Ellen Fisher

at Gallery 2, September 24 and 25

Ellen Fisher’s performance at Gallery 2, Cabin Fever, communicates a weird loneliness. Fisher, who’s been performing since the mid-70s–I first saw her at N.A.M.E. in 1977–has always been an intense, silent performer who allows her body, costumes, audio, and sets to reveal her ideas in almost minimalist ways. Always attentive to the space in which she works and the placement of her audience, she experiments with scale, often using lighting or a singleminded attention to small objects to make them loom large for her audience, or experimenting with concepts of “close” and “far away.”

Fisher has also always been attentive to creating personas, at times assuming the guise of a dangerous, powerful femme fatale, at others of a sprite or nymph. She’s always managed to keep her audience at arm’s length–her demeanor is icy cool–yet her intensity, concentration, and sinuous, disciplined movement style (which seems to be rooted deep into the earth) and her highly charged, sometimes erotic choreography are engaging. One looks because one is pulled into the world she’s created, but there’s always an uneasy sense that one might be intruding, one might not be welcome–it’s like peering surreptitiously into the recesses of a teenager’s bedroom. Fisher’s deeply lonely and strangely beautiful work is veiled, yet it begs for attention and analysis. But just as this thought occurs to the viewer, Fisher changes the scene, the atmosphere; she’s skipped on to a new topic, and now she’s showing you something else, something awkward and naive yet profound and almost heartbreaking.

Cabin Fever began with the sound of Fisher whistling as she entered the space at Gallery 2 (which was so crowded Fisher had to direct some audience members sitting on the floor off to the side). She walked to stage center and began crumpling newspaper, then placed a crumpled piece of newspaper in front of a floor-level spotlight to create the shadow of a mountain. After creating a few more little mountains in this way, whistling all the time, she made shadows of her fingers walk up and down the mountain shadows, then placed a lace doily in front of the spot, fracturing the light and creating the cathedral effect achieved when one looks up through the branches of tall trees toward the sky. Setting a water pitcher in front of the spot to make water reflections on the gallery wall seemed to place her in a land of tall trees and water–Michigan, perhaps, or Maine. She walked in front of the spotlight as gamelan music was heard, and at this point one saw the femme fatale briefly as she plied deeply in front of a spotlight facing the back wall and undulated from side to side, her backside waving in front of the first row while her body cast a gigantic shadow. Yet overall her look was not sexy: she wore a simple striped turtleneck, black skintight leggings with suspenders, and a rather ugly beige skullcap pushed down to her eyebrows, which effectively hid her mop of blond hair; her attractive face was stony.

Squatting in front of the light, she created with her hands the shadow of a bird flying, another mountain, a person kowtowing. She used the shadow of her foot to traverse the newspaper mountains, then picked up a little stick-man puppet and allowed him to walk across them. She made birdcalls: a bobwhite, a robin. She walked to the chair, illuminated by an iron floor lamp of the 20s, and appeared to fall asleep there. Her head dipped back as she nodded off, then fell forward. She pushed the skullcap over her entire face and assumed the guise of a masked figure from an Ed Paschke painting. Then she was silently laughing, sitting in the chair, rocking back and forth. The lights illuminated her body and covered face beautifully at this point, the skullcap emphasizing the bones in her face. Yet it was also a profound study in loneliness: this person sitting alone, talking to no one–somehow far from the world, isolated–while the rest of the stage was in darkness. She silently but animatedly seemed to speak to an invisible person, using her hand, her body, her head for emphasis.

Later she turned off the light and moved back to stage center, pushing back the skullcap so her face was once again revealed. She picked up two little reindeer made out of twigs, newspapers, and tape and made them too into shadow puppets, galloping across the newspaper mountains.

Cabin Fever was reminiscent for me of Laurie Anderson’s early work: persona is less prominent here than in any earlier Fisher piece, and the audience feels the performance is happening in a little place far away inhabited by someone we cannot reach–creating a profound sense of alienation. But this piece lacks the monumentality of Anderson’s work, concentrating instead on small realities of the kind we must stoop and pick up in order to comprehend but that are nevertheless overwhelming and precious. Like Lake Michigan beach glass–those bits of broken bottles polished by years of tossing and turning that one pockets, takes home, and relishes later–perhaps Fisher has created a pocket piece, something to relish and contemplate.