The Low-Residency Masters of Fine Arts Visiting Artist Lecture series concluded July 25 with legend Yvonne Rainer. Every lecture begins with an introduction by Director of the Low-Residency program, Gregg Bordowitz, who this time led with a reading of Rainer’s performance score, “Trio A.”
Yvonne Rainer is an artist who works in dance, writing, performance, and film. Her 1969 experimental dance film “Hand Movie,” drew attention to the postures of a hand as another form of dancing body. Both a creator and a connoisseur of art, she opened her lecture with a reference to “Eight Short Science-Fiction Stories” by Paul Simms, published in the New Yorker in 2015.
Simms’ story, known for featuring an attack from the “Flying Penis from Venus,” was the perfect introduction to Rainer’s lecture this year, which focused on humor. She questioned aloud to the audience why she found anything to do with the male reproductive organ hysterical, while some of her closest friends do not even crack a smile.
Rainer herself is not a break-out-in-hysterics-laugher type of person. However, her lecture was often punctuated with a crooked smile, a humorous side-eye, and discussion about how funny genitalia or comics in the New Yorker are.
Much of the audience laughed along with Rainer’s jokes, which consisted of funny anecdotes about times with friends or things she’s read. For the people who may not enjoy stand-up comedy, Rainer’s lecture might not have seemed so funny. Her soft and slow way of speaking felt contradictory to the subject matter. One may have felt self-conscious if they didn’t have much of a noticeable reaction in contrast to those whose laughter traveled from the front of the ballroom to the back.
In the middle of the lecture, Rainer showed video of her piece, “Assisted Living: Do You Have Any Money?” from 2013, which juxtaposes humor and economic struggle. In the piece, the dancers wear brightly-colored lounge and active wear and oscillate between reciting sobering text, performing choreography, and playing the laughing game — a “game” where performers lay their heads on each other’s stomachs and laugh.
The laughing is almost discomforting, as the reason for the laughter is not clear. This discomfort is heightened when, one by one, the dancers separate from the laughing game and recite text like, “My brother is full of shrapnel wounds and is dying before me.” While some of the text is taken from newspapers or other sources, some is original, written by the dancers themselves.
The choreography was composed of completely found material, taken from Laurel and Hardy routines. Laurel and Hardy is a comedy duo who reached their peak fame in the 1920s. Their physical material gave “Assisted Living: Do You Have Any Money?” a Vaudevillian quality.
In the video, one dancer asks, “What kind of vision might overcome apathy?” This seems to be the question that Rainer is trying to answer in the whole of her body of work; humor is her current solution.
While Rainer’s focus on humor in relation to turmoil was insightful, many moments in the lecture were quite dense and abstract, potentially leaving audience members confused. During the question-and-answer portion, Rainer’s responses were adjacent to the questions, but did not entirely address them. This disconnect may have been due equally to both Rainer’s and the audience’s specific interests and high-level intellect.
This summer’s visiting artists often had a political focus that was fitting to the interests of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s student body. In addition to giving lectures, the visiting artists also work with the Low-Residency MFA students during their visit. Each summer, the Low-Residency MFA lectures provide an opportunity — especially for students not in the Low-Residency program — to hear from, and possibly meet, some of the most influential artists alive today.