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Performance: Emmanuela Soria Ruiz’s ‘Private Speculations’ is a study in candor, animality, and architecture

Soria Ruiz brings architect Eileen Gray’s "animal ballet" sketches to life in a performative exhibition at Oregon Contemporary through Dec. 5.

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Emmanuela Soria Ruiz with performers Jessi Ali Lin and Julia Gladstone, “Private Speculations,” 2019. Performance, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist.

The performance had already begun when I stepped past blackout curtains into Oregon Contemporary’s “Platform” studio, once home to Tahni Holt’s FLOCK center for movement exploration and now the residence of Franco Nieto’s Open Space studio. The performance had begun, or rather, seemed to simply come into existence; a distinction unclear in the nonchalant manner of the performers and their tasks in silence amid a speckling of seated and standing audience members.

Private Speculations, an installation-meets-performance-art piece developed by Philadelphia-based multi-disciplinary artist Emmanuela Soria Ruiz, is part of an ongoing series of installations presented by the Fuller Rosen Gallery with guest curator Laurel V. McLaughlin. It opened Friday, Dec. 3, and is to be repeated two more times: from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 4, and from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 5, both also at Oregon Contemporary. Performed by the artist alongside Portland dancer and performance maker Allie Hankins, Private Speculations is aimed at bringing to life the depictions of an “animal ballet” by the 20th century Irish architect Eileen Gray (1878-1976).

“Emmanuela and I were introduced to each other by [the curator] Laurel because we had a shared interest in Eileen Gray and her work, and some of my previous and future work draws upon these interests and influences,” Hankins said of their collaboration. “I think the shared curiosity and inquiry around Gray and her queerness lent itself to a shared vocabulary between the two of us, which felt significant.”

Emmanuela Soria Ruiz with performer Lucia Razza, “Private Speculations,” 2021. Performance, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of artist’s website.

Soria Ruiz, whose art roots itself in research, the investigation of hegemony, literature, and architecture, walked around the performance space with a keen focus on surrounding objects of interest; wooden slates of printed text, faux fur rugs, a zebra-print carpet, a chair, sets of white pants and socks, and an electric tea kettle set near short piles of books. Hankins, a locally celebrated veteran to durational performance and interactive installation displays, joins Soria Ruiz with an air of certainty and grace, displaying a captivating series of decadently embedded tableaux and foot patterns.

“Laurel V. McLaughin and I organized this performance under the umbrella of my solo show The Longest Leg [which is supported by a 2021 Make/Learn/Build RACC grant and a PICE Mobility Grant from Accion Cultural Espanola], thinking about them as separate pieces that relate to one another thematically in broad terms and extending the momentum of the exhibition and connection to Portland audiences to this performance. Also, it became a chance to collaborate with Allie Hankins, whose own performative work thinking about Irish modernist architect Eileen Gray, Gray Areas (2020), I became familiar with while developing Private Speculations,” Soria Ruiz said via email. “These two bodies of work, developed roughly at the same time, both deal with dynamics of power: The Longest Leg in relation to narrative, vision, and experience, and Private Speculations in relation to some of Gray’s biography, and to objects, architecture, and animality.”

The objects featured in Private Speculations, seemingly revolving around the main installation point— a small-scale replica of Eileen Gray’s room divider Brick Screen (1918)— aided in the development of a timeless and mutable panorama. Over an hour and a half hour duration, Hankins and Soria Ruiz moved toward and away from each other, conjuring images of planets in orbit, surrounded by remnants of a quaint living room scene. It’s an exemplification of the micro and macro. Audience members are able to draw themselves into the private world of the performers — who sit and lie on each other in moments of cool proximity-induced tenderness — by taking off their shoes and leaving their seats to walk about the space. Through this invitation of audience transgression, Soria Ruiz develops a dialogue between spectatorship and participation. A sense of voyeurism develops as the audience witnesses performers changing their clothes to don an abstract horse-shaped costume or Picasso-esque rectangular box blankets, and we must decide whether to take the chance of walking across the performance space to the other side of the room, inspect the different object stations by encircling the performers, or to go from placard to placard reading text such as, “Eileen designed the serpent armchair for Damia.”

With viewers free to come and go as they please, I highly recommend attending this provocative event as your weekend’s dose of thought-provoking art. Below is a conversation between me and Private Speculations creator and performer Emmanuela Soria Ruiz. 

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What was the original idea behind this project? Why Eileen Gray?

I am generally interested in making work that explores the conditions of the body being both subject and object, so my interest in Gray was to investigate how an object-maker was shaping a specific subjectivity through her work. This work was also highly influenced by media studies scholar Jasmine Raoult’s scholarship on Gray, and her careful contextualization of Gray’s work through a queer lens. … The performance traces some of the ways in which she objectifies women by making furniture for them, or out of them (which I think is a very simplistic metaphor to describe patriarchal and misogynistic violence). At the same time that Gray designed this screen, she drafted some sketches for an animal ballet, Ballet des Animaux (1916–1919), which I read as a playful identification with animality and otherness. Her spaces are simultaneously full of furs and hides as decor— so there is some violence and ambiguity underpinning the work there.

