Beautiful No-bodies? - the dancers in Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s Apeshit

What do Beyoncé and Jay-Z have to do with art history, theory and criticism? actually quite a bit, since as ‘the Carters’ they filmed the video for their latest single Apeshit in the Louvre Museum in Paris in May this year and in it, the paintings that form the visuals function not merely as wallpaper but as keys to the meaning of the song. As an aside I’m giving the song its full spelling, not the coy Apes**t which is how you find it on Google.

The Apeshit clip was put together on the [hip] hop, with Bey and Jay only filming in the Louvre for two days. Time constraints meant they leant heavily on the creative improvisatory strengths of ‘it’ director Ricky Saiz, and Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui both of whom they’d worked with previously.

The result is what has been described as ‘another heart stopping moment for pop culture …’ It is not the first time the Carters [both wife and husband] have used the art museum as a location. Beyoncé has filmed in the Louvre before, and Jay-Z’s 2013 video for his single ‘Picasso Baby’ was filmed at New York’s Pace Gallery. ‘But this’ crows contemporary art magazine frieze, ‘is the strongest statement yet by the Carters which considers the art historical canon, and the placement of people of colour within it.’[1]

Art historian Dr James Smalls has written this ‘video is an unapologetic visual and sonic manifesto about spaces, power, and control … It is about establishing a new order in which black bodies seize and command cultural and physical spaces from which they have traditionally been excluded and are typically marginalized.’

Apeshit certainly shows the Carters in full control of their own narrative. Also by incorporating black dancers into the Museum, the question of who is looking at whom continually circles, never coming to rest. We’re looking at the Carters, and the dancers, but the paintings and sculptures also form a kind of upstage audience.

These ever-shifting subject positions are echoed by director Ricky Saiz’s swirling, trippy camera work. Saiz likes to roll the camera straight up 180 degrees, as if its experiencing a heroin rush and its eye is rolling up, it’s a bit a key signature in his work, and an effect that has made him famously ‘street’.

 Galerie Apollon, Louvre Museum Paris.

Galerie Apollon, Louvre Museum Paris.

When this ‘eye’ rolls up Saiz doesn’t seem to care whether what it records is a hunk of scruffy foam core or the ceiling of the Louvre’s exquisite Galerie d’Apollon. It’s just rollin, rollin’ rollin. The video’s iconography starts with a dancer wearing swan-wings, kneeling on I.M Pei’s Louvre concourse and looking sadly down, an unequivocal nod to Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Wings of Desire – not an obvious visual reference for B and JZs generation [or hers at least] – so I think there’s an older European hand at work in there.

The restless, roiling almost attention-deficit camera then pushes us on an art history slide exam-style tour through the 19th century French section of the Louvre’s ‘Denon’ Wing. The camera keeps rolling as some of the world’s greatest paintings spin by, lingering only where these works key into depictions of people of colour, or if they echo power and or/ are geographically convenient.

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Some of the works we might recognise here are David’s Oath of the Horatii (1784) and The Intervention of the Sabine Women (1799). Next, in front of his Portrait of Madame Récamier (1800) we see two seated dancers connected by their heads to the same swirling length of white turban– which echoes the white wrapped head-cloth in Marie Benoist’s Portrait of a Negress, 1800 which appears towards the end of the video. This scene also echoes Ulay and Abramović’s performance, Relation in Time, originally performed in 1977, where they knotted their hair together for seventeen hours.

There are more interesting contemporary art references; in one of the opening shots we see Beyoncé in a puffy white frock in front of the Winged Victory of Samothrace on the Louvre’s Grand Entrance, along the steps the corps de ballet lie arrayed in ‘corpse pose’ [‘savasana’].

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They suddenly crunch up in the ‘contraction’ movement of Martha Graham’s choreographic language, a frightening and uncanny moment where in perfect unison they flex up from the pelvis, moving their arms forward, then relaxing back. As they do the camera spins on its side, and now it’s an Anthony Gormley sculptural installation shot from above; which makes sense as Apeshit choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has worked with Gormley on previous projects.

