“Curious Bodies,” the art colloquium presented by Hana van der Kolk last Thursday afternoon in the Spencer Studio Art Building, certainly lived up to its name. A video and performance artist, van der Kolk was an Arthur Levitt ’52 artist-in-residence in 2012. An expansive description of her work can be found on her website: “I make performances and situations … I’m informed by contemplating psycho-spiritual existence, spending as much time as possible in the woods and various bodies of water, moving my body/mind around empty rooms for hours on end and thinking a lot about my role as a citizen in the various large and small, urban and rural communities of which I am a permanent or temporary member.” This unnervingly ambiguous, veering on pretentious tone colored the entire hour spent with van der Kolk.
The first work was a video of two hipsters, one boy and one girl, standing in the middle of a forest with the sound of running water in the background. The man stood humming with his eyes closed as the girl ran a stick over his body, moving from his hair down his body, gradually becoming more violent until she began pushing the flesh of his stomach around with the stick before lodging it between his sweater and his face. It only continued to grow more and more unnervingly strange as the girl gave the man a second stick and then manipulated his hands so that he, via her agency pushed her onto her knees just as a stray dog arbitrarily enters the scene. The ensuing zoom out presents a highly sexualized image of the two as the still kneeling girl erupted in a laugh that quickly became a sob. The man responded to his partner’s emotional state by letting a string of spit in and out of his mouth which she attempted to catch. The film finished with a close up of him and his bouncing string of spit.
Van der Kolk then embarked on an exploration of her work, beginning with the recitation of part of a spoken work called the “Proximity of Dance.” It consisted of a series of basic instructions relating the audience members to each other physically. For example “Focus on the person next to you. Notice that even the slightest shift in either of your bodies changes your relationship. Continue this experiment as long as it interests you.” She then spoke more to the core focus of her work in general, postulating, “Honestly, it’s really about survival. How do I get through the experience of being human?” While speaking, van der Kolk showed a video of one of her performances in the background. It began with the image of an older man dressed in a suit and glasses standing pressed up against the artist. As time went on, several different audience members from that performance replaced the old man; at one point the artist even kissed a female participant intensely. The video reveals a performance in which van der Kolk asked different audience volunteers to come on stage and simply stand against her, both not knowing exactly what the other will do. Van der Kolk called the work an “exploration of not knowing.”
Her work at the College followed a similar tangent. Eighteen college students were paired with 18 Williamstown and North Adams residents in an exchange of knowledge. The residents taught the students their professional skills, ranging from beekeeping to shaman healing while the student taught the resident the skills they had been learning in dance class with van der Kolk. The process culminated in a performance work with the pairs demonstrating their newfound skills side by side. The video of the event documented a series of growingly arbitrary interactions between the pairs taking place all over the room, from a whole room of gyrating people to two people dressed as blacksmiths hammering a pair of jeans.
This theme was most evident in the final work van der Kolk showed. The focus of the performance was on “parties and how they are these special places for transformation … They are nothing short of ritual for me and much more accessible than art,” she said. The basic premise of the piece was that several people were enclosed in a room with music for hours at a time, a kind of enforced but totally unregulated party. From such a situation, strange and wacky things emerged: The video revealed prancing, kissing, grinding, fighting, undressing and more. It certainly was a powerful comment on the social constructs of humanity and the liberation one can find from these.
Van der Kolk’s talk on the whole could be alternately interpreted as a demonstration of liberated thinking or one of mild pretension. Either way, it certainly proved the eccentric spectrum of the arts at the College.