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Blondell Cummings, Chicken Soup, 1983, video still from performance documentation. © The Estate of Blondell Cummings.

Locating the Poetics of Collage in Blondell Cummings’s "Chicken Soup"

Credits:

By Daniella Brito, The Kitchen L.A.B. Research Residency x Simons Foundation Fellow

September 19, 2023

“Inside the refrigerator, everything was rotting: a half finished carton of sour skim milk, a head of wilted lettuce, a moldy container of Canon yogurt, two moldy yellow lemons, one two week old boiled egg, a bottle of flat seltzer water, and a split of mum’s champagne.”

––Excerpt from “Food Portrait,” written & recorded by Patricia Jones Mindy Levine, in collaboration with Blondell Cummings

The kitchen is a landscape imbued with collage: a mélange of symbols, signs, and gestures arranged on one canvas. In the kitchen, the visual materials that inform the art historical tradition exist instead as sensorial ingredients. Smells, sounds, and textures are set to a light simmer. As they mingle, poetry brews—not only in the food that arises but in the dialogues and relationships that the intimate space steadily dishes out. In her most well-known work, Chicken Soup (1981), choreographer and video artist Blondell Cummings stages her personal memories of the kitchen through experimental dance, set to a text written and recorded by Patricia Jones Mindy Levine. The work is emblematic of Cummings’s distinctive improvisational and interdisciplinary visual language: the artist calls upon directorial and choreographic strategies like repetition, call and response, assemblage, and annotation to translate collective histories and familial memories into movement.

To develop this gestural and aesthetic vocabulary, Cummings drew from everyday life. The artist created idiosyncratic, free-form movements that referenced a range of autobiographical material and gendered and racialized household routines. Cummings would then codify these improvised movements in her performance practice: as the primary choreographer of her works, Cummings would choose from this body of gestures to develop narrative sequences, inserting theatrical props and deploying meticulous staging to aid in the practice of storytelling.

Throughout the 1980s, Cummings’s experimental yet anecdotal work was described within the vast and sticky category we call “post-modern dance.” In her canonical survey of the movement published in 1980, dance critic Sally Banes noted that for post-modernists, the aesthetic qualities of dance and the study of movement for movement’s sake could justify choreography. In this era, many dancers termed post-modern advanced the fickle, reactive, and instinctual tradition of improvisation, especially across experimental venues such as Judson Church in Greenwich Village. Spaces like Judson were also focal points for interdisciplinary presentations that converged dance with music, theater, performance, and visual art. Among the collaborations that transpired in these sites, a visual artist might have been performing in a dance show; meanwhile, the act of developing a musical composition could be termed choreography. (1)

Within her own practice, Cummings defied disciplinary categorization. In fact, her performances would glide across disciplines seamlessly, referencing aesthetic practices in dance, but also in photography, theater, and film. During her 1984 performance at Jacob’s Pillow for the Inside/Out series, the artist addressed the significance of interdisciplinarity to her practice and its reception:

I forgot to mention that sometimes I’m considered postmodern. Whatever that means. But what postmodern really means to me—I don’t think any artist really puts a label on themselves. I think you use whatever you need to use in order to say what you want to say. And that’s what that’s all about. I guess some people might say: “Is that dance?” I don’t know, I never—I never asked myself whether or not it’s dance. I just asked myself whether it is right for what I want to do. Terms like postmodern or Renaissance, or modern or classic I think are terms that are best used by historians and critics and producers, people who feel the need to put some kind of name on it. But I think, more importantly, I think postmodern because it happens on all levels and I’ve heard that term in architecture, I’ve heard it in music, as well in other areas. I think what it really means is that there is a kind of climate that exists socially, economically, politically, that allows all kinds of work to exist in that period of time. (2)

This interdisciplinary mode of working not only was central to Cummings’s performance work, but also was pivotal to her educational programming with the nonprofit organization she founded, The Cycle Arts Foundation, in New York in 1978. This discussion/ performance workshop provided a space to address familial issues, platform interpersonal lifestyle rituals, and uplift intersectional art-making. In many ways, Cummings’s work with the Cycle Arts Foundation could be understood as an extension of her artistic practice: it made tangible the kinds of cross-disciplinary worlds Cummings choreographed on stage.

