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Yvonne Rainer" Space, Body, Language on view at Kunsthaus Bregenz
Women view an installation by US artist Yvonne Rainer during a preview of Rainer's exhibition 'Space, Body, Language' at the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Bregenz, Austria. The exhibition opens to the public from 04 Februrary to 09 April. EPA/ENNIO LEANZA.

BREGENZ.- Yvonne Rainer, who is being presented by the Kunsthaus Bregenz in cooperation with the Museum Ludwig in Cologne and the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, is one of the most vibrant art personalities of the 20th–21st centuries. Even today Rainer’s artistic production is not easy to classify adequately, for the established categories such as choreographer, dancer, theoretician, activist, poet, and filmmaker only approximately embrace her influential and many-sided activities. They say nothing as yet about their mutual interrelations, a feature that is so typical of Rainer’s creative work.

Born in San Francisco in 1934, Yvonne Rainer had already moved to New York by 1957 to study dance with the legendary Martha Graham and the early Merce Cunningham. She would later distance herself from their influence, however, as her interest in Martha Graham’s expressive dance and in Cunningham’s emphasis on improvised and combined chance operations progressively waned. Her experiences with the dancer Anna Halprin and with Robert Dunn, a musician who studied under John Cage, and the friendships that she formed there with Trisha Brown, Elaine Summers, Steve Paxton, and David Gordon eventually led to the founding of the Judson Dance Theater in New York. Interested laypeople – often from the visual arts or the music, film, or poetry scenes – worked together with contemporary dance professionals in this hub of the New York avant-garde scene. Both personally and professionally, Yvonne Rainer already had close contact here with visual artists, some of whom such as Carl Andre, Robert Morris, or Robert Rauschenberg were involved in her dance pieces, as dancers or in some other capacity.

This was the era of the hybrid art forms of Fluxus and Happening. Yvonne Rainer created surprising choreographies in which she impressively developed an entirely independent language of expression marked, among other things, by the extension of dance to include everyday gestures and activities. Her legendary comparison of minimal sculpture and dance, which she herself also questioned at the time, showed vividly just how close the practice of avant-garde visual art and dance were in the 1960s. The scaling of the work to the human body, deliberate repetition, and the avoidance of strategies of overwhelmment are some of the major points of comparison that she stressed in this connection, premises that are already conspicuous in one of her early works now considered a milestone of postmodern dance: Trio A (1966). Later incorporated in her evening-length dance program The Mind Is a Muscle, this short work lasting only five minutes appeals on account of the reduction of its movements and the simultaneous technical prowess and understatement of their execution. Additional features are – and this holds for other early works by Rainer –repetition, variation, and the underlining of her actors’ real bodily presence. Her eschewal of a specific narrative line with intro, climax, and finale and her avoidance of eye contact with the audience are also typical of her works. Moreover, in The Mind Is a Muscle Yvonne Rainer’s interest in combining dance with other forms of expression such as film and installation also emerged – during the performance she ran the film Volleyball which she had made a year earlier and a slide show, and used a cassette recorder, foam plastic sheets, and mattresses as stage design and as props. In line with her critique of the adulatory enshrinement of choreographer and individual dancers, and the concomitant star cult, she dissolved her own company in 1970 and founded a democratically operating dance group Grand Union with likeminded friends.

In the early 1970s, Yvonne Rainer turned her back on the stage to make movies with her specific type of directorial work uniting fiction and reality, the personal and the political. Yet this did not entail turning her back on the subjects and strategies she had dealt with and implemented there. Her rejection of linear narrative and identification with actors, no less than her intellectual abstracting of emotion are also found in her films. Quite apart from the historical documentary value of the seven movies Rainer made from 1972 to 1996, their treatment of political themes (such as racism), autobiographical aspects, and feminist issues makes them outstanding works of 20th century movie history.

Since 2000, Yvonne Rainer has been choreographing again, drawing on elements of pop culture, sport, general dance history, and her own works.

While Yvonne Rainer has twice taken part in documenta (1977, 2007), had film retrospectives at the New York Museum of Modern Art and at the Tate Gallery in London, and her influence on the visual artists – above all on a younger generation can hardly be rated highly enough, there has been no big survey exhibition in Europe to date that attempted to establish the significance of her complex oeuvre for art history and to do it justice in terms of its current relevance.

The exhibition curated by Yilmaz Dziewior and Barbara Engelbach in Bregenz and Cologne will change this. Not only the complexity of Rainer’s oeuvre is a challenge, but also the fact that her dance pieces were conceived as live performances and hence raise questions in a museum context as to their adequate presentation. The museum’s response here will take the form, on the one hand, of live performances of Trio A in the museum itself, but above all in a collaboration with the Vorarlberger Landestheater, where Yvonne Rainer and her company performed two of their current works on February.

The show also presents photographs and film documentations of stage works, notebooks, dance scores, scripts, and movie and exhibition posters. Kuehn Malvezzi conceived the exhibition design. In addition to the rare chance to see works by Yvonne Rainer performed live, all of the artist’s films are screened at the Kunsthaus Bregenz. All in all this many-sided project offer detailed and far-ranging insight into the legendary work of Yvonne Rainer.

The exhibition will be showing at the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, from 28 April to 29 July, 2012.

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