceptual taunt, fully transparent but physically inaccessible to audience members. Part of the mystery was that in this sparse setup the word “ballroom” could potentially hold any of the meanings commonly associated with it—a grand event space, a style of dance, or underground ball culture. It could, of course, also be a humorous literal reference to the balls the room was surrounded with.

Things became even more intriguing when, after about an hour of activating other spaces and installations, Popkin approached the “ballroom.” It was only then that I noticed the bare lightbulb hanging in the middle of the room by a cable which ran along the ceiling and down to a simple pulley attached to the adjacent wall. Popkin hoisted the bulb up using the pulley and parted the beaded curtain to enter. For the next couple of minutes, he performed slow and vaguely ritualistic movements within the installation, all while wearing large wireless headphones. Some gestures resembled modified versions of mudras—the highly stylized and expressive hand movements often seen in Bollywood movies. A particular half squat Popkin performed seemed to engage the language of Bharatnatyam, the classical dance form of Tamil Nadu. Dancer Ram Gopal, who helped popularize Indian dance in the west, is a direct reference for Popkin in this context—“Reorienting the Orient” incorporated archival video footage of Gopal performing as well as a glossy facsimile of his New York Times obituary from 2003.

All photos by the author.

Popkin’s movements seemed to be accompanied by a soundtrack piping in through the large wireless headphones he was wearing. If there was a soundtrack, however, it remained inaudible for audience members. As time passed, each of the other three other artists took turns to perform variations of the same routine. The general setup remained consistent, except for the headphones, which were worn only by Popkin and Souly. In terms of expressive movement, the variations swung wider, with Singh slowing the motion down and Carlon crawling around the edge of the space and forcefully blowing on the lowest hanging wiffle balls while Souly was taking his turn dancing in the middle of the “ballroom.”

Instead of attempting to analyze Popkin’s overall vision, I focus on this particular piece because it seemed like the most radically open-ended one from the rich suite of artistic propositions on view. In terms of space-making and movement instigation, “Ballroom” reminds me of two iconic works of performance art. The first is the “Metallic Festival” at the Bauhaus in 1926, which featured a long fairground slide under a hanging ceiling of metal and glass balls. The second is Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Go-Go Dancing Platform) (1991), in which a square platform lined with marquee lightbulbs is occasionally mounted by a scantily-clad performer who dances to music they are listening to through personal headphones. These historical references do not fully contextualize “Ballroom,” but they tease out its evocative playfulness—akin to the ceremonial mischief of Bauhaus events and the queer performativity of go-go dancing.

All photos by the author.

What I find the most rewarding is the assured simplicity with which “Ballroom” blurs the line between performance and installation. Without jumping off a semiotic cliff, I find it interesting to ponder the possible symbolic meanings of the wiffle balls. As bluntly geometric toys go, wiffle balls are distinguished in a couple of ways—they are holed and hollow, they were invented so that children could play a safer miniaturized version of baseball, and their design makes it easier to throw a curveball. These features are obviously all metaphorically loaded, but they all also suggest a kinetic and invitational potency that defies my initial impression of Popkin’s installation as an inert and inaccessible space. And, indeed, seeing the artists’ moving bodies through the gently swaying wiffle balls introduced an almost paradoxical sense of porosity, as if not only the curtains but also the bodies themselves were permeable and tentative. Carlon’s use of his breath to move the curtains might have been the culmination of this effect—an exchange of kinetic energy between the installation and the artists, with human bodies activating the dynamic enclosure and being ever so slightly activated by it in return. On the evidence of Popkin’s show as a whole, it takes much more than this kind of ludic gesture to reorient the Orient. But “Ballroom” is a subtle reminder that reorientation involves both the movements we make and the movements we counter.

All photos by the author.

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