In Focus: Performed Places

Artist Mariam Ghani and choreographer Erin Ellen Kelly uncover the memory and meaning of historic sites

January 19, 2024
Two dancers perform in SAAM's Kogod Courtyard

Like a Phantom Near or Far (An Occasional Figure Moving) (2024) performed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Kogod Courtyard in January 2024.

In their collaborative series, Performed Places (2006 – ongoing), artist Mariam Ghani's filmmaking and body-based artist Erin Ellen Kelly's choreography excavate layers of memory and meaning enmeshed in historic sites. Through archival research and by responding to remnants of a given spaces' former life, they develop movement, narrative, and video choreography that reanimates the past.

The latest addition to Ghani and Kelly’s collaboration, Like a Phantom Near or Far (An Occasional Figure Moving) (2024), traces a choreographic journey with local performers throughout SAAM’s National Historic Landmark building. Known in the nineteenth century as a “temple of invention,” it is one of the oldest federal buildings in Washington, DC. This newly commissioned piece was devised for and in the building and performed for the public on January 11, 2024.  

A dancer is draped on the rail in one of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's stairwells.

The title references one of Walt Whitman’s Civil War poems, inspired by his experiences tending to wounded Union soldiers when this building was repurposed as a hospital during that period. Traveling through the interstitial spaces of the building, the performance melds sound and movement to evoke the past moments, haunting resonances with the present, and material realities that make up “that noblest of Washington buildings” as we experience it today.

Performers dance in a circle in the Great Hall

Using the architecture of the building to frame a series of vignettes, Like a Phantom... moves viewers through both space and time, from the quarrying of the sandstone for the building’s first wing to the fire that nearly destroyed it, and from the chaos of Lincoln’s second inaugural ball to the generations of civil servants who have passed through these halls.

Media - 2021.23.1 - SAAM-2021.23.1_1 - 140993

Erin Ellen Kelly, Mariam Ghani, When the Spirits Moved Them, They Moved, 2019, three-channel video, color, sound; 23:36 minutes, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase, 2021.23.1, © 2019, Mariam Ghani and Erin Ellen Kelly

An earlier work in the series, When the Spirits Moved Them, They Moved (2019), part of SAAM’s permanent collection, engages Pleasant Hill, Kentucky's Shaker Village, a nineteenth-century settlement where the preserved architecture and landscaping convey Shaker spirituality.  

Ghani and Kelly began with first-person accounts from the community's archives, assembling a textual score that guided a daylong performance. Through hymns that become rhythmic stomping and folk dances that become frenetic movements, the work traces the emotional and spiritual arc of weekly worship meetings in which spiritual gifts overtake believers' bodies. In the three-channel video, this performance is distilled from twelve hours into the choreographic journey shown on the central screen. On either side, mirrored shots of the serene environs emphasize the ordered design of Shaker life outside these chaotic convenings. 

Projected life-size with surround sound, the video invites audiences to imaginatively step into this space and join this transformative gathering. The related photographs invite slower reflection on Shaker ways of being-in-common. Visit the artwork page to see a clip of the video.

This story is based on text created for SAAM’s exhibition Musical Thinking: New Video Art and Sonic Strategies

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