It is the work of historians, critics, and curators to categorize within—and at times, to complicate—disciplines. But what do we make of the slippage that happens when a work—or an artist—falls outside of the bounds of a discipline, or at the intersection of a number of them at once? Post-modernists declared that art is not too far away from life, so much so that life, in all its uncertainty, routines, and mundanity, can be declared a work of art in itself. I would like to reflect on Cummings’s work with this sentiment at the fore and propose collage—a strategy and medium traditionally recognized in visual art histories—as a lens into Cummings’s work and perhaps as a vantage point for observing the poetics of the everyday.

I am particularly interested in the history of collage as it pertains to Black aesthetic expression. In 2004, Toni Morrison presented at a conference at Columbia University on the work of Romare Bearden. Through her discussion of Bearden’s work, Morrison outlined how artistic genres “fold into, energize, and transfer the aesthetics of one another,” placing particular emphasis on the enmeshment of literature, visual art, and music through the reciprocal nature of artists’ influences. (3) She describes Bearden’s collagist strategies as follows: “there is information, truth, power, and beauty in his choice of color, form, in the structural and structured placement of images, in fragments built up from flat surfaces, in the rhythm implicit in repetition, and in the medium itself—each move determining subsequent ones, enabling the look and the fact of spontaneity, improvisation.” (4) Here, Morrison underscores Bearden’s fractured language of collage, which was informed by nonlinear storytelling. Collage was reminiscent of the fragmented Black life the artist depicted: a life spliced with “abrupt stops and unexpected liquidity.” (5) Drawing from Morrison’s analysis of Bearden’s work, I would like to condense the above-mentioned aesthetic practices to propose three formal qualities of collage: the “structured placement of images” as translation; the “fragments built up from flat surfaces” as fragmentation; and the directorial strategies that render “the look and the fact of spontaneity, improvisation” as assemblage. I identify these practices in Cummings’s work to suggest an aesthetic relationship between the artist’s embodied language of choreography and the visual language of collage. In mapping the relationship between these movement-based and visually driven lineages, I refute the siloing of disciplinary analysis and instead invite an analytical method that takes into account the fluid exchange that occurs among artists, their influences, and their disciplines.

Chicken Soup is a composite of storytelling mechanisms. The performance calls forth dance, theater, and filmic practices to chronicle ancestral acts of feminized labor. In an arrangement of continuous gestures, the artist uses her body in a mimetic fashion, animating segments of the story told via poetic voiceover that plays overhead. The narration begins with the broad statement, “they sat endlessly talking about life, abortions, operations, death, money.” It then pivots to a description of how to prepare chicken soup, loosely inspired by the artist’s memories of being in the kitchen with the matriarchs in her family: “cover chicken and chicken feet with water; salt and bring to a boil.” Through kinetic, repetitive movements, Cummings swaddles a baby, performs as a band of women gossiping, and feverishly scrubs the floors. It is precisely this transmutation from memory to gestural expression that I would like to refer to as translation.

For Cummings, this transferral from memory to stage is communicated through a collection of nonsequential gestures that have the sharp and rehearsed cadence of a subject performing before a camera. She termed this approach “moving pictures”—a combination of the photographic image fueled with kinetic energy. The artist was deeply influenced by the cinematic world of photography. The “moving pictures” of her choreography read like the kind of iconographic symbols one might search for in a still image or a painting. These embodied codes, in this case, help transcribe the process of preparing chicken soup into a grand odyssey. Within this journey, Cummings utilizes a frying pan as a prop of translation. Flipping, twirling, and shaking the pan as if a dagger, the cooking instrument transforms into something akin to a sword, summoning the force of ancestral traditions and rituals grounded in the domestic space.

Blondell Cummings, Chicken Soup, 1985. Gelatin silver print. Photo: Kei Orihara. Courtesy The Estate of Blondell Cummings.

