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Suzanne Bocanegra

Suzanne Bocanegra works at the intersection of contemporary visual and performing arts. She moves fluidly between installation, sculpture, costume design, performance, and video, and finds inspiration in sources that have included ballet, film, theater, and, most recently, opera.

For Bel Canto, Bocanegra presents a recent work inspired by Francis Poulenc’s 1957 opera Dialogues des Carmélites. The opera is based on the true story of French nuns who were executed by anticlerical revolutionary forces in the waning days of the French Revolution. Bocanegra writes of her inspiration for the work: “After seeing the opera, I decided to stage my own version, casting all the nuns depicted in the 1953 edition of the catalogue A Guide to the Catholic Sisterhood in the United States.”

The guide Bocanegra references is a handbook for young women interested in entering religious life. The manual briefly describes the history, qualifications for admission, and distinctive habit for each order in the United States. With a vintage copy of this now-outmoded volume as her source material and aesthetic inspiration, Bocanegra introduces her “cast” by removing the book’s binding and presenting each page on a shelf, like the sheets of a musical score resting on a music stand or head shots of actresses lined up for a casting call. Bocanegra has “costumed” each nun’s image using embroidery, much in the same way that cloistered nuns throughout the centuries embellished pages of their prayer books with hand stitching.

The collective formed by Bocanegra’s elaborately costumed nuns commemorates the tragic history of the Carmelites while paying homage to the many costume designers who have created their opera stage proxies.

Bocanegra’s meditative work is accompanied by music composed by the eminent composer David Lang and sung by the acclaimed Caroline Shaw, with sound design by Jody Elff. The lyrics, crowd-sourced from the Internet, are presented in a whispered chant, and are meant as a meditation on a life in community, a life never alone.

- Irene Hofman

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