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Observers have tried to draw a link between the number of paintings we see from the hard colonial period in Europe and the Carter’s empowered black bodies and, but the actual connection here might be quite prosaic. The tableau that marks the commencement of the lyric, B and J-Z in cute his ‘n hers sharp-cut pastel trouser suits in front of the Mona Lisa – locates us on Level One of the Denon Wing, where one also finds Paintings France 1780-1850 and on the other side of the Mona Lisa’s high security panel, is what’s labelled on the Louvre map as ‘Large format 19th century French painting, mainly David and Delacroix. They simply went ‘round the corner to film, because they had only two days.

For me the most fascinating aspect of the video is not the Carters, to me they are merely talented, ruthlessly efficient, damagingly wealthy celebrities, they are to be taken as seriously as Edina ["Eddie"] Monsoon from Absolutely Fabulous in the latest Versace outfits. While they may indeed be committed to establishing a ‘new order’ for African Americans, [and the powerful lyrics really support this] the idea that the only means to cultural power and influence is via fabulous wealth and celebrity is just simply vacuous.

I’m not saying that fame, in and of itself, is a bad thing, celebrities can lead public opinion and provide strong role models. Beyoncé last year gave more to charity than any other celebrity in the US. And she has a fabulous voice. But together she and Jay-Z simply don’t ‘hook’ me visually here.

What actually does is the beautiful quality of dancers’ movement, and of the choreography. There are only about a dozen of them, and yet they mesmerise against a backdrop of the world’s greatest paintings. And it’s only really down to them that this after-hours ‘Night in the Museum’ style video actually is able to pull together ideas of race, colour, costume, dance, public space and art in a way that breaks new creative ground.

The anonymous dancers, who make up this corps de ballet, or chorus line, behind the stars, for me claim the space of high art as the underpaid, muscle-sore ‘totties’ in the meat-grinder which is the contemporary art and music world, so their contribution for me is the ‘art’ of the video.

 Jacques-Louis  David,  The  Coronation of Napoleon  1807

Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of Napoleon 1807

Note, the way they use their bodies in front of each work is incredibly nuanced – it evokes for me the idea of ‘kinetic learning’ in the humanities. Kinaesthetic learning is a learning style in which learning takes place by the students carrying out physical activities, rather than listening to a lecture or watching demonstrations. It can be key to developing visual literacy, or that sensitivity to the language of painting [or ‘flat art’ as sculptors call it] and it can be done through adopting the poses of the human figures in the works. 

We’ve all engaged in this kind of learning about art – but it’s hard to catch hold of. For example I think we’ve all had the experience of forming our faces into an expression we’ve just focused on intently in a painting – similarly we’ve probably all, as children, done the tableaux game in front of public sculpture where you ‘freeze’ in the pose of the work.

I’ve not had a lot of these kinds of learners in twenty years of teaching art history, but I do get the odd one – [they tend to be siphoned off by sport, human movement degrees etc.]. But I still think it’s a really interesting and very modernist way, of relating to art.

What I love the most in Apeshit, is the delicate chopping and swaying motions of the dancers – these little phrases of movement are such a powerful contrast to the aggression in the lyrics.

Last night was a fuckin' zoo
Stagedivin' in a pool of people
Ran through Liverpool like a fuckin' Beatle
Smoke gorilla glue like it's fuckin' legal
Tell the Grammy's fuck that 0 for 8 shit
Have you ever seen the crowd goin' apeshit? (Rah)

Within an ‘art-o-sphere’ the dancers create a ‘kinesphere’ or the three-dimensional space in which all movement of the body takes place, and this becomes the space of learning in the video. For example, in front of the armless Winged Victory, with a cruel kind of irony, the corps treat us to a kaleidoscopic fanning out in a port de bras or ballet arm movement. And in other passages of the video the dancers underscore the role of ‘crowd’ for example in the ‘shimmy wiggle they do, a kind grooved up Charleston’ in front of David’s the Coronation of Napoleon, which gives us a base or a ground line from which to view this tremendously formal and careful and political image.

The dancers are the chorus in a Greek sense, the beating writhing real down on the floor people, while Kings and Queens stare us down from the walls, and Beyoncé and Jay-Z do the same from their fence in front of the Mona Lisa.

The dance choreography in Apeshit intuitively privileges this form of learning and this mode of connecting with art -- and for this its worthy of art historical attention.

 

[1] https://frieze.com/article/how-beyonce-and-jay-z-took-art-world-storm-their-viral-new-louvre-video