Sharon Lockhart met her match in Noa Eshkol. The exhibition ‘Sharon Lockhart | Noa Eshkol’ at The Jewish Museum was an unlikely pairing between the Los Angeles-based artist and the late Israeli choreographer and textile artist, who died in 2007. Together, their work performed the ongoing pas de deux between contemporary art and dance that so many institutions have featured over the past few years, but it also forged new ground.
Five Dances and Nine Wall Carpets by Noa Eshkol (2011) filled the exhibition’s ‘main stage’, in the largest of three rooms spread over two floors. The multi-channel installation included five films, each highlighting a single Eshkol-Wachman Movement Notation-based dance. The ‘EWMN’ system Eshkol developed, alongside architect Avraham Wachman in the 1950s, uses symbols and numbers to record any limb-to-joint movement. Today it has numerous creative and scientific applications.
Eshkol’s dancers perform amidst grey surroundings in each film, breaking away only through movement and by Lockhart inserting different configurations of nine ‘wall carpets’, colourfully patterned fabric remnants that Eshkol began collecting and hand-stitching together in the 1970s. Lockhart, in turn, interpreted these literally as ‘walls’ mounted upright on large support structures or ‘carpets’ laid directly on the floor among the dancers, immediately evoking theatrical sets running the gamut from school plays to The Metropolitan Opera.
Lockhart projected the films onto three large rectangular block screens (or ‘volumes’ as she calls them) on one side of the room and two others set diagonally across it; the overall snake-like configuration lent an otherwise spare installation cinematic and architectonic weight. Lockhart emphasized this on-screen by making the dancers’ actions the primary focus. Channelling EWMN’s structural underpinnings were various groups combining three to four original and newer Eshkol Chamber Dance Group members, all of whom performed in trademark plain black attire to a metronome beat save for when counting aloud to mark when to begin.
In Eshkol’s work, it is tempting to equate each dancer’s same slow, short and steady minimal motions – conducted mostly in unison but without ever touching – to exercise rather than creative dance. However, Lockhart’s streamlined installation showed how Eshkol’s notation system simultaneously balances and pares down the relationship between technique and expressivity. In short, how the system rejects older dance forms – namely ballet – by omitting storyline, traditional costume and classical musical accompaniment.
Aesthetic flourishes seeped in through the painterliness of the wall carpets and in the blink-and-you-miss-it moments when the dancers had to adjust their movements around the carpets Lockhart placed on the floor. Both clearly indicated the tipping point Lockhart willingly crossed in treating the carpets as art. Nevertheless, Lockhart – whose long-term engagement in researching her sources and subjects led her to discover Eshkol’s foundation during a residency in Holon, Israel, in 2007 – trod carefully. Lockhart did not know Eshkol personally so, like the younger dancers, was dependent on translation through the archives and from those whom Eshkol trained. As such, her choice to not reclaim but extend Eshkol’s rigorous focus on mining body-to-space dynamics paid off.
Further details – such as Eshkol’s first wall carpet being created during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when her dance activities were necessarily limited, or the fact that she was the daughter of Israel’s third Prime Minister Levi Eshkol – were left to the catalogue and a room of related ephemera. One syllabus revealed Eshkol’s drafting technique of truncating body parts in illustrating the movement of others, while Lockhart’s photographic series ‘Models of Orbits in the System of Reference, Eshkol-Wachman Movement Notation System’ (2011) depicts the spherical metal structures Eshkol used as teaching tools. Both demonstrate planar and rotary bodily shapes created by each movement notation, alongside the addition of 11 photographs and two wall carpets atop large grey pedestals in an upstairs room.
Ultimately, Eshkol’s system suggests what her dancers’ movements and Lockhart’s installation enacts: the expression of individuality in a collective activity. Hinting at Eshkol’s ‘home-studio’ and the kibbutzim where she and many of her students were raised, Lockhart counterbalances the big screen dances with a large empty floor, thus transforming the museum into an environment that encourages free movement among audiences. The strict exhibition format demonstrated the limits of pairing art with dance but also uncovered a path to how this creative tension can generate a lasting visual and physical impact between them.
First published in Issue 157