Senga Nengudi explores fragile line between lecture, artwork

Senga Nengudi’s work, now in WCMA, often uses unconventional materials such as pantyhose. Photo courtesy of pacificstandardtime.org
Senga Nengudi’s work, now in WCMA, often uses unconventional materials such as pantyhose. Photo courtesy of pacificstandardtime.org

Last Saturday afternoon, sculptor Senga Nengudi came to the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) to deliver the annual Plonsker Family Lecture in Contemporary Art. Nengudi has been active in the art world for over 40 years and is famous for her impressive profile of sculptural creations made from unusual materials such as sand, rocks, pantyhose and masking tape. Nengudi is inspired by both her admiration of the human body and her love of jazz music – her sculptures have a dynamic musicality to them created by the materials from which they are made and their inherent fragility. In the lecture, Nengudi spoke about the inspirations behind her vision, the history of her involvement with the art world and the meaning behind her art. She concluded with an interactive activity with the audience.

Nengudi began the lecture by explaining how her central creative motivations lie in her efforts to insinuate herself into her art. Nengudi is a partner with her sculptures – her ability to pour her persona into her art is a kind of “activation” process. This is why there are so many recurring motifs within her series of sculptures, including African and Japanese cultural elements, as well as elements of jazz music and the human body. These are aspects that have inspired not only Nengudi’s art but also her life. Nengudi is most famous for the aspect of elasticity that she incorporates into her art – especially through materials such as pantyhose. This elasticity itself is a motif of the elastic energy that has dominated Nengudi’s life.

Nengudi’s musical inspirations became more evident as she described her performance as being a collective response of the body to various stimuli, a collective that could be thought of as a “symphony” of responses. Nengudi explained that the fragility of sculptures made them performance pieces; in fact, many of the pieces were designed to change upon even the slightest human interaction. An example of this is her sculpture “Nuki Nuki,” which was created in New York at a time of societal disarray and upheaval. The sculpture was designed to break immediately at any point of human contact. In this case, the collapse of the sculpture upon human touch was a direct representation of the fragility of the interactions within the New York society.

A focal point of Nengudi’s lecture was a short clip from Sun Ra’s cult film Space is the Place. Sun Ra was a prominent jazz musician, philosopher and performer, famous for his eccentricities and for pioneering afrofuturism. Nengudi was particularly inspired by this film for its surreal representations of human interaction with space, time and nature. Nengudi played the clip twice – originally to introduce the concept of surreal interactions and once more to reengage the audience with the concept after they had created their own performance pieces. The inclusion of this clip added an extra sense of the avant-garde to the lecture.

However, the most interesting part of the lecture came at the very end through the interactive activity between Nengudi and the audience. Nengudi wanted to create a “collective” between the audience through materials and words; this was an exercise in taking an environment and investigating it in a new way. Each row in the lecture room received a pantyhose and a flash card with a word on it. Nengudi then encouraged them to create an art form among themselves as a response to the word. This was an interesting reference to her earlier point, as all of her performance pieces were responses of the body to stimuli (in this case the words were the stimuli). After a period of about 10 minutes, in which the audience planned how they would represent their words, each row displayed and explained their “collective” piece. The result was a collection of presentations as eccentric as Nengudi herself. Nengudi effectively extended her persona and vision onto the audience. The flashcards ranged from words such as “laughter” and “love” to “singing and dancing” and “stretch and gather.” The vision of the audience, contorted among their rows, connected only by pantyhose, was a work of art in itself.

This lecture was, without a doubt, one of the stranger types of art lectures at the College, but Nengudi’s effervescence and passion made it not only interesting but also insightful. Her motivation of expressing a “collective mentality” through art and performance provided an extra insight and meaning behind her art. Nengudi’s lecture personified the passion and momentum of her art career and life, and by extension, her art itself. A selection of her pieces are currently being displayed at the “Now Dig This!” exhibit at the WCMA.