Renaissance iconography and traditional Indian dance converge when a crimson sari of intense contrast folds and contours around the dancing figure of Bengali artist Bisakha Sarker MBE. Do Not Yet Fold Your Wings questions, with astute honesty, what it means to be a woman over 70 in contemporary British society. Projected in a raw concrete enclave, sandwiched between two sets of stairs in Liverpool’s historic Bluecoat building, three video projections explore the necessity of living life meaningfully. Sarker’s body, veiled with intensely-lit fabric reminiscent of that of seventeenth-century master painters, is the sole focus in this somewhat elegant display.
Springboarding from the pioneering research of Dr Atul Gawande’s 2014 Reith Lectures ‒ a medical standpoint of how to live one’s life without compromise ‒ Sarker set out to dance her own Late Style in this performative installation. Conceived by the Baring Foundation, Late Style is aimed at establishing a nationwide endeavour to fund artists over 70 to challenge preconceptions of old age and what is expected of the elderly.
The artist’s dancing body fills the cavernous space, while a combination of music by long-time collaborator Chris Davies and spoken words by Sarker herself punctuate the silence. A single video of the artist’s aging body covers the floor while another is hardly discernible, tucked away at the top recesses of the second floor. It is the largest and most prominent figure of Sarker on the back wall that initially confronts the audience. Here we witness the dancer’s corporeal engagement with the ideology of Dr Gawande. His teachings, for Sarker, reverberated in the words of fellow Bengali, the poet Rabindranath Tagore, and in particular a poem remembered from childhood: Duhshomoy. A lament on strength in the face of impending death. Do Not Yet Fold Your Wings is a conscious decision to choose a hopeful outlook on old age as opposed to one of fear. Sarker gently recites the words of Tagore and Gawande as she dances, creating a spiritual, hymn-like resonance.
Christian iconography, and in particular that of the crucifixion, are undeniable as the upward-reaching space comes to feel like that of an empty church nave. On multiple occasions Sarker’s outstretched arms become a gesture reminiscent of Christ on the cross. In particular, it is Renaissance imagery ‒ most notably that of the one-time bad boy of seventeenth-century Italian painting, Caravaggio – that prevails. Parallels can be found in the decadent display of the deep folds and curves of the rich red sari’s fabric and in the honest portrayal of the artist’s aging frame. ‘The Inspiration of Saint Matthew’, 1602, by the Italian master, for example, was designed as an altarpiece, similar in wall placement and scale to Sarker’s video installation. Depicted as an elderly man, the saint stands uncomfortably atop his stool as his red robes, dramatic in depiction, fall around his elderly physique. Although representing a saint, Caravaggio does not elevate Matthew from beyond simply being a man. His shocked, weathered face is utterly human as it stares towards the angel above. So too is Sarker, clad in her sumptuous red robes, depicted categorically as a woman of her age. It took some effort for the dancer to accept that she could still partake in the physicality necessary for this installation. Finally convinced, Sarker confessed that the pain and discomfort involved in dancing from the floor was a necessary trade-off for living her meaningful life, one without compromise. All too often the lines of age and physical reminders of a life lived are wiped clear when representing one’s Late Style. Here the artist, just as Caravaggio had four centuries previously, honoured the years it took for such wisdom to be carved.
For the floor-dancing, projected onto the ground, Sarker sits atop a traditional Indian drawing composed of salt, created by collaborator Ansuman Biswas. On the opening night, Sarker symbolically poured the first grains to the ground as onlookers were invited to throw salt from the five viewing-points above. Once the space was filled, Biswas used his body to push the salt to form highly-stylised patterns. When viewed from any of the bird’s-eye perspectives of this demanding Bluecoat space, it is as if the projected video of Sarker is shaping these patterns with her own body. When seen in light of the dancer’s age, these movements, lines and crevices come to symbolise the lines and ravages of age upon the performer’s body. Often too, there are moments when Sarker’s likeness lies totally still on top of the salt. It feels briefly as if we are witnessing a corpse below in some sort of peaceful death ritual.
The salt, and Biswas’ overdetermined patterns, brings an unfortunate kitsch element to this installation. Sarker and her fellow collaborators, of whom there were many, did not need this overembellishment of site. Commissioned specifically for this space, one cannot help but sense a crisis of confidence. The sleekness of the video, Sarker’s enchanting dancing and the sound and words of Gawande and Tagore spoken by the artist combine occasionally in moments of great meditation. The addition of the salt drawings felt as if Sarker did not have the artistic voice and conviction to hold back a wisdom that age often brings.
Notwithstanding, this representation of Bisakha Sarker’s Late Style is an honest and often raw manifestation of a long life’s journey. Quietly and delicately, the dancer strives to undermine society’s perpetual expression of old age as a loss on an unimaginable scale.