A Dangerous Joyride — A Winning Essay in the Art Writing Contest! (NSFW)

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[Dear readers, we are publishing the essays of the 16 finalists in the New Art Writing Challenge Contest on artblog and the St. Claire! Today, we publish the finalists in the category of “500 words or less“. Thanks to all those who participated and submitted more than 70 articles. And thanks to our jurors — Hrag Vartanian, Abigail Satinsky, and Nell McClister–who picked the winners. We are energized by all the wonderful writing that was submitted, and know you will enjoy reading it! — the artblog editors]

Finalists in category: 500 words or less

A Dangerous Joyride
By Ellen Chenoweth

Joyride, performed by Joy Mariama Smith, Community Education Center, West Philadelphia, March 15, 2015.

Joyride: a fast and dangerous ride, especially one taken in a stolen vehicle.

Joy Mariama Smith’s body is not a stolen car. Instead it is a queer black body, freighted with danger in a different way. Or in the same ways: likely to be policed, likely to be questioned, likely to be followed.

Joy Mariama Smith
Photo credit to Adam Peditto.

Smith is a reclining Venus in black latex hot pants, covered with a thin layer of deeply black body paint. A movement-based solo performance installation, the work distorts your sense of time. Inspired by the Japanese art form of butoh, Smith moves at a barely perceptible pace from one grotesque pose to the next. This is the slowest Joyride anyone has ever been on.

This means that you have time to notice details.  There’s a moment when you see Smith’s pulse in their upper chest, just below the clavicle, beating exactly in time with the soundscore created by Adriano Shaplin. You can see a layer of tattoos, resting in between skin and paint, each one with a tease of a story behind it. Their toes do a mesmerizing curl into themselves and then uncurl.

They has blacked out their teeth, so when they opens their mouth in an extended silent scream or growl, the image is disturbing.  The whites of their eyes highlight the black beam of their pupils, which occasionally fix on you, pinning you to your spot. You’re watching, but also being watched, and neither of you are making any sudden moves.

Smith often looks like they’re in pain, suffering from some unseen affliction or internal anguish. The music adds to the sense of distress, with too-loud throbbing beats and then too-quiet silence that goes on for too long. You’re not sure if you’ve been there for two minutes, two hours, or two centuries. It’s uncomfortable, but you have no choice but to stay with it. It would be a disservice to look away. And they’re in your mind’s eye anyway, even if you close your eyelids, Smith is still there, seared in your brain with the force of their presence.

***
The performance is over, but the body paint is messy and stubborn, hungrily attaching to everything. The event’s MC tries to scrub its traces off the floor of the Community Education Center in West Philly. She says they’ll keep cleaning after we leave, but I don’t think it’s going to come off. Everything Smith touches for days will become a little more black, the paint operating as a transferable blackness. Our bodies didn’t touch, but Joyride still seeped under my skin and lingers there, unnervingly.

Ellen Chenoweth is a freelance cultural worker based in Philadelphia, focusing on dance and performance.  She writes for thINKingDANCE, teaches at Temple University, and is involved in creating the next incarnation of the service organization Dance UP.

Tags

a dangerous joyride, art writing contest, ellen chenoweth, joy mariama smith

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