On Thursday shortly after 7 p.m., Jimmy Robert will enter a rather austere, white, L-shaped room on the second floor of the Power Plant at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre and unfurl a large roll of plain white paper on its concrete floor. After taping that paper to the ground, Robert, dressed in a dark blue T-shirt, pants and socks, will spend the next 20 minutes performing on the notional stage he's created. The hope is dozens will watch him do it.
A commissioned one-off event (and world premiere!), the performance is part of Draw the Line, the first Canadian solo exhibition for the Guadeloupe-born, Brussels-based Robert. At 38, he's a rising star in that concept-heavy, mixed-media realm that distinguishes so much contemporary international art practice. This particular show, curated by the Power Plant's Julia Paoli, includes elements of other media that have long absorbed Robert – photography, sculpture and sound, among them – but it's the performance piece, with its emphasis on the body and gesture, limits and transformation, that's at the heart of Draw the Line and whose traces will inform the experience of the exhibition until its conclusion in early September.
"I'm very much thinking of using the roll of paper as a form of perimeter within which and over which the performance will happen," Robert explained in an interview Wednesday. "My movements will be dictated by the limits of the roll. Really, it will be much as one reads a text: The body will go from the top of the page to the bottom of the page and create something to read, let's say. So my body becomes almost like ink. The idea is to create shapes and lines with the body so that the body becomes another text, a metaphor of a text to read."
Yet for all this physical activity, Robert paradoxically doesn't expect there will be that much to "read" once his 20 minutes is up. "The imprints that will be left on the paper will be traces of my weight, small impacts, indentations from my fingers, my toes … In fact," he said with a laugh, "I'm expecting that hardly anything will be noticeable or left over. But that's what's also interesting, isn't it? The performance happens when you see it, then nothing is left. So the idea of documentation becomes interesting: What is left after a performance? … And what happens to people who don't see the performance on the 27th and come to the installation afterwards? Does it matter?"
Robert touts his Power Plant performance as an original work but freely admits it's also an homage of sorts to the piece Up To and Including Her Limits that the artist Carolee Schneemann performed in the mid-1970s. In that work, Schneemann suspended herself from a rope above a large canvas and, with crayons in hand, proceeded to mark the surfaces below and around her.
It's not the first such homage Robert has done. In 2008 in London, he riffed on Yoko Ono's legendary Cut Piece of 1964 in which she invited members of an audience to come on stage and use tailor's scissors to cut off her clothes. Robert's variation involved having individuals tear strips off a T-shirt of masking tape he'd made.
It's all about "trying to place my body in art history," Robert said, "while at the same time trying to find something new. So it's not just about appropriation and re-enactment but really working through these works, transforming them through my practice."
Admission to Jimmy Robert's Thursday performance piece at the Power Plant, 231 Queens Quay West in Toronto, is free. Space, however, is limited. Draw the Line, the installation of which the performance is part, continues through Sept. 2.