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Exhibit Review: Move for a Cause

Move, move up, move down, move sideways, move into positions you thought only Gumby could achieve. Just move somewhere away from the paralyzing jowls of apathy and stagnation. This seems to be the theme of Australian born James Houston’s new photographic essay, quite fittingly named Move, which ran in Manhattan for one week in October as a prelude to AIDS Awareness week, November 27- December 1.

Coinciding with Houston’s book release of the same name, the exhibition was hosted by Milk Galleries, located on West 15th Street and sponsored by fashion designer Hugo Boss.

As I walked into the dimly lit, chic, and very spacious gallery, I was not only taken in by the ambiance enveloping this smart New York City space; the rakishly dressed spectators, the high ceilings and hollow floors, the refined character that only an art gallery can achieve, but I was also struck by the dichotomous representation of movement; frozen in space and time, dressing the spotless walls in 8x10s, 11x14s, 16x20s, and 20x24s. The black-and-white photographs, all naked stills of dancers, seemed to stand strikingly on its own, comfortable in its own documentation of unmoving motion.

The images are of dancers from some of the most renowned companies in the world, including the New York City Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Paul Taylor Dance Company, Pilobolus and the Parsons Dance Company. Although my knowledge of both dance and photography is limited, I did notice a technique often used to indicate movement is absent from Houston’s work. The method of distorting or blurring the subjects’ limbs to mimic the appearance of motion was first used by Ilse Bing, known for her photographs of Cancan dancers taken in 1933 at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, and later for her images from George Balanchine’s ballet, Errante.

This type of aesthetic smearing of definition in toes, arms, and feet creates an ethereal mystique, an almost fantastical element that is relatively absent in the Move prints. Instead, Houston draws a more honest expression of movement, less marinated in dream, but also tailored for an indefinite amount of time. As an outsider viewing these photos with my own idea of both space and occasion, I was stifled by a paradox within his work: the contortioned bodies are motionless in time, but infinitely fluid in shape.

Their black-and-white presence upon the grandeur of the white gallery walls yielded an “old-time feel,” as Houston explained when asked why he chose to surrender the luxury of color. Nevertheless, the shapes and pictures created within the bodies of the dancers offered not only a contemporary measurement of movement, but stimulated a transient motion of the eye as it followed the grooves, curves, and idiosyncrasies embodied by the photo’s shape. As I noticed the multi-dimensionality of the images, acting as both fixed and fluid oracles of time and space, it was difficult to accept or define what was appearing in front of me. The motionless images, sitting opposite my glance, seemed to tease my definition of their existence as immovable objects. Like a musician puts sound to a feeling, Houston put movement to a stationary photograph hanging on a wall in New York City.

For me, the exhibition was a practice in time travel. As I surrendered the colloquial acceptance of time as something with a specified beginning and a clarified end, I was able to see the images in motion when they were captured by Houston’s flash. Move became an eye-opening experience; both literally and figuratively, and reminded my senses of their own mortality. In emphasizing the idea of motion and movement, as well as the omnipresence of time, Houston has developed an artistic personification of his movement against the spread of AIDS. The name and face of Move, or what I like to call 'Houston’s traveling army against AIDS,' makes a loud and overt call to move away from the self-deprecating silence of ambivalence, and to set in motion a plan for survival against the disease.

Houston, who has previously worked to raise consciousness for the fight against breast cancer, has now made AIDS awareness a platform for his work. Boss donated all royalties for a selection of prints to the Dancers Responding to AIDS organization. On November 7, model Elle Macpherson, along with Elton John’s partner David Furnish, hosted a gala before the exhibition’s London opening with the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Houston will return home to exhibit his work in Sydney, Australia, on November 29, coinciding with World AIDS Awareness Week. Exhibitions and events in Paris, Toronto, and Tokyo are scheduled for 2007.