In her first-ever solo exhibition in America, Amanda Coogan has turned the Project Atrium space into an effective meeting of installation and durational performance art. The latest offering from MOCA Jacksonville finds the Dublin-based artist working with local dance students, art students, and professional dancers to perform, The Ladder is Always There.

Coogan describes the performances as six distinct chapters. The first performance was held on Tuesday, Nov. 27 when she collaborated with dance students from Douglas Anderson School of the Arts. For yesterday’s Wednesday, Nov. 28 performance, students from La Villa School of the Arts joined Coogan. Today, dancers from Phase Eight and DASOTA will perform with Coogan at 7 p.m. for museum members, followed by an 8-9 p.m. public reception. The installation is on display through Feb. 24.

Those interested in experiencing an engaging fusion of performance and installation art, featuring a world-renown artist guiding and working with local students and artists in a true “community art” experience, would do will to check out the upcoming performances.

Wednesday’s performance began almost casually. A large tent-like structure of light-tan fabric, blue cords, and shoes hung along the expanse of the Project Atrium space. Roughly 60 people, ranging in age from school children to elderly museum patrons, began to assemble around, beside, in front of, even sitting under, the massive, angular dome of fabric and pulleys. A single microphone hung down between a pair of designer shoes. In the heart of the space, blue-flame like painted figures seem to lick downward along the white walls, framing this knot of activity hanging toward the audience.

As people continued to enter, MOCA director of communications Nan Kavanaugh personally greeted attendees, pausing to explain her thoughts on performance art and Coogan’s work.  

“Performance art is very ephemeral and very much in the present moment; so it’s very important for the audience members to document and share the experience as it’s happening,” Kavanaugh tells Void Magazine. “I think it provides an opportunity for a different and more personal level of interpretation so people connect to it more personally because they are not given more often a sign, or something to help guide them through the experience; performance art is very experiential, not unlike music. It’s intrinsically more personal. Amanda Coogan considers that part of the artwork itself.”

At five minutes after noon, the performance officially begins. No thunderous intros or radical shifts brought on by lighting or multimedia elements heralded the start. An ambient soundscape of shifting electronic drones is slowly cued up through loudspeakers. Both Coogan and students are clad in black. The students move in unhurried processions, streaming in from all directions; descending from the second floor, others walking up the two sets of stairs from the lobby to the performance space. Young girls standing at the top of the stairs leading up into the museum’s main galleries methodically whip their heads downward and then upward, flinging their long hair in deliberate, even brush-like, strokes. Others close their hands into a fist, covering their right eye. At times the dancers seem to almost materialize within the audience. Turning one’s head to see the reaction of another audience member and suddenly three dancers walk mere inches away, seemingly in a trance. Clusters of three to four students move in to the space from behind the crowd, ascending up the two stairways leading up to the main area. A group jogs slowly in place at the base of these stairs; roughly 15 feet away, a second cell of students seems to lean forward onto one another, then begin walking into the crowd. There are moments when one feels almost as if they’re “in” the performance, as three dancers invade one’s space, and the audience is suddenly staring in your direction.

Amanda Coogan and LaVilla Dance Students // Photo: Angela Strain

Within minutes, a kind of ceremonial dynamism occurs. The participants move in measured, languid steps and almost-mesmerized, synchronized motions; a type of Maypole Dance gathering that never seems to resolve. While Coogan is the de facto “artist” and guide, as she moves and gently directs the action, she becomes a ghost-like, if not secondary figure, to what’s occurring in the space. She pauses, softly intoning barely distinguishable words into the mic hanging from above, “Dreams…Time…” Reactions from the audience range from the baffled and bemused to the wholly transfixed and collectively engaged; over the course of the 30-minute performance, the crowd gradually moves toward, rather than away from, what’s occurring around them inside of this charged space of conceptual dance, sound, and visual art.

Ten minutes after the performance, Coogan sits with Kavanaugh at a table in the museum’s gift shop area. She’s changed from her all-black costume back into her regular clothes and seems charged up from what just occurred. While The Ladder is Always There could be seen as a wholly experimental piece, in conversation Coogan is casual and expansive about her work and decades-long life as an artist.  

“I’m a performance artist and live performance is really the core of my work. I’m a visual artist and performance art is this wide medium that crosses over into visual art, live performance, and dance. But I would say I’m a thoroughbred artist so I kind of say my work is like sculpture, as I use my body and other bodies as sculpture,” she says. “So in the classic way, you’d see sculpture with figures in marble or in wood. But in my work it’s real, flesh and blood–real breathing, thinking human beings. So it means that the relationship with the artwork is super dynamic because all of the empathy and qualities of the people involved.”

Relationships and empathy seem to be Coogan’s recurring creative environment. Looking at her education and history in visual arts seems to be a roadmap of forging relationships between divergent media, and finding the empathetic bonds between them. A native of Dublin, Ireland, Coogan studied painting at the Limerick School of Art and Design; she then studied the same discipline at the Athens School of Fine Arts in Greece. Following her studies of sculpture at the National College of Art and Design back home in Dublin, Coogan then journeyed to Germany to the Braunschweig University of Art, where she studied under acclaimed Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović. In 2013, Coogan capped off her impressive academic career in garnering her PhD from the University of Ulster. She’s performed her innovative pieces around the globe, is an in-demand lecturer and workshop leader, and has been featured in myriad media outlets.

