Spotlight on Dress as Performing Object: Trisha Brown’s Floor of the Forest

View of Floor of the Forest at the Barbican

The relationship between  fashion and fine art is a topic of much debate, and one that faces fashion curators and writers perpetually.  The questions of whether fashion is art, and conversely whether contemporary art itself is a manifestation of fashion in the larger sense, are indeed complex, and often tiresome for those such as myself who find more interest in the dialogue than in finding definitive answers.

It is with this curiosity and perspective that I attend all manner of exhibitions with an eye towards investigating the role and use of clothing and dress in a broad range of artworks.  Not surprisingly, dress is often a protagonist in works of performance and live art, however usually because of the inevitability of “costume” to the human body.  However, there are instances where garments are themselves protagonists or vital elements of a performed work.  In the case of Trisha Brown Dance Company’s Floor of the Forest (1970), clothing forms a landscape that is the scene for a physical metaphor’s enactment.  The web of clothing, suspended from the floor at eye level to the viewer, is navigated by a trio of performers who dress and undress as they travel horizontally along the plane.  This work was first performed in 1970 by the pioneering New York City performance artist Trisha Brown, and has since been presented in repertory by the still active Trisha Brown Dance Company.


This spring, Floor of the Forest is being presented at the Barbican Centre Art Gallery in London as part of a new exhibition, Laurie Anderson, Trisha Brown, Gordon Matta-Clark: Pioneers of the Downtown Scene. The exhibition provides an excellent and enrapturing picture of the fascinations of these artists during the 1970s. Any question as to why these works are significant, and whether they are still redolent 30 years later is answered by witnessing the performance pieces live during the Barbican exhibit.  Throughout the run, Floor of the Forest is being performed in the gallery, and a video of prior incarnations of the piece plays when the work sits as an installation.  You can see a video of the piece performed in 2007 here, but it does not truly give the mesmerising effect the piece has live (mostly because of the ambient noise on the video.)


As the performers struggle gracefully in and out of ordinary garments, I was hypnotised into thinking about clothes in a new way – as materials that bind and support and that for all their substance are temporary habitats for human beings.  These clothes are not fashion or fashionable, and in the work of Trisha Brown become opportunities for reflection upon issues larger than both fashion and art combined.


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