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Coming to Life Through Death


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at Link's Hall, June 3-5

Performance art can be such a personal medium that it has understandably gained a reputation for being self-indulgent. Indeed, self-involvement rarely reaches greater heights than in low-grade performance, where the desire to be the hip, ambiguous center of attention can outweigh the need to communicate anything of significance.

Bob Eisen, in his new solo work--which incorporates part of a 1980 piece--makes comic use of the performance artist's tendency toward self-absorption; he even titles it Performance by Bob Eisen, as if it had no other content. Long a respected figure in the Chicago dance community, Eisen has a certain noble aloofness that becomes the core of his persona in this piece. He makes his entrance high above the audience, in the window of what is normally the tech booth at Link's Hall (Eisen and artist Tom Melvin completely rebuilt the space for this performance). We see only his delicate fingers at first, goofy yet graceful; they draw apart two tiny black curtains to reveal Eisen's head, hair slicked back like a movie star's. He wears a stern, regal, yet somewhat dazed expression.

His world is utterly insular. Not only does he appear to live in his own little theatrical hole up in the rafters, he seems unprepared to deal with the presence of others. The first thing he does after giving his audience a nervous glance is to examine his face in a shaving mirror mounted on the ceiling. In this opening minute, Eisen deftly creates a wonderfully contradictory and therefore human character. This curious, hermitlike man, tucked away in self-imposed solitary confinement, apparently needs reassurance that his hair looks OK.

The first half of Eisen's piece feels like a ritual of preparation, although such a self-important phrase ignores the piece's droll, clownish humor. After Eisen dons red, white, and blue face paint--apparently this figure needs some sort of mask to face the world--his long, sinewy body slowly emerges from the window, naked, inching down the wall until it's suspended upside down like a mild-mannered cockroach that never learned to run from the light. His emergence suggests a birth, and Eisen spends the next few minutes trying to establish a fundamental relationship with gravity, as though he's not quite sure how it or his body works. He hangs by his ankles from stirrups in the ceiling, stands on his head, and raises a foot above his head, then grabs it and sets it delicately back on the floor.

All of these movements are performed almost in slow motion, with great deliberation and earnestness, as though this lanky, birdlike creature with glazed eyes were carrying out precise scientific experiments. The whole affair is at once beautiful and absurd, engrossing and intentionally uneventful.

Eisen maintains this contradictory tone throughout the first half of the evening, ultimately donning a dark suit and rolling out a television for us to watch. The video he plays, a relic of the 1980 piece, is full of ridiculously long and unvaried shots showing Eisen leaving Link's Hall, walking a block or two, buying a bottle of beer, then returning. Through a bit of low-tech magic, Eisen leaves the room in sync with his image on the screen, creating the illusion that what's on the television is a live broadcast. The video is perfectly uninteresting and drawn out, a playful affront to theatrical good taste. (It reminded me of a performance here by Rhode Island's Meatball/Fluxus in which a group of men spent about 20 minutes under a huge white sheet eating a full-course meal; that nonevent was also broadcast on nearby television monitors.)

The video's judicious use of silence underscores the insularity of Eisen's character. Whenever he's shown outside, in the world beyond his control, ambient noise such as traffic and passing people is audible. But the moment he steps inside, into a space that's contained and predictable, all sound immediately ceases, as though he had the ability to seal himself off from any elements he chooses not to acknowledge.

Ultimately this character seems lost yet unaware of his own aimlessness, making him genuinely touching. If this quiet, lonely man must prepare so elaborately just to run around the corner for a beer, how would he ever handle a real problem? As if to emphasize the rootlessness of Eisen's character, Melvin's set is a collection of simple wooden ladders that fill the room, going in all directions at once. These ladders, which might carry the figure to some higher level if properly aligned, here simply double back on themselves.

Once Eisen has gotten his beer, his preparation for the second half of the show is apparently complete, and the face paint comes off. He sends us to the room behind our seats, which is empty and dark except for a single chair placed under a window through which a bit of street light filters. All of the intricacies of the first half of the piece, from his odd performance to the elaborate set, give way to utter emptiness. Audience members wander about, nervously trying to figure out where to stand or sit, every bit as uncertain and self-conscious as Eisen's character has been.

Eventually Eisen enters, sits in the chair, and speaking for the first time tells us that he had a dream about killing his friend Arthur and then eulogizing him. He wrote the eulogy down, he tells us, and would like to read it. Thereupon he opens a black book--the quintessential private diary--and proclaims, in a voice as comic, lonely, and endearing as everything we witnessed in the other room, an absurdly overwritten eulogy: it even employs the phrase "this august group" twice. Eisen begins by praising, in his own idiosyncratic way, Arthur's selflessness ("He was a true, devoted friend who owned a pair of handcuffs and wasn't afraid to use them") and ends by denigrating Arthur's contrary qualities: "You were so fucking selfish, Arthur!"

This eulogy, delivered with exquisite comic timing yet supported by real emotional commitment, pulls this lonely character from his isolation; he is, after all, finally talking to us. For what, more than death, puts us back in touch with the real world? He not only addresses those assembled in an honest and direct manner but sits near the window, outside of which el trains perhaps 20 feet away lumber by every few minutes. Eisen waits while they pass to continue his eulogy; the silence he could once impose upon his world has been shattered.

Perhaps Eisen is suggesting that the reality of losing love, even when that reality is dreamed, necessarily moves us beyond the carefully constructed confines of our fearful little lives and into communion with others. I'm sure other viewers will pull different conclusions from this intricate, cryptic piece. But such is the beauty and strength of Eisen's deeply personal work; in its modesty and simplicity, it offers a multiplicity of resonant meanings that tantalize long after the performance has ended.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael P. Filler.

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