“PRIVATE DANCER” (2020) by Nikita Gale

 

THE FIRST SOLO MUSEUM EXHIBITION of Nikita Gale is an abstract sculptural installation at the California African American Museum (CAAM) in Los Angeles. Composed of theatrical trusses and lighting, the work pays homage to Tina Turner’s 1984 album “Private Dancer.” Gale has invoked Turner for six years and in this work the title song serves as an unheard soundtrack, the rhythm to which the lights “dance,” flashing on and off.

The exhibition description explains the artist’s concept: “By isolating the visual language of live performance in the gallery and separating it from the expectation of audio, Gale creates an uncanny experience that serves as a meditation on the limits of the body, the demands of celebrity, and silence as a political position.”

Los Angeles-based Gale said the installation is about refusal, presence, and visibility. “Private Dancer” was a landmark for Turner, an award-winning chart-topping album that transformed her from an R&B diva into a pop icon with an even wider following. She was celebrated for her dynamic stage presence, powerful vocals, and energetic dance performances, even as she continued touring in her 60s. She retired a decade ago, but audiences are still clamoring for more. Her life story has been adapted for stage into hit Broadway musical.

“Tina is kind of a north star for me, because she retired,” Gale told Culture Type. “She made a decision to stop working and in effect step away from the rules of engagement for what I think is a very fraught relationship between audiences and performers that many performers don’t survive.”

“Tina is kind of a north star for me, because she retired.. She made a decision to stop working and in effect step away from the rules of engagement for what I think is a very fraught relationship between audiences and performers that many performers don’t survive.”
— Nikita Gale

In February at MoMA PS1, Gale presented “Audiencing,” a series of performances overlapping in concept with the CAAM installation. “Audiencing” considered “the role of the audience as a social arena, taking on formal aspects of spectacle found in live music and political speeches.”

CAAM temporarily closed on March 13 to stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus. “Nikita Gale: PRIVATE DANCER” was scheduled to officially open to the public five days later on March 18. The museum is still closed and, although the work is installed, it remains unseen.

“PRIVATE DANCER” is curated by Cameron Shaw, CAAM’s deputy director and chief curator. I reached out to Shaw and Gale to learn more about the exhibition. I asked the artist and curator, individually, about the themes of the installation, how the current moment has influenced its fate, and whether visitors will eventually have a chance to see it:

 


PRIVATE DANCER “takes the common, shared experience of music concerts as a starting point for questioning more abstract ideas of spectacle, desire, and refusal.” | Installation view of “Nikita Gale: PRIVATE DANCER,” 2020, California African American Museum. Photo by Elon Schoenholz, Courtesy CAAM

 

CULTURE TYPE: Can you briefly describe your practice, the concept for the installation, and how it reflects your overall work?

NIKITA GALE: PRIVATE DANCER is a work about refusal and visibility: the visibility of Black figures and the aestheticization of labor that takes place in these performances. I’m very interested in what I refer to as social infrastructures—the conditions that make certain types of relationships (including those of spectatorship and witnessing) possible.

The sculpture in PRIVATE DANCER is essentially a silent ruin—a collapsed heap of cables and lighting equipment—with a set of programmed lights that correspond to Tina Turner’s 1984 solo album, “Private Dancer.” The work asks the question, What happens after we’ve destroyed the framework? Where does the body of the performer go? How can we decouple performance and even visibility from the tyranny of labor?

“The work asks the question, What happens after we’ve destroyed the framework? Where does the body of the performer go? How can we decouple performance and even visibility from the tyranny of labor?”
— Nikita Gale

CULTURE TYPE: What attracted you to Nikita Gale’s work and why was this piece in particular chosen for the exhibition? Was it created specifically for the show?

CAMERON SHAW: I first met Nikita many years ago in Atlanta, when I was there as part of a critic-in-residence program, but we were reintroduced in LA by Kibum Kim of Commonwealth and Council. I joined CAAM in September 2019 and was immediately tasked with developing our Spring 2020 season. Kibum knew I was working with a short time frame and described Nikita as someone brimming with ideas.

When Nikita and I reconnected, it was so easy. We talked for hours—what we were reading, watching, thinking about. That’s huge for me. I want to make space in the museum for artists with challenging and revolutionary ideas, and at the same time I want to work with excited and kind people. Nikita is that.

We both knew we wanted to make something new for the show that responded to the particulars of the site. We moved through several ideas before arriving at the work that would become PRIVATE DANCER, bringing to the fore, among other things, Nikita’s interest in performer/spectator dynamics and the range of physical and psychological consequences, especially for Black performers.

Nikita’s work is so fueled by research, but she doesn’t feel compelled to make those theories and narratives immediately legible to the viewer. For me, as a curator, that is a particular act of artist protest that drew me to Nikita. Here is a Black, queer, woman refusing legibility and easy consumption in her practice, which mirrors the narratives of deliberate silence and refusal that are embedded in the work itself.

