Trained in dance, literary criticism, and philosophy, artist Isabel Lewis creates works that resist classification, affirming pleasure, connection and permeability. Lewis began her professional career in the world of contemporary dance in 2003. The formal constraints of the proscenium and its relationship to the audience motivated her to begin showing work in alternative spaces such as bars, living rooms, and gardens—all places where she could interact directly with the public. In 2012 she was invited to deliver a lecture performance for the Serpentine Galleries Memory Marathon on one of her main research topics: social dances as storage systems for cultural memory. This marks the moment Lewis’ work was first introduced to the contemporary art context, which immediately embraced her experimentations with format. In this new context, Lewis could blur and break boundaries between the performer and the public; rethinking and remodeling institutional protocols around notions of exhibition and performance became central to her practice.
Broadly speaking, Lewis is interested in creating multi-sensory experiences, collapsing formal boundaries, and centering collectivity. Her preferred terminology for many of her works is “occasions”: immersive social gatherings that might encompass choreography, performance, installations, workshops, or tea ceremonies. “When I am composing, I think about addressing all of the senses. I sculpt the work on multiple sensory levels, including vision of course but by directly addressing and highlighting the other senses I try to check the power of vision.” Lewis’ energy and her careful attunement to her guests contribute to the generosity of her social artworks, which simultaneously challenge and nurture—offering, without demanding in return.
Lewis employs an expanded sense of the choreographic; she generates affective bodily experiences that address all of the senses in her inherently collaborative practice. Lewis maintains long-standing collaborations with smell researcher and artist Sissel Tolaas, Berlin-based sonic entity LABOUR, painter and ceramicist Matthew Lutz-Kinoy, visual artist Dirk Bell, theorist and classics scholar Brooke Holmes, clothing designer Yolanda Zobel and creative producer Marcelo Alcaide. At Gropius Bau in 2019, Lewis presented Garden of Earthly Delights, Expanded Viewing I + II (Garden of Earthly Delights). Taking up the dramaturgical structure of Hieronymus Bosch’s famous triptych, the large-scale choreographic work beckoned visitors through a series of gallery spaces, one of which displayed Bosch’s infamous painting. Choreography by Lewis, musical performances by LABOUR, as well as smells created by Tolaas came together, and the nearly-empty museum became a passage for the awakening of the senses.
Lewis has described her choreographic practice as one that “often combines discursive, social, and presentational modalities.” This is further evident in the way she inhabits her residency at Callie’s: before the pandemic, Lewis hosts monthly “broths” with Dirk Bell in which residents and invited guests are given the opportunity to engage with one another over wine, soup and selected listening material. She frequently invites artists, musicians, and collaborators to her studio for conversation and engagement. In her art as in life, Lewis’ logic is rooted in reciprocity and exchange.
During her time at Callie’s, Lewis has conceptualized a number of occasions and exhibitions, including Untitled (Inwardness, Juice, Natures), a monumental commission for the 14th Sharjah Biennial in 2019; Scalable Skeletal Escalator at Kunsthalle Zurich in 2020; and The Soul Expanding Ocean #2, a commission for TBA21–Academy, presented at the Chiesa di San Lorenzo, Venice, in 2021.