my body’s an exhibition

Christopher Matthews my body’s an exhibition is at Sadler’s Wells on Friday 25 and Saturday 26 June. In this immersive event, movement-based installations are scattered throughout the building in the foyers, studios, stages and backstage spaces, and explore themes of gender, class structure, intersections of the classical and contemporary, icon vs self and pop culture. 
my body’s an exhibition presents over 24 works by international performance makers and artists in the form of video, photography, collage, sound, text and live movement installations.  Taking the Janet Jackson lyrics “my body’s an exhibition baby” from the song Feedback (2008) as inspiration, audiences are invited to explore the role of the spectator when observing the body as an object, as well as how bodies are seen, and what it means to be seen. Alongside this, Matthews asks how history and popular culture collide, or coincide. As well as movement installations you can expect inspirations from pop culture and music videos.

What is your project “my body’s an exhibition” about?

I was invited by Eva Martinez at Sadler’s Wells to curate an evening of dance installations within a programme called Wild Card. I was given an opportunity to create the show I wanted to create (within health and safety guidelines; my worst enemy), which entailed re-thinking the spaces throughout the theatre as exhibition spaces. The title comes from a lyric in Janet Jackson’s song “Feedback”.  I feel the song is about the interplay between two people, one being the active role and the other being the passive performer. When I perform, I am aware there is a feedback loop between the performer and audience.  A big topic always in my work is about “what is it that people look at when watching dance and how can we tap in and work with that feeling of desire?” The show is all about sensual themes, but it is about the duality of watching and being watched. The roles will flip back and forth and at times the audience might find themselves at the centre being watched by the works themselves.

What are audiences invited to question through this project?

The only thing I am asking the audience to question is to actively watch and consider what they see whilst maybe paying attention to their way of watching.  Of course, the show presents dialogues around certain identities, but no one is forcing a view on the audience.  I like to make work that can have multiple dimensions of watching. This is one reason why I work under the title “formed view” as I have shaped the experience, but I allow for the receiver to have their own ideas.  Of course, being a performer, you work to craft your performance of representing something, but I am not trying to give just one reading.  I think this comes from my training as a dancer where the perfect image is never attainable. As a short and somewhat pudgy dancer my career has been dictated by my physical shape and not my technical ability. Performance is always going to rely on that dialogue or judgement from the audience no matter how much you try to shape it.

How do you investigate the relationship between dance’s historical position and its mirroring in pop culture?

I come from a traditional dance background performing in ballet and modern dance whilst enjoying thrashy commercial jazz dancing. I love music videos whilst also being a geek for my art form. (Dance is my true soulmate.) A while back I got some feedback about my work, that was trying to be serious and perform “the artist”, and I should have more fun. So, I started to try to have more fun whilst unapologetically acknowledging that I love pop culture. When I start to make work now, I start with a dance historical work, and I choose a music video and from there I make a mashup. I am interested in creating historical lineages even if those timelines are false and made up in my crazy brain.  But lineages are there somewhere, and I just have to expose them.   Art has always “collaborated”, Yves Saint Laurent made costumes for the Bolshoi Ballet, Andy Warhol made a film about the choreographer Paul Swan, Beyonce plagiarised Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, and everyone enjoyed the Pina Bausch ‘Sacre du Printemp” video with Michael Jackson’s thriller. Boom – there it is – instant collaboration! Martha Graham says, “steal from the best!” But on a more personal artistic approach, I try to play with dance history and see how it references culture and pop culture, and like I said, this might be through my own thinking, no one else might think that.

With which performance makers and visuals artists have you collaborated with and with whom would you like to work with?

I currently dance with Trajal Harrell, a choreographer who creates work that finds parallels and intersections between post-modern dance, butoh, vogueing and fashion. I also have worked with artists like Simone Forti, Janine Harrington, Yvonne Rainer, Tino Sehgal, Jeremy Shaw, and Franz Ezhard Walter. These artists I have been working with in the gallery context, but my interest in fusing dance and visual art started when I was in New York dancing with a choreographer named Laura Peterson. She worked rigorously with the theories of minimalism in modern art.  Her works taught me that dance is a visual art form when one approaches movement from a visual aesthetic and not from a somatic approach.  Her works were physical and fun as well as intellectual and thought provoking.  Laura Peterson is the artist that truly inspires my desire to find the art historical in pop culture. She used to say (jokingly) to “never trust anyone who doesn’t watch tv.”

