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SLIDING SCALE: Oversized Dresses and Small Moments in Visual Art Performance

Laurel Jay Carpenter


Folklore and contemporary pagan practices along with found object and fiber sculptural traditions galvanized during the development and performance of Red Crest (Storrs, CT, USA, 2003). Exploring the archetype of Mother—as psychological construct, feminist premise, and collective identity—the project relied on the support of the local, semi-rural community who generously donated over 100 red dresses from their personal collections, by means of newspaper ads and flyers posted all over town (in the era before social media). A New York City transplant, I was new to this small Connecticut town; I got to know the place by talking with shopkeepers and journalists, going to church fairs and public meals, requesting, from everyone I could, advice and donations for the long red dress performance: my offering to the well-loved site of Horsebarn Hill. Pinning parties and sewing circles were also a significant part of the process; altogether, fabricating the dress took exactly 9 months from conception to creation.

A woman appears at the top of the glorious, green crest. The sky is perfect blue. She is dressed in red.

My growing connection to the lineage of local women resonated as the political and cultural burden of women’s history. As such, the sculptural garment became “impossibly long;” I edited nothing from the donations. Many dresses came with handwritten notes relaying tender stories of the significance of each particular, special dress. One dress was donated by a 78-year-old woman who recalled her mother wearing the fancy gown to a mid-century military ball. Another dress was the first Christmas outfit of a donor’s infant daughter, then nine years old. Another was sent by a mother who remembered it as a favorite of her artistic 22-year old daughter who had taken her own life just months earlier. Dress by dress, the impossibly long red dress metaphorically quilted together the hopes, memories, exuberance and sorrows of the community.

The woman walks down the hill, each step revealing more of her dress, unfurling behind like a trailing umbilicus.

As I began to stitch the first pieces together, testing the length of specific sections, I realized how long, and just how heavy the dress would be. In its final form, folded up, I cannot lift it myself. The dress is beyond the scale of the body—reaching from here to the horizon, bigger than any one alone. Performance artist, theorist and educator Anthony Howell explores the nature of oversized costume in performance by speaking of it in terms of the Mother, the larger-than-life archetype,

Intimidation is interesting for performers with regard to its possibilities for magnification—wearing something larger than oneself, as in the costumes for carnival. One magnified costume might simply be part of something even larger...Again, one might place oneself inside some larger object which one uses as one’s “shell”... Such enclosures amount to “mother objects.” (Howell, 1999, p18)

The scale of size translates to the scope of identity—one body to beyond the body, oneself to beyond the self. The woman of Red Crest towed the lives of over 100 other women, and was, metaphorically, wearing the earth in the extending, rutted lines created in the lush grass. In unveiling the mother of all dresses, Red Crest invoked the power of the great Mother—the vast, uncontrollable power of the Earth itself, and suggested the history and humanity of our larger, global community.

The work is hard; the woman is tired and strained. Some think she needs help. Others do not. Some are worried she is suffering. Two viewers approached the dress, help lift its weight, and join the woman on her walk. Many follow, mostly children, to see the dress up close and perhaps help carry it a way.

With more fanfare than expected, the woman reaches her destination, and disappears into the adjacent woods. Soon after, twilight falls.

At every turn, the process of Red Crest induced an often unexpected and always welcomed connection to a wider community, amplifying and escalating small to big: body < landscape, self < collective. The scale of the dress dictated the scale of the project, magnifying personal experience to a shared one, expanding identity to archetype.


A durational performance of uninterrupted laughter, Again with Gusto (“Savoir-Faire,” PERFORMA09 Collateral Event; SOHO20 Gallery, New York, NY, USA, 2009) suggests the scale of the interpersonal in the space of a room, just me to you. This is an investigation of Solar Plexus Chakra energy, bringing us together virtually belly to belly. The woman stands atop a pedestal, her yellow dress extending from her back, up to the ceiling rafters, like a beam, but also a lead. For three hours, with no breaks, halts or breathers, suspended from the dress at the edge of the plinth, the woman laughs and laughs and laughs and laughs.

She laughs.

And laughs.

One (re)viewer recalls her experience in the room,

“It is mood altering to witness laughter like this. She knows what she is doing and yet she is completely lost in it. She is a magician. We feel like she is drawing us in to her happiness, her hilarity, her euphoria, her joke. At first we wondered how long this could go on, and we were utterly impressed with her ability to keep laughing — she is not at all forcing it, this is pure and natural joy! — but now we are entranced, we have lost all sense of time.” (Novak, 2010)

And laughs.

