Chasing Beauty:
Brice Brown’s I Looked Down I Realized I Had A Body

by Lance Esplund

What are we to make of Brice Brown’s three-channel, feature-length video I Looked Down I Realized I Had A Body? Is it dance, film, experimental theater, performance art? Is it a celebration or a lamentation, a narrative or poetry-in-motion? Perhaps its protagonist (dancer Gino Grenek) and its three-act, dawn-to-dusk arc represent Shakespeare’s world stage and ages of man—from mewling infant to fiery lover to “mere oblivion / Sans teeth, sans eyes…sans everything.” Or maybe it explores notions of the body as burden and its environment as cage—impediments to the spirit. Perhaps, instead, it’s a metaphor for degeneration and mortality—a wrestling match between Brown (who is 43) and his midlife crisis. Or is it an enigmatic mishmash, an open-ended riddle: all of the above?

What’s certain is that it’s an intriguing, beautifully realized, interactive collaboration among its dancer and choreographer Grenek, composer Alan Shockley, and visual artist Brown. Trained as a painter, and motivated by numerous sources, Brown approached the artwork as a marriage between painting and film. But he sees his primary role here as a director who established the video’s themes and parameters.

Among its chief inspirations is Yukio Mishima’s 1956 novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Based on an actual occurrence—the deliberate destruction of the 14th-century Zen temple of Kinkakuji, in Kyoto, in 1950—Mishima’s first-person novel explores the pathology of the temple’s Buddhist acolyte, an unattractive, stammering priest-in-training who inexplicably set fire to one of Japan’s architectural masterpieces and national treasures.

Mizoguchi, the novel’s young protagonist, struggles with the meaning of life; but the biggest problem he faces is his relationship to beauty. “Though occasionally I saw the real Golden Temple in photographs,” Mizoguchi narrates, “it was the image of the Golden Temple as Father had described it to me that dominated my heart…I therefore staked everything not so much on the objective beauty of the temple itself as on my own power to imagine its beauty.”

Mishima’s novel is as much a treatise on aesthetics and metaphysics as it is a fictional story about an actual troubled monk who felt “a strong destructive desire for hurting and destroying anything that was beautiful.” Likewise, Brown’s video approaches the realm of meditation. Although Shockley’s slow-building, eerie soundtrack alludes to the temple’s bells and fire, Brown borrows not from the novel’s story but from its balance among the beautiful, the violent, the static, and the spare; from Mizoguchi’s journey from discovery to obsession to destruction; and from the story’s elusive, parable-like nature, which explores how the idea is often more powerful than reality, and how memory often stands as the final form of existence.

In I Looked Down I Realized I Had A Body, Grenek navigates, tests, and redefines Brown’s themes and parameters. He performs three 90-minute-long improvisational dramas—or freeform dance movements—each executed in a single unedited take before a fixed camera. Grenek’s outdoor stage, designed by Brown, is a changing installation whose backdrop comprises enlarged fragments from 18th-century etchings of sorcerers performing alchemical processes. Occasionally, the prints’ illusionistic, architectural elements convey the receding space of linear perspective. And their black-and-white patterns suggest images of knotholes, fingerprints, bubbles, and smoke; but mostly they read as vibrations and eddies—movements and forces more than places and things.

Moving our eyes among the three screens inspires a sense of déjà vu; or of witnessing Grenek play out concurrent lives in parallel dimensions that are uncannily both similar and different. Before each performance, the stage set was slightly altered: a different source of running water was introduced; props, including a repainted chair, were moved; and framed rectangles (painted red, yellow, blue, and green) were patched and cut anew into the set’s back wall. Resembling Donald Judd’s Minimalist box-sculptures and Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop splashes of color, the back wall’s rectangles are employed by Grenek as ladders and cubbies. But these colored rectangles also appear to advance and recede in space—seemingly moving between the front and rear of the stage—as if they were forms pushing and pulling within the picture plane of a painting. Furthermore, the stage set’s areas of grass appear to follow suit—to stand up like painted, flat planes of green. These malleable contradictions, among illusionistic, artificial, and natural forms and spaces, create a world seemingly in flux between two and three dimensions, between artifice and reality.

Light, also, is a major player in Brown’s union between painting and film. Each of Grenek’s performances was recorded at a separate time of day. Discovery (left screen) was filmed at dawn, Obsession (middle) at midday, and Destruction (right) at dusk. In Discovery, sunlight increasingly bleaches the scenery and paints the grass with a progressively longer and broader swathe of yellow. In Destruction, darkness, seeping like ink into paper, gradually envelops everything in black. Midday’s Obsession, meanwhile, fully lit and exposed, bridges the two.

Brown’s composition and set were inspired by the compacted, shallow spaces in the frieze-like predella panels of Masaccio’s Pisa Altarpiece (1426), in which, for instance, crucified Saint Peter (hanging upside down) feels pressed from all sides as if stuck in a vise. Once you know that this early Italian Renaissance painting was a source, it heightens the video’s sense of imprisonment, compression, and public spectacle. These qualities are reinforced by the nearly abstract painterly feel of the video set’s spaces and props, which further act to divide, compartmentalize, and flatten depth-of-field. And these qualities are enhanced by Grenek, whose movements activate and elasticize space.

In Brown’s video, Grenek appears to have been captured and pressed, as if by an entomologist, between transparent pages of a specimen book. He is sometimes static, a neutral gray. Yet when he moves—as if straining against unseen forces—he becomes muscle, tendon, and sinew—athleticism and eroticism. If we take Brown’s artwork at its word, we are traversing erotic territory. The video’s “I” looks neither inward nor outward but “Down.” (In Mishima’s novel, the Golden Temple becomes the focus of desire whenever Mizoguchi engages in sexual activity.) But here, as well as in the novel, that landscape extends beyond the body and the self. Physical and spiritual ideals become interchangeable.

Grenek, fascinating to watch, feels burdened, confined. His environment is indifferent to and obscures him. At times he can seem to be moving in place, or to pace the frame like a caged lion, or to have adopted the vertical and horizontal attitudes of surrounding structures, or, like an automaton, to be going through the motions. Sometimes Grenek is childlike, or he disappears like a chameleon, or he feels comically small or gigantic; at other times, props such as a cast wax hand and foot take on fetishistic or threatening proportions. Yet, it is through Grenek’s exploration of his environment that he moves—through acts of inquiry, supplication, desire, and play—from a physical realm to a state of grace.

In Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Mizoguchi comes to believe that the temple’s beauty, forever beyond his grasp, resides ultimately in its incompletion. “The beauty of the individual detail itself was always filled with uneasiness. It dreamed of perfection, but was lured on to the next beauty, the unknown beauty.” Mizoguchi realizes that “nothingness was the very structure of this beauty,” that the temple’s underlying motif was an infinite series of foreshadows, of successive adumbrations of beauty—“trembling in anticipation of nothingness.”

In the nearly utter blackness of Brown’s Destruction, during the closing moments of I Looked Down I Realized I Had A Body, Grenek all but disappears. When faint light, like fire, grabs at and barely catches his limbs, as he tears through a latex barrier, he assumes the qualities of pure energy, as if he had left his body—and beauty—behind.