REVIEW: Pulsating Resilience: Releasing Motion in Dana Claxton's Uplifting

Vanessa Grondin | March 31, 2016

Within the darkened gallery, the vibrancy of colourful imagery emanating from four lit media works in Dana Claxton’s exhibition Made To Be Ready encompass an immersive atmosphere of performativity. Of these four works, each illuminating an Indigenous woman poised with her cultural belongings, this life force is most felt in the projected video Uplifting (2015). The video features a woman wearing a red jumpsuit, crawling very slowly on her hands and knees across a thin strip of light cast in a dark space. With back contracted, shoulders shrugged, and the heaviness of her head drawing her dark hair over her face, she progresses from the right to left side of the screen. In an inconsistent pulsating rhythm, she hesitantly places her hands and knees down in a natural movement pattern, alternating between sides. This motion becomes an act of resistance as she demonstrates determination to keep moving, despite the conflicted internal struggle she embodies.

Although this video is presented within a contemporary art context, the bodily motion in Uplifting can be compared to analyses of movement in Indigenous hip-hop culture. Karyn Recollet, a cultural theorist who focuses on Indigenous hip-hop feminism and new media, speaks about the motion of dance in Indigenous hip-hop as a means of holding tension in one’s muscles before suddenly loosening them. She suggests that this patterning demonstrates “moments of feeling the heaviness of the colonial weight within the body, and the necessary release.”[1] In a similar manner, Claxton dynamically illustrates this colonial weight through the woman’s slow endurance of struggling to drag her knees forward and bring her arms up before she suddenly releases the heaviness of her hands back on to the ground. Although there is no sound in the video, this action becomes the rhythmic force of the exhibition. The strength she draws between steps acts as the “space between beats” that Recollet refers to as being “linked to an impulse and life force that forms the base of all movement and creation.”[2]

As the woman finally makes it to the left side of the screen, she collapses into a crouched position, taking a few deep breaths before folding into a fetal position and then spreading out loosely on her back. Looking down at her chest, the intensity of her struggle increases as she forcefully pulls on the fabric of her red jumpsuit. This gesture accumulates in pressure until her grappling body gains enough strength to suddenly hoist herself to sit back up and fold over to release this tension.

This sudden motion relates to Recollet’s idea that muscle release expresses “fluidity within the rupture [as] a moment of working through [it].”[3] The woman proceeds to pull a concealed pouch from her jumpsuit. With its emergence, she slowly rises, elevating it above her head until she is fully standing, firm and grounded. She takes a few breaths to acknowledge this moment of resilience, and instantly disappears. The video loops back to the reappearance of her shadow creeping into the right side of the screen, located right next to the entrance of the exhibition space where witnessing viewers continue to move in and out.

What Uplifting presents us with, compared to the other still images in the exhibition, is the cycle of a story in constant motion. The exhibition statement refers to Anishinaabe scholar and writer Gerald Vizenor and his notion of unifying “survival and resilience as a means of resistance,” which he terms “survivance.”[4] Vizenor also defines “survivance” as stories of “active presence,” which go beyond notions of survival and endurance.[5] The moment in which we witness the woman in Uplifting ground her feet and roll up to stand offers a sense that her cultural belongings, along with her endurance, have supported her to not only regain her physical strength, but to undergo a transformation and reconnect with a deeper part of her self. It is as if she has entered the “other world spaces” found between the beats where “creation thrives […] where stars, celestial space, and places underneath us are our connectors to ourselves.”[6]

Carla Taunton, a Professor in Art History who focuses on Indigenous performance and media practices, has written about Claxton’s earlier video work, stating that “video-based Indigenous installation art can offer to local, national and international audiences a site within which to bear witness to the current realities of Indigenous peoples and to take notice of the trauma that marks the Aboriginal body. At the same time, it also contributes to the discourse of Indigenous decolonization, whereby self-determined Aboriginal voices are indigenizing spaces, such as the gallery.”[7] Taunton states that Claxton’s use of video to share histories and experiences “links her to the history of storytelling by Lakota elders,” which results in the creation of “visual documents of Indigenous lived experiences.”[8]Through the medium of video shown in a perpetual cycle and Uplifting’s presentation in an art gallery, Claxton reclaims space to enact the pain and struggle that Indigenous people have been forced to live through in front of our own eyes, altogether.

The life force that Uplifting brings to the entire exhibition through its expression of pain, struggle and determination, felt in the immediacy of the performer’s gradual lifts, sudden releases and swaying breaths, invites us to enter her personal narrative and makes us aware of our interconnected responsibilities as witnesses. We come to experience the movement that this woman shares with us in our own bodies, and to embody her discomforted gestures, burdened by the restraining impacts of colonialism. In spite of her struggle however, we also feel in her rising force a momentary breath of relief, just before she vanishes. She leaves us, through Claxton, with the reminder that each of us has a responsibility to play if we are to continue lifting up the weight of colonial impact into an absolute release that can last long after her disappearance. 

Works Cited

[4] “Dana Claxton: Made To Be Ready.” Audain Art Gallery. Vancouver: Simon Fraser University Galleries, 2016.

[2] [6] Recollet, Karyn. “Dancing ‘Between the Break Beats’: Contemporary Indigenous Thought and Cultural Expression Through Hip-Hop.” In The Oxford Handbook of Dance and the Popular Screen, edited by Melissa Blanco Borelli, 412-428. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

[1] [3] Recollet, Karyn. “For Sisters.” In Me Artsy: An Exploration of Contemporary Native Arts, edited by Drew Hayden Taylor, 91-104. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2015.

[5] [7] [8] Taunton, Carla. “Indigenous (re)memory and resistance: video works by Dana   Claxton.” Post Script 29, no. 3 (Summer 2010): 44-136. Literature Resource Center.

For more information on Dana Claxton: Made To Be Ready click here

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