Broadway 1602

Sylvia Palacios Whitman


25 Mar - 18 Jun 2017

Film still of Sylvia Palacios Whitman's "Siren", performance realized at BROADWAY 1602 HARLEM, March 2017
25 March – 18 June 2017

“After reading about this mythical creature, the symbol of Warsaw, it got very personal and I wanted to imagine how this happened or how. I though what and who made it happen to come into being. Then it got closer even to everyone and everything, – the Siren so close to Vistula, plane-Sirens flying over the river, me arriving and bringing men, women, children-Sirens.

To save men from Zeus’ black hole...the Empire-State-Siren, and the Statue-of-Liberty-Siren, my own mythical mystery...”

(Sylvia Palacios Whitman, New York, Feb 2017)

For the first time since 1984, and for the occasion of the “The Beguiling Siren is Thy Crest” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, Chilean artist Sylvia Palacios Whitman created a new performance piece titled in accordance to the show’s theme.

Sylvia Palacios Whitman was born 1941 in the South of Chile and later studied painting and sculpture at Santiago’s School of Fine Arts. She came to New York in the early 1960s, where she pursued her own work in drawing and painting. She soon became interested in dance and theater, performing with Trisha Brown and Robert Whitman, whom she married in 1968. Soon after leaving The Trisha Brown Dance Company in 1974, Palacios Whitman brought her own performance work on stage introducing her signature style that involved surreal stage props and giant drawings to create a visual theater that combined a rich Latin-American pictorial sensibility with the minimalism of New York’s dance scene.

Palacios Whitman performed her pieces at various now legendary venues in Manhattan such as The Kitchen, Sonnabend Gallery, the Whitney Museum of American Art Downtown Branch and at the Guggenheim Museum. Her performers were non-professionals whom she casted from her milieu or through chance encounters. Palacios Whitman at times used the taped pastoral compositions of Steve Reich to accompany her performances. Dreamlike and melancholic scenes were lined up like three dimensional animated sketches, often informed by autobiographical stories, – a “delicate blend of fantasy and the mundane” (Sally Banes, 1979). The artist makes central use of props, both found and made “weaving phantasmagoria out of material at hand and transforming scale or time to dwell briefly in the marvelous, then moving on readily to the next thing” (Banes).

In 1979 Palacios Whitman staged her ‘concert’ (a term used at the time in New York for performances and happenings) “South” at the Guggenheim using the iconic interior of the famed museum as her stage. “South” related in conceptual tableaux to the artist’s upbringing in Chile and the political oppression in her home country from the perspective of personal experience transcended and magnified into the mundane surrealism so characteristic for the artist’s language. “South” was one of the visually most complex performances the artist had created at the time. Intriguingly whimsical props became the ‘stars’ of the performance: A giant Airmail Envelope carried by a group of performers was moved around like a procession alluring to distanced relations and longing, a life size Neon Horse floated through the space, while a giant Whale was ‘swimming’ up the Guggenheim ramp.

At the beginning of Sylvia Palacios Whitman’s ideas for performances are usually drawings and sketches of exceptionally free spirited imagination. The visual landscape of these drawings often has a touch of the hallucinatory. In the 1970s New York dance historian and critic Sally Banes called this approach ‘hypnogogic’ – after Jean-Paul Sartre’s “The Psychology of Imagination” (1940) – which applied to the process of artmaking can be interpreted as a kind of self-induced hypnotic state of creation.

Palacios Whitman used the same process for creating “Siren” (2017), where the ‘hypnogogic’ drawing-collages became the visual narration for the piece. Phantasmagorical, hybrid creatures swimming and flying through a surreal landscape populate these drawings which are constituting the core and backdrop of the phrases of this video performance. The image of the “Siren” is undergoing eerie mutations, morphing into mythical man/animal hybrids looking like Roman warriors and demi-gods lured by a demonic Zeus into a black hole. Other creatures are object/animal hybrids like the plane-Sirens and the Empire-State- and the Statue-of-Liberty-Siren. There is a distinct atmosphere of threat in the air in these scenes in front of which the performers conduct a series of minimalized symbolic and mundane actions.

In the light of the current regressive political milieus in Palacios Whitman’s place of residence, New York (exposed to the dark age of ‘Trumpism’), and the destination of her journey following the invitation to Warsaw, the imagery in “Siren” becomes highly allegorical. The city icons of the two places are overdetermined by mere populist use and attention. In Palacios Whitman’s work they become independent, powerfully animated agents in a contemporary mythology created by a highly intuitive artistic vision. Susan Sontag’s 1960s notion of the artist being a medium of her/his radical contemporaneity genuinely materializes in Sylvia Palacios Whitman’s visions in her new work.

Anke Kempkes


Born 1941, Chile
Lives and works in Warwick, New York
1970 Performed with Trisha Brown at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
1973-74 Member of Trisha Brown Dance Company

2018 “Radical Women: Latin American Art”, 1960–1985, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
2014 “Human Paper Coil, Negatives, Mummies, Cat’s Cradle, Elephant Trunk, Green Hands, Cup & Tail”, The Whitney Museum of American Art, January
2013 “Human Paper Coil, Negatives, Mummies, Cat’s Cradle, Elephant Trunk” at BROADWAY 1602, New York (December 13/14/2014)
1981 “Negatives”, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden, April 22-24, 1981
1979 “South”, Guggenheim, New York, NY, June 1979
1978 “On Edge”, Truck and Warehouse Theater, New York, March 1978
1977 “Passing Through”, Sonnabend Gallery, New York, May 20-21, 1977
1976 “Clear View”, The Kitchen, New York, NY, November 19-21, 1976
1975 “Going” and “Slingshot”, Whitney Museum of American Art, Downtown Branch, New York, NY
1975 “Going” and “Slingshot”, Whitney Museum of American Art, Downtown Branch, New York, NY
1974 “Going”, 541 Broadway, New York, NY “Soup & Tart” The Kitchen, New York, NY,
“Artists as Filmmakers”, Artists Space, 16mm Film

Performance “Red Cone”, December 1974


2017 “Radical Women: Latin American Art”, 1960–1985, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (cat.)
“The Beguiling Siren is Thy Crest”, Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw
2013/4 “Rituals of Rented Islands: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama – Manhattan, 1970-1980”, The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY, curated by Jay Sanders (cat.)
“Elephant Trunk”, BROADWAY 1602, New York
1976 “Two Notebooks”, Sylvia Whitman and Susan Weil, Project Studios One, Queens, NY (cat.)

Tags: Trisha Brown, FAMED, Robert Whitman, Sylvia Palacios Whitman