Printed, handwritten, sewn, cast: words are sprung from between the covers of books and brought into the realm of the body in Lesley Dill’s work. After decades of creating text-based visual art, Dill’s name is tied to language, most strongly to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, from which many of her performances derive.
The wearable use of paper marks the origin of her performance art, offering a distinct sensorial experience in comparison to her two-dimensional and sculptural work. When worn, the dress or suit form used often by Dill is brought into the realm of the temporal. Its spare weight and the degree to which it covers or reveals the body are felt uniquely by the performer and experienced by the audience at one point in time.
From 1993 to 2018, Dill’s extensive use of paper in her collaborative performances allows the viewer to see paper in movement, leading to a greater understanding of this immensely variable material, and offers the opportunity for the viewer to respond viscerally.
Dill created her first performance, Paper Speaking Dress, for an event organized in 1993 at the Guggenheim Museum SoHo in New York City.1 Fastened by ties at her sides, performer Trista Kelver wore a paper dress featuring verses from “The Soul Has Bandaged Moments” by Emily Dickinson. Crinkled and softened by Dill’s hands prior to the performance, the garment appeared to have had a history of its own. The dress was made from mulberry paper purchased from New York Central Art Supply. Clearly handwritten, certain words on the dress unexpectedly pushed forward from the rest during the performance: “tongue...staples...SOUL.” As four women pulled thin paper scrolls from the costume, Dill stood at the microphone and gave voice to the written words. Each scroll was accordion folded, released from a pouch that sat inside each orifice of the dress. At the end of the performance, the scrolls were folded and repacked.2 The use of the scroll is continued in other performances, expanding from narrow, easily handled strips to wide banners pulled from costumes as part of the Divide Light opera (2008/2018).
In order for words to be activated—for their meaning to be released and felt—they must be read. In a sense, nearly all of Dill’s work is performative. The viewer performs the act of reading: the head turns to follow winding lines of text, whole bodies moving like eyes across a page in gigantic installation works. In Paper Speaking Dress, the audience did not have to depend on the voice in their heads, but were instead dictated to, their vision free to watch as scrolls are unraveled, absorbing the physical length of every phrase.
In a 2000 interview by Arlene Raven for Hand Papermaking, Dill associated her use of paper in clothing form to human skin; “The stains, creases, and sewing mark time and replicate our daily emotional experience of being touched, soothed, pinched, caressed, and bruised.”3 Our experiences, emotional and physical, leave their mark. As we age, the amount of laughter, sun, sleep, worry, all exist not only in the depths of our hearts, but on the surface, on our skin. Through the use of paper as clothing, Dill creates “skin surrogates,” onto which words can be read.4
Paper clothing served as an exterior “second” skin in Dill’s sublime Dada Poem Wedding Dress, performed at the Dada Ball in 1994, a benefit for Housing Works and Visual AIDS in New York City. Verses from Dickinson’s “The Soul Has Bandaged Moments” not only adorned the dress made of white-painted brown paper, but were also painted onto the skin of the performer Auriea Harvey.5 Through selective ripping of the dress, Harvey’s naked body was exposed in parts: hips, legs, breasts, pubic hair. The performers deliberately paused, as if to imply a caress, before abruptly ripping off parts of the dress. This movement and the sequencing of body parts to be revealed were rehearsed prior to the performance. The actual tearing of the dress, however, happened for the first time live. A direct response to Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, the performers—intentionally all women—gave strength and support to one another as the dress was stripped off. Harvey’s naked body was at last completely uncovered, the words read differently on her skin than on the paper clothing, demonstrating how our outer layers may be easily torn apart, but what exists within is eternal and cannot be taken from us. To end the performance, Dill took her mouth to Harvey’s and drew out a long folded ribbon. As described by Dill, “…both of us mutely testifying to the survival and strength of the spirit.”6 After the performance, the costume was sewn back together. “I love [paper’s] fragility and implications of violence,” stated Dill, “...but paper can always be mended. It can be sewn back together, glued, and remade.”7 Although the dress is preserved intact, the story of its destruction remains within its stitched scars.
The violence of tearing is repeated in a similar performance, Sometimes I Feel Skinless, performed at George Adams Gallery in 1995. The performer’s nude body was also painted with the words from “The Soul Has Bandaged Moments,” seen on her dress as well. The inclusion of music in this performance, in addition to the poetry recitation, accompanied the loud crackling and ripping of paper.8
When standing in front of one of Dill’s paper dresses or suits, the viewer may not be able to grasp its physicality or the immeasurable number of times the paper is touched and worked during its making. In a gallery or museum setting, the viewer relies on the description in the wall label and is able to look up close for clues about fibers and textures, but is barred from touching the artwork, much less wearing it. In contrast, the live performances activate the work, bringing the paper alive again, and give the audience the opportunity to hear and see how it moves on the body; we can imagine more clearly what it feels like to wear it, and what it would feel like to be the one to tear it apart. “Clothing houses the house that houses the soul,” says Dill, but it can also be an identity signifier, one that she subverts in Poem Dress for a Hermaphrodite.9 Created in 1995 for “Pulp Fashion,” an event held at Dieu Donné Papermill in New York City, the piece—an incomplete dress of thin, white handmade paper—was worn by Sur Rodney Sur, a frequent model for Dill’s photography. Meant to draw attention to gender fluidity, the performer’s body was divided: half adorned in a typically feminine dress, the other half left bare, exposing a recognizably male physique. A long ribbon sprouted from the nipple, onto which the words of Dickinson’s “For Each Ecstatic Instant” were hand lettered. Sur describes his performance as “ritualistic.”10 Following Dill’s direction, every movement of Poem Dress for a Hermaphrodite was rendered very slowly as he made his way across the runway. Sur recalls it being “perfectly silent…which heightened the theatricality of a figure moving through space.” Every step of his body and the movement and sound of the paper were broken down clearly for everyone to see. The tension was maintained through this slow procession, creating what Sur describes as a kind of reverence, with the audience held in perpetual suspense, not knowing if the slow motion would ever break.
