The Gymnopedies Time Warp

by Elizabeth Dunbar

Melodic and lilting sounds of piano music waft through the room. Slightly melancholic and measured with romanticism, the notes fall softly on my ears, enveloping me in a melodic mist. My senses are heightened and my attention caught. Like a snake charmer, the beautiful music beckons me to come hither, luring me to enter its secretive source—a dark and shadowy room. Before stepping across the threshold and into the darkened space, I pause to consider what I may encounter. What lurks ahead? Could it be a ghostly pianist playing from the world beyond? Or might I interrupt a solemn performance in progress—a death dance, ballet, or perhaps even a religious ritual? The music calls, the dark space pulls; I must go in to find out.

Upon entering the room, I am immediately transported to another time and place. It seems I have traveled back through time in a mere blink of an eye and have emerged as a twenty-first century alien visitor. Upon getting my bearings, I recognize my surroundings—they are vaguely familiar but, at the same time, completely foreign. I think I may have read about this place before or have seen movies that depicted it. Fragmented pictures of this place are lodged somewhere in my memory, but in a remote location of my brain that is not easily accessed. I’m a bit fuzzy on the details. The most that I can resurrect from the cobwebs of my mind are generalizations—I am fairly sure that I have traveled back a century or so and have landed in the vaguely-defined “Old West” of America. But things are not quite right here; I begin to notice details that contradict my initial assessment of the situation. How do I reconcile these incongruous elements? What is really going on? It seems as if I am, with all my modern experiences and knowledge, existing within a dream of the past.

In order to get a hold of the surreal situation I’ve found myself in, I embark on deconstructing its puzzling anomalies. First to decode are the bales of straw that are strewn about the empty, dark cube of the gallery space. With its sweet, pungent fragrance permeating the air, the straw triggers in my mind images of a hot summer day in the Old West, where the organic aromas of agriculture, animals, and human exertion blend to create a potent and unique perfume. This natural concoction stimulates my senses and, in so doing, subverts the sterile atmosphere of the art space. Rather than standing alone in a gallery in an urban environment, I envision myself in the rustic countryside, all swirling dust and dappled sunlight. The straw bales, however, are timeless and offer me no clues regarding a specific era. The issue of time might well be resolved by examining some of the other elements at play in the gallery. The music, which is recorded, has a specific date of creation: 1887. Entitled Trois Gymnopédies and written by the famed French composer Erik Satie, the popular score is easily identifiable. So now I know that I have arrived upon the late nineteenth century. But wait a minute! That is not necessarily true. Although the score was created more than a century ago, it continues to be reinterpreted and played by today’s musicians. The recording I hear may be composed of the same notes, but it might very well have a very different—very contemporary—inflection. Alas, I cannot pin down the date and am back to where I started. Now I must explore the heart of the beast—the moving image—to try to determine where I am.

On the back wall of the room is projected, in very large scale, an old-fashioned, Western-style postcard or film frame. With its rounded corners and stylized flourishes, the giant placard is reminiscent of turn-of-thecentury postcards printed with images of bucking broncos, rugged cowboys, and sublime landscapes. It also brings to mind the simple yet decorative title cards that followed action frames in early silent films, particularly Westerns from the early twentieth century. Like Western postcards and title cards, the projection is clear, simple, and direct. I am sure I am about to watch a classic Western film from circa 1900. And, of course, now the recorded piano score makes perfect sense. But as the piece begins, I realize that I am yet wrong again. What I’m watching is indeed a grainy black-and-white Western, but it clearly does not date from the era of silent cinema. It doesn’t even date from the mid-century when Westerns enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. Nope. The piece I’m watching is undoubtedy contemporary, emblazoned with all the trappings of modern American culture. Slowly and silently unfolding before my eyes is a modern-day rodeo competition. All three events in the competition—bull riding, calf wrestling, and bronco riding—are recorded in slow motion and perfectly synchronized to the three-part musical score. While rodeo competitions have been around for quite some time, it is abundantly obvious that the competition I am witnessing is of my particular day and age. Banners advertising products by Coors, Copenhagen, and Jack Daniel’s line the corral and a careful inspection reveals competitors and spectators wearing the day’s latest trends in Western fashion (although I must admit Western wear hasn’t changed all that much in a century—bolder and more graphic shirt designs give these away as contemporary). I have surfaced in the Wild West of the twenty-first century. Undermining this timeline, however, is the grainy, black-and-white video footage and period music; together, they cause me to reexamine my surroundings—especially the projected images—and consider their meaning across time and place.

What strikes me most forcefully is the rodeo’s juxtaposition of brutality and beauty. It is nearly impossible to believe that such barbaric events can be so graceful and poignant, yet when viewed in slow motion and against the audio backdrop of such elegant classical music they truly are. In this tightlycontrolled format, the rodeo is transformed into an emotionally stirring ballet, one in which humans and beasts battle for superiority through the highly choreographed motions of dance. This is but one iteration of the eternal struggle between man and nature. Indeed, it is not surprising to learn that the title of the musical composition (after which the video is named) refers to ritual dances performed by young warriors in ancient Greece. Fast forward a few millennia to the present day, and our young “warriors” are still engaged in war dances. Just as I had earlier predicted, what I have encountered is a death dance, ballet, and religious ritual—all rolled into one virtuoso performance.

At the core of Gymnopedies is the collapse and unfolding of time. Experiencing the piece, I am constantly aware of traversing multiple eras and locations, from ancient Greece to nineteenth-century France, from the Old West to contemporary, rural America. It is almost an exhausting experience, for I feel a bit like the unnamed traveler in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, or perhaps more accurately like Captain Picard from Star Trek’s The Next Generation, ever moving throughout the universe as a witness to the social and cultural structures that unite—or divide—us as beings. Watching Gymnopedies I am fully aware that I don’t quite belong to its conflicted world. There are familiar elements in the piece (the music, the images, the props), but they reside in a place slightly outside my direct experience, existing only in a hazy cloud of learned references. I cannot help feeling like I don’t belong here, that I am a foreigner who has, by some strange rip in the universe’s space-time continuum, happened upon the filming of an old-fashioned Western and has been hired as one of the extras. For as strangely familiar as it is, I might as well be experiencing this work from the holodeck on The Enterprise.

Somewhat connected yet distanced from the scenes unfolding around me, I continually shift back and forth from inside and outside myself. This topsy-turvy sensation is exactly what the artists Bull.Miletic themselves experienced while recording the video footage of the rodeo in Castro Valley, California. Hailing from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, neither artist had ever attended a real rodeo competition; their only past association with the sport had been through watching Western films. It is no wonder then that their interpretation of the rodeo hints at the myth of the cowboy and the Old West, while simultaneously exposing its brutality and beauty. Through their eyes, I am witness to an exotic, disturbing, and exciting event.

As Gymnopedies comes to an end and the credits start rolling, I gradually return to my senses. I realize I wasn’t at a rodeo after all, I was just sitting on a bale of straw in a darkened room and watching flickering lights on a wall. I stretch my arms and legs and get up to leave. Crossing the threshold once again, I step out of the magical, mysterious space of the gallery and cross back over into the buzz of reality. How wonderfully refreshing it was to travel to another world and time, if only for just a few precious minutes! Perhaps one day scientists will learn to harness the fluid potential of space and use it to beam us to faraway universes. We shall see. In the meantime, I’ve always got Gymnopedies.

From "Bull.Miletic: Slow Seeing," Künstlerhaus Bethanien Berlin, 2004. All rights reserved.