Words Without Language: A Pas de Deux Between Artist Emmie McLuskey and Choreographer Rudolf Laban

A new show at Collective, Edinburgh, makes poetry of physical actions

Language, learning and movement are explored in Glasgow-based artist Emmie McLuskey’s latest installation, ‘these were the things that made the step familiar’, which draws on the theories of dancer and choreographer Rudolf Laban. McLuskey’s interest in the physical embodiment of communication, in how bodily movement is a language in itself, is informed here by Laban’s ‘eight efforts’ – a vocabulary that pithily describes the key physical actions of dance, which he characterized as: wring; press; flick; dab; glide; float; punch; slash.

‘these were the things’ is the first show in Collective’s Satellites Programme for Scotland-based emerging artists since the gallery opened its new Calton Hill space in November. For the new body of work, McLuskey has employed a number of different methods that illustrate Laban’s ideas and foreground the collaborative nature of her own practice. A series of eight large digital prints are accompanied by sound works and bespoke dance-related furniture, while a display shelf of printed source material highlights the artist’s research-led approach. Included on the shelf is the book A Strange American Funeral, edited by McLuskey in collaboration with academic researcher Freya Field-Donovan and self-published on the occasion of the exhibition. Including texts by dancer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham and experimental filmmaker Maya Deren, this 80-page publication underscores both the pair’s shared interest in the creative use and depiction of the human body and how those same concerns infuse McLuskey’s work.

Maya Deren, Witch's Cradle Outtakes, 1943, film still. Courtesy of LUX, London

The prints, displayed across two adjacent walls, are the show’s most visually immediate elements. Contained within them are layers of communication, with each featuring a different black and white photograph that incapsulates Laban’s efforts while also echoing Deren’s film imagery. Disembodied hands are shown performing a variety of actions, such as flicking through a book, shaking maracas and whisking egg whites in a bowl. At the foot of the prints, the action is described using British Sign Language while top-right is Laban’s own notation, which he developed to represent each effort. The composition is completed with the words of Jamaican poet Millicent A.A. Graham, with whom McLuskey worked to source excerpts of her poetry to complement the images. Graham’s text brings a sense of linguistic playfulness, at the same time exposing the almost physical nature of language – how it can be stretched and contorted as words meant for one purpose are employed for another. The everyday exuberance of the line ‘And kick up the candlewick bed spread’, for example, is presented underneath a photograph of a hand tightly gripping a fork jabbed into a potato.

Arranged on the gallery floor are a wooden gym bench and freestanding double ballet barre, both of which host sound works, encouraging you to sit and stand respectively. Sitting on the bench with headphones on, listening to a woman reading Laban’s theories of movement, the less-than-riveting prose seems almost incidental to the act of slowing down and calmly observing the space. Two further sound pieces work as a pair to home in on the process of learning a foreign language: one features a fluent French speaker explaining vocabulary and grammar; the other is the artist attempting – falteringly, but with good humour – to repeat French words and phrases. To listen to one after the other, you’re required to stand at opposite ends of the barre: a slight act that nevertheless feels significant within this tightly choreographed space.

Emmie McLuskey, ‘these were the things that made the step familiar’, 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Collective, Edinburgh

With this multi-faceted installation, McLuskey’s focus on the body as a tool for movement and communication turns the gallery into an environment that calls to mind a small dance studio. Yet the physical activity required here is minimal; in this site of contemplation, the dance we’re being asked to perform is all in the mind.

Emmie McLuskey, ‘these were the things that made the step familiar’ runs at Collective, Edinburgh, until 10 March 2019.

Main image: Emmie McLuskey, ‘these were the things that made the step familiar’, 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Collective, Edinburgh

Chris Sharratt is a freelance writer and editor based in Glasgow. Follow him on Twitter: @chrissharratt

Issue 203

First published in Issue 203

May 2019

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