Video Work | Photo/Installations | Documentary Projects

Sculpture, October 2006
Zero Arrow Theatre, American Repertory Theater, Harvard University

By Christine Temin
2006 Christine Temin

Denise Marika’s video sculpture has generally focused on her own naked body, not in any exhibitionist sense, but as a soft, vulnerable, even spiritual being trapped inside various rigid containers: a drawer that viewers can open and close; a large metal bowl in which she was curled up and pelted with tiny replicas of herself that smashed on impact; a pedestrian crossing sign in which she protected her small child from traffic.

Marika ceded her place as protagonist in her own work for her first professional foray into stage décor, a series of video sculptures, made in conjunction with set designer David Zinn for the American Repertory Theatre’s Orpheus X. She was an  apt collaborator for director Robert Woodruff’s and composer/writer Rinde Eckerts’s revision of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. While the central fact of the legend- Orpheus’s failed attempt to rescue Eurydice from the underworld-remains, nearly everything else is changed and updated.

Orpheus, for example, is a rock musician who was in a cab that hit and killed the poet Eurydice, whom he’s never met. His obsession with her begins only after her death. Marika’s cruelly confining I-beams, one horizontal, the other vertical, along with a protruding steel box high above the stage and a steel floor, clarify what’s going on by compartmentalizing the action, forcing you to focus.

Through the videos on those rusted beams, she can alter the scale of the two main characters-Eckert as Orpheus and Suzan Hanson as Eurydice- and their relationship to each other. The naked Hanson can drift into the depths of Hades or try to push her way out. (The third character, played byJohn Kelly, doubles as Orpheus’s manager an Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, but he doesn’t appear in the videos.)

Obsession and compulsion are, along with suffering, ongoing themes in Marika’s work. In her 2001 video Unearthed, she crouches as she first hurls blood-colored clay at a huge wall and then claws it away in a never-ending cycle. Eurydice writes with the same desperation. The audience first encounters her under the risers of this black box theater a position indicating that she’s already in the realm of the dead. Naked and blindfolded, she scribbles madly on the floor. The unintelligible words appear on the screen above the stage as she writes them: the effect resembles a Cy Twombly painting being created as you watch.

Among the more compelling video images is something that looks like a demolition site, as if the world were imploding, and then, reinforcing that unsettling notion, crashing river rapids, streams of what appear to be blood and honey, and bodies distorted into knife-like flashes of flesh. Only the severe rectilinearity of the beams and screen keeps this Sturm und Drang imagery from being over-the-top in a Cecil B. DeMille sense. But sometimes the beams and screen go entirely blank: I wish they’d been a constant presence, varying from subdued to riveting.

Marika is not the first sculpture to create inventive décor for this particular tale: Isamu Noguchi and choreographer George Balanchine premiered their Orpheus in 1948.

While you couldn’t call the work of either conventional, it was at least obvious who contributed what. While Marika’s work stays recognizably hers, part of the success of Orpheus X is the blurring of boundaries among the collaborators, The production works as a seamless whole.