High on the wall, a gold-tiled mosaic sparkles in the glow of chandeliers suspended from a soaring ceiling. But it can’t compete with the living mosaic below. Posed on tiered scaffolding, elbow to elbow, are 120 people of all colors, shapes and ages, most of them naked.
It is a fleshly fantasy framed in marble columns, an encyclopedia of humanity — or at least a cross section of northwest Brooklyn.
“Stefano, if you can sit down on the platform with your legs dangling forward,” calls out Sarah Small, 32, the Washington-born photographer-ringleader who hatched this massive performance-art project. She calls it a “tableau vivant,” or living picture, the kind of thing that was popular in the Victorian era as a way to re-create famous visual works, often with an erotic undertone.
Small’s work is both a throwback to that and an experiment in pushing the modern limits of privacy. On this chilly, overcast Sunday a few weeks ago, with gray light filtering through the stained-glass windows of the former Williamsburgh Savings Bank, Small is rehearsing her art models in what will be a meld of music, movement . . . and two weddings.
In response to her request, a bald, burly, naked man hops down a few steps to the scaffold’s central level, then squats and scoots to the edge with his legs wide apart, hands on knees.
Small considers him solemnly. “Yeah, I like that,” she says. Long-limbed and slender, with a pale oval face and a mane of brown hair, she could pass for a dancer in her black tank top, leggings and boots. A tattoo encircles her right biceps; her fingers glint with silver rings.
She tinkers with a few more of the poses, composing mini-dramas among the models that convey conflict, or isolation, or comfort. Most of the models are in various states of recline. A few crouch, grimacing, with hands clenched like paws. Two young blondes nestle together, one topless, the other not. At the center of the display is a pair of spectacular nudes: a heavily obese woman sprawling next to a thin man curled head to knees. All we see of him is his folded posterior, mooning us, and vertebrae popping up like a string of beads along his back.
Small, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, has been gaining recognition for her camerawork — her photos have appeared in Vogue, Life and Rolling Stone, and in galleries throughout the country as well as in Europe and Asia. In 2009 she started composing living installations to promote the ongoing photographic series she calls “Delirium Constructions,” tightly focused portraits that capture high emotion the moment it bursts out of her subjects.
Everything about this current project is huge: the cathedral-like art deco space; the number of models involved, all volunteers; the sponsors, including Michael Huffington, Arianna’s ex. Even the title is a mouthful: “Tableau Vivant of the Delirium Constructions: A Live Exploration of Implausible Interaction.”
Small also heads a Balkan a cappella vocal quartet, called Black Sea Hotel, and it will perform on the scaffold with the models, along with a string quartet. She has brought in a music director, a stage director and a choreographer. A film crew is following her around for a planned documentary of her work.
But what is most interesting is that for all its grandeur, this project is not an ego trip. Most performance art relies heavily on its creator’s personal magnetism — think of that veteran of the field Marina Abramovic, famed for her marathon appearances that encourage close contact with audiences, or recent works such as “Naked” by the Japanese American duo Eiko and Koma, in which they put themselves on display for weeks on end.
Yet Small barely figures in her tableau. She will appear among the models at certain points during the hour-long performance, conducting their movements as if they were a giant vertical orchestra. But the audience will barely see her; she will disappear among her masses, and that’s the point. Small’s tableau turns art-world egomania and our present-day fixation with ourselves on its head. She has created a major opus that is surprisingly self-effacing.
Here, mankind itself is the star.
“This piece is built by the people who are in it,” Small says. “I never come with pre-set ideas.”
What interests her is “the human quest for intimacy.”
“It’s exciting to be able to promote intimacy,” Small continues. “That’s probably why I make art, to open up a fleeting moment in time to be able to share something intimate. On the one hand it’s like manufactured intimacy, and using that kind of language it sounds like it’s fake, but it’s so not.”
This is why she doesn’t consider her tableau a form of site-specific theater.
“I’m not making theater. I reject the idea of theater,” she says. “I feel like in theater there’s not much room for on-the-fly personal expression.”