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‘Dimensions Variable’ plays with the wearable


Photo courtesy CJ Hodges

By Juliana Lightsey     4/11/23 11:14pm

At first glance, they appear to be two precariously-stacked conglomerations of children’s stuffed animals: a forlorn plush basset hound, a worn stuffed hippo and a deflated giraffe. Then, you spot a distinctly human calf protruding from one of the masses, and suddenly they spring to life, two aggregations of animals, seemingly connected by a hive mind, performing a narrative. 

This is the Moody Center’s upcoming experience on April 21 from 6 to 8 p.m. Part of the “Dimensions Variable” series, the performance piece is a dynamic response to the current “Narrative Threads” exhibition and is orchestrated by costume designer Tommy Nguyen and director Doug Fitch, both actors in the performance, accompanied by musician Daniel Thomas Davis playing the hurdy-gurdy. Fitch describes the piece as an “intervention” that’s comedically playful in nature but rooted in emotion and deeper meaning.

“We become these two characters who are sort of indefinable — they don’t really fit anywhere, but they fit everywhere,” Fitch said. “Hopefully they’re welcomed by everyone … representing someone who just doesn’t look like anyone else … just living their lives and inviting everyone to come play with them.”

Nguyen generated the idea of costumes composed from plush toys during a residency at Denmark’s Aros Kunstmuseum in 2019. He said the country’s mistreatment of refugee and immigrant populations during his residency was part of his inspiration for the project, which he formulated upon encountering the donated toys in a search for reusable textiles to work with.

“I found a giant bin of all these pre-loved stuffed animals that no one wanted to touch … [they were] invested with a lot of emotion from their previous owners and just discarded,” Nguyen said. “I thought, ‘I’m going to make a wearable costume … to say something about immigration.’”

Fitch elaborated on this idea of movement and community that the artists considered integral to their work and identified parallels with a historic artistic inspiration.

“We do want to lead people to think about this idea of otherness in our society … there are these Mughal-era elephant paintings that are made up of all sorts of other animals and humans, and it’s very similar to the message we’re putting out here … [it’s] all about the transmigration of souls … we’re all made up of the same beinghood,” Fitch said. “Each costume is a community.”

Nguyen and Fitch said they hope that the dynamic nature of their art provides audiences with a unique and engaging gallery experience.

“It’s rather carefully planned out … we have a narrative that we’re aiming for,” Fitch said. “We do think there will be some surprise musical events … our friend [Davis] has created a score for us … but there is room to improvise on the spot.”

Beyond the evening exhibition, the artists intend to host smaller interactive workshops throughout the week leading up to their performance, such as creating sock-puppet characters or plastic bag dresses, maintaining a theme of repurposing everyday objects.

Fitch and Nguyen also placed a strong emphasis on the importance of the whimsical and humorous aspects of their art alongside their more serious inspiration, citing Charlie Chaplin and silent movie comedy genre as the basis for their performance style.

“It’s a classic comedy duo … the idea of these two guys in a peculiar situation … that’s impoverished in one way or another … they’re just finding solutions to the world, getting through life,” Fitch said. “In the art world, it’s very rare that joy is rated as high a currency as sadness … we have this deep message delivered in a very light and funny way.”

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