A fascinating awkwardness: on Jennifer Tee’s exhibition Still Shifting, Mother Field

Metropolis M

This weekend Jennifer Tee’s solo at Kunstinstituut Melly, Rotterdam (in cooperation with Secession Vienna), can be experienced full scale, including the performances. Robin Waart, who saw the show in Vienna and once more in Rotterdam, took note of the differences and similarities between the exhibitions, especially in the way the performances are re-activated by the local dancers.


Sleep is made of a thousand minute movements, from the gentle rise and fall of our chest as we breathe, to the subtle twitching of our limbs when we dream. Without it, we would be unable to function at our best, leaving us feeling tired, irritable, and unable to think clearly.


Have they fallen asleep, or are they waking up? The nearly naked performers in Jennifer Tee’s Still Shifting, Mother Field are pretending —  covered by garments made of a recycled buffalo leather and pineapple fibre, with humanoid and vessel-like shapes taken from the Tulip Palepai and Tampan Tulip collages that the artist started making for her commission in Amsterdam Central Station ten years ago. Here and there, in Rotterdam and Vienna, they are lying on their backs, eyes shut, moving their hands and bodies, slowly but restlessly, embracing themselves, touching their faces, grasping into thin air: nothing, a dream. Unlike the real, observed and eroticized sleep that Warhol tried to capture when he filmed John Giorno for Sleep(1963), and the seductive, analytical attempt to catch the moment sleep comes over him which Proust’s In Search of Lost Time begins with (1913), the dance that Tee choreographed, in close collaboration with Miri Lee, is of a fascinating awkwardness. To become aware of yourself watching again and again, looking down, standing upright, opposed to the dancers’ horizontal vulnerability, with bands of silvery blue or reddish gold makeup covering their eyebrows and eyelids, as they stretch their arms, curling them into wings, a shadow, individually but in formation, as if they are swimming without water. The shroudlike cocoons enveloping the young women and men are too open to protect them.


Even when, toward the end, they spiral upward, sideways, out of sync, when it looks as if they are fighting to leave their positions, stretching one limb after the other (sleepwalking? are their eyes even open, or still closed?), to leave the stage and stride out of the exhibition space one by one, like a robot, an amphibian. Becoming alien and alive, as they move down the stairs (in Vienna), out of the room (Melly): their state is still unclear. Especially at the Secession where each of the platforms they leave behind could be an abandoned spacecraft, the protective suits, studded with talismans, triangular glass objects that look like electronic chip devices more than pieces of jewellery. They are joined there by unfired ‘swirls’ of red and white clay sculptures (Lines~Swirls~Bones, 2022) and smaller pieces of the laser-cut fabric, like the ceramic orbs speckled with drops of many-coloured-paint, resembling something of a chart, map or motherboard, both ancient and futuristic.


Not a coincidence, and equally the premise of most science-fiction, from the imaginary other civilisations in Star Trek to Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel Player Piano (1952, set after the Thirld World War, but opening with a reinterpretation of the opening lines to Julius Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum) or one of his last, Galápagos (1985), modelled after a time before man. How often, when we imagine the future, we step into the ceremonial and spiritual, using what we know to conceive of what we don’t? Perhaps because like in this sleep these are the only times when time is timeless. The hour-long dances in Tee’s exhibition and what then, thereafter become its leftovers —decidedly, each time, the performers are in their places before visitors can enter the spaces— on the platforms are an invitation to go back into a future that might well be the past: ‘less human’ as the title[1] says, more irritable, self-aware and reptilian. But as a blueprint for what could come next.



This performative loophole in exhibition making, time-stamping the works on view as one in a number of possible states or stages, witnessed at some times by some visitors and not by others, is not a rhetorical conceit or appendage, but an approach, to destabilise what might otherwise appear as an endpoint or result, a solid body of works, staid and unambiguous. By confronting the fixed and finished ceramic sculptures, large scale knittings and framed tulip collages the artist makes with breathing bodies, moving, twisting, unfolding themselves like at the Secession and Melly; performing with and on the pieces as in Let it Come Down at Camden Arts Centre, London and Bonner Kunstverein, Bonn (2017-2018); or voices that read out loud, as in the Proust readings for her show The Soul in Limbo at the Cobra Museum in Amstelveen (2016).


