The Body And The Temple: A Q&A with Artist Brice Brown

Newswhistle; 22 February 2016
by Erik La Prade

            New York-based artist Brice Brown works in various multimedia styles on both a small and large scale.  His environments confront our assumptions about our physical and mental orientations, our sense of place, landscape and memory. The scale of Brown’s works range from wall-sized wall hangings to abstract prints, hand-held objects such as feathers and glass table legs to large installations incorporating collage, videos, and objects. Brown has exhibited nationally and internationally, most recently at Pavel Zoubok Gallery and DODGE Gallery, both located in New York City.  His work is in the permanent collection of The Baltimore Museum of Art, Yale University, and the Speed Art Museum.
            Recently, Brown finished a video titled I Looked Down I Realized I Had A Body. It is a video triptych based on Yukio Mishima’s book The Temple of the Golden Pavilion and features Gino Grenek, a principal dancer in the Stephen Petronio Company. Each video in the work is an interpretation of the major thematic arc of the novel: discovery of self; obsession with self; destruction of self. The overall composition of each video is derived from Masaccio’s Pisa Altar, with the installation consisting of a room built within the exhibition space, in which the viewer encounters the three videos. There is also a soundtrack by Alan Schlockley, which is composed of collaged sounds made from the dancer’s body in motion from Brown’s video. The video, along with other pieces, will be part of Brown’s new exhibit opening at Air Circulationin Paris on March 10 to April 24, 2016. The exhibition, which will be located at 11 Rue Michel le Comte, is accompanied by a catalogue with an essay by the art critic Lance Esplund.

           Brown sat down with me recently to talk about his new work.

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How did you come to make this film/video?

My friend Gino Grenek, a dancer for Stephen Petronio Dance Company, proposed we work on a collaborative project, and of course I was thrilled at the prospect of working with a dancer, of having to consider movement and a body. And the timing could not have been more perfect. When Gino approached me, I was in the early stages of developing a project exploring the detrimental, consumptive, and celebratory aspects of being completely obsessed with an idealized object, themes derived from Yukio Mishima’s novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

I decided to focus this obsession on the male body, and its related glories and complications, in order to investigate broad notions of health, love, and loss. Indeed, the title of the piece is I Looked Down I Realized I Had A Body.

Gino wanted to be able to move around and through sculptural forms, and this just naturally lent itself to a video work where I constructed an environment that Gino explored.

Your film has some basis in Yukio Mishima’s novel Temple of the Golden Pavilion.  Is it an interpretation of it or did you just find the novel to be a jumping off point?

It was a jumping off point, though it did essentially form the conceptual backbone of the entire project. Mishima’s book is a fictionalized recounting of the burning of the Kinkaku-ji temple in Kyoto in 1950 by a crazed Buddhist acolyte who was so consumed with the temple’s beauty he had to destroy it to be free of its power.

I was struck by Mishima’s many passages describing the inherent double-sidedness of beauty, of an object’s ability to be both terrifying and beguiling- almost literally “devastatingly gorgeous.” I devised the video as a triptych mirroring the basic narrative arc in Mishima’s book, which is basically the discovery of the object, the obsession of the object, the destruction of the object.

In Mishima’s book, obsession is rooted in a desire to abolish personal ugliness. In my video, obsession is rooted in a desire to tackle uncomfortable themes related to our bodies and our ultimate decay and death. I’m asking the viewer to consider his/her mortality and how memory often stands as the final form of existence.

Did you have a particular way for shooting the dancer in this film?

The choreography was based on dialogue, a way to turn the body into a site of inquiry. So, I interviewed people who deal with the body in various ways: mortician, personal trainer, end of life caregiver, pregnant woman, etc. These were fascinating and illuminating in very different ways, and made me think of bodies as wonderfully mutable things, as containers of information and history.

Gino and I then had many conversations about these interviews, and the ideas and concepts born of these conversations formed the basis for how he decided to move throughout the space. Conversation as choreography.

Formally, I want the videos to exist between the worlds of painting and video. The lens I used and the particularities of the set help these videos to be read like paintings, to have a flat and static quality that references a painting’s picture plane. I think it slows things down to a more contemplative, intimate speed and lets smaller moments have more impact.

Also, each panel of the triptych was shot at a particular time of day as a way to inject time both as marker and as metaphor. The left video, Discovery, was shot at daybreak and gets steadily brighter; the middle video, Obsession, was shot at midday and has a continuous light; the right video, Destruction, was shot at dusk and steadily gets darker.

The set(s) in your film incorporate your installation works but has the looseness of a surrealistic dream. How did you come to design this set?

