“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.