I’ve seen a lot of bad performance art over the years. From epic, sprawling, overly long activities that left the audience trapped and fidgety to accidental malfunctions of props and costumes to simply taking place in a space that made it awkward, performance art is fraught with difficulties. No hate here — I’ve even participated in my fair share of horrible performance art — I recognize the difficulties in creating within such a hybrid art form. So I will say that it is rare that performance art deeply moves me or surprises me. Even Marina Abromovic, the darling of rock stars and doyenne of blue chip artists, has always left me a bit wanting. Aside from the problematic class issues her work tends to get mired in, it has always felt so centered on the self: in here landmark piece, “The Artist Is Present,” though her audience sometimes cries while gazing into her eyes, in looking at her performing that interaction I always see “THE ARTIST” first, not the person. There always appears to be a wall between her and others — I’m sure necessary to some degree for personal comfort — but I’ve never responded emotionally as a result.
So when I went to see Esther Hz’s performance at Leon Gallery on Friday, October 27, as part of the show “Archives as Muse” curated by Jessie de la Cruz of Artyhyve, I was curious, but not expecting a lot, despite the fact that I deeply admire Esther’s work. But my general skeptical attitude towards performance is omnipresent, so it was with mixed feelings that I took my place in the dark half of the gallery that Leon founder Eric Dallimore herded us into. What I saw next was revolutionary, life-changing, and healing. Yet haunting and difficult as well — and certainly not like anything I have ever seen before.
Arthyve is a new organization, dedicated to preserving the culture and history of Denver’s artists in archived boxes. The brainchild of Jessie DeLaCruz, who is the only professional art archivist in the state of Colorado and caretaker of the vast collections of personal documents in the Clyfford Still Museum, it has presented a smattering of interesting events since launching this year, including this one. Inviting artists to respond to archives in making works, the premise of the show led to the utilization of old diaries, vintage photos, and other ephemera — things every artist I know has in droves, haunting the corners of their studios.
The show, while somewhat uneven, had some standout works, particularly Sarah Gjertson’s tactile velvetty momento book and George Perez’ ghostly window installation. But on Friday, Esther Hz was so mesmerizing the walls disappeared. After a spoken word performance by Elyssa Lewis inspired by Still’s relationship with his wife Patty, Esther Hz took her place in front of the audience.
Wearing a set of “tear glasses” she had fashioned to fit under her eyes, Hz stood slightly hunched in black in the semi-dark gallery, Victoria Lundy’s ethereal theremin creating a haunting soundtrack behind her. The glasses had tubes that hovered against two small plants — halophytes, small edible plants that thrive in salty, marshy conditions. She had asked the audience to whisper “grievous things” into her ears, in order to help her feed the plants with her tears.
Perhaps given my previously confessed skepticism regarding performance, I had come planning to whisper something grievous about our political situation, which seems to be one long string of “grievous things”, each worse than the last. But it was clear from the first sob this was not that kind of performance, no matter how deep my feelings about the direction of the country.
I’m not usually someone who jumps up for audience participation, though I am also not someone who gets very nervous speaking in front of a crowd, either. But in this case, before taking my turn, my knees began to jellify, and my heart jumped to my throat. I knew instantly what my grievous thing would be, and also that to whisper it in her ear would be difficult. I’m not a public crier; in fact, I’m horrified when I cry in public; the legacy of a father who encouraged stoicism lest I be “given something to cry about”.
What do we do with our grief? When we approach others with it, they may recoil from us, wanting to focus on “happy things.” They may crowd around us with support, although the support might not be more than a digital thumbs-up and an awkward smile in public. In most cases, people don’t know what to do, especially if tears are involved. This is why professional mourning is an ancient industry — even mentioned in the Bible — people who come in to perform the grief we cannot bear to hold ourselves. Paid mourners (also known as moirologists) perform lamentations as the foreground to grieving in cultures from India to Japan to the Philippines, performing a service of lamentation that might be meant to widen the ranks of the deceased’s clan, making them seem more popular, or simply providing company and cover to the family.
As Esther cried, audience members approached and whispered in her ear, then returned to their spot, often in tears themselves. Sometimes, her reaction was to sob harder…sometimes, she almost seemed to take comfort from the words, pausing for a few breaths before again entering an obviously very real state of deep grief.
I felt almost guilty approaching her, as if giving her my burden was too much for both of us to bear, me in speaking it and she in receiving it. I whispered in her ear the bald facts: my nephew was murdered and thrown in a pond. His murderer was caught because he was carrying around my nephew’s hat and bragging about the bullet-hole. I go to another arraignment on Thursday. Facts that have weighed heavy on my life, a constant background to my busy day-to-day, but simply facts. I could barely choke out the words, then burst into sobbing as I made my way back to the crowd and the comfort of a hug.
But I wasn’t alone in my sobbing. The whole room was quietly crying. In an act of transference, Esther was taking on her community’s pain one by one — a great gift — and turning it into a bridge of empathy between everyone in the room, from strangers to old friends. As I watched her, it became a struggle not to run over and hug her and comfort her.
What makes this so new is that, unlike much performance art, it is not at all about the self, but about that empathetic bridge — the thing that we need to connect us in order to function as a society. In the aforementioned Abromovic work, “The Artist is Present”, the emotions seem to transfer from the audience to the artist herself…in Hz’s case, the emotional labor of an entire roomful of strangers was spread throughout the community through the act of watching the artist take on those emotional weights. Artists like Esther Hz are the shamanic angels our era desperately needs.