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Emily Harris : When Our Breaths Run
by Dodo Dayao
in conjunction with her site-specific installation in north willow (link to her exhibition)
A Bout De Souffle, the original French title of Jean Luc Godard’s first film, translates as “out of breath” and implies a state of exhaustion. But its English title, Breathless, throws that context at enough of an angle to connote something else: exhilaration. It’s a subtle dichotomy that bears mentioning for how the line between one condition and the other often tends to blur. Translated literally, of course, both titles can also pertain to the condition of being dead. Fatigue, elation, death: three states that could not be more disparate yet somehow similar at the same time.
Emily Harris’ work has always been preoccupied with a heightened consciousness of the body, something she traces back to her piano training at a very young age, the way it sensitized and nuanced her engagement with tactility. Her recent participation in the Silent Women’s March at Standing Rock, harnessing the power of the silent body en masse to stare chaos down without violence, eventually figures in the political texture of the work, in which she once again considers the body, but as an object given over to the impositions of its environment, and ultimately, the confluence, between the work and the space. The title of the new show, When Our Breaths Run, is a riff on When Our Lips Speak Together, the title of an essay by the French philosopher Luce Irigaray that has become, in many ways, the spiritual and philosophical bedrock of the show’s thrust and conception. In Emily’s own words, the show is a series of poetic propositions that interrogate specific traditions and paradigms of process and collaboration.
Breath is her base matter, pondering not only the covert operations our bodies conduct, but the congress they have with time, a congress primarily of continuance but also a congress of rot, the debilitating process of life taking its toll. Its impetus is the way winters make ghosts of every breath we take, because, poetics aside, that’s what this naturally occurring confluence of breath and weather is, an emission of our lives leaking out in a ghost of us. More often not, we take a breath without being aware we are. This implication of frailty to out most fundamental act of staying alive, how it is dependent almost entirely on muscle memory, is reflected in the works that form the first of the show’s two sections, Sustained Breath, at the center of which is a series of five glass shapes blown by Harris’ collaborator, glass blower Megan Biddle. Ephemeral sculptures in which the breath is like a catalyzing agent, solid and fragile at the same time, or in the same breath, if you will, but where the process was completely at the whim of where it was made and which materials were used and what temperament was Biddle in when she was blowing the glass.
Harris originally meant to hang the glass pieces parallel to the mouth, but after factoring the space in, co-opting it as a crucial element of the work, the way it was constructed, the way people navigate themselves around it, she eventually decided to hang them waist high, forcing whoever was looking at them to look down, giving the ephemeral forms a visceral heft. They make tactile the inhale/exhale push and pull and all its myriad implications and contradictions and indeed complications: sustenance and relief, catch and release, fortitude and frailty, life and death, all that.
Biddle’s sustained exhalations are perhaps the most literal simulation of the phenomenon that inspired the show, the un-seeable made see-able by external conditions, the untouchable made tactile, and a phenomenon that apparently occurred in relative profusion within the gallery, running as the show does during the winter, essentially transforming the exhibit space into an echo chamber of cold smoke, a feedback loop of misty release, that was a meta counterpoint to a section of the space the audience has christened the Rumble Room which was inundated with the industrial clang and clatter of Biddle’s fabrication foundry while a video of Biddle in the process of making one of the pieces looped all throughout, reinforcing the work’s own dichotomous nature, the massive machineries and their fragile constructs.
The show’s second section is situated in a room that has been repurposed into a multi-media environment, most prominent being a series of listening and recording stations connected to recordings of the email exchange between Harris and Biddle that transpired between November 13th last year to January this year. There’s also a mobile stool and audio recorder for group listening and breathing exercises where breaths are improvised into songs, very much in the style of Harris’ collaborator on her next installation, New York-based vocalist, percussionist and multi-instrumentist Anais Mavel, whose recent Brooklyn performance with Michael Bisio, where Maviel’s voice swells and runs to the edge of each utterance, can also be listened to.
How does the body reacts to something it’s intuitively aware of but has been transformed into something that turns that awareness into something acute to the point of being almost confrontational? This section of the show ultimately sets this unusual give-and-take up, then charts the fluctuating reactions that are bound to occur.
The pieces and the voiced exhales have this haunting, otherworldly quality to them, both ultimately converting the familiar into something alien, something other. My own distance from it, writing this piece first in Manila then in Berlin, a continent apart from where the show is, reliant on videos and images and exchanges, heightened that dissonance rather aptly. More than merely pondering the currencies of breathing, When Our Breaths Run is a rumination on the estrangements we have with our own bodies.