A sort of soft, calm lighting greeted me when I entered Mills College Art Museum in Oakland, where two exhibits are currently on display. The first, an exhibition of black-and-white photographs of women and girls titled “Socialites and Suburbanites,” occupies the front half of the large room, while the second lies buried in the back. After I got my first drink, which was just sparkling water, I made my way to the second show for “Endless Gestures of Goodwill,” which I was there to see. I have not been to very many art shows, and they almost always tend to surprise me.
When I entered the second exhibit, I saw two large wooden panels, which were only illuminated by the artwork that they held. Videos of two expressionless dancers were projected separately on each panel, their movements drawing me closer. Taking the last sip of my drink, I felt bewildered yet amazed at what I saw.
Sheldon B. Smith and Lisa Wymore’s exhibit, “Endless Gestures of Goodwill,” attempts to create a continuous folk dance by using 250 separate video clips of short gestures and steps that are smoothly linked through a custom software. Their work is simply awe-inspiring. The exhibit experiments beyond music and movement, employing technology as a catalyst that can change the way the art of dance is expressed. “Endless Gestures” is laudable, not only because of its successful combination of technology and art but also for the overwhelming sensation that people will experience as they become entranced by Smith and Wymore’s graceful yet dynamic movements.
The two-channel video work, which features Smith and Wymore as the stony-faced dancers, was not what I expected — and not what most people might think when they hear “visual art.” The projections were unlike anything I had ever seen before, and they were certainly a far cry from the motionless images of the first exhibit, which, by comparison, hung gratuitously, as if waiting to be looked at. This was different. These images forced your gaze.
At first, the projected videos were blurred and in slow motion. One of the museum’s assistants, detecting my awkward posture as I looked around to see if anyone was actually “getting it,” told me to stand in the center of the space. A few seconds later, the videos began to move faster and faster until the images of Smith and Wymore felt alive, as if the video itself was living and breathing.
I stood there for what must have been quite a while. I was transfixed by the arm swipes and claps that seemed to express compassion and acceptance, while all the dancers marched with unstoppable vigor. The installation uses Kinect, a motion-sensing device that activates the videos’ designated speed when it detects motion in the center. Wymore said physical presence is important for fully grasping what the artwork is all about.
But I did wonder, “Why folk dance?” According to Wymore, director of the dance program at UC Berkeley, she and Smith chose folk dance not only because it is rooted in their background but also because the movements of folk are clear and easy to count. Meanwhile, Smith, a visiting assistant professor at Mills College, conceived the compelling title “Endless Gestures of Goodwill,” which seems to be qualified by the infinite dance moves. Aside from producing the dances — which could be called the new folk dances of the 21st century — he and Wymore also created a work that somehow expresses positivity, happiness and even a bit of humor as the dance moves become odd yet uniquely endearing.
Ultimately, by pursuing a physically challenging endeavor through the use of digital media, “Endless Gestures of Goodwill” presents an exciting glimpse of the vast combinations of both technology and art.
Before I left the building, I asked for one last glass of champagne. “Oh, you’re getting the good bottle,” the lady said as she poured my drink. The champagne was quite strong, but submerging myself into an exhilarating visual experience definitely packed the strongest punch.
“Endless Gestures of Goodwill” will be on display until March 15.