Simone Leigh and Liz Magic Laser
Leigh, who is best known as a sculptor, and Laser, whose practice often turns public and political speech into performance scripts, decided to creatively collaborate when they discovered a shared interest in the depictions of “female hysteria” in popular media. For the initial score for Breakdown, they gathered scenes from soap operas, plays, movies, and reality television shows featuring characters expressing psychological crisis. The artists then worked with Alicia Hall Moran, the renowned mezzo-soprano, to interpret direct quotes and poses from this research material, which developed into the final libretto and choreography for the video.
In her tour-de-force performance, Moran’s artistic range and improvisational ability transform the repetitive phrases and shrill cries of hysteria into musical layers that are associated with gravitas, heroism, and history. The overall operatic style aligns this Black woman’s emotional release with a traditionally elitist European high-art form, raising questions about which expressive displays are valued or criticized, and whose personal dramas are legitimized or dismissed. The performance also includes touches of the blues, jazz, and gospel hymns—African American musical forms that are themselves creatives balms for the psychological and spiritual impacts of racial inequity and violence.
Though alone in a balcony, Moran points through the screen to us, her imagined audience. What role does our witnessing play when personal pain is presented for public consumption?
Simone Leigh, born 1968, Chicago, IL and Liz Magic Laser, born 1981, New York City
Breakdown, 2011, single-channel digital video (color, sound); 9 min.
In collaboration with Alicia Hall Moran
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Samuel and Blanche Koffler Acquisition Fund, 2019.33.2
Video produced with Polemic Media. Producer, David E. Guinan. Director of Photography, Collin Kornfeind. Production Assistant, Fontaine Capel.
Special thanks to New Covenant Temple, New York, NY
When you enter the video room, seats line the back wall to your left and the screen is directly in front of you. The haptic seat is the seat closest to the doorway, with blue light at its base. The video opens on an empty, dimly lit theater balcony. A Black woman in a black dress with bob haircut walks calmly down the steps of the aisle. The shot cuts to showing her from the knees up, facing the camera with her head hung low. She jerks her hands up to her face as she cries and begins to sing. Her face and body contort, moving through a wide range of deeply felt emotions that match her vocal gymnastics. At the five-minute mark, the shot changes so she is backlit by the theater’s hanging white-candle chandelier, which is blurred in the background. Around seven minutes, the scene fades to black as she pauses her song. When the image returns, it is a long shot of her singing further up in the balcony aisle, barely visible in the darkness. Her arms gesture and her body wobbles and leans as if she might fall. At the end of her song, she walks up the stairs, exiting the balcony as the screen fades to black.
As you exit the video room, take a right turn. To the right of the video room exit is a support column. As you step out and continue to the right about sixteen feet, a sculpture is in the center of the walkway. There is textured tape surrounding the circular base for cane detection and to keep all visitors a safe distance from the piece.
A brown-glazed stoneware torso sits atop a monumental raffia skirt or house-like structure. Combining body with object with architectural or found forms is a hallmark of Leigh’s work, which centers an exploration of Black femme subjectivity.
Like much of Leigh’s work, Cupboard VIII resonates with scholar Saidiya Hartman's idea of critical fabulation, through which imagined narratives can counter erasures in historical and archival records. Here, the figure’s outstretched arms and the open jug mouth invite speculation on what sparked this expressive gesture and what remains unsaid.
Simone Leigh, born 1968, Chicago, IL
Cupboard VIII, 2018, stoneware, steel, raffia, Albany slip
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of Bridgitt and Bruce Evans
The sculpture towers over visitors, about ten feet high with most of the height created through a dome-shaped skirt that just brushes the floor and meets the ceramic torso about eight feet above. The skirt itself is made of layers of raffia, a light tan grassy dried palm leaf that looks similar to a thatched surface. Centered at the top of the skirt, a female upper body is modeled in brown stoneware with a glossy finish. A traditional-looking round jug angles forward, balanced on the figure’s neck in place of a human head. Two arms reach out softly.
As you round the sculpture, to the left, there is a silver tinsel-lined gallery. If you turn to the left, ninety-degrees, you will be facing the video wall, and ahead is an elevated dance floor with a short ramp. When facing the video, the wall to the right, another nine feet away, has the next section text and QR code.