The words, installed by artist Brendan Fernandes, cheekily announced themselves from the Mixed Greens gallery windows down to the street below. The message signaled not only the gallery’s impending move but, according to Fernandes, referenced the movement found in labor and protest campaigns. Conceived by Fernandes and curated by Larry Ossei-Mensah, “We As One”– a 90 minute, site-specific performance — displayed the exploration of space through unified movement. Fernandes’ unique background as both artist and dancer allowed him to straddle both disciplines for this piece, creating a masterpiece of meditations on communal labor and a poignant elegy to the messages (and spaces) that cannot remain forever.
Standing alongside a bevy of eager art enthusiasts one balmy November evening, I found myself gazing up at two androgynous, white-clad male performers as they hovered translucently behind the bright neon “WE”. Audience members staggered themselves throughout a haphazard construction site, spilling from the sidewalk out onto the street. The eery stillness of the performers, backlit by Flavin-esque horizontal white lights, provided a glaring contrast to the relative chaos of pedestrians dodging orange fences below. This relationship gradually shifted as the dancers began, making sweeping motions in tandem, brushing one another with gently intersecting limbs while pressing against the windowpanes. The audience settled, absorbed by their grand gestures and short, staccato movements as they traversed space together, moving as one. Short and simple isometric movements occurring in tandem deftly indicated the overwhelming presence of the glass as container: the letters serving as a barrier blocking out the performers’ outlines. The aim of the performance became apparent as the performers doused themselves in water, pressing their soaking bodies against these barriers and removing the paint. The letters dissolved into Nazca lines and impressionist sweeps of fading color. As “WE” faded from the window pane into faint streaks, the artists’ once pure garments became smears, garments soaked in neon smudges a la Hans Hofmann.
Following their given instructions to mimic one another, the dancers continued on to the second window, where a diagonal “MOVE” written on the window was waiting to join the fray. Performers gave playful variations on one another’s movements, gesticulating and variating their rhythms while slowly joining together to wipe the window clean. Pressing against the glass, sensual gestures—sweeping helixes and slow diagonal wiping—created lyrical shadows of the former word. Streaks of twinned ovals and flowing patterns replaced “MOVE” as the two figures retreated back into negative space to interact more with one another, caressing each other behind the traces of paint. Their movements remained organic, at times erratic but always intricately and thoughtfully intertwined. The frantic smears of remaining paint gradually faded as water was poured onto the windows, clearing the traces of their movements as the figures slowly proceeded out of the space.
Mesmerizing and meditative, Fernandes’ “We As One” masterfully built a situation whereby onlookers could sense the intense cooperation embodied by these performers. The actions demonstrated the ability of mutual understanding to create shifts in environment and meaning, creating an apt tribute to the transformative power of collective activity. Throughout the performance, moments of observation revealed that the gathering crowd below included three passing businessmen, a young intern from a nearby building, and even a taxi driver who lingered long after his fare disappeared into the night. I’m not sure what could be more convincing of the merits of “WE AS ONE” as eloquent shared experience than amassing an audience of spellbound individuals gathering together as impromptu collective audience.
Brendan Fernandes is a Canadian artist of Kenyan and Indian descent. He completed the Independent Study Program of the Whitney Museum of American Art (2007) and earned his MFA (2005) from the University of Western Ontario and his BFA (2002) from York University in Canada. He has exhibited internationally and nationally including exhibitions at the Soloman R. Guggenheim, Bergen Kunsthall, Stedelijk Museum, Sculpture Centre, Manif d’Art: The Quebec City Biennial, The Third Guanghou Triennial and the Western New York Biennial through the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. You can learn more about his work here.
Larry Ossei-Mensah is Ghanian-American writer, educator and independent curator working with contemporary art in an international context. More on his vision and recent projects can be found in this interview.