Imagine a 15th-century Hieronymus Bosch painting, with its boisterous tangle of humanity, coming alive as an experimental “living picture.” That’s just part of whatSarah Small 01 PH has been aiming for through a series of ever-more ambitious performance art pieces that culminated in her most successful to date: Tableau Vivant of the Delirium Constructions. Billed as a “live exploration of implausible interaction,” the piece presents a microcosm of humanity performed by 120 cast members of all ages, stages, genders, colors, sizes, shapes and temperaments.
The idea for the piece stems from a visit to the Louvre two years ago, when Small was struck by the diversity of emotions, gestures and facial expressions frozen in the frames of masterpieces hanging on the walls. What would it be like, she imagined, if the subjects stepped out of their frames and began mixing and mingling with each other?
Small had already begun experimenting with staged visual tableaux through a still photography project calledThe Delirium Constructions. “I want to photograph the raw emotional underbelly of scenes I find and scenes I fabricate,” she explains in a video about her work. But the idea of bringing a scene in a painting to life – animating a world captured on canvas – also intrigued her, as did the notion of adding dimension through musical dissonance and harmony. So Small writes vocal arrangements of Bulgarian folksongs through her a cappella quartet Black Sea Hotel and integrates them into the piece, along with operatic singing and choral chanting. She has also added a pinch of ritual and reality for good measure, staging a real life marriage at each performance. All in all, the piece is both a radical experiment and an homage to the history of art – a joyous (and at times humorous) visual encyclopedia of the human condition.
So far Delirium has attracted a lot of buzz among audiences and critics who were privy to the Brooklyn debut in May. “As with looking at a painting by Bosch, the more you gaze at the panoply of human figures that Ms. Small arrays with a painterly eye over the stage space, the more you see,” notedRoslyn Sulcas in The New York Times. “By the end, the ordinary – the imperfect, real human bodies in their astounding variety of shapes, colors and forms – seems like a miracle, andDelirium like a gift.”
A similarly enthusiastic review in The Washington Post points out that “what is most interesting is that for all its grandeur, [Delirium] is not an ego trip. Most performance art relies heavily on its creator’s personal magnetism... Yet Small barely figures in her tableau. She will appear among the models at certain points during the hour-long performance, conducting their movements as if they were a giant vertical orchestra. But the audience will barely see her; she will disappear among her masses, and that’s the point. Small’s tableau turns art-world egomania and our present-day fixation with ourselves on its head. She has created a major opus that is surprisingly self-effacing.”
Small, whose photography and other artworks have appeared inVogue, LIFE, Rolling Stone, Zoom International and The New York Times, is now collaborating on a documentary about theDelirium project while preparing for an international tour of the live performance in 2013. CalledThe Delirium Constructions, the feature film deconstructs the interactive creative process of making the piece over the course of two years – from the original inspiration to casting, rehearsing and performing the piece live.
Following the release of the film, Small and her collaborators will stage the piece in Berlin, Brussels, Paris, Sydney and Tel Aviv, among other cities. Each performance will be documented on film and will include a legal wedding as part of the unique blend of ritual and reality that characterizes each delirious celebration.
Named one of the top 13 emerging photographers byAmerican Photo Magazine, Small continues to exhibit her two-dimensional work widely and has been recognized with a number of awards. Her photography has been shown in galleries throughout the U.S. and in Australia, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, Italy, Korea, Madrid, the Netherlands and Taiwan.
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