Invisibility made visible

Vernita N'Cognita, Invisible Woman

I drove to NYC Thursday to attend Vernita N’Cognita’s performance of Invisible Woman, at Viridian Artists. I’d spoken with her previously about her work, which focuses on the experience of women in contemporary life. I was especially interested in this performance because of its resonance not simply for women but also as a metaphor for Vernita’s life as a visual artist—and, by implication, the lives of most visual artists. I also felt compelled to see the actual performance, as a gesture of support, rather than watch a video of it on YouTube, because she had been hospitalized for ten days last month, with a rare blood disorder. Her treatment at New York Presbyterian involved five plasmapheresis treatments, where her blood was routed outside her body to remove and replace all of her plasma. In a conversation with a friend of mine, I heard about Vernita’s weakness—having lost ten pounds from an already waif-like frame—and her fierce determination to go ahead with her performance, regardless.

“I have a new hero,” my friend said.

N’Cognita’s work is rooted in butoh, a Japanese art form that began in the 50s when two dancers created it as a rebellion against existing traditions. It relies on exaggerated and slow physical movements, superficially similar to tai chi. It began with a completely darkened gallery and a recitation she had recorded in her apartment on Canal St., in which she offered a narrative of her experience–a recording of her voice digitally altered to create a drawn-out, slow drawl, to accentuate the slow-motion effect of her movements. A small spotlight was aimed at  a jumbo-sized Barbie doll, swathed in gauze, rising slowly up the gallery’s wall, hanging by a thin rope noose tied around the doll’s neck. As the doll reached the top of the freestanding wall, Vernita peeked over the top, just over the doll’s hair, wearing a white mask and a blond wig, a human being impersonating a doll, drawing attention by sharing Barbie’s spotlight.

“Women become invisible as they get older,” her recorded voice said. “No one looks at me . . . except when I take my wallet out.”  Having descended a ladder behind the wall, she emerged through a curtain as the narration continued. “So much to accomplish still, before my ankles thicken, and my joints give way to the endlessness of each day.”  The lights went up and the butoh began: a kind of slow-motion pantomime, a sequence of poses, gestures and movements, all of it evoking struggle, bewilderment, and uncertain adaptation to an unfamiliar world. Despite her weakness, she was incredibly agile and evocative in the way she mimicked an individual who seemed to be walking at the bottom of a swimming pool—not only invisible but struggling to find a way through a hostile, or at least an incredibly resistant, environment. She was especially good at creating the look of a body buffeted by natural forces, just trying to stay on her feet. (Maybe drawing for inspiration on her recent brush with illness and intensive care.)

As she took a seat on a metal folding chair, her only prop other than a purse, the narration droned behind her: “Visions of hotel rooms of a woman who travels alone and no one notices because she’s grown invisible.” She removed her long white gloves, with a hint of awkward burlesque, and then stood up abruptly to remove the second glove—all of it resembling a memory of past behavior that might still be provocative, if anyone were actually looking at this woman in her hotel room. “What shall I do?” she asks in the recording. “Cry? Whine? Feel sorry for myself? Feel clinically depressed? Get a face-lift? Wear heavy makeup? What shall I do?” At this point she took off the white mask and tucked it under her chin, sat down and then produced a mirror and lipstick from her purse. She began coloring her lips, as if determined to go out into the world beyond her room and catch someone’s eye, finally. But quickly finishing with her lips, she continued the circular motion, in wider and wider arcs, drawing larger spirals of red color, until her entire face appeared to be an archery target. Finally, her tactic finished, she stood and smiled, the way a child would for a camera, hoping to please the photographer, pivoting her head in a half-circle to gaze at everyone in the room, as if now, finally, she could be seen—a target for the eye.

It was a simple, evocative performance and the languid pace of the butoh performance was a perfect way to express how slowly the hours go by, the “endlessness of each day”, for someone who has grown invisible. It resonated as a way of dramatizing not only the experience of aging for most women but also the inherent solitude of anyone whose creative work is fulfilled by being noticed. So her performance communicated her own experience of isolation, both personal and professional. The applause from the audience—who filled the seats and stood in the doorway to watch—lasted nearly until someone popped a champagne cork for the party afterward.

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