Artist duo Gerard & Kelly personify the collaborative nature of art making. Their exhibition, Panorama, at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York, displays a dynamic video with three dancers questioning the colonialist narratives on the ceiling mural of the Bourse de Commerce in Paris, now the Pinault Collection. The artists also work with silkscreening in their Glyphs series, which explores notions of “orientation” and the multilayered works of composer Julius Eastman. In this conversation, we discuss the duo’s many collaborators and influences, how they articulate their vision for performance, and their time in art school.
AMADOUR: Your US debut of Panorama features a video installation in which three distinct performers dance together; it’s also filmed in the Pinault Collection in Paris, reimagined by renowned Japanese architect Tadao Ando. Why did you select this space, and how did you meet the dancers?
RYAN KELLY: We were invited to visit the space, the former commodities exchange building in Paris. It was being renovated to become the museum, the private collection of Francois Pinault and his family. We were checking it out as a possible secondary site for a performance we had of our work in Los Angeles at the Getty Center in the Fall of 2019. It was a collaboration with Solange, featuring a cast entirely of queer people, women, and people of color.
We walked in and were like, okay, the building is impressive, but have you seen that painting on the ceiling? Do you know what it’s depicting? It showed, among other sites of French colonial commerce, Louisiana, where Solange had lived for many years. To perform, we would have to do something first that addresses that picture, and the foundation people were pretty open to it. Then Covid came, the performance got canceled, and the opening was delayed by more than a year. So we proposed to go in and shoot a film at some point during the lockdowns. They gave us the space for two days, just after the renovations had been finished and before they were about to move in the museum’s collection. The room was empty, which was very special. The film is 22 minutes long, and a lot didn’t make it into the final work at the gallery.
AMADOUR: Can you speak on the queer intimacy associated with this piece and what that means to both of you?
BRENNAN GERARD: It’s related to the three lead performers in the work and how they interact together. Germain Louvet is a Danseur étoile at the Paris Opera Ballet and has been publicly queer throughout his career. He’s also very involved in political issues, diversity, and labor. He plays the role of “Allegory.” Opposite Louvet is Guillaume Diop, a younger dancer also with the Paris Opera Ballet. At the time of the shoot, he was 20 years old. Diop started a petition called Black Dancers Matter. It circulated within the opera, eventually leading to a state-commissioned investigation — really a study on practices of racism within the opera institution. This work led to changes and recommendations that the institution then adopted.
The court of ballet is a very hierarchical structure. Diop plays the role of “Avenir,” which means “future” in English. Soa de Muse plays the role of “Memory.” At the time, Soa was a kind of cabaret and burlesque performer, often playing with gender and sexuality. They have become a major star because they were on Drag Race France in the most recent edition. Soa is also of Martiniquais descent. All three of these people, and their characters, are queer. And the model of intimacy that we show with a camera is at odds with the kinds of relations in the painting, which are structures of capitalism, power, and race. The relationship between the colonizer and the colonized constructs itself by violence.
AMADOUR: Julius Eastman, the late composer, is like a cult figure within the performance world and musicscape. What was the choice of including his compositions?
KELLY: There are excerpts from several Eastman pieces from the seventies, including some of the adamantly political works from the N-Word series. Eastman, for us, was needed to channel and speak back to the Panorama and produce this counter-narrative that Brennan was describing. “Gay Guerilla” is one of the musical pieces that drives us through the film. Eastman’s music invested in form and the formal invention itself.
AMADOUR: I mean, he’s a minimalist.
KELLY: Yes, like Phillip Glass or Steve Reich, we’re also very interested in minimalism. We’re interested in the queerness within abstraction and musical geometric abstraction because in the related pieces in the side room, we get into the graphic nature of [Eastman’s] works.
AMADOUR: Who painted the mural on the ceiling?
