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Pace Live

How Moriah Evans Challenges Institutional and Social Conventions in "Be My Muse"

By Claire Selvin
Published Friday, Dec 17, 2021

Most visitors to the seventh floor of Pace Gallery in New York on September 30 and October 1 saw more than Robert Rauschenberg’s Apogamy Pods (1999-2000), which were on view as part of the exhibition Robert Rauschenberg: Channel Surfing. They may have seen a woman attempting to fit herself between the gallery’s wall and floor or an individual standing atop a set of bleachers, presiding over the space. If they lingered, these visitors may have witnessed the entirety of Be My Muse (2016), a performance by the choreographer Moriah Evans that incorporated these unexpected scenes.

Much of Evans’s work investigates unseen spaces and social dynamics, mining relationships forged through dance and performance. Be My Muse, which was presented as part of the Pace Live program, takes a collaborative and experimental approach to these interests. Each 49-minute performance of Be My Muse featured Evans and a participant who enlisted as her “muse.” The verbal and physical exchanges between the choreographer and muse anchor the work. Since no two muses are the same, every iteration of the highly emotional work produces new meanings for the audience, participant, and artist alike.

“I’m interested in, politically or even just interpersonally, what presence is and how two people who are complete strangers can meet and have a kind of intimate exchange that is meaningful,” Evans said in a recent interview with Pace Live Curatorial Director Mark Beasley.

Matthew Lyons, curator at the arts nonprofit The Kitchen in New York, was one of Evans’s muses at the gallery. In an interview with Pace, he said that the muse’s role in shaping the performance was evident.

“I definitely felt that what I did or how our interaction went as the piece unfolded really could change what actually took place,” Lyons, who happens to be a friend of Evans, said. “So, I felt a responsibility to stay active and engaged and present with what was happening and where it might go—just keeping my senses on.”

Be My Muse comprises four distinct segments lasting seven minutes, 14 minutes, 21 minutes, and seven minutes again. At the beginning of the performance, Evans engages in a series of disarming actions and gestures: shaking her face and hair in front of the muse to create “a really abject but very visceral, up-close distortion,” as Evans put it; lying next to the gallery wall while coughing, crying, and laughing; and creating a “pelvis-feet locomotion that’s extremely loud.” All the while, Evans is reading her muse’s energy, mood, and affect with painstaking attention.

The artist Asad Raza, who was artistic director of the Villa Empain in Brussels when Be My Muse debuted there in 2016, participated in the work as a muse at Pace. (He also participated in iterations of the work during its development.) Raza said in an interview with Pace that the choreographer’s “presence as an artist becomes so relevant” to the performance, which he described as “almost a portrait of her.”

“You feel like your subjective personality is sort of the issue, but so is hers,” Raza said. “And I felt that very strongly when I did it again at Pace.”

In Pace’s presentations of Be My Muse, muses stood on bleachers situated in the gallery and fielded questions from the choreographer. This part of the performance is when Evans puts forth “certain interests I have in the work itself on a conceptual level,” asking the muses questions with varying degrees of sensitivity and aggression.

“I go through a wide range of affects, too, in how I speak—sometimes I yell at them, sometimes I whisper,” she said. “I'm always aware of how provocative or how caring I'm being, and I'm always listening to them.”

The longest section of the work is a discussion between Evans and her respective muse. These conversations took place in spaces that are normally off-limits for gallery visitors, including inside a private room on the eighth floor and beneath a bench on the seventh floor. Much of the performance, including this segment, engages with institutional critique in the arts, highlighting the interdependency of various structures in the industry as well as notions of accessibility and inaccessibility. Evans records her muses’ answers to her questions in a notebook, which she keeps for posterity.

The multifaceted work originated, in part, from interviews between Evans and past collaborators about her projects and creative processes. In this exercise, the choreographer also asked her interviewees to describe, in writing, what she looks like. These exchanges were part of an effort to turn the proverbial “gaze” in her direction. The choreographer said in the discussion with Beasley, “I critically relate to the world and performance and art, and I guess I was asking that to be reflected back onto me.”

Pace’s presentation of Be My Muse marked the work’s New York premiere, its debut staging in a gallery, and Evans’s first performance without delineating a stage since the onset of the pandemic. Evans acknowledges that, in 2021, experiencing a participatory performance “has meaning in renewed ways,” adding, “This work doesn’t value distance—it values intimacy.”

Evans’s efforts to cultivate closeness with her muse are poignant. Inga Khurieva, who participated in one of the performances at the gallery, said that she felt a sense of familiarity with the choreographer.

“We really connected, and I felt like I knew her,” Khurieva explained. “Dancing wasn’t awkward because it was like dancing with your friend … I saw her as an empath and almost like a spiritual worker.”

Prior to its showings at Pace, the performance had been staged with three other organizations: the Villa Empain in 2016, the nonprofit FD13 in Minneapolis in 2017, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. in 2018. In 2021, Be My Muse became the second performance work—following Tino Sehgal’s This You (2006)—to enter the permanent collection of the Smithsonian.

Evans told Beasley that the Smithsonian is “part of some kind of tourism of nationhood in the United States,” offering an “open social space” for performances.

“There’s an almost cliché sacredness to the museum and its function, and I recall with the Hirshhorn, and also with Pace, the liberation and joy of being able to dance in the museum,” Beasley said of the final segment of Be My Muse, in which the muse dances on their own, with Evans, or with the audience. “Be My Muse brings pop culture and bodies into the museum or gallery in a really interesting way. It’s a genuine rupture—like, genuine.”

Pace Live — How Moriah Evans Challenges Institutional and Social Conventions in Be My Muse, Dec 17, 2021