SECCA’s Exquisite Corpus confuses and collaborates   

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Artist Nicola L guides a group of 12 women through the gallery while performing her piece, “The Blue Cape.”

by Sayaka Matsuoka

Museum regulars and art advocates alike would have had a hard time knowing what to expect from SECCA’s newest exhibition featuring artist Nicola L and her Exquisite Corpus show. From the title of the show which alludes to Renaissance works celebrating the human body, to the description of the exhibition by head curator Cora Fisher, it could be concluded that Nicola’s work would be “eclectic in nature” and would be the kind of art that would resist fitting neatly into one category whether it was surrealism, pop art, or performance art.

The exhibition that opened on Dec. 16 began with Nicola’s performance of her pivotal work from the show, “The Blue Cape.” The work was a sprawling, blue sheet of fabric interrupted by 12 openings in the form of hoods that was meant to be worn by 12 individuals simultaneously. For this performance, Nicola chose 12 local women to inhabit the cape and move around with steady grace as she guided them through the gallery. They seemed to simulate a vast cloud or ripples of water guided by a stronger wind.  As the cape and the women inhabiting it progressed through the exhibit, a musician playing jazz saxophone followed suit. Once in the largest open area in the upper gallery, Nicola collected the womens’ signs and directed them to start moving. “You have to dance!” she proclaimed and with that, the women began awkwardly moving their arms while exchanging funny looks and after about 30 seconds of dancing, Nicola intervened one last time and ended the performance, guiding the 12 women to climb out of the cape.

The event proceeded with Fisher speaking about the exhibition and outlining how Nicola’s works have progressed throughout her career, which has spanned 50 years, from the use of static objects to objects with people to communal encounters, much like the instance of “The Blue Cape.” She spoke about the “social sculpture” of Nicola’s work and how it was the participants that gave unique meaning to the works each time. In this rendition of the piece, Fisher and Nicola worked together to invite 12 women in significant positions in the Winston-Salem and North Carolina community including the executive director of the Reynolda House Museum and Gloria Laureano, the vice chancellor and dean of students of Winston-Salem State University. This seemed to create in Fisher’s words, “an almost feminist” take of Nicola’s work.

After the performance, Laureano spoke on her experience inside the cape as a direct participant. For her, it was difficult to visualize the work as a whole because she was mostly concerned with how her movements would directly affect the people next to her. She thought of her involvement as a learning experience through the tension and release of energy between her and the other 11 women.

“We were all dependent on each other,” she said, “and it was difficult at first but it was fun.”

The rest of Nicola’s Exquisite Corpus further relates to the day-to-day experience humans have with objects and also with each other. Other works in the exhibition include a blown up figure of a human foot large enough to sit on, photographs and videos documenting Nicola’s other performances from around the world, and some of her earlier “sculptural” works that bring to mind an oversized astronaut or hazmat suit. Like SECCA’s next exhibition in January, Nicola’s work emphasizes collaboration and communal experiences. Her exhibition exists in dialogues surrounding community and solitude, active people and inactive objects that uniquely show how art can bring people together in the most unusual of ways.