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Genocide or Nap?


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Mathew Wilson

April 18

Mathew Wilson's public performances have the authority of accidents, which makes me the perfect viewer. I have long been intrigued by accidental art--I can spend as much time studying the occasional cement factory, bridge support, or abandoned automobile as standing in front of a painting at the Art Institute. The greatest piece of public sculpture I ever stumbled onto was an enormous, charred Harley Davidson leaning against a soot-covered wall near Oak Street Beach. The authority of such unintentional artworks stands in marked contrast to many "real" public artworks, often so overconceptualized and undercontextualized and so fundamentally out of place that they address nothing. These pieces usually end up as pleasant decorations, or at best convenient surfaces to sit on or lean against.

Wilson's pieces, both as a solo artist and with collaborator Mark Alice Durant under the name Men of the World, stand as examples of how powerful public performance art can be. While his work is carefully scripted and highly self-conscious--in one of my favorite pieces, he and Durant cleaned public statues of war heroes with scrub brushes and soapy water--they seem to unfold effortlessly and artlessly. But Wilson is a lot smarter than your average accident; his clever manipulations of private rituals and public spaces, together with his deadpan sense of humor, continually challenge the viewer's assumptions about intimacy, masculinity, and the very nature of performance.

While Wilson's work has tended to focus on the ways men interact, both in public and in private, his new solo work, Daley Plaza Event for Earth Day, commissioned by the Hokin Center at Columbia College, has a much broader focus: the public representation of death. At nine o'clock in the morning on Monday, April 18, approximately 100 people in Daley Plaza simultaneously fell to the ground and lay motionless for half an hour, after which time they all got up and walked away as though nothing had happened.

I came upon the scene after the performers had already fallen. Wilson had tipped me off days before that the event would take place, and had even given me a copy of the "script" so I would know what to expect as I approached the site. Yet the unexplained presence of so many immobile bodies in a space typically full of urban hustle was immediately arresting. It seemed as though those bodies could have been there for days.

The image was full of emotional contradictions. On one hand it seemed playful, even irreverent. Men in business suits, some still clutching the morning edition of the Sun-Times, lay everywhere, as though Magritte's famous floating businessmen had unceremoniously landed at last. Women lay crumpled in the ridiculous urban costume of suits and running shoes. One inspired performer had collapsed while still on her bicycle.

On the other hand the scene was deeply unsettling. Bodies lay awkwardly twisted, foreheads pressed against concrete, arms and legs contorted at all angles. The performers held their positions in absolute stillness despite the hard cement beneath them. The stillness was unnerving. How could people lie so uncomfortably still unless they had been poisoned or mowed down by machine-gun fire?

Disturbing too was the familiarity of the image. While we certainly don't expect such a sight in Daley Plaza, we frequently see masses of lifeless bodies a la Jonestown or Rwanda through the mass media. Usually we have the option of turning the page or changing the channel. But these bodies lay at my feet, in my own city.

The scene's eeriness was intensified by its simplicity and, paradoxically, by its inconsistency. There was no fake blood or pale makeup; such embellishments would only have illustrated that these people were not dead but simply made up to appear so. By placing bodies on the ground without explanation or decoration, Wilson suggested mass death more powerfully than any literal representation could have. At the same time, many performers seemed perfectly at ease, as if they were just enjoying the morning sun. Several people lay with their heads resting comfortably on their briefcases. These reclining figures gave this gruesome scene a cool air of indifference, as though we were not to put any stock in the twisted figures that lay nearby.

This fundmanetal tension in the piece--was it genocide or a nap?--seems perfectly suited to the work's larger concern: the contradictory public rituals that surround death. The elaborate routines we use to acknowledge and mourn the dead seem calculated to both provide comfort and callously suppress emotions. Often it's the purely symbolic gesture, like lowering the flag to half-mast, that gives us the greatest permission to feel what we want to feel or think what we want to think in the face of the ultimate unknown. This piece was like one of those symbolic gestures.

During the event, half a dozen people (only two of them there at Wilson's request) with cameras scurried around, documenting every detail of the piece. This bevy of overzealous photo-opportunists corrupted the purity of Wilson's vision. Despite its spectacle, Wilson's piece was somehow self-effacing; like my Harley Davidson, it could be studied in detail or glanced at and forgotten. All the photographers, taking endless shots of people lying motionless, gave the event a feeling of self-importance that was inappropriate.

The presence of the photographers also illustrated the problematic role of documentation in contemporary performance. Certainly a visual record of a piece like Wilson's is important for at least two reasons: it provides future generations with a sense of what the event was like, and it provides documentation of the work so the artist can seek continued funding. But the presence of photographers can fundamentally alter the nature of the experience. Often I've attended dance concerts and performance pieces where the video camera got a better seat than most of the audience and I had to crane my neck to see around it. In such cases the actual event suffers, and by not including themselves in their version the photographers don't record the true event at all. Instead they record a fictonalized version more in keeping with the artist's vision--they record what the piece should have looked like.

When Wilson told me about this piece, he was adamant about my not giving it any prepublicity. He didn't want to solicit an audience but rather create one by accident. At the conclusion of the event the performers simply walked away, eliminating the possibility of thank-yous from appreciative viewers. I watched Wilson pack up his briefcase and head up Dearborn, unacknowledged and unrecognized.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.

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