‘There is a certain exquisite pleasure in the wavering of the balance’, wrote Theognis of Megara in the 6th century BCE, describing desire as a question of pursuit, not capture. Translating the phrase, Anne Carson wrote in her 1986 Eros the Bittersweet that such actions are characteristic of the Greek erotic genre: ‘within such conventional scenes […] what is pictured is the moment when the beloved turns and runs’. Throughout the choreography of Alex Baczynski-Jenkins’s exhibition of performance, held through the month of June, the artist’s seven collaborators unfold a series of rituals of sexual encounter. Over three hours, performers – most dressed casually, though two men wear elegant over-the-knee dresses – repeat and repurpose a choreograpy with no real beginning or end, switching roles and places. The process is mediated by the act of looking and being seen, toying the position of the visitor as, simultaneously, a passive audience and complicit voyeur. In the staging of eroticism towards a viewer, Baczynski-Jenkins’s new work explores sites of cruising. Moving away from the common understanding of cruising as exclusively for the fulfilment of male sexual pleasure – the performers are mixed-gendered – it is seen as a gesture of creating spaces and modes of relation that are resolutely – and openly – queer.
The exhibition is theatrically constructed between two floors of the Foksal Gallery Foundation, each featuring open-plan galleries with almost floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city of Warsaw. Downstairs, we find a set of minimal props consisting of two industrial air fans and a series of blood-red hand fans. Some of these fans have a silk fabric attached to the ribete – Spanish for ‘trim’ or ‘edging’ – used to facilitate the practice of courting. In this space, the performers come in and out of dancing solos, periods of waiting and expressions of longing, creating titillating moments of distance and togetherness.
Performers’ movements stem largely from the hips, abdomen and hands. Their arms extend provocatively above their heads and around their bodies, bringing attention to the groin’s libidinal ground. Their legs move sensually, like in salsa or cha-cha-cha, footworking adelante, ‘forward’, and al costado, ‘to the side’. The resultant live imagery is akin to slowed-down scenes from a club. The performers dance both in silence and to a resampled soundtrack composed of extracts from Urszula Sipińska’s 1972 romantic ballad Nim Zakwitnie Tysiac Róż (Until a Thousand Roses Bloom). In this context the artist’s collaborators mediate different ways of meeting each other, and the hand fans are a tool in such formality, for instance, by twirling the fabric around themselves and buoyantly extending it to touch a nearby body, or by lifting it upwards, in ripples, to call for attention. The crimson, floaty material is at times animated by the industrial fans, revealing and concealing the performers’ faces whilst they play a seductive game of hide and seek. Simultaneously, the rushing streams of air dramatizes their bodies, zealously blowing their hair and clothing in an otherwise static stage. Once beguiled, unannounced and appearing to consummate the quest, the performers attempt to give themselves to one another. Sitting on the floor or standing against a wall, the couples attempt a kiss that never lands. Their faces come close, their eyelashes flap intensely and repeatedly, yet their lips do not touch.
A different kind of passion play takes place upstairs. On this floor, Baczynski-Jenkins has created an indoor garden, taking inspiration from the origin of the street and gallery name ‘Foksal’, an Anglicism of the London suburb Vauxhall, home to the Pleasure Gardens, a well-known cruising spot in London. Held together by a bronze structure, the life-size composition features vegetation endemic or local: dried tree branches are mixed with moss, weeds, dandelions, soon-to-bloom blue hyacinths and sand to create a beautiful, albeit arid, landscape.
Here, atmospheric pleasure is reinterpreted as a site of desire, and a choreographed liturgy forces performers and audiences into a cruising environment. A distorted recording of Ciara’s 2013 ‘Body Party’ jerkily announces this, singing ‘My body is your party, baby …’ The performance now operates on a different speed. Palpable is the sweat and smell of bodies in proximity to one another, heightened in the heat and light of day coming from the windows. Every glance and move is a step towards the arrival of desire: the performers reach and grasp towards each other’s legs and arms; they run and chase; they jump on each other; they jostle; they laugh; they play with the other’s hair; they embrace in couples and throuples and they undress themselves and each other, clothes scattered around the room. A performer lies flat on sand while another comes and sprawls on top, every inch of their bodies connected by the broken boundaries of still flesh. At the end, the top gives the bottom a sweet kiss on the neck. Care is no sacrifice to sex.
Throughout this choreographic exhibition, the performers are exposed not just to the gaze of the viewer – which they might return with a hasty glance – but also to their surroundings. As the city of Warsaw stands calmly in the background, seemingly unconcerned, you cannot ignore the potential danger faced outside by such bodies in stages of intimacy. In the context of a place whose recent policies wish to erase any markings of difference, Baczynski-Jenkins and his collaborators invite us into a situation of affection and longing where eros, as philosopher Byung-Chul Han defines in his recent sharp essay on love, ‘delivers us from the inferno of the same to the atopia, indeed the utopia, of the wholly Other’.
Alex Baczynski-Jenkins (b.1987) lives and works in Warsaw and London. His solo show ‘The Tremble, the Symptom, the Swell and the Hole Together’ took place at Chisenhale Gallery, London in 2017. He has been included in group shows at the Migros Museum, Zurich (2018); Swiss Institute, New York (2016); Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź (2016); Block Universe, London (2016); David Roberts Art Foundation, London (2015); Sophiensaele Theatre, Berlin (2015); Whitechapel Gallery, London (2015); and Cricoteka, Kraków (2015). Baczyński-Jenkins is the co-founder of KEM (2015), a queer and feminist project space devoted to choreographic and performative practices. He is the 2018 winner of the Frieze Artist Award.
Main image: Alex Baczynski-Jenkins, Until a thousand roses bloom (with Warsaw in the background), 2018, performance documentation, Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, 1-22 June 2018. Courtesy: the artist and Foksal Gallery Foundation; photograph: Spyros Rennt