“I want to make space in the museum for artists with challenging and revolutionary ideas, and at the same time I want to work with excited and kind people. Nikita is that.”
— Cameron Shaw


PRIVATE DANCER references “the sometimes tragic lived experiences of culture-defining black performers such as Prince, Whitney Houston, and (Tina) Turner herself.” | Installation view of “Nikita Gale: PRIVATE DANCER,” 2020, California African American Museum. Photo by Elon Schoenholz, Courtesy CAAM

 

CULTURE TYPE: This is your first solo museum exhibition. I imagine there must have been some sense of pride, accomplishment, and anticipation leading up to it and then COVID-19 happened. How do you feel about the fate of your show, the limbo? There is a bit of irony that it references mass gatherings for music concerts and we are in an era of social distancing.

NIKITA GALE: Ha, there’s definitely the irony of the references to mass gatherings, but I think there’s even more irony since the work is also largely about presence and visibility. While I do hope that the museum will be able to safely open to the public while the exhibition is up, I am grateful to have had such a wonderful experience working with Cameron Shaw and the team at CAAM. It’s such a special institution with such an incredible history and community supporting it. I am very sad that we didn’t get to have one of their legendy openings!

CULTURE TYPE: PRIVATE DANCER is Gale’s first solo museum show and no one has had the opportunity to see it given the shutdown. The reference to mass gathering for music concerts is ironic given the new normal of social distancing.

CAMERON SHAW: The work feels prescient in so many ways. There is the reference to the collective experience of music concerts, which have been delayed or otherwise transformed by the pandemic. There is the question of what constitutes protest, which is one of the reasons the work is set in silence and that took on additional meaning amidst a national uprising for Black lives. There is also the recurring motif in Nikita’s work of bodies delineated and mediated by technology.

We were working to install the exhibition at the start of the pandemic when Nikita fell ill. COVID tests were not readily available at the time and nobody knew what to expect next. This was before quarantine and before museums began closing, so we kept preparing for the exhibition, but out of an abundance of caution we did that with Nikita working remotely. So we were constructing the sculpture from drawings with Nikita on FaceTime. The conditions of making became an extension of theories at play in the work of how technology shifts our understanding of the limits of the body.

“The work feels prescient in so many ways. There is the reference to the collective experience of music concerts, which have been delayed or otherwise transformed by the pandemic. There is the question of what constitutes protest, which is one of the reasons the work is set in silence and that took on additional meaning amidst a national uprising for Black lives.” — Cameron Shaw

CULTURE TYPE: The exhibition was originally scheduled to close Sept. 6. Do you have any sense of when the museum will reopen and when it does is there a commitment to extend the show so it will be seen?

CAMERON SHAW: As for the timing of reopening the museum and extending the show, that remains in flux, but our intentions are certainly for a public to have time to experience the work in person.

CULTURE TYPE: How have you been faring creatively during this time of shutdown and what is next for you?

NIKITA GALE: I am still surprisingly busy, so I’m grateful. I occasionally still go into my studio to work, but have mostly been working from home. Institutions are still making plans and things are still moving forward with a lot of projects. I have upcoming projects and shows at LAXART (Los Angeles), Tanya Bonakdar (Los Angeles), Cloaca Projects (San Francisco), and Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center, just to name a few. CT

 

FIND MORE about Nikita Gale on the artist’s website

Sept. 24, 2020: Nikita Gale and Cameron Shaw will be in conversation about the exhibition “PRIVATE DANCER,” 5:00 PST via Zoom. RSVP here

 


Los Angeles artist Nikita Gale explains the concept for “PRIVATE DANCER.” The artist says the installation explores what happens to a space of performance when sound and the body or any sense of the figure is absent. | Video by CAAM

 


Nikita Gale realized PRIVATE DANCER in collaboration with lighting designer Josephine Wang. | Installation view of “Nikita Gale: PRIVATE DANCER,” 2020, California African American Museum. Photo by Elon Schoenholz, Courtesy CAAM

 


Detail of “Nikita Gale: PRIVATE DANCER,” 2020, California African American Museum. | Photo by Elon Schoenholz, Courtesy CAAM

 


PRIVATE DANCER “draws on a number of theoretical, literary, and historical sources ranging from the critical writings of performance scholar Philip Auslander and philosopher Theodore Gracyk to the speculative science fiction of J. G. Ballard.” | Installation view of “Nikita Gale: PRIVATE DANCER,” 2020, California African American Museum. Photo by Elon Schoenholz, Courtesy CAAM

 


Installation view of “Nikita Gale: PRIVATE DANCER,” 2020, California African American Museum. | Photo by Elon Schoenholz, Courtesy CAAM

 

READ MORE Last year, Tina Turner was profiled in the New York Times

READ MORE In March, Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer” album was inducted into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress, deemed an “aural treasures worthy of preservation because of their cultural, historical and aesthetic importance to the nation’s recorded sound heritage.”

 

BOOKSHELF
Nikita Gale published a project with Triple Canopy called Omniaudience and also contributed a digital essay about Tina Turner to an upcoming edition of the multi-platform magazine. “Made in L.A. 2018” documents the Hammer Museum biennial. Gale was among the artists featured in the exhibition. Forthcoming in October, “Tina Turner: That’s My Life” is described as the “first authorized pictorial autobiography” of the iconic performer. “Happiness Becomes You: A Guide to Changing Your Life for Good” by Turner is expected in December. “I, Tina: My Life Story” was written by Turner with music journalist Kurt Loder.

 

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