still / moving

By Nancy Princenthal


Early in his career, John Cage had the opportunity to enter a soundproof chamber. It led him to the famous realization that “silence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind.” Listening hard to that resonant silence, Deborah Wing-Sproul has created a body of work that in many ways reflects Cage’s paradoxical legacy, which points on the one hand toward material austerity and physical discipline, and on the other toward the extravagance of nature and of unimpeded chance. Wing-Sproul’s work itself has a divided focus. One ongoing series is organized around her body as a graphic instrument. Another takes the artist to various land- and seascapes of the North Atlantic, where she finds terrain to be drawn into rather than inscribed upon.  Each is alive to the unheralded rhythms of the world.

The Durational Devices are among Wing-Sproul’s most recent works.  All exist as freestanding sculptures when not in use, but are designed to serve as vehicles—literally—for drawing. As such, they are props for extended live performances, which are physically demanding for the artist; they are documented in video and still images. The first in the series (2010) is a narrow, body-length aluminum cart in which the artist lies on her side with her right arm stretched over her head.  Her feet, bare for the purpose, propel the cart, which is mounted on four casters; in her right hand is a stylus, gripped upright.  Inching along by the arduous movement of her toes, she leaves a meandering mark on the paper, or other drawing material, placed beneath the cart. The initial performance to use this device, called Surface Tension, was performed with graphite on paper: over the course of two hours, she traced a relatively straight line roughly twelve feet long. As with the succeeding Durational Devices, the first prohibits Wing-Sproul from seeing what she is drawing, even though her eyes are open. Instead, she looks toward the audience, and also toward the camera. As she notes, the complex relationships among her body, the device and the drawing surface blur distinctions between “intention, accident and evidence.” As is also true of the other works in this series, the artist imposes constraints on herself in the same measure that she relinquishes control. 

The second Durational Device (2011) places Wing-Sproul in an even more uncomfortable position: it confines her to an aluminum platform just big enough to support her in a crouch, which she assumes with her head tucked in. Again the platform is on wheels, all four of which rotate. Navigating with her toes, she moves within the tight confines of a tray holding a copper plate, the perimeter of which is half again as big as the platform on which she sits.  In each hand is a makeshift etching needle, which extends to the copper through one of two holes drilled in the platform; held near her forehead just above her eyes, the needles suggest instruments by which a person might be blinded.  After the performance for this exhibition, to be called embodiment, the incised copper plate will be inked and printed, producing images that will become part of the performance record.

Wing-Sproul has acknowledged the humility expressed by the position she takes in this piece, head down, kneeling. It is a posture of formal penitence, of self-abnegation. Double meanings attach to another term by which Wing-Sproul’s posture can be described: that of an artist drawn in on herself. But the work, in its totality, is also a gesture of affirmation and determined communication. During the performance, the sounds of the artist’s breathing and of the needle scratching on the plate are to be amplified, producing the kind of hyperawareness of self that one feels underwater—an awareness that the audience will share with Wing-Sproul.  In anticipation of the performance, Wing-Sproul noted, “It will be a struggle to make a mark on the copper—a mark deep enough to make a lasting impression.” Again, the language suggests a double meaning: the performance will be fugitive, and will entail both physical and expressive challenges to creating an enduring image.

But it is the third Durational Device (2011), the performance of which is to be called threshold, that Wing-Sproul says is the most physically demanding, and leaves her most vulnerable. In this case, the artist lies spread-eagled on an aluminum platform, holding in each hand a thick black oilstick with which she draws on a surface below her as her feet propel her slowly across the floor. As with the other devices, she can’t see the mark she makes, although a hole in the platform allows her face to rest below its surface, easing pressure on her neck. “Perhaps,” she says, “this posture comes closest to staring down an abyss.”  But it is freeing as well. “I’m interested,” she continues, “in the territory between floating or levitating or hovering and what it means to be locked in a process.” If the second device places her in a posture of ritual penance, this one finds her completely prostrated. It is the position the accused are forced to take, whether to be searched for evidence or submitted to abuse.  But by presenting herself as an image of unqualified surrender, an image that intimates unseen coercion and even violence, she also forms a sign of emphatic resistance. Clothed in black, her extended limbs create a body-size X—a mark of defiance that can be read, as well, as an expression of total release. 

