People flowed in from the newly welcoming ‘back door’ and the always beckoning main entry to experience the re-opening of the Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University, Nov. 8-12, 2019. This re-dedicated building remains faithful to its original 1982 design by I.M. Pei and Partners. The IU Museum that originated in 1941 was conceived by then IU President Herman B Wells as a “cultural crossroads” to exemplify what makes a university essential to campus and community life.
"Essentiality" of the Museum of Art re-imagined itself through “Ascension,” a work of performance art conceived by choreographer Elizabeth Limons Shea and composer Craig Michael Davis, both IU faculty members and nationally recognized in their fields of expertise.
As the appointed hour of performance approached, visitors to the museum lined up along the stairwells and the newly built third-level sky bridge that now connects the east and west wings of the arts campus. The hubbub began to subdue in communion with the ascending surround-sound of music compelling us to look around and notice movement on the third floor — a space culled from the original blueprints conceived by architect I.M. Pei, but omitted because of budget factors four decades ago. The $15 million Ashkenazi gift, matched by an equal amount as part of the campus-wide bicentennial initiative allowed for the renovation and reinstatement of some original aspects along with newly conceived advances.
As audience members to a live arts event, what we now were witnessing around a work table was a human grouping rising up, swaying downward, flowing, leaning against and lining up alongside each other, looking very much like liquid concrete in their clothing palette; five bodies animating the third floor “Prints, drawing and Photography” workspace.
In sync with the soundscape and drawing our attention to the level below, the quintet of dancers wiggled into our line as watchers along the walkway between the classroom space and the stairs to the second floor of the museum.
We followed the five dancers wending down to the second level where a trio of bodies already were finding their niche within the music’s ebb and flow. Layers of emotion swirled outward and into the dancer's bodies creating texture to the work and massing the now fulsome sound towards a collective descent to the main floor, where the four bodies reflected the DNA of the building in fluid undulations and constantly changing groupings of solos, duets, trios, quartets.
As an audience, we were in thrall with the triangular walls folding into themselves being replicated by the full contingent of dancers suddenly disappearing, leaving us alone with the newly introduced foursome. Where did the five and three go? Never mind, attention in fullness now was with the four rising up the stairs towards the span of windows, light flowing from outside onto the marble floor, harsh against human skin bending into impervious rock-skin.
Shea and Davis created tension between performance art and staged choreography as mini-dramas emerging from the sinews and bones of this site-specific materiality, bodies moving and massing through exponentially enlarging waves of sound. Ethereal and corporeal were at one. Exploration of architecture through music and movement stretched imagination and challenged known vocabulary. The very act of ascension required us to become uncomfortable within our skin and our intellect and our emotional base.
This creative collaboration embracing I.M. Pei’s daring architectural ascension of triangles, reaching into the outdoors led us to feel the building in its new light, to hear its story as wafts of sighs and to embrace discoveries. A building is what we make of it during our own moments of engagement, but now, within this dance and music as transient accomplices, the event lured us to return to commune with art, alive, bringing our own music, our own fitting into the space. We must not need an event to attend. The works of art have earned our engagement.
It ends with eleven bodies moving upward and away leaving one dancer alone in full view. This final moment is a communion. At one with the tree limb arching through the window high above, the dancer left on the ledge is reaching across time, light, space…awaiting…creation ever reoccurring…
And then a torrent of applause.
Corinne Jones, Alyssa Athens, Megan Kudla, Maddy McCarthy, and Maddy Grande took bows the third floor dancers; as did Kelsey Smock, Carly Liegel and Savannah Lewis, the second floor dancers; along with Justin Sears-Watson, Rachel Newbrough, Corey Boatner and Kate Lyons as the main floor dancers.
Ascension, as a concept of spiritual awakening, has the feel of triangular slanting walls purposefully directing us toward a higher level of consciousness. I.M. Pei built this place as a massing of triangles upon a triangular plot of land. Since 1982, the campus has changed in its configuration with the museum. Now, in turn, the re-imagined museum touches us not only on spiritual, aesthetic, intellectual, social levels, but equally how buildings organically realign themselves and relate to each other. At 1133 E. Seventh St., the museum truly is within the heart of the campus, yet readily accessible for anyone arriving from off-campus.
