Go Deeper

Sarah Muehlbauer Takes Plasticity and Memory Up in the Air

Posted August 3rd, 2012

Not quite the ouroboros, but pretty close.

Sarah Muehlbauer is a textile artist. And a performance artist. And a painter, and a gymnast, and a yogi, and an aerialist, and a writer. All of which, of course, suit her well for the 2012 Philly Fringe, where she’ll debut her first major piece as a director: WAMB, with her collective, SnakeEatTail. Trained as a visual artist, with a bachelor’s degree in painting from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an MFA from Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, Sarah says that performance and physicality has always tied her work together.

“I think sculpturally about the body,” says Sarah. “I’m very tactile, physical. I’ve always had a movement practice.”

Sarah initially went to Madison to pursue a fashion design program. “At the end of the day, I was very dissatisfied with it. Drawing was hitting a note for me and challenging me in a way I can’t even explain.”

She changed to study painting at Madison, because, she says, “It was the only department you could get studios through. But we were encouraged to explore, so I did video, and explored performance there.”

Moving to Philadelphia in 2008, she met with a lot of upheaval, and an expansion of her interests into aerial performance. At the end of Sarah’s first semester, the Tyler School of Art relocated from its location in Elkins Park.

“The Tyler move pushed collaborative work. It pushed me to make work that wasn’t just out of my studio,” Sarah says. And while a friend suggested she consider aerial work, when she drove her Penske rental down from Madison, she had no idea that her new place in Germantown was only three blocks away from the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts. She took movement class there at first, but says from the get-go, “It was obvious I wanted to be up in the air.”

And perhaps most dramatically, the first weekend after Sarah started her studies at Tyler, she left town to present her first major show—at the Smithsonian.

After the jump: video from the Smithsonian performance, we talk about the stuffness of stuff, and about Jung and yoga.

Sarah received a large grant from VSA, a program now associated with the Kennedy Center, to support Rustle, which won her the top prize in the “Green Light” competition. Elements of the performance, and some of Sarah’s interest in yoga, emerged from her struggle with Crohn’s disease. She required surgery during her sophomore year of college, and afterwards, she says, “I dropped everything I thought I knew, started yoga, studied Eastern philosophy, psychotherapy. [Carl] Jung’s fusion of what psychoanalysis was with more of an Eastern perspective resonated with the body and ideas of interconnected nature.”

Niff Nicholls and Meg Skill

WAMB, Sarah’s project for Philly Fringe, explores ideas of receptivity and interconnectedness, along with the fluidity of memory and how we rewrite past events for the present. It began in a Circus School class led by, among others, Niff Nicholls, who stars in the performance as the lead character, Hollis. In that class, students were asked to respond to an image the instructors brought in.

“It was a painting with a house and a tornado leaning at the same trajectory in the background. I began working with the concept of being swayed by the weather around you. [WAMB] was initially based on the idea of a human weather vane, a person who’s very reactive to everything around them. I was thinking of it not just aerial performance but as an art piece,” Sarah says.

She found a sympathetic mind in Niff, who she says was similarly interested in work with conceptual approaches. Even so, Sarah sought further input.

“I hit a point in writing where I wanted to include other people. Much of it is about memory and its relationship to lived experience. I sent out a prompt, and received an amazing response within days of doing it. I asked people to send me their stories of growing up, and asked for stories that included physical memory of something that resonated with them. I like [fiction writer Haruki] Murakami—so much of his writing is so everyday but so well-described, and you pick up the subtle symbols in it.” Sarah hopes that her script will meet that high bar.

In some ways, WAMB is the apotheosis of Sarah’s multidisciplinary artistic practice, and continues the exploration of the physical, the physical world, and materiality she began as a student. At Tyler, Sarah developed a series of improvisation and history-based projects under the Walnut Lane Bridge. David Young from Cliveden provided her with images of the construction of the bridge, and Sarah became fascinated with “the idea of concrete being the aggregate of man’s command of his environment.”

“I collected stones over the course of the day,” Sarah says, which ran in video form as a single looped piece. “I was in this weird flotational skirt designed to float the rocks around me, and at the end, I skipped them back into the water.”

Your ever-verbally-facile blog manager asks Sarah what it is that fascinates her about the stuffness of stuff.

Sarah Muehlbauer

“The boundaries that we normally think of as boundaries, like skin: this is where I end, and other stuff begins—the Jungian or Buddhist or interconnectedness approach,” she replies. Further, her experience with Crohn’s disease led her to recognize that the body is something we may not have full connection to or control over, and that we might lose it, not through anything we do or cause, but merely through being.

“I spent the last year of my grad program dying plastic. [Roland] Barthes wrote beautifully about the modern desire for plasticity—this infinitely transformable substance that never dies and is everything that we can’t be,” Sarah says.

Aerial work, in some ways, seems like both the pursuit of and a reaction against this notion. Indeed, Sarah says that in aerial work performers put themselves at risk, and try to supercede limitations—like their bodies, and, um, gravity. But how do you get past the spectacle of aerial performance merely as spectacle.

“Some things look a little more like acting, like task-based performance. I have two friends who are composing the score for us. I’ll be speaking the piece live. A lot of elements add up to make it a more experiential scene. After setting that, the performers will carry it off into a spectacular interpretation.” Sarah says that aerial work has a direct visceral connection with audiences, a connection that transcends that of other forms.

“You feel it in the way your stomach drops when they drop.” Nonetheless, she says, “For me, it’s a tool to get somewhere else. I’m interested in more conceptual work and more layered depth.”

And as for making a life in Philadelphia, Sarah says, “I could never do this project anywhere else. Everybody signed on to do it without any promise of money. I can’t take that community for granted.”

WAMB runs September 7, 8, 14 and 15 at 7:30 pm, with 1:30 pm matinees on September 8 and 15, at the Broken Arrow Workshop at the Hatchatory. 2628 Martha Street, Kensington. $15.

–Nicholas Gilewicz