What if Michelangelo were alive today--and looking for one more artistic challenge? Of course, the Sistine Chapel ceiling has already been done. But what about its floor? That's the imaginative conceit behind "The Sistine Floor," a performance piece by the Iowa-based Drawing Legion, making its local debut Friday at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE).
"As he works on the floor, it comes to life," said Mel Andringa, who's created the piece and plays Michelangelo. "But while he's trying to figure out an artistic solution, he's also got a lot of distractions: tourists wanting to visit the Sistine Chapel, the Pope, someone who seems to be a referee and a child working on a jigsaw puzzle.
"To give the faithful the feeling of being suspended at the moment of judgment, he makes a collage of images which are all floating. His palette is an 8-by-24-foot jigsaw puzzle on the floor. On top of that, he places people who are rising and falling: an astronaut, a parachutist, an actress playing with toy animals, a gymnast, a cellist performing contemporary compositions."
"We try to offer several different readings," says Andringa. "So anything (members of the audience) come up with is probably valid--though not necessarily the intention of the work. What's important is that it makes them participants in the project. This isn't a time for lazy spectators--they cannot just sit back and be entertained. They have to be actively involved in interpreting these things."
The Michigan-born Andringa ("It's kind of embarrassing to be a 43-year-old performance artist; most of the others are much younger") feels that although the show is "complex and dense," there are several levels of accessibility.
"People can make sense of what they're able to see--the way they can go to a circus and see three rings simultaneously: on the floor, on the ceiling and running around the perimeters of the ring. Then they share it with someone later: 'Did you see that?' 'No, but did you see that ?' That way, the show is more of a springboard for the audience's imagination."
The idea for "Sistine Floor" came three years ago, when Andringa was awarded a study grant from the University of Iowa and spent the money on "lots and lots of old jigsaw puzzles. I found that I could mix them together and find a puzzle that had the same stamp, but a different picture--and I could make an artwork out of that."
An even larger fellowship--from the National Endowment for the Arts--followed, and Andringa expanded his original puzzle concept to include mosaic tiles (which actually do cover the Sistine floor). "So I thought, 'What if I make something as large as a basketball court, and then imagine myself as Michelangelo--as both the historical character and a modern artist working on this project. . . . ' "
Since then, the Legion (begun by Andringa and writer F. John Herbert when they were students at the University of Iowa) has presented portions of the production in workshops around the country and abroad, logging 20,000 miles last year in their carry-all pickup truck. It's a trek that's also removed Andringa from the university, where he taught multimedia performance art and experimental theater ("I kind of fall in between the lines of the departments").
"There are advantages and disadvantages (to the Midwest setting)," he noted. "The disadvantages are obvious. The advantages are that you can make your work on your own terms. You can build an audience, a following, familiar with the scope of your work. And when you're in a small place, you're the only show in town--that is, the only experimental show. Also, you do have a slight economic advantage of working in an entirely normal location, as opposed to an avant-garde metropolitan setting where a lot of artists are competing for the same dollar."
Clearly, competing is not Andringa's game. He spent four years working for Robert Wilson (whom he first encountered in college), "not so much doing my work but contributing to his. I think that's good. Everyone should be a Moonie for a little while. There's a great deal of emphasis placed on individuality in this culture--and it doesn't hurt to lose that sometimes, to feel that you're sharing in a larger, collaborative product."