The Mattress in Yvonne Rainer’s Parts of Some Sextets (1965)

by thomasmagnahastings

Image 11 Parts Sextets close up

This paper analyses the mattress as a key support in the early choreographic practice of Yvonne Rainer (1934-). Rainer’s mid-career memoir, Work 1961-73 (1974), features an appendix titled ‘Etymology of objects, configurations, and characters’, which tracks the use of props across her time with the Judson Dance Theater (New York, 1962–) and thereafter. Rainer has pointed to the ‘multiple dramatic and psychological connotations’ that underwrite the mattress: sleep, illness, comfort and sex all lure the spectator to read proto-feminist elements into the dance work. Through a close reading of Parts of Some Sextets (1965), I want to situate the mattress against the ‘discussion about work, task and the elimination of stylisation’ that has come to typify this period of Rainer’s practice. It is important for my argument that the seduction induced by the performance misreads the mattress, which only appears to literalise such a discussion. That this prop disabuses a reading of task-oriented movement speaks to the vitality of image and illusion in Rainer’s work. Rather than defer to aesthetic discourse, however, I want to reframe the mattress by turning to feminist revisionary readings of Hannah Arendt’s account of the private, as forwarded by political theorists including Linda Zerilli and Bonnie Honig. As the latter has written: ‘The human body is, for Arendt, a master signifier of necessity, irresistibility, imitability, and the determination of pure process.’ In closing, I will present a more recent, feminist performance that deploys the mattress on the University campus, after Ana Mendieta’s Untitled (Rape Scene), 1973. Emma Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance (Carry that Weight), (2014-15) brings the spectator’s private, domestic attachment to the mattress into question, in a way that sheds light on Rainer’s earlier project.

*This abstract belongs to a paper that I will present at the 13th International AHRA conference, to be held at the Royal Institute of Technology, in Stockholm, later this year. The theme of this year’s conference is “Architecture and Feminisms: Ecologies, Economies and Technologies”