Because they are made by touch rather than sight, the drawings and prints that the Durational Devices produce put Wing-Sproul in relationship to a rich tradition of haptic compositions, from André Masson’s experiments with automatism, to the drawings Henri Michaux made while under the influence of mescaline, to the several series of Blind Time Drawings executed by Robert Morris with his eyes either closed or blindfolded.  All were attempts at eluding conscious control—at giving voice to non-rational and extra-personal impulses.  Wing-Sproul has dedicated this exhibition to her older sister, Susan, who was stricken with schizophrenia as a child. (Twelve years older than Deborah, she died in 1994.)  Susan, the artist says, taught her “the true meaning of compassion,” and also led her to grow up “swimming in a sea of guilt-based fantasies,” the most vital of them an imaginary parallel universe shared by the two girls alone. Wing-Sproul’s sensitivity to her sister’s condition can be seen behind the exploration of boundaries between voluntary and involuntary confinement, both physical and emotional, that characterizes the Durational Devices—and indeed almost all of her work. At the same time that it forms a kind of impenetrable prison, mental illness can be powerfully contagious, in the sense that no quarantine can protect those nearest from sometimes disabling remorse. The undercurrent of melancholy in Wing-Sproul’s work, and its sense of penance, can be traced in some measure to this history. Equally, it accounts for some of the work’s hard-won serenity; one feels that the artist has accepted the responsibility to find grace enough for two. 

The images made with the Durational Devices have a relationship as well to a series of prints Wing-Sproul made of her own mud-covered body in the mid 1990s; they were followed by other performance-based imagery, including carborundum prints of the shape of the artist’s mouth exhaling while singing vowel sounds. Her indigo body prints also have a lineage in previous 20th-century art, connecting to Yves Klein’s Anthropométries, made with the paint-covered bodies of naked women, and to Robert Rauschenberg’s early blueprint images, also of a woman’s form.  The connection with Rauschenberg circles back to Cage, since the two were frequent collaborators and shared an interest in chance-based composition, abdicating control in the same kind of measured, exploratory fashion that Wing-Sproul has undertaken. 

Then again, to integrate performance work, and the unforeseen contingencies that inevitably attend it, with a studio practice is itself to welcome chance into the pictorial realm. Wing-Sproul was a member of the troupe Marina Abramovic engaged for her 2010 retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and she shares Abramovic’s interest in testing her own stamina—and also in gauging the trustworthiness of her audience. Both women are concerned with questions of female embodiment. But Wing-Sproul is by far the less theatrical performer, and her artistic persona inclines toward gender neutrality—her hair is close-cropped; her attire favors androgynous forms and neutral, mineral and earth tones. As well as being more contemplative, Wing-Sproul’s work is more directed toward an attunement with natural forces than Abramovic’s. The Durational Devices invite the ascription to her of a term, “the pencil of nature,” that was introduced (by William Henry Fox Talbot) early in the history of photography to naturalize the new medium. Born of what seemed to some an unholy chemical process, and initially undertaken by necessity out of doors and with static subjects—the landscape, often—photography transformed sunlight into a drawing instrument, just as Wing-Sproul has transformed her body with the Durational Devices. In an earlier, and ongoing, series called Tidal Culture, she fashioned herself as a pencil of nature by, instead, sitting unmoving and erect before a variety of tidal vistas along the Atlantic seashore. 

Beginning in 2004, Tidal Culture has taken Wing-Sproul (as of 2011) to six sparsely populated sites that frame the North Atlantic, including the Outer Hebrides, Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland and Maine. Like the phrase Pacific Rim, the assembly of these places works against statehood, in this case in support of a geo-centric rather than commercial aggregation. “I’m interested in using aspects of time and impermanence to address and reflect upon current conditions of the world as well as the relationships between and among cultures,” she writes.  Organized around a moving body of water governed by no single political entity, Tidal Culture refreshes our understanding of the planet in something like the way Buckminster Fuller did with his “Air0cean” Dymaxion Map; a strikingly unfamiliar cartography of the world, it represents the continents as peripheral to the vast seas that predominate on earth, and has, Fuller ways, no “right way up” with which to be read. 