I like that you think of a dream when looking at the set! I definitely tried to create a space out of time, even though the passage of time is very important to the videos.

Like I said earlier, I was interested in exploring the in-between place where painting and video approach each other. I wanted the videos to feel composed, controlled. Aside from using the imagery I’ve used before, namely the repurposed and collaged 18th century etchings, I looked to panels from Massacio’s Pisa Alterpiece for compositional inspiration.

Massacio’s panels visually suspend the narrative in space in wonderful ways; forms are taught on the picture plane but the whole thing is still active and engaging. I was hoping for a sort of liquid version of this pictorial tension, where Gino would explore and move through the set and then stop and be motionless for extended periods.

Also, I placed all the elements of the sculptural environment in ways that would flatten out space and be confusing until Gino moved through certain areas, activating them visually. Speaking of time within the videos, I also included an element of flowing water in each panel, so that as Gino danced he would become progressively, almost imperceptibly wetter.

Oh, one other thing about the set – I made rubber casts of Gino’s body hands and feet, which he used as a type of narcissistic body double in the videos. He placed these around the set, almost like a ghost or silhouette.

Did you find it difficult to transpose a literary work(novel) into film?

No, especially since I didn’t set out to transpose the novel but instead take the core concepts and make my own work.

Did you encounter parts of the novel that you could not interpret?

I didn’t approach the novel with the idea that it would be a one-to-one interpretation, and only drew on the larger philosophical concerns.

Mishima’s writing, indeed a lot of Japanese writing of that period, tends to walk this wonderful line between existential interrogation and simple narrative. So, it was easy to just extract and work with the underlying themes without getting caught up in the details.

Do the three chairs, (yellow, blue, and red) hanging on the back wall represent the dancer’s physical and spiritual inability to come to some resting point?

I like that idea very much, and in a way, yes, they do. An empty chair is a very domestic object inextricably linked to the body.

I’m fascinated by its metaphorical range: for example, it can represent both the presence and absence of a body; or act as a symbol of comfort or, as you imply, the inability to achieve rest.

There is also an obvious erotic nature to a chair which reinforces its connection to the body. Aside from these metaphors, I also wanted to chair in the video to act as a stand-in for Gino himself, a silhouette similar to the casts of Gino’s hand and foot.

Did you work with Alan Shockley on creating the music/audio for this film?

A large part of I Looked Down I Realized I Had A Body grew out of collaboration, from the various interviews, to working with Gino. So when it came time to tackle the sound for the video, it made sense to ask Alan to compose the sound.

I’ve worked with him on collaborative installations before, so we knew each other’s aesthetics really well, and we both enjoy the call and response necessary in the collaborative process.

And I think he came up with a really interesting solution, creating a shimmering, slightly menacing three-piece composition that seems to slowly breathe. It doesn’t feel secondary or like a buttress to the images, it’s a real equal, as if Alan transformed Gino into the abstraction of sound.

How did the medium of digital and making a film in this format change your perception of the film, if at all?

I don’t think the medium really drove too many decisions affecting the final product.

Do you think you might have been influenced by thinking about or looking at other films before you began making your film?

I made a lot of visual notes, trying to figure out how to formally tackle the video. One of the earliest “art films” I remember watching is Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.

The slow, long pan at the beginning of the movie is so gorgeous, with everything perfectly in its place, and Michael Nyman’s soundtrack like a beautiful dirge moving everything forward.

It really floored me as a teenager since it looked like a painting in slow motion, which makes sense because Greenaway was very conscious about making references to Renaissance paintings.

So, because I wanted a painterly, composed space in the video, I re-watched all of his films (and had Gino watch them as well) prior to designing the set.

The Pisa Altarpiece was created in 1426 by Massaccio for a Santa Maria del Carmine chapel in Pisa. Why did you chose an early Italian Renaissance painting to base your set design on?

Like with the Greenaway films, I was looking to a wide range of materials for inspiration when trying to figure out how to best visually compose/transpose the concepts I was working with from the Mishima novel.

I did eventually gravitate toward and the Massacio polyptych because, like I said earlier, the way he formally suspended figures in a shallow yet palpable space was something I was trying to achieve.

He just did it so well, and not just formally but also emotionally, psychologically.

For example, in one of the panels, St. Peter is depicted hanging upside down, crucified. Massacio managed to portray utter compression of the human form, pinning St. Peter like a butterfly.

Yet there is also a sense of release in St. Peter’s form, indicated by buoyancy in the way Massacio treated this figure; his flesh is defying gravity, not sagging downward. It’s like some air somehow got in to the composition, signaling a protection, the possibility salvation and release.