As they worked together for so closely as teacher and student, Coogan is considered the protégé of Abramović. The elder artist is known for using her body as a kind of focus, and at times even target of, the audience’s reactions to her ideas of identity, vulnerability, and pain. Abramović’s  radical Rhythm performances series from the 1970s included Abramović ingesting volatile psych meds, burning herself, and even being physically abused by audience members. Coogan’s lineage to her former teacher is certain in regards to aspects of the body being the elemental core of her work but Coogan is less transgressive; or rather Coogan’s challenge to her own audiences seems to be more about their surrendering to her mystical pieces, rather than pure confrontation.

In some regards, Coogan’s shift into working as a performance artist is its own type of surrender and confrontation, where she had an awakening of what she was doing as an artist, and who she ultimately waned to be as that very same artist.

© AMANDA COOGAN, Me To You, 2015. Photograph. // Photo: Paddy Cahill. Courtesy of Amanda Coogan.

“I started out as a painter and I was much more interested in jumping around the canvas and making much larger gestures and this was in the early ‘90s, when video art became much more pervasive, and I literally turned the camera on myself an the activities that I was doing,” Coogan explains. “So it’s really very Jackson Pollock; it’s really from that stream where we saw images and footage of Pollock doing all of these gestural movements with the drip paintings through the lens of a camera. So if we extrapolate that, one could say that’s a form of performance art. In some ways it is anti-object; so let’s not use the object. Let’s see what the activities of the body can do.”

This subtle “anti-object” headspace works will within the greater Project Atrium space. While various object and materials are present in the actual performance area, the solemn-faced dancers who move around in cryptic motions demand the viewer’s attention.

Like all Project Atrium works, the The Ladder is Always There is a site-specific installation. Coogan doubled down on this premise by using local dancers and local materials; the latter courtesy of MOCA. The shoes were created by 20th –century Jacksonville fashion icon Joseph La Rose. A dress featured in the installation was hand painted by legendary artist Marc Chagall. For the 1945 production of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, The Firebird, Chagall had been commissioned to design the sets and costumes.

Coogan and MOCA director Caitlin Doherty had worked together before on earlier performance projects. At one point over the course of the 18 months leading up to the debut of The Ladder is Always There, Doherty discovered the Chagall dress while exploring MOCA’s sizable archives.

“The dress is ultimately about performance, which fits exactly into the vocabulary of my work and it’s such a beautiful piece,” says Coogan.

Experiencing The Ladder is Always There certainly invokes different perceptions over the course of its half-hour duration. For this writer, there was surely the aforementioned sense of spiritual rite, a kind of spy’s view into some clandestine occult initiation. Other’s views might be less, or even more, arcane. In this regard, Coogan’s piece is surely a success. As people walked toward the exit doors of the museum, some seemed amused while others appeared perplexed. If Coogan’s goal is to trigger the widest possible mixture of emotions from her audience, the Project Atrium performance seemed to be a certain success.

“There are lots of metaphors that I’ve dropped into it: the mountain moving, the shoes going up and down which are almost like dancing. I think the painting that I’ve put on the walls changes the qualities of being there.  When you view the piece from the top it’s very light but when you view it from underneath it’s very dense, as if you’re in undergrowth or under the sea. I took the title of the piece from Adrienne Rich’s poem, Diving into the Wreck,  to layer on top of it; which is about diving into the sea and exploring these difficult, nitty-gritty things.”

During Wednesday’s performance, the La Villa students seemed completely at ease in transitioning into what could be an awkward, uncomfortable space of intense experimentation.

“I asked all of the students to be in an ‘imagined space,’ and really focus on being, ‘not natural.’ The audience will be looking at us in our natural bodies, but we need to be ‘heightened’ and sculptural and concentrate our imaginations,” Coogan explains. “There’s a lot of improvisation going on and it’s almost like free jazz. I gave them a pallet of gestures and they riff off of that.”

Since late spring, Coogan has been deeply engaged with the project, culminating in the recent rehearsals and now debuting of the work. She admits that rehearsing with four different groups of both student and professional dancers were brief. “Too brief, to be honest,” she laughs, “but all of the students and participants are awesome and brilliantly reactive.”

She’s equally emphatic in crediting educators and performers for stepping up in helping her make The Ladder is Always There a reality.  “We had a really sympathetic and fantastic teacher in the form of La Villa’s Aimee Barusch; she was very much able to support my vision with the kids. And dance teacher April Henehan (of Douglas Anderson School of the Arts) comes from a contemporary arts milieu where all of the strict disciplines collapse. Jenny Hager (artist and instructor from UNF) also does sculpture and performance and she’s very open as well. And JaMario Stills (artistic director of Phase Eight) studied at Julliard and he has a really high level of performance experience as well. It’s key for me to find these types of collaborators and they can help me work in such a short time frame as well.”

Out of the many universal and personal pleasures of experiencing the arts – any art – is walking into a space with expectations or preconceived notions and exiting with those ideas dispelled, or at least altered. In some degree, Amanda Coogan is dealing directly in “altered consciousness.” Creating a performance piece with no boundaries, where black-clad-wearing teens standing next to you suddenly begin to gesticulate is born of both anarchism and inclusiveness. Spiritual author Tom Catton once remarked that, “Enlightenment is an accident and meditation makes you accident prone.” While the realizations and epiphanies triggered by great art might be an accident, the work of an artist like Coogan surely makes one accident-prone as well.  

“As I don’t really use narration during the live performance, we as an audience can go, ‘What is happening here?’ and we have to make up a story in our own heads. So it’s very demanding in the audience in that we since I’m asking the audience to use their imagination and imagine what this is. There’s no answer to it as it’s not directly about ‘this’ or that, or the other.  If it reminds you of your grandmother cooking apple stew (laughs) that’s totally allowed!”