The Weight of Enduring: Miles Greenberg’s Sanguine Devotion

Miles Greenberg, "Haemotherapy (I)," 2019. Image courtesy the artist and Reena Spaulings Fine Art. Photo: Maria Baranova.

Weeks before the new year, the artist Miles Greenberg staged a seven-hour performance that saw him standing semi-nude, wearing what looked to be a gold chastity belt, atop a stout rock while balancing a large bowl as it filled with water droplets from the ceiling at Reena Spaulings, in New York. The artist – who is 23 years old, not formally educated, and calls Marina Abramović both a friend and mentor – was performing Haemotherapy (I), a continuation of Alphaville Noir (2018), a collaborative durational piece based on Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 film Alphaville and Haruki Murakami’s 2004 novel After Dark. Alphaville Noir, which focuses on the ontology of queer black bodies through movement, was exhibited at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris across several performances, each on representing a specific timespan of a twelve-hour night: dusk, nightfall, midnight, and dawn. Additionally, Greenberg invited other artists to collaborate with him, creating a complex dance performance emphasizing temporality, nightlife, and movement.

In Haemotherapy (I), however, Greenberg is alone. His body is painted all in white; he stands ominously and appears statuesque. With a slow-burning candle in hand, he perches on a jagged rock that sits on a long wooden plinth dressed with an assortment all things red: beets, tomatoes, radishes, roses, and slabs of raw red meat, among other scarlet objects. It appears like a massive offering to the god-like figure at the center of the space, deepening the performance’s recurring ritualistic theme – the odor of frankincense wafts throughout, while the droning sound of water drops and church bells fills the room. The mood is reverential, playful, and also quite stressful, as we watch the artist, posing as a devotional sculpture, perform his very long and precarious balancing act.

At first glance, Greenberg’s body seems to remain motionless, absolutely still. But after a few hours in the space, paying close attention to the central figure, I noticed his movements expand and evolve, his readjustments more pronounced as time went on, and as the glass bowl, seemingly glued to his head, became heavier and heavier with water. Greenberg’s face, once completely stoic, began to grimace, his breathing sounded more intense.

Miles Greenberg, “Haemotherapy (I),” 2019. Image courtesy the artist and Reena Spaulings Fine Art. Photo: Maria Baranova.

Unlike Alphaville Noir, Haemotherapy (I) is a solo performance that inspires introspection. Greenberg stands as both an object of veneration and divertissement – as a piece of living sculpture. Much like the artist’s earlier work Chandelier (2015), performed in Montreal, which saw Greenberg hanging from the ceiling semi-nude while holding three burning candles, Haemotherapy (I) pushes Greenberg’s singular figure out into space, both inviting and vulnerable: a meditation on the black body as a source of entertainment and desire.

Greenberg’s performances also delve deeply into what it means to endure and persevere through the psychological and physical suffering of black people throughout history. Both Chandelier and Haemotherapy (I) are reminiscent of the black performance artist Sherman Fleming (aka RodForce), with whom Greenberg must be familiar. For instance, in Pretending to Be Rock (1993), Fleming, whose work also examines bodily gestures in long durational performance, is semi-nude and on all fours while burning candles drip wax on his back. A female performer is suspended above him while a deluge of water falls against her body. The performance lasts two hours and both performers struggle through physical exhaustion. By the end, Fleming’s back is covered in mounds of hot wax.

While Fleming’s piece more pointedly draws on the physical and psychological trauma inflicted on black bodies, past and present, Greenberg’s work is more sanguine, both metaphorically and quite literally, in the case of Haemotherapy (I), with its emphasis on blood and subtle movements. Greenberg’s work indelibly refers back to black trauma, of course, with both black figures covered in white—an on-the-nose reference to whitewashing. But while Fleming’s body is positioned in a submissive stance on all fours, Greenberg’s posture, albeit occasionally faltering, is nonetheless erect and resolute. Sheer black durability and perseverance, if not opulence, become the central tenets of Haemotherapy (I). Despite continued oppression, we revere the black figure for his physicality, strength, and grace.

The artist is quick to dismiss the durational aspect of his work as its main focus: “What I do is not just defined by the amount of time, but by the amount of presence and energy I am able to provide,” Greenberg told me at his studio in New York City. He links this to his lack of formal training: “Performance happened because I didn’t have anything else to work with,” he recalls. “I never had any kind of space or the resources where I can actually manipulate real material. All I have is my body.”

Miles Greenberg, “Haemotherapy (I)” (detail), 2019. Image courtesy the artist and Reena Spaulings Fine Art. Photo: Maria Baranova.

Greenberg’s practice has evolved into an ongoing research project around theories of movement and dance that draw on his disparate influences and travels through Haiti, China, and parts of Europe. His style of performance carries ripples of Senga Nengudi, shades of ballet, and influences spanning ’70s black performance art and Haitian sacred dancing. And while Greenberg’s work can feel gimmicky, at times, resembling the “living statue” performances prevalent around Times Square, I imagine he may also cherish these associations, which help democratize the work.

In Haemotherapy (I) we become witness to “the emancipatory potential of sheer corporeality,” to borrow a phrase Nancy Spector once used to describe Judd Dance Theater. Greenberg’s “sheer corporeality” in his performance does everything to impress, but also provokes us to think about movement as a place or condition that privileges a conscious liberation of the mind from prejudice and discrimination. Greenberg’s performances, and even the minutiae of his gestures, underscore the ongoing ambient threats of racial and sexual oppression. But the artist evokes this while standing tall, peering out to a black and queer futurity.


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