Wing-Sproul’s relationship to the seascapes she frames is that of a solitary, static and nearly anonymous marker, one that leaves no palpable trace.  Video documentation shows her from behind, seated at the ocean’s edge; it is presented in this exhibition with a bench centered on the screen, encouraging the viewer to assume the artist’s own meditative posture. “My body is not an autobiographical body,” she says of this series; “I am merely a stand-in for the viewer. I do not presume to be having an experience that is uniquely ‘mine.’”  Moreover, in Tidal Culture, water is not just a connective tissue but also a fertile field, producing food and clothing, the body’s shelter. Another component of the series involved harvesting seaweed, which was woven into objects of daily use, including spoons and slippers, a vest, and a blanket. Seaweed’s combination of resilience and fragility, and the naturally occurring, physical net it casts around the world, are among the characteristics that appeal to Wing-Sproul.  Together with the video documentation of her shoreline performances, they suggest a collection of artifacts from a lost marine culture, simpler and quieter than our terrestrial life. 

In her newest work in this vein, Footfall, she has reversed the dynamic of Tidal Culture, setting herself in motion within a particularly obdurate landscape. Striding determinedly over various terrains in the Faroe Islands and Outer Hebrides, including beach, meadow, the sheer face of a mass of rock and a steep incline with grassy clumps—this last, being slippery, was by far the most treacherous, Wing-Sproul reports, and reduced her to crawling on her hands and knees—she is, as she says, a pendulum swing away from her previous exercises in static contemplation. But Footfall sustains the earlier work’s focus on the exigencies and beauty of the natural environment, and its sublime disregard for human presence. As a title for this work, Wing-Sproul considered the German Sehnsucht, which translates to “ardently longing” and also “craving,” as in addiction; the intense yearning it suggests is often directed at a lost homeland.  Ultimately, “Footfall” was chosen, the artist says, for its greater accessibility to English speakers—and also, one suspects, for the sound it names, the deeply evocative note of solitary human approach, often associated with darkness and quiet. The video documenting this walk, which echoes treks across uninhabited landscapes undertaken by Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, is to be screened on the occasion of her live performance of embodiment.

The lapped meanings of the show’s title, “still / moving”— endurance; the opposition between stasis and mobility—are manifest in each of its components.  The last is Bowl of Milk (2011), a performance documented in a ten-minute videotape. The sparest of Wing-Sproul’s recent works, it is composed in three “chapters”: in the first she sits holding a bowl of milk. The bowl is emptied, and then the empty vessel removed. “I start with a bowl of milk,” Wing-Sproul explains.  “If that’s too much information, I remove the milk. If that’s still too much information I remove the bowl. And then I’m left with myself.” Although the sequence, and the imagery, has, in the artist’s term, a “monastic” feel, she cautions against reading into it a specific spiritual message. Instead, she connects Bowl of Milk to her sister, and speculates that perhaps “it’s like my little ocean . . . a place of humility and compassion.” It is also, in the invitation it extends to join her in that very personal place, a gesture of deep generosity.


Nancy Princenthal is a New York-based critic and former Senior Editor of Art in America, for which she continues to write regularly; she has contributed to many other publications as well, including Art News, Artforum, Parkett, the Village Voice, and the New York Times. Princenthal has recently published a monograph on Hannah Wilke (Prestel, 2010), and her essays appear in books and exhibition catalogues on the work of Doris Salcedo, Robert Mangold, Alfredo Jaar, Rona Pondick, and Petah Coyne, among others. She has taught at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College; Princeton University; Yale University; RISD, and elsewhere, and is currently on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts.  Her latest publication is The Deconstructive Impulse: Women Reconfigure the Signs of Power, 1973-1991, which she edited and contributed to; it accompanies a current exhibition of the same title, co-curated with Helaine Posner. Princenthal lives in New York.


All quotes of the artist are from email correspondence, summer 2011.