The performance also looks at some of the ways in which Eileen Gray drew from orientalism to shape the interior spaces that she wanted to build— identifying this sapphic or sexually-dissident identity with an exoticized other. It also looks at how her work is afterward defaced by Le Corbusier— and the images for these murals come from sketches that Le Corbusier would draw in Algiers, following the steps of painters like Jacques Delacroix who began the orientalist trend in Europe. 

I think the two are interrelated because violence towards animals plays an important step, and serves as an important link towards racist and colonial violence. My speculation is that Eileen Gray, in order to create spaces and work that would serve the private worlds of non-heterosexual women, looked to animals and orientalism to configure this sapphic modernist aesthetic. So, in a sense, she is at once a perpetrator and victim.

How much do the individual performers impact and/or change the piece? Does it remain steadfast or fluctuate depending on the individuals participating?

I find that my iterative performances will always change a lot through collaborations with the individual performers but also through the context of how this is shown. In its previous iteration, the screen was installed as a sculpture in a 2021 group show titled The Dividual at the Kunstraum of Leuphana, University Lüneburg, curated by Joshua Simon. In that case, the performance would occur during some of the gallery’s open hours, and felt more like a domestic invasion of a more sterile exhibition space. In Portland, Oregon Contemporary’s “Platform” space is more of a blank slate and much larger, so this performance articulates slowness as a way of moving that can be explored by the audience from many different viewpoints. I am still trying to understand how the domestic element of lounging and waiting operates within this context. 

In terms of participation and collaboration, I was really excited for the opportunity to work with Allie on this piece, so I came to Portland with some additional costumes for us to improvise together. I had some ideas and direction, and the process was fast-paced. It was great to be able to come up with some of the scores together. … I find that my experience of performing Privae Speculations changes a lot depending on the audiences’ type of attention and interaction with the installation. 

Do you feel differently about your role as creator and your role as performer, or do you consider them one and the same for this project?

I consider them one and the same, but there is always tension between what I want and what I can do. Though I am very interested in improvisation and choreography, I am by no means a trained performer, and because I come from a background of making sculpture, most of my excitement and ideas come from thinking about the objects (or in this case the costumes, props, and clothing), or in the shape of visual compositions.

Eileen Gray’s “Pirogue” (1925). Image via MoMa website.

I noticed some repeating scores and imagery throughout the duration of tonight’s performance. How much of the physical performance was improvisation-based versus choreographed?

Most of the physical performance was choreographed by scores, which we interpret loosely, and spatial cues, as the lounging and the changing are moments to fold inwards and inhabit. For example, there is a repeating section in which Allie sits and reclines atop me as I move through a score that was inspired by a chaise lounge by Gray called Pirogue (1925), which is supposedly inspired by the languorous movement and orientalist dancing of Ida Rubenstein in the Ballet Russes, a famous dancer of the time who was also queer. 

In Private Speculations, “the screen is allowed to perform and even exceed its architectural role as organizer of space, bodies, and vision, to extend to interlocutor, agent, and listener.” Can you speak about your relationship with the object? Do you feel that you have developed an energetic exchange with the screen paramount to your performance of the piece?

The position of the screen has changed both conceptually and physically through the iterations but continues to be the central question for me within this piece. … In this iteration, I made the choice of making our engagement more subdued, and according to the “normative” potentials of this striking object as a room divider with interactions (such as Allie and I changing clothes repeatedly), that can activate a queer reading of the screen. In this performance, the screen acts as a functional room divider and divisor of space and vision, which then allows it to work as a structural narrative device.

I made this revision because I wanted to be influenced by my experience of interaction with furniture, which I characterize as mostly ignoring it, using it, touching it, and letting my domestic movements be scored by its presence. I also wanted differentiation between the way we use the furniture included in the piece (the chair and the screen) which we use in a “functional” manner, and the costumes I made, with which I let myself explore my identification with and projections onto the objects, and my own interest in the inanimate. I am interested in this room divider as a liminal object between wall and object or between architecture and interior design, and the costumes as liminal agents between object and human.

About the author

Amy Leona Havin is a poet, choreographer, filmmaker, and writer from Rehovot, Israel, currently based in Portland, Oregon, by way of San Diego, California. She has trained in Tel Aviv under Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company studying Gaga Movement Language and holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington. Havin is the founder and artistic director of the Portland-based dance company The Holding Project with which she received a Disjecta Contemporary Art Center 2016 Artistic Residency. Her films have been showcased internationally in Israel, Greece, Mexico, Austria, and France, receiving awards from Mexico City Videodance International, Portland Dance Film Fest, Thessaloniki Cinedance, and more. Havin is the founder and host of the occasional reading series It’s Rhubarb, and her literary works can be read in publications such as The Dust Magazine, Unchaste Anthology, When She Rises, and Gravity According to Birds. With a process rooted in the duality of her upbringing, Havin weaves together a collectively introspective body of work, honoring both heritage and the natural world.

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