In addition to sound and movement, Dill states it is the “variability of opacity [of paper] that has emotional resonances.”11 What can we see beneath the material? Does it function as a protective shell, or is it too fragile? The transparency of Dill’s paper kites, such as Divide Light #2 (Healing Man) from 2006, suggests its lightness, and allows the viewer to clearly imagine its potential for flight even when on display in a gallery. It is, as its title states, representative of healing, as well as hopeful and free in its movement.12
In 2008, Dill premiered her Divide Light opera (recently reprised in 2018), which she identifies as the culmination of her life’s work. Divide Light is a performance of the complete works of poetry by Emily Dickinson, sung by an operatic choral ensemble, with accompanying orchestral music and video installation.13 Divide Light: Paper Poetry Scroll Suit (2008) is the one costume from the opera that includes paper. The suit jacket and attached scrolls are constructed from three books of Dickinson poetry, every page hand sewn, with fabric supporting it from the inside. During the scene, four performers, one by one, each unravel a large scroll from the jacket worn by the performer in the center, exposing four wings of paper pages sprouting from the central performer. The verse “Banish air from air, divide light if you dare” is revealed, rising above the pages in the form of large, blue, fabric lettering sewn, one or two words at a time, onto both sides of each scroll. After all four scrolls are unveiled, the central performer slowly rotates, the four tethered to her revolve as well, as the singing quickens and intensifies. As they orbit around her, the audience is able to read the full verse inscribed on the scrolls, piece by piece, while hearing the same words sung. After a few rotations, the four outer performers abruptly rush in, contracting their circle, the once straight, strong scrolls rendered soft and collapsed. In the 2018 reprisal, the central performer, after being suddenly released, hurries off stage, the now loose, abandoned scrolls trailing behind her. From the 1993 Paper Speaking Dress performance to the 2018 Divide Light opera, Dill repeatedly uses paper as a “housing” for the soul, and a time-based, kinetic unveiling of poetic text.14 Referring to her performances in general, Dill has stated, “They are presented as spectacles of reading, as they are unfurled, unrolled, or scrolled out.”15
Although she does not have any set plans to create another performance, Dill notes that her recent exhibition work has grown closer to theater due to the grand size of her figures. Similarly putting the viewer in the place of the spectator, Dill’s looming fabric figures—often representative of actual people from American history—set the stage for us to relate to them as personalities and to imagine their narratives.
1. René Paul Barilleaux, Jody Blake, and Lesley Dill, Lesley Dill: Performance as Art (San Antonio: McNay Art Museum, 2015), 14. Curator Robin Kahn invited Lesley Dill to participate in the event titled Promotional Copy Publication Party, celebrating the publication of the Promotional Copy artist anthology.
2. Lesley Dill, conversation with the author, October 11, 2019, Brooklyn.
3. Arlene Raven, “Interview with Lesley Dill,” Hand Papermaking, vol. 15, no. 2 (Winter 2000), reprinted in Diane Douglas and Vicki Halper, eds., Choosing Craft: The Artist’s Viewpoint (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 62.
4. Ibid., 62.
5. Barilleaux, Blake, and Dill, Lesley Dill: Performance as Art, 17. Dill’s exposure to the cultural practice of henna while living in New Delhi (1990–92) led her to paint words on human bodies for her photography. It was through this intimate experience of photographing painted nude models that she gained courage in directing and creating a certain atmosphere through her subjects.
6. Ibid., 31.
7. Arlene Raven, “Interview with Lesley Dill,” in Choosing Craft, 62.
8. Another artist who has clothed her performers in paper, Ann Hamilton, focused mainly on the material’s sound in her performance titled Paper Chorus (2014) which featured a band of people activating the paper dresses as musical instruments through movement. Hamilton created these handmade paper dresses during her residency at Dieu Donné in New York City. See “Ann Hamilton: Paper Chorus,” on the MASS MoCA website, https://massmoca.org/event/ann-hamilton-paper-chorus-2/ (accessed November 27, 2019).
9. Ann McCoy, “Lesley Dill with Ann McCoy,” in Brooklyn Rail, 2018, https://brooklynrail.org/2018/02/art/LESLEY-DILL-with-Ann-McCoy (accessed November 27, 2019).
10. Sur Rodney Sur, phone conversation with the author, October 14 2019.
11. Lesley Dill, conversation with the author, October 11, 2019, Brooklyn.
12. Editor’s note: The Divide Light paper kites were produced by Lesley Dill in collaboration with master printer and papermaker Gail Deery of Maryland Institute College of Art and kite expert Scott Skinner of The Drachen Foundation, to commemorate Hand Papermaking’s twentieth anniversary in 2006. For more, see the “Paper in Flight” issue of Hand Papermaking magazine, vol. 21, no. 1 (Summer 2006).
13. See the Divide Light opera website, www.dividelight.com, which includes links to videos of performances.
14. To see images of Dill’s performances, many of which involve paper costumes, go to http://www.lesleydill.net/performance.
15. Barilleaux, Blake, and Dill, Lesley Dill: Performance as Art, 19.