Who I would like to work with is purely dreams that have yet to be fulfilled.  Ultimately, I would like to dance with Janet Jackson just once, as she is the reason I am a dancer. Which is why I have named my first major show after one of her song lyrics. But other artist are Peaches, she is fucking incredible… Britney Spears, for obvious reasons… I mean I think I just want to work for pop stars and dance in their concerts or music awards shows. I grew up on American commercialism (leaving that there without critique). I have been to Disney World over 60 times and I love theatricality, give me a smoke machine or a firework display amongst big sets and video screens.

What is Lads how does it expose the influence of neo-classical culture on early modern dance?

When I make a work, I get so entangled in how everything that has come before me can be inspiration for questions and conflicts, even if they are just conflicts with myself.  The only way to deal with it is to dance it out in an empty studio.  So, the journey towards answering this question is complex but here are the highlights to this work specifically.  I was performing a piece by Tino Sehgal, which made me think about homoeroticism because I was there performing a piece by a heterosexual male that is about admiring two other heterosexual males and next thing I know, I am challenging myself to think if I have been performing heterosexuality in my dance career implicitly all along.  That sent me on a downward spiral of thinking about all the ballets and the modern dances I have performed as well as the personal struggle of being a boy dancer in a conservative southern military town. This then reminded me of a statement that Ted Shawn, an early modern dance choreographer, said that “men can dance if they look like the Greek gods or Olympiads” (Something to that nature as that is a paraphrase). Now I am really going crazy because that addresses another issue that I have been undoing in my dance career, which is to reimagine what the male dancing body can be.  I have always been larger and never had the muscularity that is stereotypically known for dancers.  I am surrounded by fitness magazines and pop culture full of men with abs and I just wanted to know when this all began and if Ted Shawn said this in the 1920’s then maybe this issue started way, way, back when.  So, it was time to read Plato like a good art student and he just answered all my questions. And now maybe I know who to blame for the unhealthy culture around masculinity and body image… Plato! He loved to hang out with the sexy olympiads. So, that was a long way around and I didn’t quite answer the question but the research for lads is about building lineages in history, art and dance history that lead into how the male body is seen in pop culture. You still don’t see larger male bodies in dance as much as female bodies (in recent years). I haven’t even yet started talking about class structure, but it is another topic I feel I raise in my work. Being a working-class queer, I feel I have to talk loudly in my work about how financial inequality can be a mechanism for desire of the other.  In Lads, this is addressed in the costuming.  The performers wear pristine Adidas tracksuits and shell top sneakers. There’s a moment in the work and they take off their shoes and you see their clean socks start to get dirty from the floor. But also, the performers are moving slowly never being able to rise up to the unattainable ideas of what masculinity is.

Like in the cheesy dance films, I dance out my frustrations in the dance studio, this one being that I am exhausted by the defining of masc or fem. The making of Lads helped me to relinquish myself from that emotional labour in my life.  I am no longer the little boy carrying his stage make up in a brown fishing tackle box.

How would you describe your own work?

I call my work sculptures even though they are humans dancing. I think the works create timelines or lineages even if those timelines, as mentioned before, are false.  I make them real in my work. They are sculptures because I am interested in the body as an object.  In the career of a dancer, you slowly realise that you are an object that is framed by the proscenium. I was always told how my body should look and I was never questioned for my skill.  I found it strange that as a dancer, my image was more important than my technical ability.  So, I address that now with taking dance off the stage and placing it in a context that has more of a history of critique for the body’s form. I have never apologised for my body in my career even to myself. But given the years of emotional and physical abuse to my body, either from myself or others, I do need to problematize that part of dance history.  As I said before my works are layered, you could just watch the works passively and think they are fun and sculptural, or you could sit and watch for a length of time to let the questions unfold.

What are your inspirations and which artists do you admire?

My first inspiration is dance.  I love dance, all dance forms!  I am in a happy place seeing bodies move and that can be in the theatre, in a club or on the street. I really want to know everything about dance and there are so many dance styles I have yet to have even heard of.  Then there are people… people I studied in dance history, celebrities I see in music and film and then there are the real people in my life which inspire me.  When I invite performers to be in my work it’s because something in them has inspired me and I am curious as to who they are. I feel you learn a lot about who they are from watching them move.