KELLY: They were five French academic painters [Évariste-Vital Luminais, Désiré-François Laugée, Georges-Victor Clairin, Hippolyte Lucas, and Alexis Mazerolle]. They speak on allegories of their respective regions of the world.
AMADOUR: Let’s get into the silkscreened Glyphs and Multiples. What I find fascinating within these various spaces is that you jot the different compositions, music scores, letters, and choreographic direction on top of the writing. What is the proposition in these works?
KELLY: Well, in the Glyphs, the gold and silver leaf are on top of the silkscreen. Images from the film are assembled like they weren’t in the film. We were interested in capturing music and movement in a kind of writing. The dancers’ movements base themselves on hieroglyphic forms. The hand drawings are transcriptions of Julius Eastman’s hand-drawn score for “Gay Guerilla.” It’s like a medieval process of copying each line and then printing it in glue and painting the gold leaf or silver leaf on top of that. They’re somewhere between music, poetics, and philosophy.
AMADOUR: It’s also a preservation of queer histories.
KELLY: We are really into trying to conserve lost queer histories. When Julius died in 1990, most of his work was lost, and very few of his scores remain. Those that do are precisely these kinds of scrappy graphic hand-drawn things. So to value them and keep them alive, and incorporate them, it was intimate and lovely to make this transcription by hand and incorporate it into the work. It felt like a way of getting to know this elder who isn’t physically here.
GERARD: Those Glyphs are another form of queer intimacy. There’s the representation of intimacy in the film among the performers. And then there’s another layer, which is us making the film and the editing process in which you feel a new intimacy with the performers and the score.
AMADOUR: Did you find the original scores?
KELLY: We wrote to the music publisher and asked for them. We had seen them online, like some fragments in scholarly essays. Eastman’s scores are now digitized because they’re almost illegible. He takes a lot of shortcuts and does a lot of idiosyncratic things, as far as I understand. We’re not musicians, but we wrote to the music publisher, Schirmer–a big classical music publisher–and asked.
GERARD: It’s made by recutting the footage to create the 2D works and the multiple series. We made ten of them, but we only showed one. Each is unique: a silkscreen, a split fountain, and shades of blue and purple.
KELLY: There’s also a 19th century star map of the North Star Polaris. And then, on top of it is a three-part woodblock print of a film still of the three sets of hands looking back up at the oculus of the building. An excellent essay inspired us by Hito Steyerl, the German artist and critic, called In Free Fall. She wrote it eight years ago about orientation.
AMADOUR: What do you mean by “orientation?
KELLY: It’s about sailors in the 16th century who used the stars as an orientation during the time of discovery. Steyerl discusses that even the word orientation links to the Orient and is inextricable from the project of discovery and colonization. That blew my mind.
AMADOUR: I can see that directly in the astrological star map that you silkscreened.
KELLY: We were looking at Japanese woodblock prints from the mid to late 19th century. They are blueprints called aizuri-e, like Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1831), and some of these iconic images. They are made from Prussian blue pigments discovered in the mid-19th century in Europe and exported to Japan, where the artist made the prints. Those prints were sold to Parisian buyers and became a fad. It’s also simultaneous with the construction of the Bourse de Commerce.
AMADOUR: I visited the Pinault Collection in October during the Paris + par Art Basel fair. Anri Sala’s Time No Longer (2021) was playing in the rotunda of the building. I want to go back to the dancers and talk about choreography. Who are your influences in choreography?
GERARD: Germain Louvet, one of the performers in the film who was in the role of “Allegory,” works with citations from ballets of the 19th century. We were looking at movements from La Bayadère [by French choreographer Marius Petipato with the music of Ludwig Minkus] rearranged in a logic of radical juxtaposition.
