You don't expect to find choreographed slow dancing at a Chelsea art opening, but at Dia last week, the first of the artist Isabel Lewis's series of programs for the New York foundation had couples paired up hand-to-waist in the middle of the floor, swaying to music that could be heard all the way from the High Line on down the street.
While they were actually part of the Berlin-based artist’s evening programming, performing a contemporary Angolan dance called Kizomba, they could just as well have been enthusiastic patrons: Lewis’s events, which she calls “occasions,” aren’t so much performances as they are social get-togethers. For the next three Friday nights, Lewis is transforming the gallery into a space for people to chill, rolling up the space’s garage-like front wall so that the gallery blends with the street, welcoming passersby to wander in. With cement-gray floors, skylights, suspended plants, and exposed brick, the gallery is essentially a makeshift block party, where visitors can sway to the music Lewis DJs, mingle on the curvy white leather couches she designed, and eat and drink.
It’s a decidedly relaxed – and therefore not New York – atmosphere. And Lewis’s inspiration is not even really of this world: She’s looking to take people on an “inner space journey,” an idea that harks back to medieval times.
“The imaginary, the soul, the spirit – all of these internal processes were highly articulated during the Middle Ages, and now, with our scientific worldview, with the ways we’ve developed as a culture here in the West, it’s as though we’ve lost contact with it,” she said.
While Lewis is hardly calling for a return back to the four humors – modernization, she admitted, is a necessary reality – “but is there something that could be recovered or learned from this other time, these other forms of knowledge?” she asked in her calming, melodic voice.
Lewis’s warm, comfortable demeanor helps keep her from veering into preachy territory, even when addressing these more spiritual topics head-on. Mostly, though, she sticks to DJing her Kizomba compositions – slow, sensual mixes, with the occasional Drake song. Sometimes, she wanders out to join the dancers, gracefully lowering herself into the floor and humming into a microphone, but so slowly and naturally she's almost inconspicuous, even in sparkly heels and socks. In fact, many visitors at Lewis’s opening occasion had their backs turned during her forays onto the floor, lost in conversations or in the screens of their phones.
But that's fine by Lewis: For all her medieval preoccupations, she has thoroughly modern expectations when it comes to time management. “We are contemporary human beings and that means that we’re all doing a million things all the time. It’s just part of the condition of what it means to be alive right now, and so I want my work to respond to that,” she said. “It’s not like a performance, you don’t have to buy a ticket or make a reservation, it’s always happening in this open duration so you can just come and go when it suits your life and your schedule. I never expect that people have to come at a certain time, or stay for a certain period, or sit in one place and look in one direction.”
So while Lewis would love for visitors to continue the experience upstate near Dia:Beacon on Saturdays and Sundays—Dia's upstate outpost in the Hudson Valley is about an hour and half by train from Manhattan—she understands if they don't make the trip, or come later in the day: “You can kind of build your own weekend."
Finding Lewis in Beacon is not so obvious, even with the music leading to the party at Beacon's Long Dock Park: The dancers could just as easily be visitors, many of them simply swaying near trees, others with their feet in the nearby river on more furniture that Lewis designed. In fact, I wasn’t totally sure I’d arrived at the right place until something immediately became familiar: A strangely earthy smell that also infused Dia's Chelsea space, part of her collaboration with Sissel Tolaas, the Norwegian chemist and fragrance celebrity who’s developed scents for everyone from Adidas to Kensington Palace, and who also lives in Berlin.
Lewis is serious about her commitment to addressing the five senses: “I can’t even imagine what it would mean to compose a live artwork without addressing scent,” she said, adding that for her, it’s become akin to music. For this series, they’ve developed a series of smells that go along with Lewis’s ideas, like, "What would intellectuality smell like? What does a pre-industrial world smell like?” – questions not so far off from the ones she asked when developing the food and drink menu. To complete the experience, there's even a mixtape she put together for visitors to play on the train ride from Grand Central. (In a collaboration with the MTA, conductors on the train announce that it is free for travelers to download, though I was unable to access it on the MTA's remarkably difficult-to-navigate app.)
It's no surprise, then, that the reason Lewis gave up straightforward dancing and choreography, which she did professionally in New York until moving to Berlin in 2009, is because the stage felt too stilted, and much too distant. “For me, hosting has become a much more relevant act than performing,” she said. “How does a space choreograph the bodies within it? That’s something that I spend a lot of time thinking about.”