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Outside the Barbican gallery (London) where modern choreographer Trajal Harrell showcased his exhibition, a sign read: “parental guidance is advised as the exhibition contains nude performances, as well as some explicit imagery and sexually suggestive material”. Well, I thought as I entered to find two hyper-sexualised men strutting in front of a wall displaying a constantly changing array of giant projected penises, why the hell hasn’t Virgil offered up his services to be my guide?

Stern faces scrutinised the “dancers” and the “nudity cinema” behind them. Visitors were thoroughly entertained from the get-go, with three scantily clad dancers moving in an indescribable fashion by the ticket-collection desk. I later discovered that they were called the “ghost trio”, apparently something to do with the Japanese— I found myself wondering what Harrell’s ethnic qualifications were for this heinous appropriation.

It was an effort to get your bearings in the white hall filled with very serious artistic types. In my attempt to find some kind of information booklet (there was none) I mistakingly approached a performer, who wore a single tiny earring, before being told off— who could have known.

This was Hoochie Koochie, by Trajal Harrell, now at the Barbican following its two-year residency at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMo) in New York. The performance exhibition book (not available at the exhibition itself), states that Harrell “has looked at the relationship between voguing and early post modern dance” for over a decade. The hall was described as “an immersive space where the audience can choose their own route between performances and stage installations”.

And just to give you a quick glimpse of this thing called vogueing, check out the video below.

Somewhat detracting from the quality of my immersive experience, I missed the beginning of “Showpony” during which “a single dancer slowly sits on an audience member’s lap, one after the other- a lap dance, a pony show, and/or a dog show, so to speak”. In another room, the artist “explores the idea of sincerity and seriousness” in a work entitled “Bathing Suit” during which a “lone female performer ritualistically undresses”.

To the wiser reader, an extract from a conversation between the Barbican’s curator Leila Hasham and Harrell explaining the background to the performance “It Is Thus” will provide meaningful insight into the artist’s intentions:

“TH…it was kind of a fuck-you piece.

LH What, like a ‘fuck you’ to the dance community?

TH Yeah. I felt that I didn’t have a community, really, and that no one knew me, and to them I was weird, and all the things I was trying to do were very… freaky. So when I –

LH But wait what were you trying to do? Why were they ‘freaky?’

TH Well, because I was really dealing with pedestrianism… sitting, standing and people were anatomically released. Of course, there were certain postmodern reflections on the released body, but the physical language in the New York downtown dance scene at the time still looked like modern dance to me. And here I was, trying to be postmodern – or what I thought was postmodern – by doing this kind of pedestrianized language.”

A tortured soul indeed.

But all of this pales in comparison with 50-minute tour de force In The Mood For Frankie”. The dimly lit faces of an audience with absolutely unbroken concentration encircled the catwalk interspersed with what appeared to be tiny fish ponds. In this piece, from what little information I could glean from the wall in front of me, “Trajal Harrell pushes the boundaries of contemporary dance and performance, incorporating elements from other art forms in a process of associative thinking that traverses both continents and centuries.” This provided no glimpse of what was to come.

For 50 minutes we watched three performers moving in that same indescribable fashion, usually on their tip toes— after twenty minutes my ankles suffered sympathetic aches. It began with one ‘dancer’ wearing what looked like spaghetti on his head. Joined by another dancer and Harrell himself (whose feet made a distracting ‘sticky’ sound on the faux-marble catwalk) the three men danced with objects and fabric that they rubbed on themselves. As Plato said, “All well-bred men should have mastered the art of singing and dancing”.

Apparently, this was “a refusal to reconstruct or re-enact the past but also as a way of distancing the audience from any kind of representation and instead, activating the ‘imagining’ in the present moment”- or something.

Finally, after Spaghetti Head crouched down and poured some water from a milk carton into one of the fish ponds, the dancers began weeping and waving their farewells. This received a standing ovation— the crowd was so moved that some even had wet cheeks. Harrell had worked his magic.

The evening ended with a ‘lecture’ entitled “The Conspiracy of Performance”, based on Jean Baudrillard’s essay The Conspiracy of Art (2005). Despite all the fanciful explanations, the piece seemed to repudiate all meaning and hold up nothingness as the ultimate artistic goal.

A pair of heavily-made-up elderly women, plucked straight from Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza (2013), told me that “art had changed”. This was all about the “physical effect”, about gender, transgender and race, where “art coalesces with film and theatre”. This was social. (and perhaps a replacement for the opiates of their youth?).

Afterwards I had the great honour of interviewing the artist himself, and here is an extract:

Me: What did I just see?

Harrell: I can’t speak for all artists because art is always changing its developing, but for me the art I make, I try to enliven the public imagination, and I try to get people to wrap their head around possibilities because I think this is one way you can build on the future.

Me: In your conspiracy section you talked about striving for meaninglessness and nothingness, what do you think about value in art?

Harrell: That’s what I just said, this text is a text by Baudrillard that he wrote called the Conspiracy of Art and I went and changed the “art” to “performance”. I mean, and he’s critiquing a lot of work that is, you know, empty and saying that, you know, real nothingness in art is an achievement….I mean for me, it’s the same thing, I am trying to really widen the public imagination.”

I am reminded of Aristotle’s famous insight that “the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance”. The dispersing crowds were so dazzled by the glow of this probably-million-pound artist’s genius, their social perceptions so challenged, that none of them noticed at least six homeless people they were forced to pass on their way out. Aristotle also said that “the Gods too are fond of a joke”.