But What You Want Is Far Away

Review

But What You Want Is Far Away

By Melissa Miller December 2, 2014

In God Sees Everything, directed and choreographed by Phoebe Osborne, a complex weave of everything Californian coalesces. It is, in certain moments, “so L.A.” as dancers wearing the same blonde, bobbed wig move robotically across the stage. With glitter and glow sticks, God Sees Everything references the music-festivals scene, and with synchronized yoga postures and carrot eating it reaches toward new age. It also emerges from the numerous engagements with extraterrestrial life chronicled by individuals and cults within the state. God Sees Everything is all over the (western) map in terms of references, but each one of them is spot-on in terms of what epitomizes California. Osborne’s careful and sometimes absurd juxtapositions are both humorous and insightful; they point to a contemporary Californian identity that has been informed by a lengthy history of utopian projects.

 
God Sees Everything debuted during But What You Want Is Far Away at the Oakland Museum of California on November 7, 2014. Scheduled during Friday Nights @ OMCA, the programming is an extension of the museum’s current exhibition in partnership with SFMOMA, Fertile Ground: Art and Community in California. Fertile Ground displays local objects and histories, from San Francisco’s Mexican muralist painters of the 1930s to work produced by the 1990s Mission School, and examines communities that shaped the art scene in the Bay Area, California, and beyond. OMCA Associate Curator of Painting & Sculpture Christina Linden programmed But What You Want Is Far Away with the intention of bringing the curatorial statement behind Fertile Ground into the contemporary moment.

But What You Want Is Far Away began with a poetry reading by Tanya Sarmina. Sarmina’s words reflected on childhood, cultural and familial memory, and the influence the rolling California landscape had on her own identity, as well as her family’s. In her opening poem, “Paul Bunyan,” Sarmina spoke of a night spent in a roadside motel in Porterville, CA. Her eloquent words portrayed the uncertainty these temporary homes produced in her as a young child, but through a poetic distance obtained in adulthood. In a later poem, Sarmina recounted the time her father told her and her siblings about his attempts to cross the border into California from Mexico. Truthfully, Sarmina’s poems could have occupied their own event, but her inclusion as the first act of But What You Want Is Far Away set the scene for God Sees Everything. Additionally, Sarmina’s narratives added more layers to the California depicted in Osborne’s performance. As a queer Mexican poet working through her personal history, Sarmina calls attention to often overlooked bodies that have also shaped the cultural and literal landscape of California.

While Sarmina narrated the power of California’s landscape to shape identity, visual artist Lisa Jonas Taylor sculpted representations of the western landscape that supported the content of Sarmina’s poetry and Osborne’s choreography. The stage design, produced by Taylor and lighting designer Jerry Lee Abram, was minimalist and fantastical. Set against a plain white background, Taylor’s abstract cutout sculptures mimic the Californian landscape; the ambiguous forms oscillate between trees, rock formations, and skyscrapers. Backlit with blue lights that reacted to the changing colors Abram projected over them, the flat forms were both mystical and ominous. Taylor’s painting and sculptural practice parodies landscape painting, especially the mysticism associated with the landscape of the Southwest. In her sculptural work, Taylor hyperbolizes the sublime and allows the staging of the work to remain visible. Audience members of God Sees Everything were able to see the provisional stands built to hold up the scenery.1 The extreme flatness and language of stage design used by Taylor mimics the often constructed nature of social-media photography.

Phoebe Osborne. God Sees Everything, November 7, 2014 (performance still); Courtesy of the Artist and the Oakland Museum of California. Photo: Charlie Villyard.
 
The costuming, also designed by Taylor, is in her signature Instagram’d sci-fi aesthetic. The two main characters and chorus dancers wore yellow gym shorts with white mesh tank tops, blonde wigs, and gold-painted sneakers. Only one character’s costume broke from this uniform. They first appeared in an all-denim ensemble, indicative of a more rural Californian aesthetic, before transforming into a blonde-wigged exerciser like the rest of the dancers. Similarly, the chorus dancers did not at first wear wigs, but as the sequences unfolded, they seemed to become converted—into what, exactly, is up to the viewer to decide.

Paired with electronic music composed by Colin Self that moved from the tribal into a more contemporary sound, Osborne’s choreography was simple and natural. Dancers executed their movements with a softness that, in other settings, might be interpreted as a lack of training. In God Sees Everything, however, the tension between the choreographed movements of the group and each dancer’s awareness of one another and the boundaries of the stage made it seem as though they were lost, or under the influence, moving lethargically through time and space. Their movements were robotic, yes, especially as they moved as a unit, but they were not mechanical. The shifting between synchronized dancing and breakaway movements, as well as the ruptures produced by missteps, added a sense of humanity to the otherwise hypnotized personas.

Phoebe Osborne. God Sees Everything, November 7, 2014 (performance still); Courtesy of the Artist and the Oakland Museum of California. Photo: Charlie Villyard.

Characters repeatedly gazed up and beyond the audience to a presence offstage that seemed to be directing their movements. God? An extraterrestrial queen? It could have been both, or neither. The final acts of the performance unfolded as a video piece played overhead that included a fast-forwarded recording from the dashboard of a car moving through Californian hills. The video, produced by Taylor, jumped, strobed, and reversed in a disorienting effect that intensified as the dancers became increasingly disconnected and individualized. During the last sequence, each actor portrayed a different stereotype of an LSD trip (the frightened, the invincible, the internally focused) in a chaotic frenzy of movements before collapsing. As they lay on the ground, an actor—breathing heavily—recited a poem written by Kristine Eudey, which concluded the performance.

Although slow to start, and a bit absurd in the beginning, God Sees Everything unfolded into an intuitive, poetic, and humorous portrait of contemporary California, and a wonderful example of collaborative performance work currently being produced in the Bay Area.

Fertile Ground: Art and Community in California is on view at Oakland Museum of California, in

Oakland

, through April 12, 2015.

Notes

  1.  In Taylor’s gallery installations, viewers are often able to walk around the work and discover her methods of production.

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