Salon NOTEBOOK: Diego Piñon
by Zachary Whittenburg
Perched excitably at the edge of his blue chair like a concert pianist tearing through the final seconds of Beethoven's Pathétique, Diego Piñon alternated video of his work with passionate speeches about the nature and responsibility of art. This Mexico City-born Butoh performer and teacher's engine idles where most redline, but as often as he's tearing through space-with words or with movement-he leaves his shifter in neutral, in coiled stillness redolent of explosive power just a dropped clutch away.
The footage, from four performances and one workshop, teemed with affecting images: In one, performers in white masks crowd into a marbleized plinth; attendants circle the sarcophagus, whipping it with heavy ropes that just a moment earlier were leashes. Topless women in long white skirts and men in black dresses and stiletto heels hold blooms aloft on long, stiff stems, and rough-hewn bokken are vise-gripped between the legs like giant phalli, or shoved at surrounded individuals like electric prods at doomed cattle. A light-dappled collective, nearly-nude and huddled together, reaches up for a giant white flower lowered from the ceiling like a ringmaster's microphone. A still of any frame would make a mysterious and lush picture-it made perfect sense later in Piñon's presentation when he described being brought to tears by a Velázquez at the Prado.
Gently, Piñon coaxed the audience into a circle while explaining he'd rather move and dance than talk. Despite the preference, his delivery of language was forceful and sententious, every sentence a salvo against complacency and surrender of the imagination. "Our present times are full of possibility far beyond the basic aspects of human impulses and activities," he stated. "Although we draw ever closer to a cold, technological understanding of space, we still exist in a warm, human era of feeling and experience." The journey he's been on as an artist began in childhood, when questions of authenticity and how to "move with truth" led him to follow his feelings and emotions through all uncertain circumstances. "Energy and expression exist beyond forms and patterns," Piñon says, "and although we use only a grain, a drop of engagement in habit and repetition, we are in this moment able to open a path to channel the energy of the present in order to support our future." Many of these statements were punctuated by a jovial "Yeah?" or "Mmm-hm?"-beyond stating his perspective, Piñon deeply desires concurrence.
Not that there's reason to disagree with the man. As he stood to demonstrate a dystopian future of automatonic detachment, humor came from the obviousness of what a tragic end that would be for humanity. "We have to explore our minds," he said, "And art, performed on a stage, is for me the ultimate door to exploration of existence." The unusual convergence of his practice and ethnicity he described as absolutely logical: Indigenous folk dances of the Chihuahua region of Mexico, wherein ritualistic movements are executed by bodies covered with ash, "are the origin of Butoh!" While not everyone may agree, it was an effective underline to his repeated calls to deprogram our tendencies to catalogue experience by geography or race. The very idea of cultural purity, Piñon said emphatically, "is a trap. We must set aside our learned, habitually-presented concepts of culture in order to connect with the body, and with the essence of feeling."
As always, those in attendance were primed for conversation. In response to a question about his creative process, Diego Piñon said, "A teacher of mine once told me that any process shorter than six months yields nothing of value, which is difficult: In order to make anything of substance we must find people who will support our work in the long term." Ginger Krebs and Nicole LeGette, both Chicago-based artists who have collaborated with Piñon, were able to speak to the difference between his workshop (one of which was held over the previous weekend at the Museum of Contemporary Art) and rehearsal environments. Krebs explained, "In the workshops, there are explorations of impulses, of these fundamental states like birth and death, male and female. What we have the opportunity to do in process is revisit these impulses. It's simple, but returning to a concept after four or six months is significantly different-you have the ability to update those connections." LeGette agreed, adding, "The essential can only be accessed through the self and its experiences. Any effort to approach 'the universal' leads only to an exploration of the idea of it, and not of the truth of the essence itself. Each time we reenter the investigation it opens again, and we have the ability to go deeper, which is the point of the performances as well: They're about exposing the intimacy of what we've done in the studio rather than 'showing' it."
Alycia Scott, who's also worked with Piñon, likened the transition between work and performance to choosing the sequence of unbaked, malleable clay beads, creating a strand of experiences to offer the audience. From there, the discussion traveled everywhere from communicative physical resonances to Cartesian psychology and the limitations of language. Piñon leapt into what seemed to be root experiences with art-the Velázquez, van Gogh, the "expressive pinnacle of music dance only tries to match"-saying, "If I'm connecting with the immensity of the profound experience, it won't be objective, and if what I'm doing doesn't speak to you, then go find something for yourself that does!"
Turning back to the screen to watch a workshop filmed at his Butoh Mexicano center in Tlalpujahua (60 miles Northwest of Mexico City), the pure, prelingual states in which Piñon's work dwells brought to the fore the futility of using words to discuss expressive movement. One could describe how his students hold their hands in front of them like a ticking bomb only to see it morph toward the delicate action of tuning an instrument. When the group tosses a hefty stick around in a circle, each marks their catch with a primal grunt. In ITO, a piece inspired by the 1943 eruption of Volcá Paricutín, Piñon is paled with ash, covered in markings that suggest he's been riddled with bullet holes, and festooned with a few long, brightly-colored feathers. Standing in a shallow trench of slate carpeted with volcanic sand, he looks both ancient and embryonic, a shaking, stumbling, physical embodiment of the birth-death dichotomy. He paints a portrait of the phoenix at the precise, fragile moment it's reborn, his eyes intensely focused on some event impossible to bear but demanding his witness-the execution of an innocent, perhaps, or the view from a spaceship of his home planet in flames. The image both summarizes and defends each of his vigorous assertions: To diminish the depth of feeling in our shared humanity is to abdicate the awesome, humbling fact of our existence.
The CDF Salon series continues with an evening with Asimina Chremos at Silverspace on Monday, December 14, 2009.