For Cummings, this transferral from memory to stage is communicated through a collection of nonsequential gestures that have the sharp and rehearsed cadence of a subject performing before a camera. She termed this approach “moving pictures”—a combination of the photographic image fueled with kinetic energy. (6) The artist was deeply influenced by the cinematic world of photography. The “moving pictures” of her choreography read like the kind of iconographic symbols one might search for in a still image or a painting. These embodied codes, in this case, help transcribe the process of preparing chicken soup into a grand odyssey. Within this journey, Cummings utilizes a frying pan as a prop of translation. Flipping, twirling, and shaking the pan as if a dagger, the cooking instrument transforms into something akin to a sword, summoning the force of ancestral traditions and rituals grounded in the domestic space.

The distortion of the source material is inevitable in this process of translation. To call back the logic of collage, let’s refer to this transformation as fragmentation. Akin to the effects on the visual plane, fragmentation in durational works happens when the source material is segmented into a series of fleeting images and signs, often telling distinctive parts of a narrative. Time in durational work aids the fragmentation. The choreographer uses time as an instrument to dictate when an audience receives information and, thus, learns a new component of the narrative. In Chicken Soup, Cummings repeatedly collapses time: narrative throughlines of familial memory and female domesticity are often layered on top of one another in quick-paced sequences. Cummings, in constant motion throughout the work, disrupts a sense of beginning and end within each sequence: in the span of three minutes, the artist mimics the chatter-filled space of the kitchen, embodies the arduous labor of scrubbing floors, and gestures at esoteric ritual, invoking a green ribbon as she summons traditions of African dance. The artist’s ceaseless motion throughout proposes a confluence of the otherwise divergent scenes that pull from dance traditions, stop-motion photographic practices, and theater lineages.

Ultimately, Cummings stitches together these scenes and forms of expression to her aesthetic preference. It is this directorial practice––the curatorial choices made behind the scenes that inform the overall composition of the piece––that I call assemblage. In Chicken Soup, assemblage involves Cummings’s process of mapping and arranging the amalgam of kinetic vignettes. It’s the adding and subtracting of improvisational elements and scripted narration; the layering and combining of “moving pictures” across the stage that marks the practice of assemblage in the work.

Now let’s consider these storytelling methods at once: collectively, the processes of translation, fragmentation, and assemblage gather a patchwork of references, memories, images, and ephemera onto one shared landscape. A resulting collage emerges from this multilayered language—an infinite kind of expression that bleeds through many publics, skips across time periods, and draws upon a potpourri of boundless and interdisciplinary influences that do not subscribe to a set of discipline-specific teleologies. This form of expression, annotated with all that cutting and pasting, riffing and reacting, crying out and beckoning a response, is not too far away from improvisation. In many ways, improvisation is the choreographic recipe that yields collage: we see it stewed up sonically in the polyrhythmic expression we call Jazz, stitched together in a cascade of marks that fashions a quilt, and here in Cummings’s Chicken Soup, enacted in poetic segments presented before live audiences.

FOOTNOTES

(1) Sally Banes, Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-Modern Dance(Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press), 24.

(2) Blondell Cummings, “An Evening with Blondell Cummings: Performed at Jacob’s Pillow for the Inside/Out Series, August 14, 1984,” in Blondell Cummings: Dance as Moving Pictures, Kristin Juarez, Rebecca Peabody, and Glenn Phillips, eds. (Los Angeles: X Artists Books), 189.

(3) Toni Morrison, “Abrupt Stops and an Unexpected Liquidity: The Aesthetics of Romare Bearden,” in The Romare Bearden Reader, ed. Robert G. O’Meally (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), 178–184.

(4) Ibid., 180.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Tara Aisha Willis, “Moves, Stages, and Frames: A Visual Essay on Blondell Cummings” in Blondell Cummings: Dance as Moving Pictures, Kristin Juarez, Rebecca Peabody, and Glenn Phillips, eds. (Los Angeles: X Artists Books, 2021), 91.