KELLY: Choreographer Trisha Brown is important to us and the Judson Dance Theater postmodern movement. It’s the birthplace of minimalism. We often work with the gestures of classical ballet in this particular piece because of the dancers. We work with repetition. There’s a part we call “The Supremes,” when the three are all together and doing the snaps and head stuff, which has a pop feel. It’s a real collage of diverse styles. It was also about finding ways to move where the three could meet, even though they were so different as performers, like pre-burlesque 19th century ballet. There’s a brevity and a rhythm to the balance of the three. I see them all as equal, even though the middle could be seen as the leader because of positioning.
AMADOUR: They share a space, and I enjoy their movements, especially the one you featured on that postcard with their hands in the air at the gallery. Your exhibition, Ruins, currently on view at Carré d’Art – Musée d’art Contemporain de Nîmes, features an essay by art historian Miwon Kwon. How did you collaborate with her writing?
KELLY: Miwon was one of our professors at UCLA, and we have known her for ten years. We’ve also enjoyed keeping a very active dialogue and exchange with Miwon. Brennan and I have been back to UCLA to teach in the art history department. We taught art historians, which was fun. She serves on the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, and his work has been a constant guiding star. I’ll say the North Star for her work, too. She studied his work, although she didn’t know him — she’s a historian of his work. Before she became an art historian, she was an architect. In 2016 we began to engage with modern architecture and think about how these buildings, first modern homes and now, in Panorama, divorced civic architecture. We also looked at how architecture can become a shelter for queer and contemporary intimacies.
AMADOUR: What was the building used for?
GERARD: From what I understand, and I’m not a historian of the building, it started as a stable where they sold commodities, like wheat and hay. They would bring them from the surrounding provinces and then sell them there. There was an exchange.
AMADOUR: It’s such an ornate building to do that inside.
GERARD: That was in the 18th century when they hadn’t yet put in the glass. So it was an open-air structure. And then, in the 19th century, it became what we see now. They renovated it, put it in the glass, then started trading commodities, futures, and stocks. So it’s no longer the actual products that are there. Parisians used it in this manner up until the 1970s.
AMADOUR: Your biography reads that you both are Van Lier Fellows of the Whitney Museum ISP [Independent Study Program] and attended the Interdisciplinary Studio MFA at UCLA as a duo. What does it mean to be a duo in the art world?
KELLY: We’ve worked together since we were 22 years old. We entered the Whitney ISP in 2009 and were the first duo to be accepted to make a shared body of work. We met many fantastic people there, including [artist] Mary Kelly, who invited us to come out and work with her at UCLA while running the Interdisciplinary Studio program. We were also the first duo to enter UCLA Arts. The ISP is a theory-based program and not so much about art practice. I was conscious of the strangeness of our shared practice at UCLA. They were like, how do we adjudicate you individually?
AMADOUR: Did you complete the program as a duo?
KELLY: There were lots of discussions about whether we should present independent thesis works. With Mary’s support and her comprehension of the embedded queerness of our practice and the challenge that it presents to the single artist mythology, she defended it. We were able to graduate with a shared thesis. That process made us both conscious that we were a duo.
AMADOUR: I also worked with Mary Kelly at UCLA. She’s conscientious of her students and how they can perform at their best.
KELLY: I will say another one of our heroes from UCLA is Simone Forti, a dancer and artist from the sixties and first known through the Judson Theater. And she’s about to have a major survey at MOCA in January. She continues to be a very influential force in our minds. Andrea Fraser is also an excellent teacher. Through our study and love of Andrea’s work, we found the courage to address institutions of art and power. After our time there, we began a series of works, first in performance, that interrogated the notion of the couple. That was also when our relationship shifted from a romantic couple to a post-romantic partnership.
GERARD: The project of making art with someone is birthing. It’s giving life to something incredibly intimate as a duo, tying back to queer intimacy.
Amadour is an interdisciplinary artist based in Los Angeles and New York City. Amadour investigates landscape, architectural forms, and our relationship as humans to built and natural environments. They received dual BA degrees in studio art and art history from the UCLA School of Arts and Architecture in 2018. For more information visit: www.amadour.com