Moving Pictures: Ralph Lemon

I’ll admit it, I showed up late to the show. I had been told a dancer was performing, but as soon as I entered I knew Ralph Lemon would not be dancing that night.

Projected on the screen in the Performance Lab was a video, muted, of a black man sobbing. The audience sat in silence and watched while Lemon watched as well. Seated beside a small table near the right side of the room, Lemon was illuminated by a desktop lamp, as were his chair and his papers. Other than that bulb and the crying man, the room was dark.

Lemon is a dancer by trade, he’s a fellow at the Yale Repertory Theater and in 1999 he received the CalArts Alpert award in the Arts. He has performed everywhere from Stanford to MoMA, but he didn’t come to Reed to dance. On October 29th, he held two workshops in the Performance Lab with “a lecture about work” set for the next day. This “lecture” was the show at which I arrived late.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lemon is a fan of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. He showed a clip of one of his favorite Tarkovsky films, Andrei Rublev (1971). Also muted, the video showed townspeople running wildly around a church. Culminating in a short yet dream-like balloon flight, Lemon talked over the microphone as the film played. Although visually loud and often cacophonous —as is Tarkovsky’s style—, Lemons slow, deliberate speaking changed the meaning from whatever Tarkovsky intended to a warm review: intellectual musings from an intimate friend.

Solaris, another Tarkovsky film, debuted in 1972. The movie was from what Lemon drew his 2011 MoMA performance. The film features a devastating love story centered on a scientist and his ghost wife. Lemon played a video, produced by MoMa, advertising the dance routine. In the video, he says “We watched the film and culled certain key words, phrases from it, that we then re-mapped into movement.” A combination of interviews with Lemon and footage of his dance routine, it seemed like the quintessential high-brow museum promotional. Lemon talked over this video too, he talked over himself. While the Lemon on video attempted to explain his dance performance, the Lemon in the PAB attempted to unexplain it: “Blah...blah...blah,” he told himself.

From 2005 to 2008, Lemon primarily worked on the “Walter Project.” Walter Carter, a black centenarian who had lived his whole life in Bentonia, Mississippi, was Lemon’s partner in art. Having (not one year earlier) completed a multi-continental, decade-long research project exploring race, history, and memory, the dancer found an unlikely collaborator in Carter. Lemon simply refers to him as “Walter.”

Lemon played videos of Walter “acting out” scripts that Lemon had created beforehand. Paid for his work by Lemon, Walter happily agreed to do whatever strange task Lemon had him perform. Under the watchful gaze of Lemon’s video camera, Walter tried his best to complete the assigned task as best he could remember. Some of the task went as such:

Take a ceramic rabbit, smash it to pieces with a brick. Take the pieces and put them in a pitcher, take to the pitcher to a large vase. Place the broken bunny pieces in the vase. Take a slab of butter, resting in a sardine tin, and cover a screwdriver with the butter. Rub the screwdriver up and down the vase.

Understandably, Walter often forgot what to do and simply made up actions as he went along. Lemon relished these moments of memory-lapse-induced improvisation. There was no pressure to follow the script —Walter knew that— and after he completed the task Lemon turned off the camera.

For years Lemon traveled to rural Mississippi to collaborate with walter, made art videos, and just chat. He was fascinated by Walter’s memory, his experience. Lemon had Walter take him to a tree where, as a young boy, Walter witnessed a lynching. Walter did not believe that a human had walked on the moon. Lemon, coming from a much different geographical and temporal background relished these moments of intimacy, no matter how tragic or bizarre they seemed at the time. Walter died in 2012, and with him a puzzling a beautiful collaboration was lost to history. Now, he only exists in the memories of his friends, Ralph Lemon, and in the videos of him making art.