Simone Forti’s Experiments Transcribing Bodies in Motion

LOS ANGELES —In the mid-1970s, Simone Forti, already established as a dancer and choreographer, experimented with creating holograms — miniature images of her body that would spring into motion as you walked around them. The holograms offer one answer to a vexing question for museums interested in the ephemeral art of dance: how to collect or exhibit it.

A new, wide-ranging survey of Forti’s work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles — the city her Jewish-Italian family emigrated to in 1939 and where she has lived for the past 25 years — offers another. Spanning six decades, the show includes performance videos, drawings, writing, photographs and three mesmerizing holograms, now owned by major museums.

Alex Sloane, a curator of the show, “Simone Forti,” at MOCA, said: “Simone is an artist who works with movement in many different forms. She is always looking at how to transcribe the body in motion into different mediums.”

An installation view of a Forti hologram at MOCA.Credit…Seth Caplan for The New York Times

Forti, 87, is also being honored by the Venice Biennale, which announced on Wednesday that she would receive a 2023 Golden Lion for lifetime achievement for dance.

“I didn’t know what the Golden Lion was,” she said in an interview, quickly adding that “if someone has to take the role this year and stand there holding it, I am honored to be the one to do it for the community.”

The idea of community is central to the MOCA show, which features a selection of Forti’s influential Dance Constructions — “Slant Board,” “Hangers” and “Huddle” — instruction-based works that had their debut as a group, in 1961, in Yoko Ono’s New York loft. Using pedestrian actions like climbing and crawling, they helped to introduce an improvisatory, down-to-earth approach to movement — one that Forti would continue to explore alongside members of the Judson Dance Theater, the galvanizing 1960s collective that reshaped modern dance.

At MOCA, there are live performances of the Dance Constructions three days a week, and the museum is also presenting a version of “Huddle” on Feb. 17 and 18 outside the art-fair tent at Frieze Los Angeles.

“Slant Board,” one of Forti’s Dance Constructions. The performers’ movement includes pulling or hanging on the ropes.Credit…Seth Caplan for The New York Times

Last week at MOCA, Forti discussed her paintings, holograms and Dance Constructions, and talked about a lively source of her early dance vocabulary: animals. Below are edited excerpts from that conversation.

The MOCA show starts with your interest in animal movement, including drawings of animals you made in the 1970s. You seem to have a soft spot in particular for bears.

I do. When I was 4 and we escaped from Italy to Bern, Switzerland, almost every day we’d take this wonderful walk through the snowy streets to go see the bear pit. I also remember watching other bears later, maybe at the Central Park Zoo, and how they swing their head and shoulders from side to side. It probably relieves some of the pain of being enclosed in a cage. At that time, a lot of my dance vocabulary came from studying animals.

“Figure Bag Drawing,” from 2020. “I had this desire to drag something across large paper,” Forti said. “So I looked around at what I had: some old, dried-up acrylic paint and grocery bags.” Credit…Seth Caplan for The New York Times

You made abstract paintings when you first lived in San Francisco in the 1950s. What did they look like?

I was hoping they looked like de Koonings — they were very gestural and big. Bob Morris, my husband then, taught me how to stretch a canvas, and I’d sometimes start off by putting it on the floor. I remember at least one time when I laid down and took a nap on it. The problem was what to do with these big, oily wet things. I rolled them up and put them in my parents’ garage, and they threw them away.

Did the paintings hint at your work in dance that followed?

I think so. I would not move my arm to make a certain line, for instance, but move my entire body, and this gesture on the canvas would result.

There are some recent drawings in the show, done on flattened paper grocery bags. Why grocery bags?

I had this desire to drag something across large paper. So I looked around at what I had: some old, dried-up acrylic paint and grocery bags. I think I was anxious in the early days of the pandemic and making these gestures, these marks, gave me a sense of the solid world.

“Huddle,” performed at MOCA. Forti said that in the early days the piece “was rougher and more compact, more about our relationship to gravity and the earth.”Credit…Elon Schoenholz

When I saw “Huddle,” I was struck by how much care each performer took climbing over other bodies to reach the top of the heap. It seemed an example of, or metaphor for, a kind, supportive community. Is that something you think about?

I do think about that now, but it wasn’t like that at the beginning. “Huddle” was rougher and more compact, more about our relationship to gravity and the earth and the feeling of using a lot of strength to climb.

At the time I was new to New York. I had been dancing in the woods [outside San Francisco] with Anna Halprin and now suddenly everything surrounding me was built by humans, so I was feeling this need to say: I occupy space, I have weight. I think the work has changed since then with our embrace of body work, craniosacral therapy, and meditation. As that all has grown more important in our society, the style of doing “Huddle” has changed and become more careful.

Now “Huddle” is performed so often, across so many cities.

I once received a picture of “Huddle” being done in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence in front of [the copy of] Michelangelo’s David — it was so fun to see that. “Huddle” is easy to do because it doesn’t require a construction. But if people are planning to do it for an audience, they’re supposed to clear it with the Museum of Modern Art, which bought all of the Dance Constructions.

An installation view of the show at MOCA.Credit…Seth Caplan for The New York Times

“Slant Board” looks like a wooden climbing structure you might find on a playground. Where did the idea come from?

All the ideas for the Dance Constructions came about around the same time, after I saw photographs in a magazine of work by the Japanese group Gutai. One of the artists, Saburo Murakami — not the Murakami working today — made a piece that consisted of a series of large frames, maybe 5 by 6 feet, with paper stretched across them. He lined the frames up one in front of the other and then went crashing through them. I was very impressed that it was one action and it was completely satisfying, and each of these are in their way one action.

When the performers aren’t around, the Constructions could pass as minimalist sculpture. Do you see them that way?

I’m looking at the ropes right now and I think they’re beautiful. I also consider the performers and object together a sculpture.

Forti: “I’m looking at the ropes right now and I think they’re beautiful. I also consider the performers and object together a sculpture.”Credit…Seth Caplan for The New York Times

Your gallery show at The Box in 2018 of the holograms you made in the ’70s with the help of the scientist Lloyd Cross was pure magic. How did that work come about?

At that time I was married to Peter Van Riper, who was friends with Lloyd. Peter had the idea that Lloyd and I should do something together. It just made sense to me to make essentially one gesture for each of the holograms. That was enough. You didn’t have to make a whole dance with lot of different movements.

For the hologram called “Striding Crawling” you can see the figure come off the floor, and that goes back to my interest in animal gait or movement. I was studying our transition from being on all fours like a quadruped in the past to being on two legs like we are now. I did a lot of crawling back then.

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