It is also an act reactivated between the two shows in Vienna and Rotterdam, where the score Tee and Lee developed is interpreted differently by local dancer-performers: on two of the same lowly plywood platforms, painted white, like an island with either three or two performers at the Secession. At Melly: on a single platform connecting through and around the walls of what are usually separated spaces, a group of four and three lonely sleepers conspire, so that here the viewers have to walk around the island stage to see them all, with large branches and shrugs of thistle laying on and next to them and the blue, silver, white and earth coloured fabric pieces.


Instead of a becoming a monolithic survey, what stands in the two shows is the diversity of Tee’s material expertise. Versed as she is in ceramics, knitting and collage but also the new textile experiments leading to the Transient Shrouds —a highly personal artistic research with tentacles of reference branching out to artist examples like Hilma af Klint, Kandinsky, Hélio Oiticica— Tee manages to connect the history of the tulip trade with the tradition of ceremonial paletai and tampan cloths of South Sumatra; cultural exchange, migration and diasporic narratives with questions of nature, identity, to transcendence, afterlife and the spiritual dimension(s) in art, and in life.[5] Likely the danger here is to want to explain too much, first; the next question is how much we should know of a knowledge we don’t all have, and if not getting it not getting all the references right is really so wrong.


Coming back, looking again, the location and performers changed —the gestures seem bigger, though not more grand, somewhat epileptic, their hands groping higher— these six and seven figures in a skin that is not their own, hardly alive at first, warming up to something pre- and posthuman all at once. Somewhere else and not what they seem. Less human, but more of what? A copy of the other exhibition’s, yet not identical to it. In contrast to the clearcut format of the ongoing series, crystalline, ceramic, with tulips at the Secession and Melly, their ‘dance of sleep’ is permeable, unsettled, not to be missed. Performance is the fiery virus that (dis)colours Tee’s work.


Jennifer Tee’s exhibition at Secession, Vienna, ran until the 6th of November, 2022. Her exhibition at Kunstinstituut Melly, Rotterdam, runs until the 21st of May, 2023

Performances take place on February 10th, 12th 17th; March 4th, 17th, 19th; April 14th, 16th; May 19th, 21st.

Performance conceived together with Miri Lee. Dancers at Kunstinstituut Melly: Kya Su, Kalin Morrow, Karlijn Hu Chuan Roest, Ivan Montis, Edward Lloyd, Alex Wreiman, and Marilou Fortuné. Dancers at Secession: Bita Bell, Jessica Comis, Samuel Minegibe Ekeh, Timothy Nouzak, Seraphim Schuchter, Mariia Shurkal


[1] Transient Shroud/ Being Less Human, subtitled Supine, Slumbering, Moulting, Dormant, Reposing (2022); Exuviating (2023) and Mineral Pearl Silver Pineapple cloth body/ Dreaming, 2023.
[2] Crystalline Floorpieces / Deep Ocean-Snake and Volcan-Sedimento-Pensamiento, 2022
[3] At Kunstinstituut Melly, during unannounced readings of eco-poetry (curated with poet Jane Lewty), “audiences are invited to to lay their head and torsos on the edge of these floor pieces” (wall text for Crystalline Floorpieces).
[4] In style with the different institutions’ approaches, at the Secession visitor information was relayed in the handout booklet accompanying exhibitions; at Melly, short wall texts about the works are placed in closer proximity to the individual pieces and series.
[5] A wide reach that Still Shifting, Mother Field shares with Candice Lin’s Seeping, Rotting, Resting, Weeping (Carpenter Center, Boston, 4.2. – 10.4.2022)


—Robin Waart

October 2, 2023
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