In “UNIVERSE: The Art of Existence” an exhibition at Modern Eden Gallery in San Francisco I asked over 60 artists to create works based around space and the cosmos. Performance art is not always possible in the gallery, but we were able to team up with artist Sarah Muelbauer for a special online presentation of “Star Death” which she conceived and filmed (with videographer Erik Whitt) specifically for the show!
I caught up with Sarah to discuss her process and life as a performance artist, as well as the meaning behind “Star Death”…
1). Can you tell us how you started in this type of performance
styled art and acrobatics?
I went to art school to study painting and drawing, and at a certain
point I became interested not just in creating static images, but in
working with time. I think maybe because I’d always been an athlete
(gymnastics from age 6, as well as every other sport I could try) I
was innately connected to movement–though it took me quite some time
to find my own way with it. I’d let gymnastics go when I went to
college and it wasn’t until I moved to Philadelphia to pursue my
Masters in Visual Art that I found a circus school and it became an
obsession–both for the pure joy it gave me, and for the qualities that
make it super-effective as an art medium. It demands your attention as
a spectacle and gives its audience a visceral connection to
physicality that’s really unreachable through most styles of
performance. It took me 5 years of training aerials to become
comfortable as a performer, which is a pretty typical time-frame for
any circus skill, but now I have the freedom to really stretch and
play with it in a way that serves both my high-art conceptual needs
and the demands of such a skilled physical practice.
2). In your piece “Star Death”, was there anything that you were
trying to get through to the viewer? Is there any implied meaning?
I was looking at celestial phenomena and the moment of a star’s
collapse really caught my attention. It’s a sort-of dramatic pinnacle,
and then suddenly this massive force flares and disappears into
nothing–but not really nothing…. since its remnants scatter creating
the substance of the universe in so many other forms. I started to
think about what this would mean choreographically–for me starting
with a massive drop, the height of drama in an aerial act–and then
thinking about the different patterns energy could take as it
Once a star’s fuel source runs out, it spends the rest of it’s life
fighting the gravitational force it created… all until it’s core
implodes and it turns into a supernovae, giving birth to other
elements. Something resonated for me in Beck’s “Wave” and in the
general power of his work and career. I’m taking a lot of liberty in
this interpretation, but it led me to think about the sort-of massive,
but isolating power that a “star” has on the substance and evolution
of our culture, and in how their work goes on to form divergent
sounds, thoughts, and images.
As a movement artist, I think about these effects not necessarily in
their particulars but in their abstraction, and when I’m working with
video I’m not constrained to a certain time, place, or apparatus.
“Star Death” starts with this dramatic, vertical action, transitioning
to an all-over climbing movement, and finding stasis in the middle of
a waterfall with all the “force” in the scene bending around me.
That’s the internal logic of the piece, but ultimately I expect that
people will draw their own associations–it’s much more interesting
3). How long does it take you to put together an performance piece?
What’s involved in your process?
It all depends on context for me, and what I make can range from a
one-minute video, to a 5-minute act, to a 50-minute show or a
durational installation. To keep up acrobatic elements I train
bouldering, aerials, and hand-balancing from 2-4 hours/day, 4-5 times
per week just to sustain skill level and endurance. Past that, when
I’ve got a performance coming up or a video I’m trying to work
through, I’ll add time for movement research and filming, plus there’s
all the hours spent in editing when it’s a video project.
I consider myself a process artist and I work very intuitively. I
don’t story-board narratives or go in with a set idea of what will
come out. Usually things start with a concept and a set of images I
intellectually engage with. I may write some choreography, but as soon
as I start training with the concept in mind, I find something more
interesting and throw out everything else. I spend a lot of time
shooting video of random experiences, too, and that finds its way into
the work. It’s really important for me to maintain that connection to
real life so things don’t become too manicured, anesthetized, or
self-referential. I prefer a bit of rawness, even when it’s deeply
personal, terrifying, or otherwise difficult. Vulnerability is what
allows viewers to connect.
– interview by Michael Cuffe for Warholian