The artists I admire are the ones who have so much love for dance. As well as people who have love for each other.

And I admire everyone who is working on this show with me.  I feel in such good company and am completely humbled to be working with such amazing artists. These beautiful humas: Phoebe Berglund, Robyn Cabaret, Myrid Carten, Ignasi Casas, Typhaine Delaup, Fabritia D’Intino, fraserfab, Janine Harrington, Christopher Haddow, Naoto Hieda, Samir Kennedy, Benjamin Knapper, Fenia Kotsopoulou, elena light, Nasheeka Nedsreal, Amand Prince-Lubawy, Hannah Parsons, Bhenji Ra, Dominic Rocca, John Philip Sage, Eve Stainton, Songhay Toldon, Darcy Wallace, Riley Wolf

How has the current pandemic situation affected your work and your life?

I arrived in Zurich on Friday the 13th (March 2020) to start rehearsals for a new production with Trajal Harell literally 2 hour before the government shut down any mass gatherings in theatres.  Then immediately Sadler’s Wells shut its doors and then one by one I started seeing all my work being postponed or cancelled.  But I found my way and am not ashamed about how I spent my days. I might be productive, or I might just watch a whole season of a crime TV show. What was hard for me is that I am a wanderer. I love to wander and discover cities and even after living in London for 10 years I still wander. During the pandemic, we were not allowed to wander because we must stay home for the good of the world. As someone who lives with ADHD, staying in my small studio flat all day was difficult because my world became so much smaller.  ADHD for me is about stimulation and I just couldn’t get what my brain needed at times.

But, during the height of the lockdown it felt like the 90’s again.  Everyone was calling on the phone, which was nice.  I am spent more time on the phone talking and less in small quick exchanges on WhatsApp.  Also, I created a zero-waste lifestyle with cooking and I made a lot of great food.  My mushroom mac and cheese was the highlight! Wash it down with a crispy white wine like it was my birthday! Every dancer in NYC worked in a restaurant so I feel I understand flavour but during the lockdown I developed more skilful cooking through following recipes.

But the biggest challenge was not dancing.  I am looking forward to the show at Sadler’s Wells as the last time I was on stage performing was December 2019. First year ever in my 30-year dance life that I did not perform. 

Is it more difficult for freelancers and artists to cope in these difficult times?

Right now, it is difficult because the uncertainty of the future.  During the pandemic it was difficult because the systems that were in place to support the loss of wages had loopholes that left many artists without support because they were in between the resources that were set in place to provide relief.  I found myself able to apply for the financial support in one relief fund but fell through the loophole of another and there are so many who just keep falling through one after another. I think it is up to us to come together and support each other where we can. Also, a lot of freelancers like myself rely on mobility and now traveling internationally for work is difficult for many reasons, personal, political, and financial. But working-class freelancers have always found it difficult within a system that favours middle class privilege. In my studio, I have an article from the New York Times that was printed during the American Depression.  The article is about how dancers are leaving the arts to take on more financially viable careers like lawyers, doctors, and farmers. We are still fighting the system that is attacking the arts.

What advice would you give to people these days?

I don’t have any advice, as I don’t think I am in a position to give any. The only thing I can say is to love, love the people in your life, and love the people in your community. Support those who are less fortunate. Remember we share this world.

What are your dreams and plans for the future?

Being American, I feel my first dream is to win the lottery so I can then give all my friends a million dollars to do whatever they want in life. Every Wednesday and Saturday I meditate my law of attraction for abundance! “I am the creator of my own abundance”.

What does the future present for me? After the show, I will be returning to the studio to create the final work in the trilogy: Lads and My body’s No1 being the first two works.  This final work I will be working with performers who are over 60 to explore youth, beauty, and Louis 14th. Who knows what it will look like, but I am feeling there will be a lot of gold and colourful fabric. I was walking around the Wallace Collection (prior to lockdown) and I was super inspired by the rooms’ décor and the collection as a whole.  There’s even an amazing bust of Louis 14th against green wallpaper.  Again, I am not sure yet what will come but I just imagine Louis 14th as a pop star. And then there is the long-term future which is always looking for the next show.

Finally, I am still holding on to that dream to dance with Janet Jackson.  Please let her know I am available.

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