“Something always is happening,” offered Elizabeth Shea, as she spoke of the flow between people and art and architecture. The interconnectedness brings us to a higher consciousness of all things—from alluding to the material of a building, of a work of art, to the expansive meanings of material as they relate to our senses, our desires, our personal relevance within the spectrum of humanity. Material has cognizance as an adjective as well as a noun. How can/does this experience of movement and music now alter the way we think, act and interact with art, architecture, people, materiality? How can what happened here at this time and place raise our sense of humanity and lead us to a greater awareness of our personal flow within the human condition and its relationship with the environment upon which we are dependent, and which very much depends upon our treatment.
The concept of ascension asks us to comply; if everything is energy and nothing is at rest, we’re in it as an active force able to do good. How and why could this live performance cause us to embrace the re-opening of the museum not merely as a ribbon-cutting event, but as an incredible awakening that brings us into the embrace of Mr. Pei, whose spirit very much floats throughout the structure.
Looking up at the wall of window, feeling bathed in the shaft of light streaming in, sensing the flow of the new sculpture floating above from the third story— it was almost too much to fathom, and yet it was greedily grasped as an unfathomable gift. When the dancers disappeared, the music seemed to stay as a breath in perpetuity, in communion with Mr. Pei, who died May 16, 2019 at the age of 102.
“Craig and I had many conversations about developing the score – I was interested in a soundscape, something that supported the work’s intention, as well as filled the cavernous space,” said Shea. “Craig brought his own ideas about instrumentation, pattern, structure, dynamic…and boom! the composition was born. We began with small bits of music, fitting them to the movement, and vice-versa (fitting the movement to the music). We worked in sections and pieces, so the transitions came last. The soft ending was a bit of a surprise to both of us, but we trusted the instinct, and it felt right.”
The idea of opening an art space with 25-minutes of dance and music is as bold as is the building, which in itself compels a visitor to pay attention to its irregular shape and its souring sight lines. Shea expanded on this collaboration. “We were so very fortunate to have the complete and total support of the museum, especially Laura Scheper, who managed our project from the museum end of things. We were able to rehearse in the space many times during the final preparations, and build the environmentally interaction sections on site. This was key in developing community not just among the dancers, but with the space itself; the “thirteenth dancer” you might say.
“The museum staff worked with us to make sure we were in compliance and supported their vision too. By having the dancers move between levels we were able to build a symbiosis with the space and with each other, and finally during performance, the audience. There were over 1,000 people in attendance over the seven performances. It’s been such an amazing journey building “Ascension.”
“Several years ago I received a grant to produce a concert in the IU Auditorium, which we offered free of charge. I was astounded by the number of folks who attended the show – over 1300!” added Shea. “And here again, with “Ascension,” I was humbled and overwhelmed by sheer numbers who came and watched us dance. I think there IS a healthy interest in the arts in our society. We just have to find a way to make live performance accessible to EVERYONE. I am inspired by this work and the direct interaction between performing participants and viewing participants. Want to make more…”
All the promotion surrounding the two and a half renovation process pointed to the desire to make the museum more flexible, visible and accessible within its original design.
“The Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University has grown from a small university teaching collection into one of the foremost university art museums in the country,” reads the news release. “Today, the Eskenazi Museum of Art's internationally acclaimed collection, ranging from ancient gold jewelry and African masks to paintings by Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso, includes over 45,000 objects representing nearly every art-producing culture throughout history. We are dedicated to engaging students, faculty, artists, scholars, alumni, and the wider public through the cultivation of new ideas and scholarship. Today the building features seven galleries, numerous educational spaces, a conservation analytical laboratory, and a café and gift shop.”
At the museum’s front/campus entrance, take time to experience “The Indiana Arc” sculpture, dedicated in 1995 and designed for people standing at opposite ends of the arch to hear each other, even if they are whispering.
Regular gallery hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday, Noon-5 p.m. Sunday.
Free entry at: 1133 E. Seventh St. on the Indiana University campus in Bloomington. More at: artmuseum.indiana.edu
Kelsey Smock, Carly Liegel, Savannah Lewis
Photo © & courtesy of Freddie Kelvin
Photo © & courtesy of Freddie Kelvin
Corinne Jones, Alyssa Athens, Megan Kudha, Maddy McCarthy and Maddy Grande.
Photo © & courtesy of Freddie Kelvin
Rachel Newbrough, Kate Vermillion Lyons, Corey Jamell and Justin David Sears-Watson.
Photo © & courtesy of Freddie Kelvin