The performer shares with the viewers an uncertainty, both physical, leaning toward the tipping point of the extended dress, as well as emotional, reaching deeper and deeper for a genuine laughter. The scale of the dress is necessary to plant the woman, making her part of that room, and also functions to capture her there, demanding an acute awareness of the moment, suspending her, and all of us, in time. This is the scale of this moment: me and you, here and now. Yet, by raising the woman on a plinth, I certainly considered the monumental. In this case, signifying the living, breathing, gasping, snorting, sweating real woman who, even as she is tied there, elevated, separated, narrows the gap of intimacy. This is the scale of this place and time: the edges of the room, the reaches of the sound, the margins of our awareness: body = room, here = now. This is the scale of the shrinking space between us: self = other.


The recent performance Of Wanting (Open Festival, PAB: Performance Art Bergen, Bergen, Norway, 2017) distinguishes scale as an internal measure, exploring the intrapersonal; the shape of one self is silhouetted against human psychology, the wide backdrop of our shared emotional landscape. Exploring love, longing and loss, Of Wanting tackles concepts so big and abstracted as to be overwrought and clichéd, but these are distilled through the duration and singular focus of the performance to be understood in small moments; concept becomes cellular. Here I can hold human experience in my own body.

A woman in red stands at the rear of a long bright room. She walks slowly, slowly forward, at snail pace, gradually revealing long red cords tying her to the wall.

She continues to walk, focused, intent; the cords gradually become taut, pulling tight; she cantilevers.

The tension swells until her dress rips off.

She is left standing in a white slip; a long red mark remains. She produces a white handkerchief from her décolletage, removes her red lipstick and waves the small white flag, indicating goodbye and surrender, until her arm is too strained to move anymore.

This performance is the most accessible in terms of spatial scale, the woman inhabits the room just as the viewers do, standing eye-to-eye, but her macro focus in the excruciatingly slow movement, the release, and the long stretch of repetitive gestures inverts expectations, upending our notion of scale. The woman serves as a funnel, syphoning the big into the body. The shift of focus denotes a shift in scale: human experience > one body.


Comparing works from the span of my career, I trace the elasticity and slippage in our consideration of scale through a reflective analysis of the sculptural wearable. Of course, the body serves as a standard measure, especially in performance; the oversized garments each adjust the scale with a linear extension from the back, connecting and conflating the body with larger space and site. The mutability of this context, unscripted and shifting, allows the emergence of a powerful woman archetype; she is powerful by means of her unapologetic vulnerability, desire, and urge for connection, rendered, perhaps unexpectedly, from a certain and swelling stance, evoking a type of spectacle, reclaimed. The performance is extraordinarily routine. The woman is astonishingly familiar. I embody a persona (or AlterSelf) I refer to as simply “the woman” in all the complexity she represents, from small moments to big concepts, from mundane to mythic. The woman-made-larger, connected to architecture and earth, is also tethered, contained or burdened. Yet, her determination or simple endurance transcends and transforms the circumstance, overlapping and inverting multiple measures—shifting scale to scope. This is the sliding scale of scale: the range of small to big (<), equally balanced (=) and big to small (>), revealing how scale, in its relationality, can never be fixed. In fact, the bigger the image becomes, the more human the woman becomes; the more human she becomes, the more spectacular her efforts.

Theatre historian Amy E. Hughes (2012, p15) clarifies the relationship between scale and spectacle by their dual relationality. When scale exceeds our notion of the norm, in terms of human proportions, we enter the realm of the spectacular. Hughes aligns scale not with the concrete nature of size, but the slippery range of scope, a scale of perspective. Spectacle may be “as big as a house or as small as a postage stamp” (Hughes, 2010, p14) but exceeds expectations of the ordinary or the predictable. Though we suppose the spectacle to exaggerate in bold, bloated strokes, it also has seeping capacity to undermine normativity; the spectacle can prompt resistance and dissent. After all, monumentalizing a woman, in any form, is still a radical act. In much of my work, including these three performances, the sculptural garment exceeds norms of clothing or costume, presenting an experience that ruptures expectations of role, relationship, capacity and identity. The performances extend the potentials of the body beyond place and time toward collectivity, embodying the measure of all these, aligning the woman to the whole range: as larger than therefore inclusive, as equal to, and as smaller than, therefore part of. In describing what is variable in scale, we inscribe what is constant in the whole.



- Howell, A. (1999). The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to its Theory and Practice. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers.

- Novak, C. (2010). Fluxgoddess’s Blog Available here

- Hughes, A. E. (2012). Spectacles of Reform: Theater and Activism in Nineteenth-Century America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.


Red Crest: Gabriel M. Ortega Berger

Again with Gusto: Jenn Dierdorf

Of Wanting: Bjarte Bjørkum


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